Screaming electric guitar punctuates the raucous melodies and street-smart lyrics on Vivid, an album that not only marked the auspicious debut of the hard-rocking band Living Colour but was also credited with breaking down racial barriers in pop music. The band proved to be the first black rock group to attract a large mainstream audience since Sly and the Family Stone in the early Seventies, and the album's ascent was accompanied by as much hubbub over the band's ethnic makeup as its compelling style.
"It wasn't like the idea of Vivid or Living Colour was generated by some sort of desire to make it in the white world of rock music," says lead guitarist and group founder Vernon Reid. "There was a lot of talk about it. But it's not odd that black people play rock & roll — what's really odd is that people think it's odd. It's a shame more people didn't focus on the music itself, because that's what we wanted."
The music itself is an intoxicating brew of hard, grinding rock with splashes of funk, jazz, reggae, rap, punk and even country rhythms. Darting from the hip-hop twang of "Broken Hearts" to the philosophical metal assault of "Middle Man," the band refuses to stay stuck in any single groove. Vivid's opening track, "Cult of Personality," is the real kicker, a bursting riff-rock anthem on the harmful effects of idolatry and blind faith that ironically helped catapult Living Colour to the status of pop icon.
The group's seeming overnight success was actually years in the making. Born in England and raised in Brooklyn, Reid earned his musical chops during the early Eighties playing guitar in electric jazz outfits like Defunkt and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society. He formed Living Colour as a trio in 1984, going through various configurations for two years before hooking up with singer Corey Glover, drummer William Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings. Then came the real stroke of luck: Reid was called in to play on Mick Jagger's solo album, Primitive Cool, and the Stone dropped by the New York punk club CBGB to catch Living Colour's show.
Jagger got so worked up over the set that he took a week off from mixing his own album to produce two demos — "Glamour Boys" and "Which Way to America?" — for the fledgling group. After the Jagger tapes made the rounds and snagged Living Colour a record deal, the band called in Primitive Cool coproducer Ed Stasium to oversee the rest of the album. Jagger, whose demos appear in their original form on Vivid, came back later to blow harmonica on "Broken Hearts," while other studio guests included Public Enemy's Chuck D. and Flavor Flav, delivering a social-commentary rap on "Funny Vibe."
Reid points to "Memories" and other tracks on the album as evidence that the songs are meant to portray the personal feelings of band members rather than pursue any specific social agenda. "The fact that we're African Americans has a lot to do with what's on the record and what we see in our lives," Reid says, "but all our problems aren't generated by the fact that we're black."
Social issues provided the basis for several numbers, such as the scathing attack on gentrification, "Open Letter (to a Landlord)." But there are also touching love songs ("I Want to Know"), a Talking Heads cover ("Memories Can't Wait") and an offbeat, funky theme song ("What's Your Favorite Color?"). According to Reid, the Heads cover was one of the band's particular favorites and had been in its live repertoire for some time. "The duality of the interior life someone's leading and their exterior life spoke really powerfully to us," says Reid.
"People say we're obviously a message band," Reid adds. "But we're just trying to chronicle a certain thing that was happening with us. That thing about messages — well, really, the record was about the way we feel."