Bad Brains Reissues Revitalize the Catalog of Hardcore’s Greatest Band: Album Review

·4-min read

It’s hard to think of a musical genre more difficult to carry off past one’s youth than hardcore punk, which was built to have a short shelf life in almost every way. And even within that context, many bands who were far inferior to the legendary Bad Brains — who cast a long shadow over the careers of every hardcore band and many hard rock ones, as well as the Beastie Boys — are better known.

Why? For starters, even though the group was one of the first true hardcore bands and arguably the best, they upended that concept from the jump, simply by being four Black dudes from Washington D.C. who tempered their blazing hardcore with authentic reggae songs (played remarkably well for American musicians). Yet their 1-2-minute-long blasts of fury like “Attitude” “Banned in D.C.,” “Big Take Over,” “We Will Not” and “How Low Can a Punk Get?” define the sound as well as anything by that other Mount Olympus of hardcore, Minor Threat, who formed after the Bad Brains and were influenced by them.

Like many genres’ formative bands, the Bad Brains’ music transcended that genre, and except for certain songs, their albums never quite captured how explosive and skilled they were: Their early songs were lightning-fast but complex and hard to play, with multiple tempo changes and tricky start-stop rhythms. And singer H.R. (aka Joseph Hudson) was as unpredictable as the music, an unhinged frontman who might do a backflip onstage or dive into the crowd at any second; the Bad Brains were one of the most powerful live bands I’ve ever seen.

Yet they had a self-destructive streak, often coming from H.R. — primarily the fact that whenever they were on the verge of success, he’d leave, sometimes taking his brother, powerhouse drummer Earl Hudson, with him. It happened after they’d caught the eye of the Cars’ frontman Ric Ocasek, who produced their second album, “Rock for Light,” in 1983; it happened again in 1987 after they’d reformed and released the more metallic “I Against I”; again in the early ‘90s after they’d released the comeback “Quickness” album; and again in 1995 after they’d signed with Epic Records and were specifically enlisted by the Beastie Boys to open a tour for them. On the first date, H.R. refused to get off the bus and then attacked the band’s longtime manager. (They later signed with Madonna’s Maverick label; that didn’t work out either.)

This, er, unpredictability has also meant that the group’s catalog has always been something of a mess. Their vastly influential self-titled first album was for years only available on cassette, and the others were released on indie labels that either faced business challenges or simply got frustrated with trying to promote a band that was constantly on the verge of breaking up. Consequently, their music is nowhere near as well-known as that of the hundreds of groups they’ve influenced.

All of which is a long lead-in to saying that, nearly 40 years after the release of that initially cassette-only album, the group has finally obtained the rights to their classic recordings (except for “I Against I,” which is apparently still caught in the wreckage of the once-mighty SST Records) and have begun reissuing remastered versions of them — and thus far, they sound better than ever. The band’s first two albums — the eponymous cassette and the Ocasek-produced “Rock for Light” — were the ones most in need of a sonic overhaul and they have benefited from it mightily: The hardcore songs are still dense and dirty but bear a punch the previous recordings lacked, and come much closer to the explosive energy the band had at its live peak. There’s a lot of overlap on the two albums (several songs from the first were re-recorded for the second), but you can’t go wrong with either. The campaign will carry on in the coming months with “Quickness” and two live albums — one of them from very early in the group’s career, and the other capturing them at a live peak in early 1987, just before the second split.

Listening to the Bad Brains in 2021 can feel like listening to Chuck Berry — you appreciate and understand the greatness, but it’s been so absorbed into the vernacular of rock music for so long that the initial shock and impact has been blunted. But if you aren’t already among the faithful, get ready for a blaze of four-decade-old glory.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting