Living Colour’s Vivid was groundbreaking musically, politically: ‘A magical experience’

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Living Colour, who released their smash debut album Vivid in May 1988, had the same implausible dream as every other rock band — to make the big time — but with the added overlay of race.

They’d become funk-metal pioneers, of course, but not without a moment of happenstance that guitarist Vernon Reid marvels over even today. Mick Jagger attended one of Living Colour’s regular gigs at CBGB, after Reid appeared as a sessions player on the Rolling Stones’ frontman’s 1987 solo album Primitive Cool, and became a vocal proselytizer. That quickly led to a label deal, sessions co-produced by Jagger and Primitive Cool engineer Ed Stasium, and an opening gig on the Rolling Stones’ next tour. Their strikingly inventive debut Vivid streaked into the Top 10.

“That record is such a moment in time,” Vernon Reid tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I remember feeling that working with the band, and working with Ed Stasium, was very much a peak experience — and that was before the record took off. It really was one of the great moments, because it was the culmination of something that seemed impossible. The fact that we were making the record, period, was amazing. We went from playing in empty rooms, to filling our favorite club CBGBs, to the most famous rock star in the world coming to see us — Mick Jagger. He said, ‘Man, you guys are really cool. How would you feel about recording a demo?’ All of those steps, leading up to the making of the record, it was a fantastic time. With debut records, if you can get out of the way of the music, it can be a magical experience.”

Always interested in history, Reid — along with bandmates Corey Glover, Muzz Skillings and Will Calhoun — was acutely aware of how their association with the Rolling Stones fit into a larger continuum. “They championed Stevie Wonder, they championed Billy Preston, certainly a lot of black artists,” Reid says. “Prince opened for them. There were a lot of very cool things over the years. We were thankful to be a part of that.”

But none of it would have worked, none of the institutional racism associated with black musicians working as neither R&B crooners nor rappers would have been thwarted, certainly Vivid wouldn’t have sold a whopping two million copies without a foundation of resonant songs.

The first single from Living Colour’s smash debut was another career-making moment of happenstance, a Grammy award-winning No. 13 hit that started as a leftover practice-session riff. The song was completed by the end of that very session, in a burst of creativity surrounding an idea that Reid had involving celebrity, leadership and fame.

“Andy Warhol said everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, and I was thinking about that,” Vernon Reid tells us. “Then I was thinking about Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – I could throw Che Guevara in there, too — and they were all very handsome. They had important things to say, they were important politically and socially – but they also look like matinee idols. The fact that they look that way is part of their appeal, yet it can never really be spoken of. That’s too shallow, not very deep. But the fact that they all looked like stage actors, that they all have iconic good looks, that’s a part of their mystique. And then I started thinking about the negative — the other side, the Hitlers, the Mussolinis. They also have an appeal, but from a different direction. I thought to myself: ‘There’s something that’s unifying in the two things — something beyond good or evil.’ I just proceeded from that point, with this Nietzschean idea. I wasn’t writing about duality, in the sense of good versus evil. I was writing in the sense of good shakes hands with evil, shakes hands with good. That’s the thing from the first line: ‘Look in my eyes, what do you see?’ What do you make of it, you know?”

Living Colour quickly became the faces of a new brand of inclusion, and they leveraged their groundbreaking status through work with the Black Rock Coalition. In many ways, that’s become the most important part of their legacy, despite the platinum-selling successes of Vivid. Vernon Reid says he looks out, and he sees that impact every day.

“I think the needle has moved, but not nearly as much as it needs to,” Reid tells us.” When I think of the tapestry and the culture that we helped to create, I’m proud. Rage Against the Machine happened after us, TV on the Radio. That would have been unimaginable 25 years ago. They make hugely different music, but I’m proud that in some way — maybe in an infinitesimal way — we were part of the way certain things unfolded. Similarly, we wouldn’t exist without the Bad Brains. We wouldn’t exist without a lot of other bands that are completely forgotten. This is just the way it is. Now, there’s a sense of community that’s extended, say, into afropunk. They are doing what they do in a very different way, but it’s great to see the way it’s expanded.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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