Bad Brains, a group of jazz guys reformed by the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley, were, by punk-rock standards, virtuosos. When they weren’t skanking, loud and fast was the rule; but even at the speed of sound, their tunes hinted at a refinement that might require charts to explain. Therefore, the band’s frontman, H.R. (short for Human Rights), was never identified as merely a singer; “throat” was and is his instrument. The scorched-esophagus rants on all of the Brains’ work, from the 1980 single “Pay to Cum,” a harDCore touchstone, to God of Love, a failed comeback album released on Madonna’s Maverick label in 1995, provide evidence that amid all those time changes and free-jazzy guitar squalls, a human being was putting his throat, perhaps even himself, on the line.
The band’s music was much like the band itselfalways teetering on the edge of combustion. The Brains have recorded nearly as many breakups as they have albums, and the last time they called it quits it seemed pretty final, climaxing in a bloody backstage fight that resulted in H.R.’s brief incarceration.
Talking by phone from Los Angeles, H.R. insists that the current Brains are warm and fuzzy. “Assure our listeners that they will not be let down,” he says in a voice just above a whisper, “because the vibe is completely positive, and we’ve got some sweet, sweet new music for the listeners.”
By “we” he means Soul Brains, a band that includes all of the original Bad Brains members; H.R. explains that the new name is meant to signal a new attitude. The members of the D.C.-bred band now spend most of their time in L.A. and New York, and although the current Soul Brains tour will be the first time they’ve been seen since mid-decade, the influence of the Bad Brains is still large.
H.R. says he was coaxed from seclusion by the Long Beach All-Stars, an offshoot of Sublime, who asked him to sit in on a show; he eventually recorded some vocals for an upcoming LBAS release. The association seems apt. Today, it’s normal for white guys like the All-Stars to blend punk, hiphop, and Jamaican pop, but in the early ’80s, when the all-black Bad Brains brought reggae and jazz to the traditionally all-white world of punk rock, it was revolutionary, both musically and socially.
According to H.R., the reformation came together when Brains’ bassist Darryl Jennifer caught wind of the All-Stars gig and asked the singer if he wanted to get back together. The band has since been writing new music and shopping for a deal, but the throatist promises that the Soul Brains sets will consist almost entirely of songs from the archives. Speaking like a shaman who’s coming out of exile, H.R. says he’s got a debt to pay his followers: “I want to let the children know that we’re truly appreciative of their loyalty and patience.”Brett Anderson
Soul Brains plays the 9:30 Club on Monday, March 8.