Living Colour

I ran across something online recently that said that “Cult of Personality” was released thirty years ago this month. That means I became a fan of Living Colour thirty years ago this month. I can actually remember listening to the song on the radio during the summer of 1988. I was thirteen years old and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I probably got the album, Vivid, that fall, or maybe for that Christmas. I’ve been a big fan ever since.

I have all their albums, including last year’s Shade. My favorite is probably Stain, but there’s something about Vivid that made a huge impression on me. I remember being confused about what kind of music it was. The press treated it as a metal album. They couldn’t get enough of the story of a black group performing heavy metal music. It never struck me as particularly metal-y. There are elements of metal, but they’re no more prominent that the elements of rock, R&B, funk, soul, punk and jazz. I’ve kind of come to think of it as heavy funk. But I guess technically it’s fusion.

The musicianship is incredible, from all four of them. I’ve always been struck by the fact that they can play anything, and the album sounds like it does because that’s what they wanted it to sound like. That may seem like an odd thing to say. But most music sounds like it does because of cultural trends and the quirks of the particular artist. I love John Lee Hooker, but he doesn’t sound like he does because of a choice, he sounds like he does because that’s what John Lee Hooker sounds like. It’s hard to explain, but Vivid sounds intentional in a way that most albums do not.

Vivid was also one of the first overtly political albums I ever listened to that wasn’t from my parent’s generation. I knew plenty of political music about the sixties, but in the eighties the closest we came was “We Are the World”. I didn’t even understand half of the album at the time. I was a white kid from the suburbs. But I was fascinated by “Cult of Personality”, “Open Letter to a Landlord” and “Which Way to America” in particular. I felt like I was learning something important as I listened.

I can’t believe it’s been thirty years. I’m listening to the album now and it’s still great. It’s still as musically exciting as it was in 1988. And the politics are still amazingly relevant. I’m glad at least some of the music I was listening to at thirteen still holds up.

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