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Punk, purity, and positive mental attitude: The turbulent tale of Bad Brains

Bad Brains in 1993
Bad Brains in 1993 (Image credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Writers often use a well-worn cliche to describe the Velvet Underground: it runs that while few people actually bought their records at the time, those who did were inspired to form a band of their own. The same could be said about Bad Brains

The list of artists who patterned their sound and approach after this great US punk/ hardcore/reggae band is staggering; it almost seems that each year there’s a new chart-topper raving about the wonders of Bad Brains. Even though commercial success eluded them, the power of their music prevails. 

“It’s something bigger,” BB bassist Darryl Jenifer explains. “Y’know, I’ve always said my platinum records and my platinum success is when someone can say that I influenced them in a positive way, through my music. I’ll take that more than the money.” 

Guitarist Dr. Know adds: “We kind of musically open up and just break down the barriers: a bunch of black dudes playing crazy rock’n’roll that you rock’n’roll white people can’t even play [laughs], playing some funk and this and that, and then playing reggae too.” 

Throughout Bad Brains’ history, time and time again they’ve showed that it’s all about the music and not the almighty dollar. Although admittedly that attitude has usually come from their singer, H.R. (whose name stands for Human Rights; his real name is Paul Hudson). 

“In the early days, we had offers from Elektra and Island,” Jenifer says. “[With] Elektra, H.R. introduced the label president to me as ‘Satan’ [laughs], at the Plaza Hotel in New York when they were going to offer us a million dollars. And then the Island deal: we had the contracts out to sign, and H.R. said he wanted to use the bathroom, and he ran down the street.” 

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact year that hardcore was born, it’s pretty safe to say that it comes from Washington, DC. After all, that’s where Henry Rollins and Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye come from. And of course Bad Brains. 

Jenifer: “We were originally from South East Washington, DC. The Brains came together about 1978. We were just some teenagers into music.”

Interestingly, Bad Brains – one of punk/hardcore’s eventual greats – were initially influenced by jazz-fusion (Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra and the like) and were originally called Mind Power. But that all changed the day a friend of Jenifer’s paid a visit: “Sid McCray [singer with Mind Power, who was replaced by H.R. See ‘Who is Sid McCray’ panel on p84] came over my house. He had safety pins and stuff all over him, and he had records – Ramones, Dead Boys, Generation X – I found to be kind of interesting,” Jenifer recalls. “The cats couldn’t really play, but they had something to say.” 

Soon afterwards, Mind Power dropped the fusion and replaced it with punk, and changed their name to Bad Brains. 

Unlike in London, New York and Los Angeles, the punk scene in DC was non-existent. “There was no punk scene,” Dr. Know concurs. “There was a small group of all of us who were aware. Here’s the promoters: it’s like, ‘Oh, here’s some band, we’ll put them in this restaurant.’ It was a restaurant downstairs and they had a space upstairs. Everybody’s pogoing, and the chandeliers in the ceiling are pumping. The club owners are like, ‘You’ve got to stop!’ Word gets around: ‘Don’t be booking them dudes, man. They make everybody go crazy.’” 

Realising that they couldn’t rely on a record company to back them, Bad Brains released their first single, the explosive Pay To Cum, DIY-style. Dr. Know: “We pressed it, licked ’em, sticked ’em. There were no labels signing this, it wasn’t like that.” It was also around this time that the band discovered other soon-to-be integral elements of Bad Brains: Rastafarianism, reggae and PMA – positive mental attitude. 

Jenifer: “Reggae was discovered at a Bob Marley concert at the Capitol Center. I was taken in by the power of the music. And at the time, we were feeling that to be a real musician you had to have sort of a ‘concept,’ like Scientology. But our concept was based around ‘positive mental attitude’ – we were reading a book called Think & Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill. Within that book was a lot of little stuff like dealing with adversity, how to get where you want to go. So that tended to fuel our music with PMA. If you listen to our early recordings, we’d always be talking about, ‘We got that PMA!’ But as we kind of progressed, we found that PMA was really through Rastafari for us.” 

Having decided that DC was a dead end for the band, by 1980 they had relocated to New York City, setting up shop at the city’s now-legendary club CBGB. “We played CB’s every friggin’ night,” Dr. Know remembers. “This whole ‘Sunday matinee’ thing is from us. When we first played, nobody was there. It’s like, ‘Who are these niggers?’ And we’re in their face, killing it. We got a weekend day, and by then a little buzz started happening.” But still these were lean times for the band. Jenifer: “We were bumming on benches, selling weed to make food and stuff. We were hustlin’.”

But a buzz was building. And that buzz intensified with the release of their first ‘album’, 1982’s Bad Brains. The music on the cassette-only release was a complete adrenalin rush, as evidenced by such ragers as Sailin’ On and a re-recording of Pay To Cum, while reggae detours – including the gorgeous I Luv I Jah – momentarily cooled the fury. 

Drummer Earl Hudson (H.R.’s brother) remembers that the band followed a golden rule during the recording: “We put 110 per cent into what we did back then. It was totally from the heart. So I guess you could say the intentions were there to do our best.” But still it was an uphill battle. 

