Few punk bands have a legacy half as strong as the seminal group Bad Brains. While the pioneering band made a bagful of explosive anthems, many would suggest their largest contributing factor was their presence in the fledgeling punk scene and their ability to show that the grassroots movement was an inclusive and accepting arena for all to play in. While that’s a legacy that should never be forgotten, undervalued or undermined, it does often remove one deciding piece of the band’s puzzle — the music.
To forget Bad Brains’ innovative style is to remove a large part of the group’s beating heart. Yes, they should rightly be regarded as pioneers of Black culture within the punk scene, but, more importantly, their music should be shared and enjoyed as the primary reason we remember them today. As such, we’re providing a crash course on the band’s brilliance and giving you the ultimate beginners guide to Bad Brains through six of their most defining songs.
The group, who initially formed as a jazz fusion ensemble under the name Mind Power, soon developed a fast and intense punk rock style and changed their name to Bad Brains upon hearing the Ramones track ‘Bad Brain’. Their audiences’ vigour relentlessly matched their own frenetic live energy, and Bad Brains shows gained a reputation for being an experience like no other.
It probably goes without saying. Not only were Bad Brains the only Black band on the punk touring circuit, an incredibly white music arena, but they were innovators in every sense of the word. Though their punk shows were doused in the chaos that seemed to follow every three-chorded group around like the lingering odour of cigarettes and cheap beer, Bad Brains’ ability to switch between style and genre always added an extra spark to proceedings. They brought in their love of funk, their appreciation for grooves and championing of rhythm to a musical genre that had lacked all three.
“You got to be true to yourself. We purposefully went out of our way to be different. And we just let the spirit lead us,” guitarist Dr Know once explained. “We weren’t like, ‘Well, we gotta write a part like this because this is what’s playing on the radio now.’ We tried to grab from all of our influences and just put it in the pie.”
Doc later elaborated on this statement, telling LouderSound: “We kind of musically open up and just break down the barriers: a bunch of black dudes playing crazy rock’n’roll that you rock’n’roll white people can’t even play [laughs], playing some funk and this and that, and then playing reggae too.”
“Back in that time,” bassist Darryl Jenifer told VICE, “A cat like me from D.C. was supposed to play funk, a cat from Jamaica’s only supposed to play reggae, and a white cat’s supposed to play Zeppelin… But for Bad Brains to jump out and be this punk rock band and push it the way we did, I can see that we were used as a tool to spread the spirit of versatility. The Beastie Boys started rapping; The Chili Peppers were funky, all of that—’Well damn, if these black dudes from D.C. can be a punk band, maybe me, a white dude, I could be an ill rapper.’”
Below, we’ve got six songs that define one of the greatest punk bands of all time.
Six definitive songs of Bad Brains:
‘Pay To Cum’ (1980)
If a debut single is supposed to introduce you to a band, then there was perhaps no greater slap in the face than Bad Brains’ debut ‘Pay to Cum’. Apart from the obvious sexual connotations the song had, and therefore the wrath it incurred, the track was also a beacon of what the group stood for.
Release don their own label, the single was the band throwing down the gauntlet — they were shouting from the rooftops: “If you can do it, so can we!” Boy, did they make their point loud and clear — listening back in 2021 and the song is still as potent and pulsating as it was when it was released in 1980.
‘Banned In DC’ (1982)
Taken from the band’s eponymous LP from 1982, ‘Banned in DC’ discusses exactly what you’re thinking. The song reflects on the group’s unofficial ban from their hometown of Washington D.C. and how they moved to New York City to find the solace they required.
It would end up being a victorious move for the band as they gathered dup a heap of inspiration and punk authenticity from the Big Apple. They became a huge influence on the building hardcore scene in the city and soon proved the point they had made in the song, there’s “a thousand more places to go.”
Another track from the band’s self-titled record, ‘Attitude’ is a rip-roaring punk anthem that never truly takes its foot off the pedal. Of course, inspired by the original speed demons, the Ramones, this track comes in at just over 80 seconds, proving that longevity is overrated when it comes to punk tunes.
“Don’t care what they may say. We got that attitude. Don’t care what they may do. We got that attitude. Hey, we got that PMA!” Not only are these the only three lines in the entire song, but it is also one of the first times that a Positive Mental Attitude was mentioned on a track and, considering the source, it’s quite the victory.
‘We Will Not’ (1983)
If you were looking for a defiant anthem, then you’ve found it. Bad Brains didn’t just talk the talk; they walked the walk too. Long before crowd-cajoling anthems of fist-in-the-air camaraderie became commonplace, the D.C. natives brought out this gem with the simple refrain: “We will not do what they want or do what they say!”
Featuring on the band’s 1983 record, the rest of the song’s lyrics are somewhat indecipherable but no less impactful. In fact, we’d wager that not knowing the lyrics to the rest of the song only accentuates the overriding message of revolution and revelry.
‘I Against I’ (1986)
The title track from the band’s third studio album is an honest reflection of the life the members of Bad Brains were living. Taken from a Rastafarian phrase, “I and I”, the song is a perfectly passionate and fervently paced song, destined to get your inner angst moving to the surface within the first few bars.
It’s a song that takes a stern look at society and refuses to blink. Speaking out candidly, the band sing “everybody’s only in it for themselves” with the authority and authenticity of a band who have seen some terrible scenes. The album is one of their finest, and this title track still feels pertinent to this day.
‘The Youth Are Getting Restless’ (1990)
As the band continued to open up their experiences to their punk audience, they delivered a range of funk-driven rhythms that would have been unique in the punk rock clubs they played. A similar trend that had been bubbling away in the background was the group’s natural affinity with reggae. A perfect distillation of Bad Brains’ swirling sound comes on ‘The Youth Are Gettin Restless’.
The title track from their 1990 album, the song was more pointed than many first believed as the group aimed at Apartheid South Africa, singing: “Black Africa, white Africa, it’s time for revolution!” The indications were clear, Bad Brains were from the people and for the people, and they refused to bow down.