Bad Brains sprung up from the Washington D.C. punk scene in 1981. In 1982 they released a cassette-only album that I played every day for months.
There was no other band like them. They played what came to be known as “hardcore” punk, but they played it faster and better than anyone. If that wasn’t enough, they also played roots reggae. Not rocked-out kinda-reggae like the Clash, but roots reggae the could have come from Jamaica.
A unique blend, for sure. And the two musical forms my life revolved around at the time. To say I was excited to see them at their first Minneapolis show in April of 1982 is an understatement.
After Hüsker Dü’s opening set I walked up to the stage and stood next to one of the PA columns, staking out my spot. There was a guy in raggedy pants on the other side of the PA speakers smoking a huge spliff.
In a move that could only happen in a punk club, the Bad Brains drummer, bassist, and guitar player set up their own equipment. When they were finished they looked in my direction and nodded, and blasted into their first song.
That’s when the guy in raggedy pants smoking a spliff next to me ran out and grabbed the microphone. It was the singer, HR.
They. Were. Astounding.
At that point in my life, I’d seen more rock and roll and punk bands than I could count. I was playing in my second punk band. But what Bad Brains did eclipsed everything else I’d ever seen or heard.
HR never stopped moving, punctuating the end of the first song with a standing backflip. It was a mad rush of movement and sound until they played a reggae song, at which time they stopped leaping around and did what reggae bands do, which is essentially stand there and play their music.
That’s when I finally took a second to turn and look back at what I assumed would be a packed house. But there were probably one or two dozen people in the entire club.
That wasn’t the first time I’d enjoyed a show with a small audience like that, but as revolutionary as I thought the Bad Brains were, I expected a better turnout.
They finished the show with the same intensity they’d begun it with, and then it was over. I stood there staring at the empty stage thinking, “That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” an opinion I continue to hold to this day.
The next night at band rehearsal, I walked in and said, “That’s it! I quit! I saw the greatest band in the world last night and we’ll never be as good as they are.”
That didn’t go over well with the members of the band, as you might expect.
But I couldn’t quit anyway, because a week later we were playing the same club where I’d seen the Bad Brains, doing an opening spot for Brother Wayne Kramer from the MC5.
Obligations, you know.