1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die
Arguing against Living Colour requires some tough skin, because the band has history and social relevance on its side. As 1001 Albums opens its argument for the album "Vivid," the author makes a point that cannot be denied: As the end of the '80s approached, there was only one band comprised of black members in the hard rock scene, and that was Living Colour. I will dare to pose the question. Does being the only fully-black heavy metal band make them worth a mention in a book such as this?
The group was certainly qualified to be popular during that era. Realistically, the only qualification required to be successful in the hair/heavy/whatever metal genre of the '80s was to have a guitarist who could provoke imaginary virtuosos into rocking out on their invisible instruments, and Colour's Vernon Reid more than lives up. As the band's hit "Cult of Personality" demonstrates, Reid's fingers could equal and surpass solos from any other guitarist of the era, in both speed and the smoothness of his playing. But Living Colour is left in the dust by the riffs produced by guitarists like Mick Mars of Motley Crue and Slash of the Guns 'n' Roses. Colour's lyrics do attack more intelligent concepts (racism, poverty) than the aforementioned groups (sex, drugs, booze), but it just feels weird. I often call for more intelligent subject matter from punk, metal and rap artists, but sleaze just feels right with this music. Call me a hypocrite if you want. Maybe the high-minded approach would have worked better if the band sold the attitude more. Hearing vocalist Corey Glover label himself "fierce" while dissing preps during "Glamour Boys" leaves grit to be desired.
So yes, I'm suggesting Living Colour only made it into this book because of race. Perhaps they were the first African-American heavy metal band, and good for them. But the world of music is filled with artists who broke down color barriers, and some were better at the musical aspect than others. It's troubling to me that Colour is often seen as "black" before it's seen as "heavy metal." The listening public puts too much precedence on color. A modern example is the New Jersey metal band God Forbid, which features two black members among five total. But, because vocalist Byron Davis is black, the group is often labelled a "black" metal band (not black metal. That's different). On the flip side, Eminem understands how big his whiteness is for his popularity. "If I was black, I would have sold half," he raps on "White America."
There are instances where Colour is "blacker" than a typical heavy metal band. The obvious example is "Funny Vibe," where most of the lyrics are handled by Chuck D and Flava Flav of Public Enemy. Bassist Muzz Skillings makes himself evident later in the album, providing a funkier feel to tracks like "Which Way to America." Funky, but not funky enough to make the music inherently "black."
I feel a tad bad for throwing Living Colour in front of the bus like this. If you're into heavy metal already, you'll greatly enjoy "Vivid." I just don't want the band to be admired simply because they're black musicians that are doing similar things to other artists.
INTERESTING FACT: "Cult of Personality" was used as the theme during Stone Cold Steve Austin's induction into the WWE Hall of Fame.