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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bad for Your Brains: The Roots of Bad Brains

Welcome to 45 Feet Under! With today's release of the new Bad Brains album Into the Future, coming 30 years after their debut full length, I thought it would be an appropriate time to take a look back at their tangled roots.

By the time I was 16 years old I immersed myself in the oddly complementing worlds of punk, hardcore, ska and reggae. This was right before the Mighty Mighty Bosstones- our local heroes who threw all those styles into a blender- made it big. Discovering the Bad Brains at that age made them the absolute musical holy grail to me. On a whim I bought their self-titled debut on ROIR, popped it in my Walkman, and froze for the next 35 minutes as I was aurally assaulted with the lighting fast, complex shit-storm of power chords and ferocious vocals, mixed with deep, hypnotic reggae rhythms. The way they mastered playing both polar-opposite styles made it all the more incredible.

My knowledge of reggae at that point was pretty limited to the Wailers, Steel Pulse, Toots & the Maytals, and the Clash, so hearing the Brains' stripped down dubby style (especially when I picked up Rock for Light) opened up my ears to a new world of music (cue Ini Kamoze). The following years I got deeper and deeper into the vast catacombs of roots, dub, and early dancehall, and it was exciting to learn where the 'Brains reggae side originally came from. While the majority of their reggae tunes are original riddims (the rare time I'll use JA patois since it's different from a "rhythm"), some are rooted elsewhere...

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"Leaving Babylon" from Bad Brains (ROIR 1982)

The riddim is "Pick Up the Pieces", written by Roy Cousins in 1967, first recorded at Studio One under the name The Tempests, but then recut in 1971 as The Royals. It has since become a standard, and for good reason. Check out this riddim mix for just a few examples, though it's missing two of my favorite versions, Tappa Zukie's "Pick Up the Rockers", and Junior Byles "Can You Feel It?".

Side note: Johnny Osbourne, Brent Dowe, and Hopeton Lewis all have an unrelated song called "Leaving Babylon". 

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"Jah the Conqueror"

The first released version of this was an incomplete live cut added as an unlisted bonus track on the S/T CD reissue on ROIR. It's a cover of Linval Thompson's "Jah Jah the Conqueror", found on Cool Down (Clocktower, 1976) and Don't Cut Off Your Dreadlocks (Third World, 1976), among other reissues.

In 2006, the official live document Live at CBGB's 1982 (MVD Records) was released, showcasing the band at their hardcore punk peak. A handful of unreleased reggae tracks, like this one and the next two below, were included (confusingly, the DVD, CD, and LP song selection and track order all differ from each other).

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"All Rise to Meet Jah"

This one is loosely based on Lone Ranger's classic "M16". Brains bassie Daryl Jennifer would occasionally take over the mic and toast inna early dancehall style- shame that he didn't actually do that on their studio records (though in '93 he actually did toast on a Mighty Mighty Bosstones tune, "Issachar"). As far as I know, normally when they did this Dr Know would take over on bass and HR would play guitar, though if you watch this video when Daryl steals the mic, there looks to be an unknown rasta taking over on bass- if anyone that has info on that, feel free to comment.

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"King of Glory"

While this is arguably an original riddim, it was probably inspired by Horace Andy's recut of "Money Money" with Bullwackies, released in 1982, a year before the 'Brains version here.

*1/10/13 UPDATE: "King of Glory" is actually a cover of "Jah Rastafari" by David Jahson, thanks to commenter el maestro for the info!

•   •   •   

"Youth Are Getting Restless" from Youth Are Getting Restless: Live at the Paradiso Amsterdam 1987 (Caroline Records, 1990)

The riddim, at least the bass line, is rooted in Shinehead's massive 1984 cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean", and that riddim itself is based off of the 1968 Studio One rocksteady tune "Get a Lick" by Bumps Oakly. The 'Brains version does change the second chord in the progression from major to minor. Like countless other Studio One riddims, this one had a big resurgence in the first wave of dancehall (stemming from Shinehead's hit); check this King Jammy mix for more (starting with Echo Minott doing the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams"), as well as King Tubby's "Badness Dub".

