In 1979, the Bad Brains were at a crossroads. The punk band were getting increased visibility and fandom in their native Washington D.C., but thanks to an unofficial blacklist from area clubs (a blacklisting that looks more and more racist as time goes on, considering how bands that opened for the Bad Brains like The Teen Idles didn’t seem to have any difficulty finding gigs), the foursome couldn’t play anywhere.
As the quartet began searching for new cities that would let them play, they found a new home in legendary New York punk club CBGB’s. The incubator for the original wave of New York punk, CBGB’s provided to home for Television, Blondie, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, Mink DeVille, Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, Jayne County, and most famously the Ramones. But now the Bad Brains stormed in with a faster, more aggressive, and more revolutionary sound.
The opening speech from frontman H.R. is almost comical: dressed in a grey suit complete with fedora, H.R. thanks the crowd for coming and urges them, calmly, to “sit back, or get up, or do anything you want to do, but please do it.” What follows can only accurately be described as a salvo.
Through a laser-focused blast of distortion, the Bad Brains demolish the foundations of the legendary punk club with a ferocity that even the most hardcore of punk bands couldn’t match. H.R. spits out his lyrics without any time for annunciation. What he does find time for is a goddamn backflip. No running start, no roundoff, just a flatfooted backflip before counting the band back in.
I couldn’t imagine what seeing this band must have been like for anyone who might have just wandered into CBGB’s that night. Four black guys, who would also bust out a number of reggae songs during the show, playing louder and faster, with more energy and precision, than any other band at the time. Maybe it was startling. Maybe it was confusing. But even through the awful recorded quality of the video, you can feel the excitement. It’s still palpable over forty years later.
The Bad Brains officially uprooted to New York by 1980 and played numerous shows at CBGB’s, where they became a major draw. After refining their vicious power through incessant gigging, the band recorded what is still the most essential hardcore album of all time, The Yellow Tape, in 1981.
That album included the band’s own take on their blacklisting, ‘Banned In D.C.’, a number of instant classics like ‘Pay to Cum’, ‘Big Take Over’, and ‘Attitude’, which espoused the group’s PMA ethos. The album is also roughly 30 percent reggae, with tracks like ‘Leaving Babylon’ and ‘I Love I Jah’ showing the band’s comfort with slower tempos and skanky rhythms.
But if you want the clearest distillation of why the Bad Brains are one of the most legendary acts of all time, all you need is their sub-two minute performance of ‘At the Atlantis’ from their debut gig at CBGB’s. The rest, once might say, is history.