A love letter to the Judgment Night album
One writer remembers the impact the Judgment Night soundtrack had on rock.
Just over three decades ago, Living Colour released their ground-breaking debut album Vivid. Along with a handful of other late '80s innovators such as Fishbone, Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the New York-based quartet pushed the boundaries of what rock music could sound like with a fusion of funk, metal, hip-hop, punk and other styles and flavours.
Lyrically, they explored a wide range of social and socio-political themes from racism to demagoguery, consumerism and gentrification.
“I think [Vivid] stands up pretty well today because of the crazy resonance,” says guitarist, band founder and primary songwriter Vernon Reid. “Even though a lot of things have shifted, a lot of the fundamental questions of the album are not just current but the answers are even more vital. I’m thankful that the band is relevant in what it was talking about early on, but it’s also really disturbing. It’s kind of unbelievable, in fact. It’s 2019 and from my perspective we should be living a whole different way.”
As Living Colour hit the UK on a tour that will see them play Vivid in full each night, we got Vernon to go through the album track-by-track to see just how (often sadly) relevant it remains...
Vernon: “This still resonates today, but it’s almost like a Pyrrhic victory that the tune has endured. Trump said something that no other presidential candidate ever said; he said that he could walk up Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any votes. That to me is the most shockingly appalling thing I’ve ever heard. And people have shrugged it off as an off-colour remark. I’m like, ‘Did you hear what he said?’ It’s still unbelievable to me that he said it. And the thing that’s so disturbing about it is not just that he said it, but that it’s true!
“Charisma and the cult of personality is a fascinating subject to me. The song mentions Gandhi and Stalin in the same breath. It transcends good and bad and that’s what makes the idea of it disturbing. It’s related to the idea of celebrity, but it’s a little different, because people are willing to lose their lives. When Martin Luther King said, ‘We’re gonna cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge’, civil rights people lost their lives because of those principles. It was for a just cause and it’s not necessarily something to avoid, it’s just something that’s a reality. I also think one of the greatest things we ever did was get mainstream radio to play the voice of Malcolm X. That was pretty subversive.”
Vernon: “It’s unrequited angst, really. I think the song is interesting because in the age of #MeToo, there are certain things in that song that are a little questionable. I didn’t mean them that way but honestly there’s a tendency in the male psyche -- I think this thing exists across the board, across the sexual spectrum, but speaking as a straight male -- there’s a thing that happens in men’s minds around women they’re attracted to that honestly is a little disturbing. The way a crush can become a little bit weird. It’s meant to be innocent but that line that says, ‘I’m standing in the shadows, baby’... I might have edited that in retrospect.”
Vernon: “It was partly based on a suicide note that Corey had written when he was younger. It was the first song that Corey and I ever collaborated on and I didn’t even know that was what it was based on until much later. I think it came up in an interview and I was like, ‘What?’
“To me, in one sense, it’s a celebration of the mindset of ‘I don’t have to be number one.’ There’s this whole sense of Ra-Ra individualism that is seen as the American male birth-right. It’s this mania to be number one, and he says, ‘I don’t have to be the best but I don’t want to be the rest’. In a sense, it’s saying I just want to live my life. I don’t have to crush everybody to try to get to the top, I’m just trying to live. To me it’s a very counter-cultural take. It’s the theme song for the office, the salary man. It’s a sentiment I’d never heard expressed in a song. Usually people are singing about being the guy.”
Vernon: “It’s definitely about addiction, but also the people that enable addiction. It’s about the folks that are a hundred per cent happy to encourage you to destroy yourself. They may or may not be destroying themselves at the same time but they’re amused by your performance under the influence. I don’t mean it to be a finger-wagging exercise but it is a crisis. I’m not talking about the recreational user and of course, not all drugs are the same. But I am talking about the situation where it gets out of hand and your own life is slipping out of your grasp and you’re among a crowd who are also desperate, whether they admit it or laugh it off. Misery loves company.”
Vernon: “The song was actually based around a walk in the park. I was thinking about the local park near my parents’ house and all the great things that happened there. We’d play basketball and one time a member of the Harlem Globetrotters actually turned up. I thought, ‘What if the park was shut down? What would we have had without it?’ That led me to thinking about the neighbourhood and the idea of neighbourhoods changing and new people coming in who don’t give a toss about the community and traditions. I believe that exists in the UK and in big cities around the world. The questions of that song are relatable to all these locations.”
Vernon: “I was having a great day. I walked into a department store, went into the elevator and this old white lady clutched her handbag in the corner. I couldn’t have been in a better mood and it just flipped me out because she was reacting in complete fear. And I don’t know, bad things could have happened to her, she could have just been afraid of strangers, but micro-expressions are telling. Before you can fix your face that look of contempt will flash before you become polite and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me. I’d had enough and out of my seething came this song.
“As soon as you think things may be getting better, all of a sudden other things start happening. There’s this phenomenon in the States of people calling the police on black people for doing nothing more than having a barbecue or sitting in a Starbucks. It’s amazing to me that the authorities turn up. People being challenged about whether or not they live in the apartment. They have a key for the building they’re walking into, but white citizens feel they can challenge black people about their legitimacy. It’s as if the funny vibe got even more hilarious over time!”
Vernon: “This was a Talking Heads cover and I was just a fan of the post-punk bands. There was something quirky and weird and interesting and Talking Heads were also intimately connected to CBGB’s, which was the club in New York where Living Colour came into its own. I felt we were kinda connected in a sense. I heard the song and I felt it had a real vibe to it. I just thought we could do something with it and that’s why we started playing it.”
Vernon: “A straight-up love song, and it was our attempt to mix country blues and hip-hop. It was (Lil Nas X’s) Old Town Road done thirty years previously. [Old Town Road] is a beautiful song and people are reacting to it like, ‘That’s the darnedest thing,’ but we did that on our first album. There are a lot of parallels between country and hip-hop music because they’re both story-based, anecdotal song formats. It’s just interesting and amusing that that idea has come back into vogue.”
Vernon: “It was kind about shopping, going into a particular shop and being thoroughly ignored. There’s a certain shallow superficiality that was virulent in New York at a particular time, in club life as well. There was this whole idea of the fabulously dressed and the shallow and that’s where the idea of the song came from. Now, with social media and reality TV, superficiality is a growth industry. Influencers who again use beauty, charisma, the willingness to say the outrageous or do outrageous things on camera, it’s unbelievable. I’m dating myself, but Robin Leach’s Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous has become virtual.”
Vernon: “It’s tongue-in-cheek, but I also loved the idea of having a theme song. Chic had a song called Chic Cheer and Bad Company had a self-titled song that was sort of their theme song. The notion of the theme song was something that was quite quaint and I thought it would just be a bit of harmless fun to ask that question.”
Vernon: “It’s about the distance between the idealised America of home and hearth and the reality of life on the streets. It’s a song about the schism and the idea of where does that highway go to? Where’s the Yellow Brick Road for me? Where are these totemic symbols that we’ve arrived that are wrapped up in products and consumption? Certain references in the song have dated, like stereos and VCRs, but the materialism that those objects represent is more ferocious and consumptive than ever before.
"It’s the haves and have-nots, it’s divisions on racial lines and the difference between aspiration and reality is wider than it’s ever been. CEOs used to make a hundred times what their lowest paid employee made. Now it’s a thousand times and it’s going north of that. The sense that minorities are getting overlooked is a lie. The politicians are always attending to minority rights, it’s just that the minorities they’re steadfastly looking out for are the 1 per cent.”