One of Living Colour’s hits illustrates an era in transition

One of Living Colour’s hits illustrates an era in transition

The album may or may not be obsolete, but the fact remains: Listeners have long obsessed over individual songs. The Single File is The A.V. Club’s look at the deep cuts, detours, experiments, and anthems that make us reach for replay.

As a geeky kid in the late ’80s, I read a lot of music magazines. Around 1988, I’d begun to notice a term popping up often: alternative metal. After seeing it mentioned multiple times in various contexts, I finally asked myself, “Alternative metal? What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” It soon became clear—thanks to a neon-Spandexed group from New York called Living Colour.

Living Colour’s 1988 debut, Vivid, hit like a nuke, eventually going double platinum on the back of the hit “Cult Of Personality.” Metalheads loved Living Colour’s formidable chops and dreadlocked headbanging. Punks loved the band’s obvious homage to Bad Brains, fellow CBGB denizens who had drifted from hardcore toward their own kind of alternative metal by the late ’80s. After a decade-long blur of wall-to-wall white guys in hard rock (Guns N’ Roses’ Slash being a rare exception), America was more than ready for a metal band of color. The fact that Living Colour could shred circles around most glam outfits—all while writing catchy songs—only cemented Vivid as a revelation. 

But the band’s skin color wasn’t the reason its music formed the core of alternative metal. Living Colour never met a subgenre of popular music it couldn’t assimilate. Metal, rock, pop, funk, rap, jazz: They all made their way into Vivid, alongside a cover of Talking Heads’ “Memories Can’t Wait” that outshines the original by a factor of five. Vivid isn’t perfect; “Cult Of Personality” sounded deep at the time, but its blunt pedantry and preachy tone haven’t stood the test of time. But this pivotal release in the history of metal showed that the genre was a blank slate rather than a cliché.

The term alternative rock—or more broadly, alternative music—had been in use for years by that point, primarily as a way to sell so-called college rock from groups like R.E.M. and Violent Femmes to people who weren’t actually in college. It meant, basically, offbeat music made by nerdy people. As mainstream music became more sanitized and compartmentalized throughout the ’80s, people ached for something that scrawled outside the lines. Living Colour was part of a wave of unique bands—including Jane’s Addiction, Faith No More, and dour Seattle groups like Soundgarden and Alice In Chains soon to have another label attached to them—that turned late-’80s metal into something quirky.

In 1989, Warrant and Skid Row released their respective debut albums, effectively sealing the doom of ’80s hair metal. Underground metal was exploding—it was a particularly fertile time for death metal, grindcore, and crossover thrash—but those more challenging sounds had yet to make a wider mark. The “alternative” in alternative metal actually began to make sense—especially when, in 1990, Living Colour released its second album, Time’s Up, with the single “Type.”

By 1990, Living Colour’s alt-metal brethren were gearing up to go mega. Jane’s Addiction was shedding much of its mystique in favor of funky pop hooks. Faith No More had drafted the magnetic Mike Patton as its new frontman. Soundgarden and Alice In Chains were months away from following Nirvana into the grunge revolution. What did Living Colour do? Get harder.

“Type” does not begin with the charismatic riffage of “Cult Of Personality.” It’s thrashing, chunky, aggressive, and sliced with the kind of dissonant harmonics that would soon come to define bands like Fugazi and Helmet. Virtuoso guitarist Vernon Reid leaves just enough air around his fretboard for singer Corey Glover to vent his pessimism in a tangle of big words that sent Slaughter scrambling for the nearest encyclopedia: “Stereotype / Monotype / Blood type / Are you my type? / Minimalism / Abstract expressionism / Postmodernism / Is it?”

Just when it seems that Reid’s choppy guitar abrasion and Glover’s logorrhea are about to fly off the rails, they let the melody burst through. “We are the children of concrete and steel / This is the place where the truth is concealed,” Glover sings with a hint of dystopian angst, every inch a match for Reid’s gracefully descending chords. But the song’s refrain—the mantra-like “Everything that goes around / Comes around”—is most powerful, delivered with a sinister sweetness before diving back into the mosh-pit verse.

Reid goes on to sneer about “science and technology / The new mythology,” and it’s a cryptic condemnation compared to the overbearing message of “Cult Of Personality.” Washing its hands of populist rants, Living Colour is digging deeper and expressing itself more subtly—even when letting “Type” spiral upward in a sing-along coda that almost seems to mock its own catchiness.

Underneath it all, though, “Type” is the sound of Living Colour violently rejecting the alt-metal box it had been instantly placed in. From the start, everything about Living Colour was boundary-breaking—and yet the group was given more boundaries right out of the gate. As funk-metal like that of Faith No More solidified into a subgenre with set rules and sounds, the last thing Living Colour wanted was to be called funk-metal. Yet funk-metal grew closer to being a synonym for alt-metal—and when grunge broke away on its own, it left Living Colour as the unwilling embodiment of a stereotype, the very thing “Type” so scathingly blasted.

Living Colour chewed off its own legs in an attempt to escape the alt-metal trap. In 1993, the group released Stain, the follow-up to Time’s Up. The kaleidoscope was gone: The musical landscape had changed radically between ’90 and ’93, and Stain suffered from being too painfully aware of its own surroundings. It’s hard to listen to the album’s grim, militant, pseudo-industrial tones without hearing the sound as a reaction to the bands Living Colour considered its fresh competition: Rage Against The Machine, Helmet, and even Nine Inch Nails. Considering Stain tracks like “Go Away,” “Leave It Alone,” and “Mind Your Own Business,” it’s pretty clear how prickly Living Colour had become. Stain is actually an incredible album, but it was a commercial disappointment, and it cast a retroactive shadow on the group’s earlier output. As a testament to its uncompromising bitterness, Stain’s not even in print anymore.

Standoffishness aside, Living Colour has survived. The band reunited in the ’00s, going on to release two more albums that few people have cared enough to listen to. History has been written by the winners, and alternative metal—a movement that seemed like the future of heavy music—has fallen into the cracks between hair metal’s demise and grunge’s ascendency. And so has Living Colour.

I got to see the band once, in 1991, as part of the lineup of the first Lollapalooza. It was the summer before Nirvana’s Nevermind came out, and alternative rock meant almost anything you wanted it to, including Living Colour—even if the majority of the first meeting of the Alternative Nation took a beverage break while Glover, Reid, and crew raged against a machine that hadn’t even become fully operational. Everything that goes around comes around.