When Living Colour first emerged in the mid-‘80s, they offered us an explosive, vivid smorgasbord of sounds.
Fusing heavy metal, funk, hip hop, rock and pop, their music was intense, raucous and theatrical, and there was nothing else quite like it.
To hear guitarist/founder Vernon Reid and drummer Will Calhoun talk about the defining songs in their lives is an opportunity to trace some fascinating lines between the music hungry kids they were growing up and the virtuosic players they are today.
Vernon speaks enthusiastically about his first encounters with songs by Gnarls Barkly, Amy Winehouse and Cream and how they all stopped him in his tracks.
“The moment of contact is the most delicious moment with pop music where something is so weird or so odd,” the guitarist says. “It just changes the landscape.
“It’s like eating felafel for the first time, I almost spat it right out!’ Reid recalls with a chuckle. “But the most interesting thing about that is what made me have felafel a second time.
"It did something, my brain, my palate, and something made me have it the next time...and [now] it’s one of my favourite foods. But the first time I had it, my brain was not prepared. Sushi too.! I was like, ‘What the devil is this?!’
“And that’s the beauty of food and music, because they can enter in from a completely unexpected place and it can just change your life.”
Although Will Calhoun quite liked felafel when he first ate it, he acknowledges the aptness of the food analogy and that sensory perception is a shifting and subjective thing.
“It’s very interesting what people take in, like food, like spices...what you take in and what you create with it in your own area, in your own language, with your own people, your family,” he says.
Familial bonds and friction are a strong theme in Reid’s song choice for Don’t Look Back. He knew when he heard Sly & the Family Stone’s ‘Family Affair’ that he was hearing something unique. Sung in a low, weary growl with a sparse and laid back funk groove, it was unlike anything else the young Vernon Reid heard on the radio.
“He’s telling this real intimate family secret, and people didn’t do that in tunes,” he says.
Released in 1971 it tells the story of two children, at odds with each other. But, ‘both kids are good to mum, blood’s thicker than mud, it’s a family affair.’
Questions about the father’s role, why the kids are at loggerheads and can this family keep it together, all remain unanswered and is a large part of the reason why this song still circles around Reid’s mind.
“It’s one of those tunes that I’ve contemplated many times,” he says. “It’s fabulous because its mysterious.”
Growing up, Will Calhoun’s musical priorities were influenced by his father’s love of jazz and bebop. But hearing Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ for the first time was life altering.
“I knew when I heard that track that I’m going to be listening to this guy and his music for the rest of my life,” he says.
Aside from being an otherworldly guitarist, Jimi Hendrix was an important icon that represented something more to Calhoun.
“Being young and hearing that, I modelled myself after wanting to be fearless. I never looked at Jimi’s band as being a white or black band or English or American band, I learned later about those things, but at the time, everything [from] the album cover artwork, the track, the sound, the way the Experience band looked… all the walls came down.
“I wanted to model my artistic choices after Jimi Hendrix. He revolutionised the industry and music by I think, making a conscious decision to be himself.”
It connects him still to the excitement he felt joining a band like Living Colour.
“Vernon was one of the few musicians I met at 20, 21, that wasn’t afraid to say things, wasn’t afraid to look a certain way, play a certain way and mix things,” he says. “And we can fearlessly go play this music and, if no one liked it, we were ok with that for the most part.
“We were just trying to say ‘Where’s our place? Where do we fit in? What were the four of us going to say? What pissed us off?’”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Living Colour on Don't Look Back.