Legacy in colour

In the early '80s, among the sounds of punk, new wave and disco, Living Colour stood out.

Back then, nobody was doing what Living Colour were doing. A fusion of funk and metal, with some free jazz influences, their main characteristic was stylistic freedom.

Guitarist Vernon Reid formed the band in New York in 1983. At that time, Reid was already known in the downtown New York jazz scene for his time in avant garde jazz musician Ronald Shannon Jackson's band the Decoding Society. He had also helped found the Black Rock Coalition with a few other politically progressive African-American musicians. This was the environment out of which Living Colour grew, fusing jazz with punk rock, and honing their act at New York's notorious punk club CBGB.

It was an amazing time and place for music, says vocalist and guitarist Corey Glover.

''CBs was an amazing place, because at any given time you could see acts that you knew were going to become the biggest thing in the world, and acts that would never leave the confines of CBGB. And there was all kinds of music and all kinds of people.

''You'd meet every walk of life at CBGB and it was a beautiful, beautiful place. Plus, New York at that particular point in time had a musical voice that was very, very dynamic, and you could hear all kinds of things in all kinds of ways. And that's part of what made Living Colour what it is. We took those elements of all the stuff that we had heard from different places, and the musical diversity of New York City in and of itself reflects what Living Colour is.''


In early Living Colour recordings you can hear experiments with guitar-synths, instrumental funk jams and spiky political punk diatribes. But while the band became known for political content, Glover says it was all about the music.

''The styles of music only were there to reflect what was being said in the songs,'' he says. ''I think that whatever it was we were feeling at that particular point in time, what we were going through, whatever those things were I think reflected what was happening in songs that we did.''

By 1986, the band had a stable lineup of Reid, Glover, bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun, and their debut album, Vivid, was released in 1988. They gained an early fan in Mick Jagger, who helped them get a record deal and was instrumental in their joining the lineup for the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour in 1989-90.

It was huge exposure for a band with such an extreme sound. They were soon on high rotation on MTV, and their debut single, Cult of Personality, won the Grammy for best hard rock performance in 1990.

They released their second album, Time's Up, in 1990. The band were clearly still into metal and heavy rock, but that album also infused elements of hip-hop, electronica, Delta blues and thrash metal. It remains an intense and amazing listen.

The band's success paved the way for crossover acts such as Rage Against the Machine, and the similarity, Glover says, is: ''I think they had that same idea that music is music is music, and how you put it together is as important as what you're saying. And I think that they had the ability to say it and have the backing of really good music, for that was sort of the basis of their success.''

Living Colour have been together for 30 years, and in that time nothing much has changed, Glover says. The Man still runs things, racism still exists, big business is still god, gentrification still occurs.

''We weren't really railing as opposed to just making an observation of it. And I don't think any of it's changed, really. I think that the way it's delivered might change slightly, but for the most part, pretty much is all the same. I'd like to think that things would change, but change is a very slow process.''

The band's passion definitely hasn't faded, Glover says. ''I don't think we've mellowed; I think we still feel exactly the same way that we did 20 years ago. We'll feel the same way 30 years from now. I think the only thing that's changed is the responsibilities that we have over the years. We've become more responsible, we've become parents, so the worlds have solidified and maybe changed slightly, only in that we would hold hope for better days for our children and for ourselves.''

Day-to-day life remains the same. ''Sleep and music and life and living! And getting your laundry done - I mean, those are the things you've gotta deal with, constantly,'' Glover says with a laugh. ''You know, you put some clean clothes on and you deal with the rest of the day. That's your life! You get up and you observe the world and you try to make sense of it, and when you close your eyes, that's when your mind tries to figure out what it is, all the things that you saw and all the things that you understood, and try to make real understanding of those things.''


With: Green Day, The Living End, Placebo, Living Colour, Jimmy Eat World, Panic! At the Disco, Pennywise and many more.
February 23
Sydney, Olympic Park