On YAGR, the Bad Brains also do a cover of Dennis Brown's "Revolution" as well as a mash-up of the Beatles' "Day Tripper" and the Rolling Stones' "She's a Rainbow" (watch this video!).

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I'll give a shout out to Malcolm from Trash American Style, a record store in Danbury CT, now sadly gone, though they carry on with their mobile mart and online (a bit of their story is featured in the great doc, I Need That Record!). Malcolm used to travel to the University of Hartford when I was a student there fully stocked with a pile of great underground records for sale. The first time I visited him he had a small but crucial collection of Bad Brains bootlegs on cassette tape that I quickly snatched up. Anyways, here's a rare one from a 1982 bootleg:

"Strangest Diseases"

Originally the riddim comes from "Mad Mad" by Alton Ellis, done at Studio One in 1968. It was Henry "Junjo" Lawes who brought the riddim back with the Roots Radics in 1982 with Michigan & Smiley's "Diseases". Obviously this is the version that inspired the 'Brains here. The following year, 1983, Yellowman would take the riddim to new heights with his all-time classic "Zungguzungguguzungguzeng".

The Roots Radics might have been the biggest influence on the 'Brains rhythm section (when in reggae mode). The Radics were in their prime in the early '80s when they were working with Junjo and Scientist at the controls, perfecting their stripped down, raw grooves on wax. Countless examples are found on the Greensleeves 12"s that were released at that time, from the likes of Johnny Osbourne, Hugh Mundell, Michael Prophet, and Barrington Levy (who the 'Brains actually sampled on the dub version of "How Low Can a Punk Get?" from I & I Survived (Reggae Lounge, 2002).

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"Natty Dreads 'Pon the Mountain Top" (from Build a Nation, Megaforce 2007)

Jumping ahead to the later years when HR is.... well seasoned. This is on the crucial classic "Java" riddim by Augustus Pablo, his first big hit, produced by Clive Chin in 1972. Way too many versions to mention- check out this riddim mix, or this one.

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Some more curious finds and rarities for the hardcore 'Brains fan...

The Damned were a big early inspiration to the 'Brains, hear them cover "Stab Your Back" found on Dr. Know's Mix Tape 1981 bootleg. They also covered the Damned's "Melody Lee" in 1991 when they were touring with Chuck Mosley from Faith No More on vocals, found on a bootleg split 7" with Danzig (warning: shit recording quality).

A tune from one of their first recording sessions in 1979, "Redbone in the City" found on Black Dots (Caroline Records, 1996) is based off the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", another early inspiration. They were also known to do Black Sabbath's "Paranoid" in the very early days.

"Recognize" is on this bootleg 7" (though I found it on a bootleg cassette called Keep The Change), containing the ridiculously awesome lines "Try Jah love / it's a real true love / melts in your heart / not in your hand".

Speaking of Jah Love, the 'Brains loved it so much that they have not one, but three different tunes with that title: "Jah Love" from I & I Survived (Dub), "Jah Love" from Build a Nation which has a similar riddim but is mostly a different song, and another rhythmically related but mainly new version on the latest album Into the Future.

"Jam", the last track on the flawed CD version of Rock for Light**, is a dub version of their tune "I & I Rasta" found on Live at CBGBs and many bootlegs, sometimes titled "Jah Children" (like on the KFJC bootleg).

**When Rock For Light was issued on CD by Caroline Records in 1991, they messed up the tape speed from the master and everything is sped up and the pitch is wrong. Most of the mixes- especially the reggae tracks- are quite different from the original vinyl, there's a handful of bonus tracks and a completely different track order. I highly recommend listening to the original 1983 vinyl release on PVC Records to hear the proper recording.

"Big Fun" was first released on God of Love (Maverick Records, 1995), but early/alternate (and in my opinion, superior) versions can be found on bootlegs dating back to 1983.

