Bad Brains are part of my holy trinity of hardcore. Legendary pioneers from the 80s that I’ll never get to witness live. Yet while I may feel a greater emotional attachment and sentiment to other bands from this trailblazing era, Bad Brains are the act I would choose to see live if and when time travel becomes possible. Their live shows from the early 1980s have attained such a mythical status for their frenzied storms they would create that it would be worth risking the space-time continuum to travel back to Christmas 1982 at CBGBs to witness H.R in his manic prime.
Taken from their self-titled debut LP, which is one of the greatest rock albums of all time and remains essential listening for anyone who considers themselves a fan of rock music, “Banned in DC” is a two minute anthem sticking it to the man and the conformist sheep that blindly fall into line. In the band’s early days in Washington DC, the Bad Brains were a dangerous act. Many of their sets descended into riots with fans revved into such a frenzy that they would rip up the venue and pour onto the streets. D.C Club owners became so fearful of the Bad Brains that they banned them entirely, forcing the group to relocate to New York.
From the moment Earl Hudson’s drum pounds into life, “Banned in DC” moves at such a breakneck speed that it will practically suck the air out of your lungs. Yet what is most remarkable about Bad Brains is that while they played faster than everyone else, technically they were out of this world. Four supremely talented musicians playing innovative music at a speed that defied belief with a fury that burned brighter than the sun. Listening to their music you’re faced with two options: Get swept up into the frenzy or get the hell out of the way and wait in the carpark.
Yet while their 80s heyday remains the stuff of rock legend, the years and decades since have not been kind as the Bad Brains have lurched from crisis to another. More often than not, these mishaps have been the result of vocalist H.R’s self destructive behaviour ranging from cancelled shows, stints in jail, homophobic slurs and serious medical issues.
Seven years ago the Bad Brains announced an Australian tour only to cancel a few months later. At the time I was disappointed the tour fell through but in hindsight it was probably for the best. The band, H.R in particular, were no longer that same chaotic whirlwind of dangerous energy; time catches up with to everyone, even legends and it’s hard to maintain the rage when you’ve pushed past 50. Youtube clips of their recent shows don’t hold a candle to their blistering past. Seeing them limp their way through a set would be too much to take. Remember that season Michael Jordan played with the Wizards? The Bad Brains are the live musical equivalent. Once they were an unstoppable force of nature that destroyed everything in its path but now they’re just a bunch of old dudes clinging to the broken shards of the past. You can’t help but pity them even as they tarnish their legacy. All you can do is shake your head and remember how great they were.
I’ve resigned myself to never seeing the Bad Brains live, at least until time travel becomes possible. In the mean time, I’ll have to make do with postcards of mayhem like this: