Only You Can Set You Free
Whereas Run D.M.C.’s Raising Hell was my first album and my first music purchase, Living Colour’s Vivid was my first rock album. Released in May 1988, I was just about to turn 12 years old and was finishing my 6th grade year. I started skateboarding that year, reading Thrasher magazine, and generally expanding my horizon through many new experiences.
One of my biggest memories from the 6th grade year was skating with my friend Chris in the church parking lot near my house, boom box on the curb, and blasting Vivid and Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction as we learned how to skate.
Looking back, Living Colour was the gateway that eventually got me interested in punk and hardcore music. In fact, I’ve come to realize it’s the keystone of my interests — hip-hop, punk, hardcore, pop music, and progressive politics.
The album has become so important to me, I was overjoyed when I came across a vinyl copy at my favorite local record store, Revolver Records, a couple years back. It’s a treasured part of my collection.
With that, I think it’s time to dive in and look back at each track. Here are some highlights from my focused listens over the last few weeks:
Cult of Personality
The Living Colour song everyone alive during that era knows… the iconic music video, the driving main riff, and my oh my the lyrics. It was certainly the first political song I liked and it hit at a perfect time. My daughters are currently 12 and 13 and this is exactly the time you start learning about injustice and what the world is really like in school. My parents weren’t as outwardly political as my wife and I are, but the social studies curriculum certainly starts to open eyes at this age.
You gave me fortune, you gave me fame You gave me power in your god’s name I’m every person you need to be Oh, I’m the cult of personality
Couldn’t be any more appropriate 30+ years later.
I Want to Know
A love song with a heavy pop influence. I definitely enjoyed this song in the 80s, but not so much now. Other than nostalgia, of course.
An ode to being OK with who you are and not chasing other people’s expectations. I can certainly appreciate this song now as an adult, but at the time I wasn’t quite sure of the message.
‘Middle Man’ came from a suicide note Corey wrote when he was a teenager. “I was maybe 16, 17 years old, and I was just fed up with everything,” he said. “I was feeling just down and depressed. When I initially started writing it, it was going to be an open letter to anybody that found me, that I was tired of being caught up in everybody’s mess. I was tired of being in the middle of things. I’m tired of being the middle man. And then in the midst of me working this out in my head, it dawned on me that this was not a bad place to be in some cases, that at least I was somewhere. It doesn’t mean that it’s the best place in the world, but it doesn’t mean it’s the worst, either. So it actually got me out of the idea that I needed to stop being. It changed my life.”
– from Genius.com
Another favorite of mine. The main riff is so good. Glover’s lyrics focus on, what I assume is, the drug culture of the 80s and the lengths people went to in order to fit in. Between “Just Say No” of the Reagan era and my own personal beliefs to not drink or do drugs at the time (that lasted well into my college years), I could certainly relate to this song growing up.
You get your sunshine from a tab of paper Then you’re sittin’ in a spinning room The clock is tocking, it’s laughing at you Your life’s a mystery without a clue The crowd you’re in thinks you’re so amusin’ They’re oh so flattering and so sincere They stand and laugh as they watch you crumble And when you cry for help they don’t hear
Open Letter (to a Landlord)
This song is on the slower side, but it’s well written and I love the political lyrics. Glover addresses gentrification, capitalism, violence, and drugs in a very personal manner. Certainly my first exposure to these subjects as a white, suburban middle class 12-year old in 1988.
More political, funk/hip-hop-inspired thrash featuring Chuck D and Flavor Flav from one of my other faves: Public Enemy.
Memories Can’t Wait (Talking Heads cover)
I had no idea this was the Talking Heads song until a few years ago! It’s certainly a Living Colour-influenced take on this classic. The Talking Heads version is very post-apocalyptic and dark, so I can see why they (as a metal band) would be drawn to this song. Their version is very good and one of my favorite tracks on the album.
A slow, plodding love song that fit the era, but seems out of place in the grand scheme of the album.
