Contents Under Pressure

Bad Brains transcend a stormy history to Build a Nation

From Arthur Lee to Daniel Johnston and Kurt Cobain, there's plenty of evidence that emotional instability and batshit craziness can contribute to innovative songwriting. Given that correlation, it's no shocker that D.C. hardcore outfit Bad Brains has had a huge impact with its mix of ferocious punk, mellow reggae, and onstage volatility. The dense riffage and warp-speed velocity of guitarist Glen "Dr. Know" Miller, bassist Darryl Jenifer, and drummer Earl Hudson complements mercurial frontman Paul "HR" Hudson's blood-vessel-bursting delivery and perpetually airborne live performances.

Harnessing that combustible energy without self-destructing has proven challenging for Bad Brains. Even as the dreadlocked quartet set the standard by which future punk bands would be measured, conflicts surrounding the tempestuous band were impossible to ignore. Homophobia stemming from the members' Rastafarian beliefs set the act at odds with hardcore contemporaries during a 1982 tour through Texas. Meanwhile, HR fueled internal discord with his growing insistence that Bad Brains abandon punk completely for a strict focus on reggae. The singer's willful sabotage of a huge recording contract with Elektra in 1983, a year after the group's legendary debut was released, marked the first in a long string of implosions. (HR's introduction of A&R man Tom Zutaut to his bandmates as "Satan" quickly cooled the deal.)

Bad Brains: from Jah to Satan and back.
Frank Ockenfels
Bad Brains: from Jah to Satan and back.

While HR and his brother Earl would pursue more reggae-focused sounds as Rasta-rock outfit Human Rights starting in 1984, the pair reconciled with Dr. Know and Jenifer for Bad Brains' landmark 1986 effort I Against I. This cycle of dissolution and reunion between the original members of Bad Brains repeated itself during the next two decades. Results ranged from the brilliant punk-metal crossover sounds of 1989's Quickness to the diminishing returns of the group's mediocre major-label record God is Love in 1995. But then HR had another meltdown later that year — he was arrested for attacking two audience members with a mic stand at a show in Lawrence, Kan. — and Madonna's Maverick imprint dropped the band. Since then, the original lineup has fallen silent, with the exception of occasional late-'90s tours under the Soul Brains moniker and a 2002 dub remix collection, I And I Survived.

This year, Bad Brains once again triumphed over its own volatility with Build a Nation, a crushing return to form. Despite an unorthodox recording process — HR laid down vocals in Los Angeles while the rest of the band tracked blistering instrumentals at Beastie Boy Adam Yauch's studio in Manhattan — songs including "Universal Peace" and the ferocious 56 seconds of "Pure Love" capture the massive riffs and headlong intensity of the group's best work. The dubwise grooves of the album's four reggae tracks are far superior to the slick, synth-heavy tunes HR put out with Human Rights.

So why would the members of Bad Brains repeatedly subject themselves to the whims of HR's loose-cannon behavior? Cynics might chalk it up to the financial rewards, but as Build a Nation testifies, there's still undeniable chemistry in the band almost three decades after it formed. As bassist Jenifer explains in an e-mail, there's a certain sense of predestination when it comes to Bad Brains: "We come when JAH calls us. It's what guides us. We don't work on anyone else's timeline."

The question remains as to whether Bad Brains' studio triumph will translate live. Recent reviews of the group's performances range from ecstatic raves to bewildered disappointment. One of its celebrated CBGB's reunion shows last October found HR barely audible as he stood stock-still, singing through a headset mic while wearing a motorcycle helmet. Though the once-kinetic frontman has transitioned away from his back-flipping, crowd-surfing past, fans hope his vocal power can match his bandmates' onstage fury. As to the question of Bad Brains' future, Jenifer remains philosophical: "It's one day at a time with us," he writes. "We must feel every moment for it to work. When we ready to roll, we roll."

 
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