Bad Brains at CBGB
CBGB was a haven for misfits, but they weren’t all local. The club started with bands living within a catchment area of few blocks, stereotypically in cheap lofts. Once up and running, though, performers would be typically from Washington DC up to Boston, and then some points west, given that the performers had gas money and a crash pad in the City. Or enough resources to keep them on the road for up to 300 miles of driving after their gig (which sometimes involved two sets on a night).
Bad Brains hit the misfit heights, and not just because they were black, hard-core punks. They didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Initially, they had formed in DC as the jazz-fusion ensemble Mind Power – they must have been real musicians following the style of the moment, but it did look like an inspired switch for them.
In New York, unlike the UK around that time, musical competence wasn’t suspect, although I would work the old joke with Hilly Kristal when necessary: how do you get to Carnegie Hall? – practice – how do you get to CBGB? – don’t practice. A good joke, raised a laugh, but wasn’t true. Many performers back then had good musical chops, often in sharp contrast with their British ambitious equivalents. Being there was a stylistic choice, not because they couldn’t make it elsewhere.
I haven’t read anywhere why the Brains made their radical stylistic change to punk. There must have been some careful deliberation, made more opaque to readers when they later expressed dislike at being credited with developing ‘hardcore’. My lasting memory of Bad Brains sets at the club is of an unrestrained wall of distorted everything, which they transferred to their recordings. Their first album smashed everything, including drums, very effectively. You might make the joke that the drum distortion was accidental, but that probably sells them short since the resultant sound is very effective. It works.
Their switch on stage between (excuse me, Bad Brains) hardcore and reggae was very effective, the more so since the assault of their more characteristic CB’s racket could feel rather undifferentiated in its fury – in a club you don’t have the range of colors that are available in the recording studio. This combination was parallel with the UK confluence of punk and reggae, two social areas who suffered discrimination and quickly came together in social purpose. (Don Letts, now a well-known film-maker, played his reggae records as DJ at the Roxy Club in London, which seemed perfectly reasonable to all of us. He also did a lot of filming around the time, which most likely will never be seen by the public because of tangled rights issues.)
Bad Brains are still going (at time of writing), having gone through a typical breakup/reunion cycle since they arrived in their hardcore punk/reggae version in 1977. They still look noisy, though.