Jenifer: “[The recording] was a pain in the ass. None of this stuff is like, ‘Let’s go do this and be that’, it’s just like H.R. pushing things this-away and that-a-way. It was kind of labour-intensive to be in Bad Brains at times – emotionally and physically.” 

Up until this point, a few managers had come and gone. The band eventually found their man in film student/punk fan Anthony Countey. At the behest of friends, Countey made it down to the Roseland Ballroom to see Bad Brains open for the Gang Of Four, and chatted with the group before the gig. 

“I went into the audience kind of halfway back on the dance floor,” Countey remembers. “They came out, and I think they started with Big Takeover. And everybody went totally bonkers – flying through the air. I’ve never had an experience like that seeing a band, ever. 

"I’ve seen great shows – the Pretenders, the Rolling Stones in their day, Led Zeppelin during their first American tour was a great show – but this show was even higher energy than that. I went backstage. I said: ‘You fuckin’ guys were just unbelievable.’ I went home; I didn’t think I’d hear any more about it.”

The following day, Countey was unexpectedly welcomed into the Bad Brains world: “My buzzer rang, and I was like, ‘Hello?’ ‘This is the Bad Brains.’ ‘Huh?’ I buzzed them in, they all marched into my living room, sat down, and said: ‘We need a manager, we’d like you to do it.’ I was like: ‘Wait a minute. I’m a film student here. You need a manager who’s going to go on tour with you. Somebody’s going to have to put in all their time, and I don’t think you’re going to get me to do that.’ And they were like: ‘No, you’ve got to do it’ [laughs].” 

Despite no previous managerial experience, Countey accepted the job and hit the road with the band. But perhaps as a precursor of things to come, his introduction to band management was a potentially dangerous situation when he found himself defending the band against angry ‘fans’ before a Philadelphia show, who had thrown eggs at the band’s van and passed out flyers saying Bad Brains were homophobic. 

Countey explains a misconception that followed Bad Brains throughout their career. “We played a lot of CBGB shows. The punk rock scene was full of 12/13-year-olds, and also these older homosexual guys. And a few of them would invite these kids, like: ‘Do you need a place to stay? You can come and stay at our place.’ But they also molested these kids. This freaked H.R. out, cos he thought these people were taking advantage of these young kids. Essentially what H.R. was coming out against wasn’t homosexuality per se.”

At any rate, these early national tours were a constant battle. Hudson: “A lot of work, man. A struggle. It wasn’t easy. A lot of days you don’t eat, and you stay by folks’ places. But, y’know, it was an experience, it was fun. You’re young, and for a while it was cool.”

Higher up in the rock stratosphere, new-wave hitmakers The Cars were enjoying their success in the US chart. Always interested in discovering new sounds, Cars mainman Ric Ocasek became a major Bad Brains fan. When Bad Brains played the Cars’ home town of Boston, Ocasek met the band, and offered to record/produce them at The Cars’ state-of-the-art recording studio. The group accepted. And for their first proper album they re-recorded earlier songs as well as recording new ones. 

“When H.R. does vocals, he always faced the back of the room,” Ocasek recalled. “He never watched the control room. I guess it took him out of ‘studio mode’ and put him into ‘live’. He’s really philosophically into a non-violent thing, even though he’s a little violent. You can’t say things like: ‘Let’s punch that part in’. He’ll say: ‘Don’t say punch’. It’s down to a little thing like that. So that’s a little hard.”

The recordings they did with Ocasek soon caught the attention of The Cars’ label. Bad Brains especially impressed Elektra’s Tom Zutaut, whose talent-finding had landed the label Mötley Crüe and, later, Metallica

After watching an Bad Brains show at an LA club in early 1983, Zutaut set up a meeting to sign the band. “We had this meeting. Zutaut starts talking – he wants to sign the band,” manager Anthony Countey recalls. “We go through his rap, and then H.R. stops him. He looks at him and says: ‘Do you know what happens to people who mess with Rasta?’ After the meeting, everyone goes off. Zutaut says: ‘Jesus, this is the first time in my life that anybody’s threatened my life over doing something for them in the industry.’ And that was it; that definitely cooled Tom.” 

The failure of the meeting led to the group releasing the album recorded with Ocasek, Rock For Light, independently. It also eventually led to their first hiatus, when H.R. launched a reggae solo career (with brother Earl), while Dr. Know and Jenifer attempted to launch their new band, called Me And I. 

After the Rock For Light meltdown, a trend began that Bad Brains would continue throughout their career: ‘breaks’ that didn’t last long, and helped recharge the group’s batteries. By the time the quartet got back to work in 1985 with producer Ron St. Germain, they came along with a set of tunes more hard rock-based than their early hardcore direction, but compared to what the mainstream considered ‘rock’ at this point there was simply no comparison. 

Their I Against I album was infinitely more intense and fierce than most of the competition, and still managed to maintain the group’s message-filled lyrics. Even a stint in jail for H.R. (marijuana possession) couldn’t stop the band, as he literally ‘phoned in’ the vocals to one of the album’s best tracks, Sacred Love, from prison to a recording studio.

