Living Colour: Vivid - Album Of The Week Club Review

At a time when rock was increasingly looking beyond its own frontiers for inspiration, Living Colours' Vivid was a genre-mashing stake in the ground

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Living Colour - Vivid

Cult of Personality
I Want to Know
Middle Man
Desperate People
Open Letter (To a Landlord)
Funny Vibe
Memories Can't Wait
Broken Hearts
Glamour Boys
What's Your Favorite Color? (Theme Song)
Which Way to America

30 years on, it’s difficult to contextualise the shock waves generated by the emergence of Living Colour. The four-piece group were articulate, exceptionally proficient musicians with a fresh sound that struck like a lightning bolt. Avowed to protest the political injustices of the New York City locale in which they’d grown up there was another significant reasons why Living Colour challenged the status quo of hard rock music: they were black.

While musicians like Maiden’s Steve Harris, Lemmy and Anthrax all stood in Living Colour’s corner, others were intimidated. In such less enlightened days the only way the band could disarm the situation was by sending it up. From the stage at London’s Astoria in 1988, frontman Corey Glover announced: “Hi there. I’s your new neighbour.”

Living Colour were, and remain, phenomenal musicians who landed in the funk rock arena by default, simply because their talents were too big for every other idiom. 

Led by guitarist Vernon Reid, a jazz player, funk giant and shredder, and fronted by Corey Glover, Living Colour made an immediate splash with their debut album Vivid. Part of this was due to their fluorescent trousers, but the rest was down to massive songs such as Cult Of Personality and the pop anthem Glamour Boys.

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Background

At a time when rock was increasingly looking beyond its own frontiers for inspiration, Vivid was a genre-mashing stake in the ground, taking in hard rock, modern jazz, funk and soul and more and binding them together with an incisive political spirit. 

A smash hit single, Cult Of Personality, plus sampled speeches by John F Kennedy, Malcolm X and Franklin D Roosevelt, helped to fuel two million sales of their debut album, Vivid.

“Metal has always been a very tribal thing,” says guitarist Vernon Reid. “It’s also extremely competitive. I embraced the power of hard rock, but we were unwilling to play by its rules and culture. Some felt we were provocative merely for existing.”

Some of Living Colour’s detractors also objected on the grounds that the group had friends in high places. The patronage of noted writers David Fricke and Kurt Loder had already set wheels rolling. And with a rival label turning them down, the band were signed to Epic Records at the instigation of Mick Jagger, who produced their demo tape, two songs from which appeared on Vivid. Reid and drummer Will Calhoun expressed their gratitude by guesting on Jagger’s Primitive Cool album. 

30 years on, things have moved on a little. "At least the definition of rock’n’roll has expanded," says Reed. "I love the fact that it’s no longer the exclusive domain of the white man."

Other albums released in May 1988

  • Melissa Etheridge - Melissa Etheridge
  • Open Up and Say... Ahh! - Poison
  • Operation: Mindcrime - Queensrÿche
  • Scenes from the Southside - Bruce Hornsby and the Range
  • New Order - Testament
  • Lovesexy - Prince
  • Invisible Lantern - Screaming Trees
  • You Can't Do That on Stage Anymore, Vol. 1 - Frank Zappa
  • Battalions of Fear - Blind Guardian
  • In the City of Angels - Jon Anderson
  • Ram It Down - Judas Priest
  • Long Cold Winter - Cinderella
  • Out of Order - Rod Stewart
  • Up Your Alley - Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
  • OU812 - Van Halen
  • Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart - Camper Van Beethoven
  • Second Sighting - Frehley's Comet
  • Down in the Groove - Bob Dylan
  • A Bell Is a Cup - Wire
  • Power Metal - Pantera
  • Total Devo - Devo

What they said...

"Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style." (Rolling Stone)

"The album was also incredibly consistent, as proven by the rocker Middle Man (which contains lyrics from a note penned by Glover, in which he pondered suicide), the funky, anti-racist Funny Vibe, the touching Open Letter (To a Landlord), plus the Caribbean rock of Glamour Boys. Add to it an inspired reading of Talking Heads' Memories Can't Wait, the Zeppelin-esque Desperate People, and two complex love songs (I Want to Know and Broken Hearts), and you have one of the finest hard rock albums of the '80s -- and for that matter, all time. (AllMusic)

"A few songs--the just-minding-my-own-business-sucker Funny Vibe, the Mick Jagger production/tribute Glamour Boys, and Middle Man if it's as unironic as I hope--are smart enough, but while it's momentarily exhilarating to hear this all-black band come power-chording out of the box, after a while the fancy arrangements and strained soul remind me of, I don't know, Megadeth. Like any New Hendrix, Vernon Reid is only as good as his last context, and I'm not positive crossover metal is a good idea even in theory." (Robert Christgau)

What you said...

Brian Carr: When you listen to the ridiculous variety of music I do, there are a handful of bands/artists that just fall through the cracks. Sadly, Living Colour is one of those bands for me.

I bought Vivid when it was first released and loved it. I bought Time’s Up and Stain as well. Amazing musicianship throughout: Vernon Reid probably plays a little more “outside” than I normally prefer, but he’s still a tremendous player, and the rhythm section of Muzz Skillings and Will Calhoun are slamming. Corey Glover’s voice always impressed me. To me, he’s the glue that holds down the musical variety of the songs.

And how about those songs? Cult of Personality was a perfect debut; I Want to Know has a great singable chorus; nice machine gun riffing on guitar and bass on Middle Man; Will holds down Desperate People so Vernon can slam leads and fills along with that killer riff while Corey wails the perils of addiction.

Open Letter is beautiful (intro and chorus) and angry (verses and solo) in the same song and Muzz really shines. Every song has something tasty for me to gnaw on and listening to Vivid this week makes me question why I don’t treat my eardrums to Living Colour more often. Thanks Classic Rock for reminding me and reviewers for schooling me that the fantastic Memories Can Wait is a Talking Heads cover - I never caught that.

Roland Bearne: I really really wanted to love this. I got the album when it came out as a present with a limited 12" single. Somehow it never clicked and languished, occasionally spun and largely unloved in the collection. Re-listening has made me appreciate it more. 

There are excellent songs and absolutely stellar playing but ... it still feels somehow closed off, unyielding not opening up. I think it must be down to the highly compressed digital production with a mere hint if highly gated reverb. Also the fuzzed and processed guitar sounds, feel right out of the Ibanez "super strat" and "ZOOM" effects playbook of the era. I think this, admittedly state-of-the-art soundscape prevents Vernon Reid's playing from really soaring out the grooves. It will get more listening now though.

Jacob Tannehill: An absolute classic debut album. Any band that earned the respect of The Rolling Stones, Public Enemy, Anthrax right out of the gate, is a classic band in my book. 

These guys wore their influence on their sleeves. From the cover of Talking Heads Memories Can’t Wait to the country honk of The Stones in Broken Hearts to the metal of Cult Of Personality, to straight-up funk rock of Open Letter (To A Landlord). There was not a bad song on the record. Vernon Reid became a guitar hero over night just from Cult Of Personality alone. 

The album still holds up today.

Dave Ferris: For me (in 1988 as a midwestern white college kid), this music was incredible to take in. It was heavy and aggressive, yet it was improvisational and inventive. There was a groove to it and it was slamming in the assault. There was also social commentary about the state of race relations in America. There has been a lot written about rap and hip-hop in the 80s and 90s as the voice and commentary of the black community. Well, I didn’t relate to the hip-hop culture. But, I would listen to the music of Living Colour. 

I was working in a record store at the time and I remember opening this album for in-store play and it soon became my pet project to promote. But, when I asked the customers who had bought it what they thought, the common answer was "It's not bad for a black rock band." That bugged me. It shouldn’t have mattered whether or not what the color of the band members was. This was an awesome debut album.

