Despite their Rasta affiliation, dub jams, and dread heads, Bad Brains are perhaps the greatest hardcore band of all time black, white, or indifferent. Make a top three list in your head. You can quibble about the order, and you can shuffle bands in and out, but you know damned well that the Brains have to anchor the whole thing. Insert Black Flag or Minor Threat, and you realize the debt that both bands owe H.R., Dr. Know, Earl Hudson, and Darryl Jenifer.
The group officially started in Washington, D.C., in 1979, though its members had been playing together for two years without vocalist H.R. as jazz fusionprogressive act Mind Power. Which shows why Bad Brains are so monolithic in hardcore: a band with lesser musical chops couldn’t play at such finger-blistering, heart-palpitating speeds and make it sound so good. The reggae jams follow logically as necessary restoratives after the full-force pummeling the body takes from classic blasts like "Banned in DC" and "Pay to Cum."
The band’s first, 1982 ROIR cassette-only release, with the iconic lightning bolt striking the Capitol dome on the cover, is still my all-time favorite. It has a purity that just can’t be touched, even by the revamped, rerecorded version with Ric Ocasek at the helm, Rock for Light (Caroline, 1983), or by 1986’s classic I Against I (SST). It is indeed a bolt from above pure white light, pure energy, a shock to the system of both the individual listener and punk rock in general. As the Ramones, whose "Bad Brain" the band takes its name from, once said, "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment." I listen to "Attitude" on my headphones before I get on the gate for a big bike race; like grabbing a live high-voltage line, it cleans the mind.
How does the new, Beastie Boy Adam Yauchproduced Build a Nation (Megaforce/Osciloscope) stack up? First, it’s a damned good Bad Brains record: Jenifer’s bass rumbles like a herd of disturbed elephants through the whole thing, perhaps a little high in the mix, but so satisfying. As musicians, Bad Brains haven’t dropped the beat over the years, transitioning seamlessly from their early-era blitzkriegs to the moshable tempos of Quickness (Caroline, 1989) in songs like "Pure Love" and "Send You No Flowers." Second, and most important, who gives a fuck how or if it stacks up? Bad Brains are back, playing two shows at Slim’s.
The other night, I was standing in front of Cafe du Nord, talking to a slightly loopy but pleasant woman about the lotto ticket in her pocket, the winnings from which she was already actively planning how to spend. Seems she’d watched the self-help DVD The Secret and was convinced that if she just visualized it, it’d come true. "It’s the law of attraction," she said in a slight Southern drawl.
"Also known by the philosophers in Bad Brains as ‘PMA,’" I replied, referring to the "positive mental attitude" of my favorite prerace headphone jam. "They may have that PMA, but so far as I know, no one in Bad Brains has ever won the fuckin’ lottery."
"Oh, but you’re wrong," my new friend said emphatically. "You’re so wrong." She told me about seeing Bad Brains at the 9:30 Club in D.C. in her youth. "They did win the lottery they’re the fucking Bad Brains. They change people’s lives."*
With Whole Wheat Bread (Sun/23) and Black President (Mon/24)
Sun/23Mon/24, 8 p.m., $25
333 11th St., SF