With such hardcore-like styles as thrash metal infiltrating the mainstream around this time, it appeared as though the time was right once more for Bad Brains to go ‘major-label’. 

Everything seemed to fall perfectly into place when Island Records – the label that helped introduce Bob Marley to the world – expressed interest. But, once more, H.R. was opposed to it. 

Countey: “H.R. decided that there was something wrong with [Island head] Chris Blackwell, that he had hurt Marley, or had taken advantage of reggae music or something, I don’t know. And H.R. wouldn’t deal with it; he wouldn’t even sit down and talk about it.” 

As a result, the group members went their separate ways soon after – H.R. returning to his solo career, while Dr. Know and Jenifer attempted to keep Bad Brains going with a with a different singer. But when producer St. Germain heard the results, he convinced the pair that without H.R. the music just didn’t hold up. 

Jenifer: “We called H.R.. He came up to Woodstock, we put him in a motel, gave him a tape of the songs. In two days he wrote all those lyrics. Sent him back, got him in the studio, and he sang over the tracks.” 

Just like that, the classic Bad Brains line-up was back in business, releasing Quickness in 1989. Following in the same metal-esque direction as its predecessor, the album was also one of the group’s most ‘progressive’ – riffs galore, tricky bits in abundance – while still retaining the group’s trademark fury (Soul Craft) and tranquility (The Prophet’s Eye).

But the rock far outweighed the reggae. Which contributed to the group’s next sabbatical. Countey: “H.R. had gotten on stage a couple of times and only played reggae sets. He was taking more control, and this was creating tension in the band. There was finally a confrontation about the whole thing, a blow-up. And at that point it was decided, okay, it ends here.” 

It was during this time that Bad Brains disciples Living Colour were paying a visit to the charts, and thus possessed quite a bit of clout with their label, Epic. Living Colour helped hook the Bad Brains up with their first ever major-label contract, and Epic released Bad Brains’ 1993 album Rise. The problem was that neither H.R. nor Earl were featured on the record (newcomer Israel Joseph and ex-Cro-Mags drummer Mackie Jayson took their respective places), and it fell on deaf ears. Bad Brains soon were dropped from Epic. But a promising break was around the corner. 

Madonna must have been a fan, because one of the first signings to her then new label, Maverick, was a reunited Bad Brains. And with long-time supporters The Beastie Boys offering the group an opening spot on their 1995 arena tour, and a new album, God Of Love (with Ocasek producing again), in the shops, it appeared that Bad Brains were possibly poised (again) for widespread success. But, again, that prospect did not sit well with H.R. 

Ocasek: “H.R. was doing some crazy stuff. He was visiting the label on a daily basis, and bringing them dead fish, and all kinds of weird shit was going on.” 

Things hadn’t improved when the Beasties’ tour rolled into Montreal. Countey: “H.R. had a way of isolating himself. He would take over the back lounge on the bus and not come out for days. We had a road manager; I was just there to see the first show. 

"The road manager came in and said: ‘I’ve been knocking on the door, saying: “H.R., we got to go on stage, are you ready?” And he doesn’t answer. I knock on the door, he goes: ‘Yes, I’ll just be a few minutes.’ And he came out of the back lounge like a cannonball out of a canon, I don’t know why. We rolled around for a while; the bus driver got into it, got me out of there. I walked away from it a bit damaged.”

An attempt to get the tour back on track was derailed a few weeks later, when H.R. had it out with a vicious skinhead during a headlining gig at a Kansas club. Countey: “This one skinhead was pushing his girlfriend around. H.R. started talking to this guy, saying: ‘Chill out’. They started the next song, and the guy starts beating up his girlfriend again. I saw H.R. pick up the mic stand, and he clipped this skinhead with the heavy end – knocked him out, cracked his skull.” 

H.R. was arrested after the show. The band didn’t have enough bail money, and the tour was finished. So too was Bad Brains’ brief association with Maverick. Some believed that that would be it for Bad Brains. But just before the 90s drew to a close, the quartet reunited as the Soul Brains, playing shows and recording an album (still unreleased), with Beastie Boy Adam Yauch producing. 

Despite all Bad Brains’ musical achievements, Jenifer voices displeasure with how the group is still viewed by some: “Despite everything that we went through and rumours that you might have heard about us, every group of our level has this ‘thing’ sort of going on. It’s just that I really, honestly believe because we’re black – not to wave any type of racial flag… I always used to say that if Led Zeppelin throw a TV out a window, that’s ‘rock’; the Bad Brains smoke up a room with weed and throw bottles all over, we’re like, ‘niggers’. We always had a double standard.” 

While some may point to H.R.’s erratic behaviour as a detriment to the group, Countey is quick to come to the singer’s defence. “As hard as it’s been, I know it’s harder for H.R.. H.R. is a spiritual entity – a prophet – and he’s tormented. But there’s an upside – we remain absolutely human. The corruption potential never was achieved, and the band’s name was never commercialised; something that belongs to the fans that needed that material, needed to hear that kind of commitment, needed to hear a positive message. So whatever H.R.’s done, he’s maintained the purity of it.”

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 85, in September 2005. Bad Brains have since released two albums: 2007's Build A Nation and 2012's Into The Future