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“Cult” Classic

How Living Colour made one of the most prescient albums of the 20th century, and conquered rock ’n’ roll in the process

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Vernon Reid knew it was time to consult his little red notebook. That day in 1987, the guitarist and his bandmates were rehearsing in their loft above Broadway and DeKalb Avenue in Bushwick when they stumbled upon something. Unprompted, lead singer Corey Glover started humming a tune that would end up sounding familiar to almost anyone who over the ensuing three decades has listened to the radio, watched MTV, attended a sporting event, or virtually wailed in Guitar Hero.

What Glover made up on the spot caught Reid’s ear. “I literally was trying to play what he was singing,” the latter said recently. Then he turned to drummer Will Calhoun and asked him to play a beat to it. “We had a cool riff,” Reid said. But, he recalled thinking, “Well, this riff’s gotta go somewhere.” So he opened his miniature volume of handwritten lyrics. One line that he’d scribbled down stood out: “Look in my eyes, what do you see? The cult of personality.” It was a reference to “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 excoriation of Stalinism. The phrase was a cliché, but it framed the concept forming in Reid’s head.

“The whole idea was to move past the duality of: That’s a good person and that’s a bad person,” Reid said. “What do the good and the bad have in common? Is there something that unites Gandhi and Mussolini? Why are they who they are? And part of it is charisma.”

With the sound of the elevated J train rumbling in the background, Living Colour went to work on what would become an anthem. “We started the rehearsal and there was no ‘Cult of Personality,’” Reid said. “At the end of it, ‘Cult of Personality’ had been written.” The opening track on the group’s debut album, Vivid, which turns 30 this week, strutted into the lily-white realm of mainstream rock ’n’ roll and blew out its speakers.

“Rock music was made by white people at that point,” said the band’s former comanager Roger Cramer. “It was the heyday of the hair band. And Living Colour came along and could play and sing circles around those bands. But they were black.”

All four members were, in fact. “The hair,” Reid said, “was a different texture.” Despite having chops and a loyal following in the biggest city in the country, Living Colour for years couldn’t land a record deal. Calhoun said that they’d heard “It’s not gonna happen” so often that it was difficult to believe that they’d ever break through. But in the face of rejection, the band refused to change their style. They were eclectic—“We were part punk, part metal, part funk, part free jazz,” Reid said—but they unmistakably played rock ’n’ roll. That was a statement to a nation with a selective memory.

“One of the most frustrating things,” Calhoun said, “is the ignorance of people who will not admit or deal with the fact that black people invented rock ’n’ roll.” By making songs about the perils of hero worship, racism, and gentrification, Living Colour forced listeners to reckon with uncomfortable truths.

“When I first heard the song ‘Cult of Personality,’” Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and now Prophets of Rage guitarist Tom Morello said in an email, “I was absolutely blown away that clearly there were other African Americans who unapologetically loved Led Zeppelin and wanted to shred.” The record, he added, “opened the doors to my career.”

“Cult of Personality” and Vivid, which went double-platinum, were the result of Living Colour’s prolonged fight to convince record companies that a black band was not merely a niche act with an outside shot at crossing over to a white audience. The unfair designation was tough to shake. To fully transform into DayGlo superheroes, the quartet needed the backing of the world’s most famous rock star.

Soon after getting “Cult of Personality” down, Living Colour was playing it at their unofficial home base: CBGB. The legendary East Village club was only a trip over the Williamsburg Bridge away from the band’s Brooklyn space. By then, the group was already playing tight gigs all over town.

Reid had spent the early part of the decade touring with jazz-funk drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society and originally formed Living Colour as a side project. For the London-born, New York–raised guitarist with rock ’n’ roll ambitions, it was a maddening period. Black musicians may have honed the genre, but they had long since been relegated to the background of the rock scene. By the early ’80s, critics were treating Jimi Hendrix as a supernatural anomaly rather than a descendant of pioneers Chuck Berry and B.B. King. Racially mixed bands like Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, and War were disappearing. MTV was barely playing videos by black artists. FM rock radio had been scrubbed whiter than CBGB’s iconic awning.

In 1985, seeking change, Reid, journalist Greg Tate, and producer Konda Mason cofounded the Black Rock Coalition, an organization with the stated mission of “creating an atmosphere conducive to the maximum development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.”

