Wednesday, December 14, 2005

CORPORATE ROCK - Living Colour and other troubled investments

Living Colour and other troubled investments

By J.R. Taylor

It is wiser to pledge loyalty to, say, the products of RJR Nabisco than any kind of rock act. It doesn’t matter who’s running Nabisco. The frontman could be James M. Kilts, Ross Johnson or Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. Fans of Nabisco can still trust that the company remains dedicated to bringing the consumer a constant supply of tasty cookies, quality cigarettes and other fine consumer goods.

In contrast, rock bands only build up equity to tear themselves apart.
Living Colour is a good example. Their first album, Vivid, was a fine initial offering back in 1988. Corey Glover was a dynamic and soulful vocalist in a field dominated by whiny art students. “Middle Man” and “Cult of Personality” were shameless hard rock with an intellectual veneer, while the band’s sheer musicianship provided their lesser songs with innovative underpinnings.

And while it was absurd to treat the band as a gimmick, the music press kept pretending like it was a big deal for a bunch of black guys to be performing rock music.

And yet Living Colour couldn’t move units after the initial hype. Their 1990 album Time’s Up was a boneheaded attempt to be an unthinking man’s Public Enemy. It was smart to target the idiocy of the college-rock market, but the melodies were as dopey and shrill as the politics. By this point, Living Colour had also established a reputation for outsized egos and petty infighting.

If somebody had been running Living Colour like a business, there would’ve been an intervention by stockholders, or maybe a purging, or some uprising to get the members to acknowledge impending disaster. Warners seemed content to have a catalogue item like Vivid. The label kept the band limping along with the Biscuits EP, which mainly highlighted the splintering band’s weaknesses—although the rhythm section of drummer Will Calhoun and Muzzy Skillings seemed grateful for the chance to show off their skills to prospective new employers.

There are, of course, times when music fans would benefit from rancor. It’s been sad to see REM staying together for the sake of their corporate alignment. The lucky member got an aneurysm and early retirement. The unlucky fans had to feign excitement for a band that continues to lack any enthusiasm of its own.

The main problem is that a rock band doesn’t care if its product suffers once the brand has been established. Nabisco has to make sure that there are always fresh new batches—with consistent quality—of Oreos and Winston Lights out on the shelf. (They’re even always on the lookout for brand extensions such as Oreo Big Stuff and Ready-to-Spread Oreo Frosting.)

REM fans, for further example, didn’t get anything that good. They got Pete Buck running off to play with every band in Seattle, and Michael Stipe producing disappointing films like Velvet Goldmine. The back catalogue isn’t going to go stale, so nobody cares about the music. Nobody cares about REM’s audience, either. They all went stale back in 1993.

Established musical acts have it easy. But Living Colour—remember them?—weren’t that established. Nobody really noticed when the band dissolved after 1993’s Stain, which was mainly notable for how new bassist Doug Wimbish wrote the album’s sole decent song.

Of course, there are certain corporations that deserve their demise. (We should all be grateful for never having to suffer through another flight on TWA.) Living Colour, however, would prove that they deserved to win back consumers when they reformed in 2001.

The band wisely took their time before finally reemerging with the unlikely greatness of 2003’s Collideøscope. For starters, the album includes what remains the only great song about 9/11, written from the view of an actual victim of terrorist douche-bags. The album also benefits from the maturity of musicians who are no longer trying to steal the show from each other. Among other things, this spares us a lot of forced funkiness.

And Living Colour isn’t just cashing in with the kind of holiday show that aging acts throw together so they can buy their kids some new iPods. This concert marks the end of a proper tour—which included a smallish venue in Nashville that was probably the same club they played back when Vivid was starting to break. Sat., December 17, Irving Plaza, 17 Irving Place, (at E. 15th St.), 212-777-6800; 9, $40/$35 adv. n

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