The heyday of hair metal might seem, in retrospect, a strange time for a major label like Epic to push an all-black hard rock band merging funk with Rush-type prog -- especially when the band's guitarist was a slumming New York bohemian previously most notable for playing on harmolodic avant-jazz records while moonlighting as a rock critic. We're talking 1988 here: a couple years before comparably pretentious metal from outfits like Jane's Addiction and Faith No More conquered MTV. Then again, six years after "Beat It," four after Purple Rain, and two after Run-D.M.C. ran away with "Walk This Way," perhaps rock of color suddenly seemed to have commercial potential.
Living Colour were hardly the first corporate attempt to sell music by African Americans to an '80s hard rock crowd. You might remember Fishbone or even the Bus Boys, but other names have long been lost to the sands of time: Sound Barrier, Da Krash, Jon Butcher Axis, Mazarati, Xavion, Kagny & the Dirty Rats. Living Colour had a more original sound than most of those, though, and it probably didn't hurt that they also had connections. Vernon Reid didn't only bang guitar for Ronald Shannon Jackson, he was on a first-name basis with Mick Jagger too. Singer Corey Glover had just come off a major acting role, in Oliver Stone's Vietnam flick Platoon. And drummer William Calhoun had put his Berklee degree to use with Harry Belafonte and Jaco Pastorious. The nonprofit Black Rock Coalition, which Reid helped start, actually spawned the band. Hardly your typical metal pedigree, then or now.
Somehow Living Colour actually managed to break the color barrier of album-rock radio, which -- give or take old Hendrix songs (and Thin Lizzy, if Phil Lynott counts) -- had been pretty much impermeable since the pre-Disco Sucks mid-'70s of Stevie Wonder and War. (In my recollection, even "Beat It," "Walk This Way" and Prince had trouble sneaking onto AOR in the '80s -- no matter what revisionist historians tell us.) Vivid, Living Colour's first album, went Top 10 and triple platinum; the rhythmically twisted protest (against something or other) "Cult of Personality" was a No. 13 pop hit, and the poppier, Mick Jagger-produced follow-up single, "Glamour Boys," reached No. 31. The band got more critical acclaim later -- 1990's Time's Up placed fifth in the Village Voice's definitive Pazz & Jop poll, up from No. 23 for Vivid -- but commercially, Living Colour never came close again to the popularity of their debut LP.
Hence, almost a quarter-century later, here's a roundup of music that most likely inspired Living Colour's aesthetic -- some seminal noisy fusion jazz, some black punk, some tough '80s Stones, a 1987 Public Enemy album that Reid guested on (in "Sophisticated Bitch") before Chuck D and Flavor Flav returned the favor (in Vivid's "Funny Vibe"), Talking Heads and Clash albums with songs that Living Colour wound up covering (on Vivid and a later expanded reissue version, respectively). Plus plenty of rock-leaning funk and funk-leaning rock, to help the walls come down.