Ben L. Connor: Amazing album. A band with something to say and an original sound. Riffs and hooks for days, and the incredible guitar work of Vernon Reid. 

People lament the hair metal acts that got swamped by the grunge wave, but it’s unclassifiable bands like this that were the true victims of the music industry shifting all its focus to finding the next Nirvana.

Jerry Lantz: What's not to like about this debut album from one-of-a-kind band. You like old school funk? It's in there. Is a great guitar riff your thing? They have you covered. Like some social commentary with your music? Here it is. This album has been on my rotation list for three decades.... 'nuff said.

Mike Donnelly: A fantastic rock album. When it was released, I thought this album was really good and then, I saw them live at the smaller venue Riviera in Chicago promoting the album in '89 or '90 (?) and was blown away. This album broke so much new ground and is still fantastic to listen to today. It's funny that Veron Reid was more a jazz guitarist before this, but his background really has an influence on the whole album. Great choice to listen to over and over again. "So why you wanna gimme that... funny vibe"

Favorites in order of appearance: Cult, Middle Man, Desperate People, Open Letter, Funny Vibe, Memories Can't Wait (killer Talkin Heads cover), and the cheesy, Jamaica-jammin' Glamour Boys.

Stav Au-Dag: Never heard this album before but just now I tried to listen to the first four songs on YouTube. 

Verdict - it sucks: the vocals have no melody and the guitar solo on the first track was just noisy chaos (the third song was ok).

You may crucify me, but Spin Doctors did this sort of thing so much better three years later (their first album was outstanding).

Mike Knoop: A fun and adventurous album that I admit I didn’t listen to the first time around. Maybe Cult Of Personality was too ubiquitous on the radio or maybe there was just too much other stuff to choose from. Having listened to Vivid several times this week, I now feel it’s one of the trailblazing albums that built a bridge from hard rock to the alternative nation on the horizon. See/hear also Faith No More’s The Real Thing, King’s X’s Gretchen Goes To Nebraska, Jane’s Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking, or Uplift Mofo Party Plan by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Marco LG: The memories: it was 1988, the 14-year old version of me was just discovering hard rock and heavy metal, and to that end he sat watching MTV for hours on end. The video for Cult Of Personality came out, and you can rest assured I was very much hooked! The album was cool, it was heavy but you could also have it on at parties, where friends who were more into pop would compare it to Terence Trent D'Arby and accept it because of that.

The current reality: the album remains a great listen, but some songs have aged more than others. Cult Of Personality remains the best song of the lot, Open Letter (To A Landlord) sounds better today than 30 years ago, while I Want To Know and Funny Vibe make me want to press the skip button.

Overall: a great album which retains all the elements that made it a hit in 1988/89 but showing signs of age here and there. Thank goodness the band is still alive and kicking, and their latest offering is just as good if not better!

Carl Black: As the great Robert Johnson once sang "meet me at the crossroads". That's how I'd describe this album. Rock had come to a crossroads, and Living Colour was the ☓ that marks the spot. 

They didn't look, sound or move like rock bands from the previous 20 years, however I hear IMO Kiss, Rush and the Beatles. On the other side of the crossroads I can hear Rage Against The Machine, Tool and Linken Park. Influencing rock music for the next 20 or so years. 

The trouble with trailblazing bands such as these, Fishbone and Urban Dance Squad, is they fall between the gaps. They should be massive but they don't appeal to either side of the crossroads divide. Living Colour supported Anthrax and the Rolling Stones around this time. Not thrashy enough for the Anthrax crowd, not traditional enough for the Stones crowd. As an album it's a fine collection for contemporary, fresh rock'n'roll that will forever be stationary on the crossroads of rock.

Final Score: 7.62 ⁄10 (414 votes cast, with a total score of 3156)

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