I certainly remember this video and enjoying this song in 1988. The riff in the chorus is pretty solid, but in the end it’s a song that fits the 80’s well. Beyond the nostalgia it’s hard to sync songs like Broken Hearts and Glamour Boys with the band I remember and the influence it had on me as a 12 year old.
What’s Your Favorite Color? (Theme Song)
Which Way to America?
An overtly political song on inequality and racism. Another one of my favorites from the album and one of the songs, like Cult, that epitomizes the funk-influenced metal that is Living Colour. It’s also the most metal song on the record.
I look at the T.V Your America’s doing well I look out the window My America’s catching hell – I just wanna know Which way do I go To get to your America?
Bonus: Should I Stay or Should I Go? (The Clash cover – CD bonus track)
I certainly wished I heard this version in 1988, if only to get me on to The Clash earlier. I did get into Big Audio Dynamite a few years later, mainly due to their song Rush, so the dots were already connecting in many ways.
Living Colour is Corey Glover on vocals, Vernon Reid on guitar, Muzz Skillings on bass, and Will Calhoun on drums. Vivid reached #6 on the Billboard 200 and “Cult of Personality” won a Grammy for best hard rock performance.
- Buy Living Colour’s Vivid on Amazon
- Buy Vivid on Discogs
- Even better, hit up your local record store!
Continuing on with my recent newsletter theme, I put together a playlist of my favorite songs from 1986 to 1988.
- Welcome to the Jungle – Guns N’ Roses
- Bone Machine – Pixies
- Jane Says – Jane’s Addiction
- Desire – U2
- Everyday Is Like Sunday – Morrissey
- You Are (The Government) – Bad Religion
- Teen Age Riot – Sonic Youth
- Orange Crush – R.E.M.
- Waiting Room – Fugazi
- Cult of Personality – Living Colour
- Children’s Story- Slick Rick
- Clean Sheets – Descendents
- Need You Tonight – INXS
- Never Let Me Down Again – Depeche Mode
- Pour Some Sugar On Me – Def Leppard
- Paul Revere – Beastie Boys
- It’s Tricky – Run-DMC
- You Give Love a Bad Name – Bon Jovi
- Bigmouth Strikes Again – The Smiths
- In a Jar – Dinosaur Jr.
- Happy When It Rains – The Jesus and Mary Chain
- Alex Chilton – The Replacements
- Faith – George Michael
- Rebel Without a Pause – Public Enemy
- Ain’t No Half-Steppin’ – Big Daddy Kane
- Just Like Heaven – The Cure
- Bizarre Love Triangle – New Order
- Sledgehammer – Peter Gabriel
- Paid in Full – Eric B. & Rakim
- I Against I – Bad Brains
- You Gots To Chill – EPMD
- The Bridge Is Over – Boogie Down Productions
- Straight Outta Compton – N.W.A.
- One – Metallica
Here are a few recent albums I’ve been listening to:
- evermore by Taylor Swift (Listen) – another one?!
- One More Day by Clearbody (Listen) – grunge influenced shoegaze
- Closer Still by Change (Listen) – year’s best hardcore record
- Inlet by Hum (Listen) – what a reunion. So good.
Musical Moving Pictures
Every Time I Die – Buffalo, NY (Go Bills)
- Julien Baker offered up the stems for her first single “Faith Healer” off her upcoming album Little Oblivions, to allow for remixes and reinterpretations. Pretty cool!
- How Music Persisted During the Pandemic – Pitchfork – I touched on this briefly in my write up on Phoebe Bridgers last month. Music and musicians certainly continued to make a big impact in 2020, even if it couldn’t be “live” in the traditional sense. I suspect it will be a big change that lasts well beyond the pandemic — a whole new way to reach fans.
- What Awaits Us: A Beyond Story – a documentary on the classic hardcore band Beyond. Queueing this up soon.
- The Mask of Doom – RIP MF Doom.
That wraps up the third issue! Feel free to send me feedback, questions, ideas — anything. I’d also love if you shared this newsletter with anyone you think would enjoy and encourage them to subscribe.
See you next time.