If rock ever had a message it’s ‘Be Yourself.’ As guitarist of Living Colour Vernon Reid embraces this ideal but with a twist. He’s always wanted to be everything else as well. Along with his fellow band members, Reid’s musical style and taste reject boundaries. Which is why, past the unifying concept that Living Colour are and continue to be one of the most significant Black American rock acts of recent times, tracing the band's influence can provide a difficult task. Rock, funk, metal, hip hop, jazz, blues, Motown, new wave, soul and psychedelia – they’ve touched it all yet their magpie mentality hasn’t always been something which was working to their advantage.
Before this New York outfits’ stratospheric rise to fame in the latter half of the ‘80s, industry gatekeepers were anything but ready to accept them. Black people didn’t rock. Company executives and the powerbrokers of the MTV generation were intent on keeping band’s like Vernon’s out. Or at very least nudging them toward edgeless caricatures of what they thought people of colour should be.
Living Colour saw differently. They had grown up with James Brown, Funkadelic, and The Isley Brothers. They loved The Beatles too, but that wasn’t the point. They didn’t see divisions, music was open to anyone.
So instead of giving up they rocked. With an earthshaking bombast they broke down barriers before them and the world listened. Living Colour spoke to audiences on a massive scale. They crossed over and dominated the charts. In prime form from ’88 to ‘95 the group cut three albums and an EP. Not only did the bone crunching riffing of singles like ‘Cult Of Personality’ sell millions, they set the tone for a decade to come.
There’s a video documentary on YouTube of the group performing on The Rolling Stones’ for their 1989 ‘Steel Wheels’ tour. During an interview one of Living Colour’s members recounts that their time with Mick Jagger and company “came easy and it went just as fast.” Maybe you could say that about the group’s own successes as well. They didn’t last, parting ways in 1995 due to creative differences.
It wasn’t the end of course. Reconvening in 2000 Living Colour have continued to play, tour and record. 30 years on from debut Vivid they’re still keeping the faith that rock can instigate and inspire. That it’s transformative and high impact, vital. That in the right hands it can make a difference.
A walking history lesson and torch bearer rolled into one, Vernon Reid would no doubt agree but in doing so tell you a dozen other things as well. Ask him about Hendrix and he’ll tell you what Jimi meant to him, but not without passing through The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, The Isley Brothers, Parliament-Funkadelic and Miles Davis as well. You see, most of all he’s a fan. A fanatical one at that.
R: I’m interested in the Sixties and I’m interested in psychedelia. One thing I’ve always wanted to ask about Living Colour is this. How did people like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone impact your work as an artist?
Vernon Reid: Well they weren’t an immediate influence on me because I was a child. I was really, in a way, much too young to see those artists live but their records used to come on the radio. And the thing that was so funny – you’ve mentioned the psychedelic era. One of the bands that influenced me certainly was The Beatles. I remember hearing ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, I remember when The Beatles came on The Ed Sullivan Show with people screaming and I remember hearing the songs ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘Help!’. ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was so utterly different than their previous music. It was super weird! The transformation of The Beatles was really kind of extraordinary.
And then all the releases that came after that, like Jimi Hendrix… I mean I thought [psychedelia] was the most incredibly weird! When I first heard ‘Lucy’ this was a time when records could really matter and this was in [The Beatles’] sound, this was in their approach, [their music] could be transformative. There was a way it was different to other music that was fascinating to me. It was totally fascinating to me!
It was just elliptical and so mysterious, “What was Lennon saying?” I didn’t fully understand it, but it was so compelling. I really feel in love with it. That was the compelling thing. It wasn’t singing a song about something very obvious. The meanings were hidden. I mean, “Picture yourself on a boat on a river.” A lot of this music was like abstract painting. If you tried to follow lyrics it was super abstract.
You know what the great thing was about that music for me? You didn’t have to understand it for it to mean something. You didn’t have to get it obviously, but it could still be something you wanted to hear, something very different. Music up to that point was very, very obvious. This is something that Bob Dylan really innovated in popular music, that the meanings could be obscure or lyrics could be no linear and still be meaningful. Up to that points songs were kind of…
R: “I love you, you love me!” Straight and simple…
VR: Yeah! It was “I love you, you love me.” But when things started going into metaphor, that’s when it became something that was not the thing that you thought it was. And the idea that that could still be something that I wanted to hear? That was powerful you know?
Like the [Richard Harris] song ‘MacArthur Park’. Nobody knows what that was about! The song is a joke, I mean people joke about ‘MacArthur Park’ but that song was a massive hit! People used to make fun of it you know what I mean?
Think about it! People like Frank Sinatra, they were totally blindsided. They were blindsided by Elvis, they were blindsided by The Beatles. Because after Frank Sinatra still had songs on the radio, but this whole thing was a youth revolution. These old guys would go on the Johnny Carson show and they would all bemoan and complain, “These kids today, they’re crazy!” Then they would joke about it. [They would referencing something like the ‘MacArthur Park’ lyric,] “Someone left a cake outside in the rain!?” But underneath the joke they were terrified. They were really terrified.
R: We could talk about this for hours and I would really like to, but we only have 10 minutes! Could we fast-forward, at least, to your own work in the 1980s? During the ‘80s Living Colour were trying to start a revolution of their own. You were known to be a band with a mission. When you first debuted a big part of what you were trying to do was reclaim rock music for Black American artists…
VR: Well yeah, the thing about it - the mission – was that we really just wanted to do what we wanted to do. That’s the thing about it. We wanted to be considered on our own terms like other bands. Like the idea that you didn’t have a chance to do you wanted to do! Like you were going to be stopped at the gate before you even got into the game. That was a thing that we were railing against. And so many of the people, the people that really made it possible for us to even exist –The Isely Brothers, War, all of those bands you’ve mentioned like Sly and The Family Stone, George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, George Clinton, jazz artists I loved like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman - they were all part of the revolution. They were all themselves.
Music belongs to everyone! The notion that, “This is our music know and you’re locked out of it!” That’s crazy! That’s completely crazy!
And then the other part of it is the idea that, “Oh, if you’re [playing rock music], you’re trying to be white!” That’s crazy talk! That’s completely crazy to me. I don’t acknowledge that. I don’t acknowledge Number One that “You can’t play this music because you’re black.” Or number two, “You shouldn’t want to play this music because you’re black.” Those things? I don’t get that, I don’t think of it as something separate from black culture. In other words, James Brown is not something I’m trying to get away from! That’s what I’m talking about!