You remember “Cult of Personality,” of course, especially if you had MTV in 1989. The 10-second preamble from Malcom X. Vernon Reid'a million-candlepower vamp, searing instantly onto your brain. Frontman Corey Glover’s whirling dreadlocks. His burly soul-sanger wail, lithe but authoritative, though he was not yet twenty-five. His unfortunate yellow bike shorts. (Look, it was the 80s. Axl was wearing them, too.)
"Cult of Personality" went to No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Garmmy for Best Hard Rock Performance. But its real achievement was to embed a message of political skepticism in a mainstream hit for the first time in a long while. (Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" became an even bigger smash that same year.) It also delivered some swift kicks to the racial segregation that had retrenched itself in 80s pop. It's hard to remember now how revolutionary it felt then to see four black men playing heavy-footed, Zepplinesque hard rock.
"Personality" was arguably not even the best song on Vivid, Living Colour's knockout 1988 debut. 1990's Time's Up was equally robust, broadening their genre-bending range without sacrificing songcraft. But 1993's abrasive Stain was less popular, and the group eventually dissolved for the latter half of the 90s.
Since their Y2K reunion, there have been compilations and live albums and reissues but only one disc of new material, 2003’s close-but-not-quite Collideascope. That’ll change on Sept. 15, when the pioneering punk-funk-metal quartet drops its fifth full-length, The Chair in the Doorway.
They’ll kick off five weeks of U.S. dates supporting the new album Tuesday night at the Birchmere. But if you happen to hollar for vintage cuts like “Glamour Boys” or “Elvis Is Dead” while they’re working their way through the new songs, Glover, 44, won’t hold it against you.
“Having a hit song or a hit record is not promised to you,” he says, reached en route to a tour rehearsal from his Manhattan home. “I’m grateful for anything that we get. There are lots of bands out here who don't get a shot, let alone several shots, at making it work."
Living Colour weren't the first or only African American hard rock band -- Bad Brains and Fishbone, among others, were around -- but they were the first to break big. It would be another couple of years before Lenny Kravitz hit on the same level, and while he offered competent pastiches of vintage rock and soul, he never managed the graceful fusion of styles that seemed to come effortlessly to Living Colour.
It's been a long time since the band showed that kind of ease on record. But Glover is confident that Doorway captures the essence that eluded its predecessor. For one thing, his band has been playing steadily, albeit mostly outside of the U.S., in the six years since Collideascope. (Glover also spent two years playing Judas in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar.) But they also gave themselves more time to get this album right. He credits bassist Doug Wimbish for serving as the group's archivist, compiling material worked up at soundchecks and rehearsals over the last several years for eventual shaping. "Our songwriting has gotten a lot better," Glover says.
Even so, he's at peace knowing it's largely the oldies that bring the crowds.
"Once you put a song on a record, once you open your mouth to sing it, it no longer belongs to you," he muses. "It belongs to the [listener's] internal history. You remember the song that was playing the first time you had sex. So when you hear it live, you're transported to that place. You're not thinking, 'Wow, what a great band!'"
This story appears in slightly altered form in today's Examiner.
UPDATE 9/2/09. The Birchmere tour opener was a hoot. The band is still getting back in sync, as Sarah Godfrey pointed out in her sartorially focused Post Rock review, but they're well worth seeing even at 80 percent, and Glover's pipes seem to have aged about five minutes since 1988. Here's what they played, with the new songs from the imminent The Chair in the Doorway asterix-ized.
01 Middle Man 02 Memories Can't Wait (Talking Heads) 03 Type 04 Leave It Alone 05 Burned Bridges* 06 The Chair* 07 DecaDance* 08 Glamour Boys 09 Young Man* 10 Hard Times* 11 Behind the Sun* 12 Either Way (Will Calhoun drum solo over encore break) 13 Love Rears Its Ugly Head 14 Out of My Mind* 15 Time's Up w/ Time Is on My Side and Once in a Lifetime 16 Cult of Personality
17 Elvis Is Dead 18 Should I Stay Or Should I Go? (The Clash)