Bad Brains wouldn’t be the first punk band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—present inductees include the Clash, Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Patti Smith, and the Stooges. The difference, though, is that each those acts enjoyed modest, if sometimes posthumous, dalliances with mainstream marketability. The achievements that were ignored in their time have been retroactively honored by way of biopics, documentaries, memoirs and, ironically, commercial licensing and department store merchandise.
The case for Bad Brains is tougher to make, as their lack of even belated mainstream recognition renders their nomination a bit less intuitive. But the discrepancy of commercial stature between a band like Bad Brains and a pop icon like fellow 2017 nominee Janet Jackson bears virtually no correlation to influence, however. Especially in the case of Bad Brains, it’s quite possible that the opposite is true: despite the negligence of alternative rock radio and disinterest of MTV, Bad Brains delivered a punch to rock history so impactful that it bypassed the mainstream gatekeepers and toppled the first domino of a counter-cultural revolution. Here are five reasons worth consideration, should they stay or should they go.
Tasteful Restraint and Non-conformity
While many complaints about punk, and ‘80s hardcore in particular, center around the lack of technical musical skill, Bad Brains were former jazz-fusion virtuosos who started a punk band to escape the grossly exhibitionistic urges of so-called “good” musicianship. They were far from unskilled, and they didn’t allow the militant fashions of the punk scene control their next moves. And in a scene at times mired in replication, Bad Brains offered variety. From the very beginning they were lightly flavoring their albums and live sets with authentic reggae numbers; their masterpiece I Against I deftly incorporated heavy metal, but spared us the histrionics.
Bad Brains carried an aura of otherworldliness that might amount to the punk rock equivalent of a Prince or a David Bowie. They impressed and bewitched their rivals and contemporaries, as did the decade’s superstars, but with a fraction of the budget. This was an energy expressly begat by the band’s fabled live performances. It was seeing Bad Brains open for the Cramps that drove Ian MacKaye to start Minor Threat, found Dischord Records and, ultimately, congeal the disparate fragments of ‘80s hardcore into a cohesive, organized counterculture. The group that would become the Beastie Boys, after having seen Bad Brains in 1979, named themselves such to inherit the blessing of sharing their initials. Later, the Cars’ Ric Ocasek would track the band down after a gig in Mexico and record their sophomore effort, Rock for Light.
In a punk scene characterized by an anarchic pathos, the urge for chaos and destruction often manifested through the frontman’s stage antics. And in the underground clubs and basement mosh pits of D.C. where reckless melees were the norm, Bad Brains frontman H.R.’s riotous ring-leading still commanded a notoriety unreached by co-conspiring punk rock bands of the late ‘70s. Injuries and a property damage price tag at a Bad Brains show were, by that time, as guaranteed as the standard Rastafarian reggae interjection. Who but H.R. would rather duct tape himself to a chair and throttle around onstage instead of canceling a show to nurse a hernia? Watching unearthed live footage, you can spot young punkers slam dancing before the set commences, as if to preemptively fortify themselves against the whirlwind of flying bodies they know was about to stampede them. By the time the band relocated to New York City, their recorded “Banned in D.C.,” a fictional tale about having to decamp after their reputation caught up with them. Back home, everyone believed it.
Playing Chicken With Punk
Often when bands experiment, they’re doing so within the parameters constructed by either the comfort a loyal fanbase or commercial viability. The arc of the Bad Brains’ chronology is remarkable because neither of these considerations seemed to have ever entered their court. The stylistic gulf between some albums was marginal, while between others, it was so vast you might question whether you were listening to the same band. The rawness of their self-titled debut is virtually replicated on the follow-up Rock for Light with only minor studio polish supplied by Ocasek. I Against I, their third and most exalted LP, is a hodgepodge of differing rock themes whirring about the era, with each one explored as convincingly and diabolically as their hardcore punk identity. The follow-up, Quickness, is largely a full-on embrace of thrash metal, while 1995’s God of Love favors a strongly reggae/dub bent. It’s easy to imagine fans as militant and id-centric as punk rockers to disown a band, no matter how preciously beloved, for straying from the hardcore playbook. Bad Brains consistently baited their fans with curveballs, and they were happy to bite.
Bad Brains are a punk band who happen to be Rastafarian, but they aren’t a “Rastafarian punk band.” The difference is a crucial one, and it’s a difficult balance to maintain. Since their 1982 proper studio debut, they’ve incorporated Rastafarianism into their band identity as one of many defining characteristics with such devout song titles as “Jah Calling,” “Leaving Babylon,” and “I Luv I Jah.” Explicit and unveiled, yet simultaneously allegorical and introspective, they resist the temptation to proselytize their audience, instead favoring biblical storytelling that’s neither obtrusive or self-propelling. Even on God of Love, their most conspicuously Rasta release, the opportunity to preach is spurned for the greater itch to push their already-punctured musical envelope. These aren’t necessarily “punk” proclivities, but then again, Bad Brains didn’t obey punk rock so much as punk rock obeyed Bad Brains. “Trying to live my life in peace,” H.R. sang in 1982. Take it or leave it, Bad Brains is unapologetically Bad Brains.