db hof No. 121
The making of Living Colour's "Vivid"
New York City was a creative nexus in the mid-to-late ’80s. Art and fashion swelled up from the underground and converged into an amazingly vibrant and unified expression of culture. For cutting-edge music, it was the place to be: ground zero for punk, jazz, funk, rap, avant garde and furious collisions of all of those styles. New York City was also a genuinely seedy and dangerous place, too. Crack cocaine swept the landscape in ’86; the AIDS crisis was in full swing; urban blight and homelessness went virtually ignored by the powers that be; and violent crime was at an all-time high. Memories from that from era have largely faded from view, but Living Colour’s Vivid—one of the more unlikely success stories of 1988—continues to paint an indelible portrait of a time when everything seemed pregnant with possibility, but also fraught with peril.
Living Colour were not the first artists of color to present idioms from other genres in a largely rock context, but they were the first band—to paraphrase the Malcolm X sample at the beginning of “Cult of Personality”—to talk right down to Earth in a language that everybody could easily understand. Guitarist Vernon Reid, singer Corey Glover, drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings were all virtuosic musicians with a wide swath of formal training and experience playing in other bands, but at the heart of it, they just wanted to rock out. All of these guys had experienced such an intense degree of alienation in their own lives that they simply filtered that collective frustration into making what, ironically, came across as an incredibly warm and all-inclusive record.
The idea of four black guys speaking their truth in such a serious and sober fashion was not an easy pill for people to swallow, especially considering the racial climate in America in the 1980s. But Living Colour really excelled in a live context, where they were just as comfortable playing with Bad Brains and Circle Jerks as opening for Robert Palmer and the Rolling Stones. Of course, “Cult of Personality” presented an easy pathway to capturing hearts and minds; its charms remain undeniable. But hooks and melodies and universal themes abound on Vivid, from the crestfallen country swing of “Broken Hearts” to stark socio-political commentary splayed out against a backdrop of funk-metal and power ballads, like “Funny Vibe” and “Open Letter (to a Landlord).” According to Skillings, the band’s main aim with Vivid was to create something “100 percent original and not bite anyone’s style.” While Ronald Reagan was begging Mikhail Gorbachev to open gates and tear down walls, Living Colour were already doing that back home in America.
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