Around that time, Reid tinkered with his band. Corey Glover was then a young actor—he went on to play a key role in Platoon—who happened to have a booming voice. Reid and Glover didn’t know each other, but had mutual friends. They met at a party for Glover’s former girlfriend. When it came time for cake, Glover remembered his ex asking him alone to sing “Happy Birthday.” So, in hopes of a reunion with her, he said, “I did my best version of ‘Happy Birthday’ that I could do. It made Vernon and I have a conversation, and we talked about music.” The two quickly joined forces.

In addition to Glover, the new Living Colour lineup was bolstered by fellow New Yorkers Calhoun, an award-winning Berklee College of Music grad, and Muzz Skillings, a bassist with rock and jazz experience. The group relied on a wide range of influences, among them the Isley Brothers, Bad Brains, and Prince. “‘Little Red Corvette,’” Reid said, “was manna from heaven.”

But even as Living Colour was taking over New York, record labels shook their fists at the band. “The record business was flat-out racist,” Cramer said. “The pushback was intense from every corner. We shopped them to every single label. At that point in time there were a lot of them.” The lunkheaded but pervasive line of thinking that an all-black rock band singing about social issues couldn’t appeal to the masses irked Glover. “You’d think people would get that there’s a universality to it,” he said.

Living Colour’s fortunes began to change in late ’80s, when Mick Jagger was looking for musicians to play on his second solo album. The Rolling Stones lead singer held an audition at SIR Studios on West 52nd Street. Reid was invited to attend. Glover had just quit his job as an undercover security guard at Tower Records. (“I was horrible at it,” he said, “because I would let people steal records.”) Without much else to do, he tagged along with his nervous friend. Reid described the session as “totally chaotic” and “horrible.” It wasn’t a complete disaster, though.

It turns out that Jagger knew all about Living Colour. Bassist Doug Wimbish, who joined the band in the ’90s, was working with the famous frontman back then. At one point, Reid recalled, Jagger said that he’d heard the band was cool and that he wanted to see them live. “Offhandedly we both said that we were playing at CBGB’s this weekend,” Glover said. Sure enough, Jagger came to the show with Jeff Beck. Cramer remembered roping off a table for Jagger, who had to crane his neck to see over the crowd.

Shortly after that show, Jagger asked the band to join him at Right Track on West 48th Street. While recording his solo album Primitive Cool in the next studio over, he produced two Living Colour demos that were recorded by Bad Brains collaborator Ron St. Germain. The first, “Which Way to America?,” was a rebuke of the class divide, and the second, “Glamour Boys,” was a funky, winking roast of hollow, image-obsessed men.

Even with Jagger’s support, the group continued to face skepticism. Cramer got asked whether Living Colour was similar to Sade and Winger. “If you have to explain to a label what it is that you do as an artist,” Cramer said, “you’re fucked.” He recalled telling one A&R man that Jagger had produced Living Colour’s demos and in response hearing, “What’s he done lately?” One company was interested in the band, Cramer said, but reduced its offer after an executive couldn’t handle how heavy they sounded during a triple bill at the Roxy with hardcore staples the Circle Jerks and Bad Brains.

Epic Records, finally, ended up signing Living Colour. In hindsight, Reid views the deal as a bittersweet triumph. “We had to get the cosign from a person who literally embodied what rock ’n’ roll is,” Reid said. “The fact that he had to come see us, and dig us, for us to get at the back of the line is crazy.” In a way, it echoed the Rolling Stones’ previous embrace of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. It was done out of reverence, but underscored the reality that black artists were being defined not by their own music but by their connection to the white bands unabashedly mimicking them.

Still, at long last, Living Colour had a record contract. The group wasn’t about to let that opportunity slip away. Ed Stasium, who’d worked with the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Jagger on Primitive Cool, produced Vivid. By late 1987, when the band recorded the album, they’d already played its songs thousands of times. For that reason, Calhoun said, “it was a really easy record to make.”

Their major-label debut, which included the two Jagger-produced demos, was bursting with heavy guitars and sharp social commentary. Cowritten by Reid and poet and professor Tracie Morris, “Open Letter (to a Landlord)” directly addresses the gentrification of American cities. When I mentioned the track to Sevendust lead singer Lajon Witherspoon, he immediately sang the first line of the chorus: “Now you can tear a building down / But you can’t erase a memory.” “I remember that song like it was yesterday,” said Witherspoon, who’s African American. Glover’s voice, the metal vocalist said, has “undeniable soul.”

The seeds for “Funny Vibe” were planted years before when Reid stepped onto a department store elevator and a white woman clutched her handbag. “The fear,” he said, “enraged me.” In an instant, by no fault of his own, Reid was put on the defensive. “And now I have to assuage your fear,” he said. Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav, with whom Reid worked on Yo! Bum Rush the Show, appeared on the track, which asks skittish white people what they’re so damn afraid of. Directed by Charles Stone III, the video features a series of situations similar to the one Reid experienced.

