WORDS: GEORGIA RAWSON
Within all genres, and cultures, there is a golden trio in which it’s origin can always be rooted and traced back to. Whilst the mass media often looks towards the mainstream appeal of the likes of Sex Pistols and The Clash, of who’s relevance is still debatable, the aforementioned only existed as the punk in the now, and so were a brief flash in the pop culture pan. However, some 3,662 miles away, Washington DC was alight, and not just from the election of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977. A generation of punk was about to shake both America and pop culture itself to the core. A country still at the height of racial tensions, corrupt politics, and a newly formed youth culture, Washington DC became the birth place for the true trio to change the sound, culture, and mindset of punk. The trio? Black Flag, Minor Threat, and in this exclusive interview, arguably the most important, Bad Brains.
“Well whilst we were part of the DC scene, we built our spirit on individuality.” Remembers vocalist HR. “Our ethos about bringing positivity to angry music, and making it an outlet was something that made us 20 to 30 years ahead of our time, and that’s what caught on.”
“Our ethos about bringing positivity to angry music, and making it an outlet was something that made us 20 to 30 years ahead of our time.”
Whilst now in the later stages of his life as we sit down with the Bad Brains vocalist in the small coffee shop in Leeds, HR remains softly spoken, and smiles, answering each question with “Yes ma’am.” Hailed as one of the most important men to have not only influenced, but culturally change punk and hardcore from an anger ridden genre into a positive one, there’s countless accounts of the likes of H2O’s Toby Morse, Straight edge starter and Minor Threat vocalist Ian Mackaye, and more all citing HR as the pioneer of P.M.A, a shaman of both the genre and positivity itself.
Taking an adaptation from the 1937 book by Napoleon Hill, Bad Brains applied the attitude of positive mental attitude, and applied it to both themselves, and against the adverse and more dangerous times of New York, overran by poverty, drug cartels, and crime. “It wasn’t just music, but a way of life.” Muses HR, broadly smiling. “If your mind can believe it, if your mind can see it, your mind can achieve it. New York was a lot more dangerous back then, and we had our own problems too. We had our van broken into and all of our equipment stolen. We had so many times where we had to start over bit by bit, like having to walk back from the airport when we realised you needed a passport to go to England. But we kept a positive mind, even at the hardest of times.”
Earlier this year Tyler The Creator accepted a Grammy for best rap album. In the face of the new industry recognised title and award, he noted in his speech that being segregated into the genre of ‘urban’, was comparable to the industry having it’s own ‘politer’ term for the N word. There is no denying that throughout both the history of music and pop culture that time and time again race has been used to set apart and often marginalise artists. In a newly post civil-rights era, Bad Brains descended upon the live circuit, both in celebration of their newfound freedom, but with it the anxieties still fresh from the recent social and political changes.
“We stopped the gig and said no more fighting, lets unite and all be brothers and sisters.”
“At first the reception we got from was extremely adverse, and they didn’t know what was going on, where we came from.” Reflects HR. “We looked different, but we played just as well. We played with the intention that these shows were for everyone. It wasn’t just about being black either. There was a show once with Eagermouth in San Diego, the women went into a demonstration situation, and they amazingly overpowered the men. We stopped the gig and said no more fighting, lets unite and all be brothers and sisters.”
The ethos of P.M.A has become more vibrant and iconic than the Donnel Gibson lightning strike that lights up DC and Capitol Records for the band’s 1982 debut record. In Queens New York a fellowship began to expand from the likes of Madball and Agnostic Front taking influence from one another, and other heavier and arguably more anger driven bands within the scene, but HR and his fellow band mates found themselves being shaped by a far more cultural, and positive influence.
“We went to an arena show for Bob Marley, and it was 16,000 sold out. There were people there from all walks of life, being united. We changed our hair to dreadlocks, and what we were wearing, and wore more comfortable clothes, different from the rest of the punk scene. We went from wearing a what looked like train to this look.” He laughs. “After a while we decided lets do what we saw. The group became noticeable because we weren’t being super fashionable, but we too encompassed the idea of bringing all walks of people together. We knew that was our path.”
“Music to me means that love and loyalty that exists by the people.”
On March 15th 2016, HR was diagnosed with a rare headache disorder known as SUNCT. After having spent decades influencing not just a genre, but a movement about how kindness and community can be found even in the angriest of music, and most expressive of “crowd dancing”, it wasn’t long until the $15,000 needed to fight the “suicide syndrome” was raised.
“Music to me means that love and loyalty that exists by the people.” Smiles HR. “We were glad that we were able to achieve bringing positivity to the masses, and I’m glad I was able to achieve something that was ahead of it’s time.
We wanted to be accepted as a positive band and it was an awakening for me. I would see how all these people would accept us, regardless of our age, race, place in society. I said to myself that a lot of time I’m thankful for what the kids were doing, and even now what the kids are doing.”
Twenty four hours prior to this interview we found ourselves in Liverpool, celebrating the career of English skateboarder Geoff Rowley. As dozens flooded the bombed out church event, amongst the masses the insignia of Bad Brains emblem could be seen across the shirts of those skating, down to the boards themselves. There’s been no denial that even in the short period before Bad Brain’s reformation in the 90s that their influence on pop culture continued to grow.
“If your mind can believe it, if your mind can see it, your mind can achieve it.”
“Even back when we started playing in iconic places such as CBGBs we knew something was happening.” Reminisces HR when discussing the band’s artistic stems. “The appreciation was shown through their visual influence, and not just being at the shows and moshing. Through skateboard design, t-shirts, we’ve had an influence that is more than just music, but artistic. People must remember that music is art.”
Whilst the career of the Bad Brains has not been one performed to thousands in sold out arenas, the ripple effects and the admiration is more sizeable than many artists over the last four decades. “Still to this day, I bow down,” comments John Joseph, both of Cro-mags and now too a spiritualist. In each movement there is a scene, there are bands, and there are shows and records that define us and the counterculture, but it is rare that anyone has been able to rival the leadership, and influence of the Bad Brains.
“It was a mind excursion, and explosion ,and the different responses from the kids, it was tremendous. It changed my life, and with any hope it’s changed that of others.”