Two demos of unreleased songs were included on a bonus 7" of the 2010 vinyl remaster of God of Love, "Let's Make Love" and "It's Agreeable". Both tunes are pretty out there, even for later day 'Brains... I can see why they left them off the album (these are just "demos"), but I've always appreciated their willingness to experiment. "Let's Make Love" is a nearly 8-minute, slow and brooding excursion (full title could be "Let's Make Love... on Quaaludes", while "It's Agreeable" is about as close to late '80s/early '90s-era Prince as they could get.


Ultra smooth reggae track "Married Again" is only found on the 7" box set version of Build a Nation.

There was a single-sided Flexi-disc included in the October 1993 issue of Alternative Press magazine that featured their current single "Rise" and an unreleased live version of "Re-Ignition", notable for having Rise-era singer Isreal Joseph I on vocals instead of HR.

Another unreleased version of "Re-Ignition", supposedly recorded live in New York City 7/85, can be found on the bootleg 7" titled Soul Music for Soul People. Pre-dating the release of I Against I by over a year, this version is extra slow and has some alternate lyrics- but there is also a vocal overdub of HR going crazy and the guitar solo is overdubbed, which makes me assume it was actually a studio demo. The flip side (called side Alf, complete with a stamp of the '80s sitcom puppet alien Alf) featured "How Low Can a Punk Get?" and "You" recorded live in California 1982- both of these tracks originally appeared on the Rat Music For Rat People comp from '82, the apparent inspiration for the bootleg's title.

Fans of HR's great solo record Charge (SST, 1990), check out the Bad Brains playing "Dancing Souls" live in 1989.

"Black Slavery Dayz Mosh" from Darryl Jenifer's solo album In Search of Black Judas (ROIR, 2010), mashes up the 'Brains "I & I Survive" and the killer '75 roots tune "Black Slavery Days" by the Skulls. The Skulls was a moniker for Winston "Black Skull" Thomas, who was also member of the Wingless Angels.  Rumor is that Darryl actually worked with him on some tunes (as producer?), like this recut from 1982.

Darryl Jenifer had a side project in the late '80s called Stealth, not sure if they ever officially released anything, but way back in my Napster days, I found a handful of tracks that are currently MIA... I'll update if I can find anything.

In addition to that, Darryl started a side project with Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys called Brooklyn. Check out "Flying High" and "I Don't Need You".

Dr. Know contributed to several other projects, one of my favorite tunes with him is from Black Jack Johnson, a super-group featuring Doc, Mos Def, Doug Wimbish, Will Calhoun, and Bernie Worrell. Check out the epic "Ghetto".

•   •   •   

On a final note, anyone that knows the whole bittersweet history of the Bad Brains know it's not always easy being a diehard fan in 2012, as accurately revealed in this recent article. Still, it's been fun sharing tracks that I've collected through the years, subscribe to the 45FU Youtube channel to be the first to know about more rare uploads (definitely more 'Brains stuff to come).


  1. "king of glory" is actually david jahson's "jah rastafari"
    do you have the entire dr know's mix tape?

    1. Nice! Thank you el maestro for pointing that out. I've only had his "Natty Chase The Barber".

      I do have the entire Dr. Know Mix Tape (or at least think I do, ripped from a cassette bootleg). Do you have a copy of David Jahson's "Jah Rastafari" to trade for it? If so email me at john @ destroybabylon.com

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  4. Do you know anything about the Japanese single for "It's on Like Popcorn" b/w "Jah Love" released sometime after God Of Love? I remember hearing audio posted online at the time but then the band fell apart and the songs were pulled. Ive been looking for them ever since to no avail. They definitely are not the versions on Into the Future.

    1. I remember when "On Like Popcorn" came out (2001 ish?), but don't recall an actual single. I thought it was a web-only free download, that's how i got it, but I don't know. From what I remember, it was the same recording as what ended up on Into the Future (possibly a different mix but recall it being very similar). I'll have to dig out an old CD-r with that on it to compare, otherwise I don't know anything about an import 45 (if it's not on discogs by now, it probably doesn't exist).

    2. Regarding On Like Popcorn, I seem to remember it was a Soul Brains release around 99?
      The earlier web release is different to the later version on the album. I prefer the earlier version. It may be online somewhere. I have it on a MD somewhere I think.

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