“Who was talking about those issues at the time in rock ’n’ roll?” Calhoun said. “Not many people.”

Before “Cult of Personality” was finished, it needed tweaking. “The way you know the song is not the way we played it,” Glover said. “It was Ed who said, ‘Why don’t you play the hook first, and then the verse?’” After all, how could you not start with that riff? Stasium compared it to “Sunshine of Your Love” and “Mississippi Queen.” It was a sound that only could’ve been generated by someone with Reid’s eclectic style. As Vivid engineer Paul Hamingson put it: “Vernon brings a record store with him every time he plays.” Carla Harvey, a vocalist in the metal band Butcher Babies, told me that the first time she heard the opening of “Cult of Personality,” “the hair stood up on my arms and I was like, What is this?

To give the song’s message even more weight, the band folded in short portions of historically significant speeches by Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. (The group also wanted to use the closing line of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but it proved too expensive to license.) The excerpts became one of the anthem’s signatures.

Of course, “Cult of Personality” wouldn’t be a classic without a perfect solo. Stasium said Reid nailed it on the first try and then did it again five more times. Each take, the producer said, was different. He chose Reid’s initial effort and didn’t bother offering the guitarist much feedback. “You don’t fuck with art,” Stasium said.

Vivid was released on May 3, 1988. Success wasn’t instantaneous. The first single, “Middle Man,” didn’t make a splash. Then Living Colour filmed the “Cult of Personality” video. “The thought was that if we can make a great video, this thing’s gonna blow out of the water so fast,” said Dan Beck, then senior vice president of marketing and sales at Epic.

Drew Carolan directed the clip, which featured both live performances and historical footage. It introduced the world to Glover’s trademark look: a Body Glove wetsuit. He’d been shopping with his then-girlfriend, a music video stylist, in the Bowery and noticed the stretchy, neon one-piece at the Patricia Field store. He figured it would be an interesting thing to wear onstage at a place as willfully grimy as CBGB.

“I didn’t think anything more about it than that until I realized it looked like a superhero costume,” Glover said. Body Glove later began shipping him suits of various colors. “Everything they sent me started to look more and more like costumes from some comic book,” said Glover, who admitted that his kids aren’t fans of his old skin-tight outfits. “My whole comic-book nerd thing came out.”

As a teenager in his hometown of Nashville, Witherspoon searched for Glover’s spandex suits, but couldn’t find them. The problem, he said, was this: “We didn’t live by any water!”

Beck said that the video first got airplay on local music channels before MTV finally dropped it into its regular rotation. For Witherspoon, seeing Living Colour on TV was formative. “They weren’t afraid to be different, which I thought was something that would help me feel comfortable in my own skin,” he said. “Because I was that kid who was into rock and heavy music. I think they opened the door for artists like me.”

Harvey grew up in Detroit getting teased for being a mixed-race kid who liked rock. After catching a glimpse of Living Colour, she remembered thinking, “They’re like me.”

Rock radio eventually followed MTV’s lead. On April 1, 1989, the band performed on Saturday Night Live. A month later, Vivid and “Cult of Personality,” the second of which went on to win three Video Music Awards and a Grammy, respectively peaked at no. 6 and no. 13 on the Billboard album and singles charts.

Late that summer, Living Colour joined the Rolling Stones on their Steel Wheels tour. For a group used to playing densely packed clubs, opening for the biggest band on the planet in quarter-full football stadiums was exhilaratingly strange. “We were a tiny speck,” Glover said. “We felt very small.” Added Reid: “It was important for us to do. But it also plucked us out of our natural development.”

It was, however, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. During one day off, Reid spent hours walking the streets of Boston with Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Reid also often hung out with bassist Bill Wyman in the backstage game room, where they played snooker and table tennis. “Bill Wyman,” Reid said, “was a master of parlor games.”

The tour wasn’t all fun and games. In October 1989, before Living Colour’s four-night run with Guns N’ Roses and the Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Reid and Calhoun gave a live radio interview. In it, they were asked not about their own music but rather “One in a Million,” the noxious GNR track in which lead singer Axl Rose infamously rails against “faggots,” “niggers,” and “immigrants.” Unsurprisingly, Reid and Calhoun explained that they disapproved of the song. “You should call all assholes out,” Calhoun said. But both were incensed that they had to answer for Rose’s lyrics.

“You know what’s frustrating about that?” Reid said. “At no time did anyone ever say, ‘Well, you know that Slash is black.’ Nobody turned to Slash and said, ‘Yo, man, how do you feel about ‘One in a Million’?”

Before Guns N’ Roses’ first set at the Coliseum, Rose and his entourage confronted Muzz Skillings backstage. Glover is convinced that Axl saw the bassist’s dreadlocks and thought he was Reid. “Muzz got surrounded by a bunch of goons,” Calhoun said. Rose, who’d apparently heard Reid and Calhoun’s interview, proceeded to defend himself. “First thing out of his mouth: ‘You got a problem with me, man?’” Skillings told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “So then he goes on, ‘It’s in the media that I’m some sort of racist, man. … I ain’t no damn racist.’” On stage that night, Rose yet again verbally exposed himself.

”When I use the word ‘nigger,’ I don’t necessarily mean a black person,” he reportedly said. “I don’t give a crap what color you are as long as you ain’t some crack-smoking piece of shit. All you people calling me a racist, shove your head up your fucking ass.”

The next evening, Living Colour responded to Rose’s tirade. “Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them ‘faggots,’” Reid told the crowd. “If you don’t have a problem with black people, then don’t call them ‘niggers.’ I never met a nigger in my life. Peace.” At that moment, the band launched into what Calhoun called “the best version of ‘Cult of Personality’ ever.”

After the set, Keith Richards came to Living Colour’s dressing room and shook Reid’s hand.

To Reid, the post-Vivid years felt like the climactic scene of a heist movie. “They’re trying to open this vault door,” he said, “and then all the sudden, it opens, and they go, ‘Holy shit, what’s on the other side of this door?’”

For Living Colour, waiting on the other side wasn’t stratospheric fame but rather the impossible task of topping their debut. Released in August 1990, Time’s Up featured guests like Queen Latifah, Doug E. Fresh, and Little Richard. The critically acclaimed album peaked at no. 13 on the Billboard chart. The next year, as the Seattle scene was beginning to explode, the band was part of the first Lollapalooza lineup. Also on the diverse bill: headliners Jane’s Addiction, Nine Inch Nails, Ice-T and Body Count, and Fishbone. Living Colour, Tom Morello said, “helped usher in the alternative rock era by not looking like or sounding like they were supposed to.”

But in late 1991, Skillings left the group. Doug Wimbish replaced him and played on Stain, which hit record stores in March 1993. It was Living Colour’s last new full-length studio album for a decade. “There was a lot of pressure on us,” Reid told New York in 2009. “My first marriage was breaking up; Living Colour was touring, but communication within the band was spotty. The problem with men is, we don’t have a language for emotion. We’ll curse at each other but never really talk.” They broke up in 1995, but reunited after the turn of the millennium. Shade, their latest album, came out in September. Currently on tour, the band is still proudly defying the perception that rock music, whatever’s left of it at least, belongs only to white dudes with long hair.

“We hope we can have the same chance they did,” said Jarad Dawkins, the drummer for Unlocking the Truth, a metal trio that appeared on The Colbert Report when they were middle-schoolers. “They’re like our uncles, pretty much.” The band, whose members are African American, toured with Living Colour in 2014. Naturally, the young group discovered “Cult of Personality” by hearing it on the soundtrack of a video game.

Today, the song remains a rock radio staple. It’s appeared in three versions of Guitar Hero. Former WWE wrestler CM Punk used it as his entrance music. It’s a stadium anthem. And its message, well, is frighteningly relevant. Thirty years later, it’s clear that Vivid as a whole was one of the late 20th century’s most prescient albums. “I’m incredibly grateful for that,” Reid said, “but it’s also incredibly disheartening.”

Most of the clubs that reared Living Colour have been renovated or razed. Right Track Recording is closed. Calhoun, whose custom bass drum is in the collection of the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently visited the neighborhood where the group rehearsed in the late ’80s. Con Edison, he remembered, used to dig 20-foot holes there and leave them exposed. The area, the drummer said, “looked like Vietnam after the war.” Now coffee shops have arrived. Rents are on the rise. It’s the same cycle the group was talking about in 1988 with “Open Letter (to a Landlord).”

“Shit hasn’t changed,” Glover said.

These days, Reid looks back on Living Colour’s rise with a mix of pride and incredulity. He’d like to be a bit more specific about how he wrote the songs on Vivid, but his cherished little red notebook has been gone for years. He accidentally left it on the subway.

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