FFWDing to the Best Part: “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour (1988)

Even today, 25 years after this video debuted, you know exactly what song you are listening to when Vernon Reid chokes out that guttural guitar riff after Malcom X talks of speaking in a language that “everybody here can easily understand.”

Look at that guitar — the neon green, the neon pink, the neon blue, the neon purple, and the white. Look at Vernon Reid’s jacket — white with more bright colors accented by the neon pink BMX pants he’s wearing. Look at Corey Glover’s bodysuit (not too close though) — it’s bright and attention-grabbing. Look at Corey Glover’s hair – shaved on the sides, long and braided on top, accented with beads well before the Williams sisters made it popular. Look at the video — clips from famous moments in history spliced throughout the driving chords and outstanding singing.

Look at these things as one or on their own, one thing is for certain — Living Colour rocked this suburban boy’s world in the late ’80s. I can remember the first time I saw this video on MTV, I sat there and stared like the little girl in the video — mouth agape. Living Colour presented a major shift in my heavy metal paradigm. I was perfectly happy with my own little sphere of heavy metal, I saw no need to branch out — but this single video did that. Once I saw this video, I had to have the cassette (and boy, did I play the hell out of it).

This band, born from CBGB (the music club, that some may recognize from a line of clothing), introduced me to a world I had heard of, but didn’t know could rock. Living Colour seamlessly blended funk (find “Elvis is Dead”), hip-hop (check out “Funny Vibe” – a groundbreaking video in its own right), hard rock (listen to “Open Letter To A Landlord), and heavy metal (as you will hear in this video and in the song “Middle Man”). Thing is, while combining all of these musical influences, Living Colour was presenting an adept social commentary surpassed by few others.

Enough about me and my absolute love of this band — let’s get to the best part of the video for “Cult of Personality.” Let’s go back to that guitar riff (0:10-0:12) — you know it’s Living Colour, but this guitar riff would ring hollow if it weren’t for the rest of Vernon Reid’s work in this masterpiece. Skip ahead to the three-minute mark. This is where Reid screeches into 53 seconds of the best guitar solo you may ever hear. Reid stumbles around the stage in a way that decries how adeptly he is playing that guitar, all the while Glover jumps around in the background with his hair flailing. Once Glover breaks in at 3:54, you don’t even realize that Reid has taken you on a guitar odyssey that you need to listen to 1,000 more times.

Yes, look close at this video, because you are seeing a one-of-a-kind band — not just because of the color of their skin — but because of the way they rock.



One thought on “FFWDing to the Best Part: “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour (1988)

  1. Indulge me on a ride through ancient history, back from the miserable robot beats of modern club culture. There used to be these groups of people, “rock bands,” riding around the country in a big bus with beds (if they were doing well) or a hatchback (if not), awakening each mid-afternoon in a new city to do a sound check, eat dinner, play unintelligibly loud music before a crowd, secure a pliable groupie, and then carouse until they passed out around 4 am.

    Each band had a member called the “lead guitarist.” Lead guitarists in the 80s typically had spent teenage years in the 1970s incessantly practicing myxolydian scales and playing along with their Hendrix, Zeppelin, and Van Halen LPs, boring those finger movements into their cerebella until they could mime hundreds of guitar solos on a tabletop, a steering wheel, a #2 pencil, anything. Just as the 1920s saw huge masses of people learning the mandolin and flocking into mandolin orchestras (a real thing: http://www.nymandolin.org/index_files/history.html), the late 70s and early 80s birthed thousands of rock bands, every one of which wanted one (almost never two; alpha dogs and all that) lead guitarists.

    Skill is power. A lead guitarist, like any musician who’s paid his dues, demanded the opportunity to strut his stuff. The “stuff” came in two main forms: the riff, and the solo. A “riff” was a single-line melody of one to two measures in length. The riff would usually kick off the recording and appear repeatedly throughout, often right after a sung refrain, but sometimes underneath it, and occasionally instead of it. Of riffs are legends made: Pretty Woman, The Immigrant Song, Foxy Lady, Smoke on the Water, Every Breath You Take, Sweet Home Alabama, Wanted Dead or Alive, Sweet Child O Mine. Keyboardists went in for riffs big-time in the 80s as well: The Way It Is, Pressure, The Final Countdown, Sweet Dreams Are Made of These, etc. Saxophonists too: Careless Whisper, Baker Street, Who Can It Be Now, and more. Chances are that if know these songs, when you thought of each song just now, you thought of their respective riffs. In a riff-based song, the singing was often beside the point, and a remake or sample of the song usually strip-mined the riff but dropped the rest of the song.

    The solo is another matter altogether: longer (8-32 measures, sometimes senselessly longer still) and non-repeating. Unlike riffs, the point was not to be memorizable, or even memorable. The typical solo was simply an opportunity for the lead guitarist to cut loose his pyrotechnics, running through as many scales as possible in the allotted time, throwing in as many tricks (sweep picking, whammy swoops, artificial harmonics, tapping, what have you. The goal: to evoke awe in the performer rather than enjoyment of the performance. Pick any solo from any song regularly played on MTV’s “Headbanger’s Ball,” and unless you’re quite a guitar player yourself, you probably won’t be able to describe how it went beyond, “deedleedleedleedleedleedleedleedleedleedlee..” All were impressive to varying degrees, but also highly interchangeable.

    So too with this one. Yes, Vernon Reid is very dextrous, keeping the solo’s 64th notes flying with buzz-saw intensity. As a guitarist, I can appreciate the work it took to hone his chops. Beyond that, does the solo have a melodic structure? I’d be hard pressed to define it. Does it interact meaningfully with the backing music, so that it would sound weird if dropped into the middle of Van Halen’s “Jump” or Poison’s “Nothing But a Good Time”? Not particularly.

    My favorite part of the song begins at 1:06. Not only is it the riff, used to transition between the A and B sections of the vocal melody, but it’s also a three beat version of the riff against drums continuing in cut time for three measures. How often do you get to hear a hemiola in pop music? Well done.

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