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Good Vibrations

A Bad Brains tribute album gives the band its due. Sort of.

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Dr. Know: Music is music to him.
  • Dr. Know: Music is music to him.

Few bands deserve a tribute album as much as Bad Brains. Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1979, Bad Brains were a black hardcore punk band at a time when the genre was lily-white. They mixed dub, reggae, jazz fusion, and punk while members of groups like Sublime and Sugar Ray were still getting drunk and passing out at beach parties in Southern California.

While Bad Brains' influence has been extensive -- everyone from Jane's Addiction to the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers owes them a debt -- their past has also been quite volatile. At one point there were even two competing groups vying for the Bad Brains moniker (one led by guitarist Dr. Know and bassist Daryl Jenifer and the other by vocalist HR and his brother, drummer Earl Hudson). Now, however, the original lineup has re-formed (calling themselves Soul Brains) and recently played a few dates on the east and west coasts. With this week's release of the tribute album Never Give In, the group appears to have caught a second wind of sorts. Even if Never Give In doesn't fully attest to the band's wide-reaching appeal, it does suggest that Bad Brains are still influencing a new generation of hardcore bands.

"We are like brothers, so if we're going to get along, we will, and if not, we won't," explains guitarist Dr. Know (Gary Miller) via phone from his home in upstate New York. "Vibes is good right now. We got together and wrote a couple more songs two weeks ago, and when we played them live, they went over so well, HR almost did a stage dive. The place was rocking. For this next studio album, we've gone back to recording in the garage, just like in the day. I go and cook some food, and we get the bond thing going. We eat and spend ten to twelve hours just hanging out."

Given their rocky past, it's surprising that the members of Bad Brains are even on speaking terms. After initially releasing a self-titled cassette (which has since been reissued on CD), the first chapter of Bad Brains' career climaxed with the Ric Ocasek-produced Rock for Light in 1983. The band split up for three years before returning with I Against I in 1986 and then went into a tailspin of breakups and reunions that culminated with the disappointing God of Love in 1995. Released on Madonna's Maverick Recordings, God of Love reunited the group with Ocasek but relied too heavily on studio trickery and metal conventions. HR's shrill vocals made him sound like a hoarse Axl Rose, and the noodling guitar solos reeked of self-indulgence. On the tour in support of God of Love, HR beat up the band's tour manager and injured several members of the audience after he swung a microphone stand. As a result, Maverick dropped the group. Still, Miller stands by the album and denies rumors that Madonna retained the right to the name Bad Brains, making it necessary for them to change it to Soul Brains.

"That's a great record," he says when asked about God of Light. "HR is dropping a different approach in the vocal respect, and there's a focus on the [Rasta] inspiration. We were also experimenting with a multivocal thing. You've got to reinvent yourself and do other things; otherwise you end up as a cover band of yourself, and there's no new flavors. We experimented with a drum machine, and there's actually a good funk song that didn't make it on the record. You just reminded me of that. HR sings falsetto on it, and it sounds like a Prince funk trip thing."

With the exception of Moby's piano-and-drum-machine version of "Sailin' On" (easily the best, most imaginative track on the album), Never Give In highlights the hardcore side of Bad Brains. Ignite's rendition of "Pay to Cum" is incendiary, but doesn't differ much from the original. Speed metal versions of "Re-ignition" and "No Conditions" lack the diversity for which Bad Brains were known. Cave In's psychedelic version of "I Luv I Jah" fares better, but given the fact that Bad Brains mixed their genres so thoroughly, the tribute album does a disservice to the band's legacy. The fact that many of the artists are relative unknowns doesn't help matters, either. Miller admits that he's surprised that no one decided to do a ska or dub version of one of their songs.

"I like the album a lot," he says. "It's an honor. It just shows me that the works wasn't in vain. I can really hear the energy, and that's what everybody really wants to accomplish. The vibe is there. Some of it is because it's our songs, but the brothers put their best foot forward, and there's not any fronting going on.

"I did kinda expect one of the ska bands to do a dub or ska thing," he concedes. "Reggae is popular now once again, and I thought there should have been some kinda reggae in there somewhere."

With the recent success of white hip-hop/metal acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, as well as alternative acts like 311, who are well-versed in reggae, ska, and hardcore punk, Bad Brains look like geniuses in retrospect, even if they have never reaped much in the way of commercial success. Miller, who cites Stevie Wonder, George Clinton, and the Clash as influences, says he doesn't hear the band's influence so directly now, because there's so much crossover in modern music, but he does acknowledge that Bad Brains were ahead of their time.

"These days, the music is so intertwined," he says. "Maybe six or seven years ago or even ten years ago, I could hear our influence more. Now, music is just music. The hip-hop got the rock in it and the rock got the hip-hop and reggae got the funk. Fifteen to twenty years ago, bands were just trying to totally sound like us, but we wasn't trying to play like nobody else."

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