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Making Music History: Bad Brains at CBGB, 1982

After 33 years in business, the landmark New York City nightclub CBGB will close its doors for good at the end of October. But before the lease is up, the club will host some pioneering bands from its past to celebrate the venue's legacy as a music mecca.

In the late 1970s and '80s, the Washington, D.C.-based group Bad Brains set a new standard for hard-rocking gigs at CBGB -- and this week, the seminal black punk-reggae band said goodbye to the club with three reunion shows.

It's been a long road for the four members of the band, who met as teenagers in the nation's capital. Led by singer Paul "HR" Hudson, the group quickly earned a reputation for high-energy punk songs with positive messages.

After some run-ins with police in Washington, D.C., the band found a welcome home at CBGB, which by the end of the 1970s had shrugged off its American roots music past -- the name is an acronym for Country Blue Grass Blues -- to embrace some of the most pioneering bands of the day.

The Ramones, Blondie and the Talking Heads all got their big breaks at CBGB. And the club's founder and owner Hilly Krystal says the Bad Brains fit right in.

"They were very talented -- more than talented -- and very exciting," he says.

For his part, "HR" Hudson says those first CBGB shows helped sustain and encourage his band. "It was showing us how, through group participation and staying together, we can make our dreams a reality."

By 1982, Bad Brains were a regular act at the club. On Christmas Eve of that year, the club produced a holiday show that was meant to showcase a new, heavier form of punk rock that fans were just starting to call "hardcore." The Bad Brains headlined that show -- and fortunately, a small camera crew caught the band in the act, at the very top of their game.

A newly released DVD of that performance also captures the group at a creative crossroads. Influenced by Bob Marley and Jamaican music, the band started writing reggae songs. And that night, the band switched back and forth from high-speed punk grinds to dubbed-out reggae, thick with Rastafarian philosophy.

The disc isn't the best footage of a Bad Brains show -- the shots are often out of focus, and the sound quality can muddy and uneven. But it's a valuable document for fans who never got to see this influential band in their heyday, playing at such a famous venue.

Soon after that Christmas Eve show, Bad Brains put out their first album, Rock for Light. But after sporadic attempts at touring and recording, the band members broke off to pursue their own musical projects. They have recently reunited to work on a new album.

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Transcript

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The punk band Bad Brains has been pretty quiet for the last several years. But a new live DVD recorded in 1982 should bring back these black rock pioneers. And their music has never been for the faint of heart.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: The film was shot on Christmas Eve at New York club CBGB. CBs was the kind of dark club with beer-sticky floors that small, local acts could share the stage with current and future stars.

As the club prepares to close it's doors for good at the end of this month, the Bad Brains DVD gives us a chance to look back at CBGB's punk past.

NPR's Christopher Johnson reports.

CHRISTOPHER JOHNSON: Lots of towns are vying for the title today, but back in the late ‘70s there was no question: Washington D.C. was the chocolate city. So much was black about that place. Even the shining stars of that city's world-class punk rock scene were four teenage brothers. They called their band Bad Brains. Led by Paul HR Hudson, the group got a quick rep for rocking stages with fuel-injected positive punk messages.

But Bad Brains' rock velocity was sometimes hard to control. The group once refused to stop playing at a protest that D.C. police tried to close down. That got Bad Brains blacklisted and briefly shutout of the few area venues that would even host punk acts.

So they headed to New York City and knocked on the door at CBGB, a Lower East Side club they played off and on in the past. The acronym means Country Bluegrass and Blues.

Bad Brains' manager Anthony Countey says that by the end of the ‘70s, CBGB was home base for acts who have moved far away from American roots music.

Mr. ANTHONY COUNTEY (Manager, Bad Brains): The high points at CBGBs were all punk rock. I mean it was The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads. Bad Brains were the same kind of organic musical group.

JOHNSON: CBGB founder and owner Hilly Kristal insisted on original music at his venue, and Bad Brains fit perfectly.

Mr. HILLY KRISTAL (Founder and Owner, CBGB): They were wonderful band, so I guess they gave me a break too by playing here. We gave each other a break. They were great.

Mr. PAUL HUDSON (Lead Singer, Bad Brains): Oh, I was just grateful to be able to be employed.

JOHNSON: Bad Brains' lead singer HR says those first CBGB shows helped sustain and encourage his band.

Mr. HUDSON: And they were showing us how, through group participation and thus staying together, we can accomplish and make our dreams a reality.

JOHNSON: Bad Brains were regulars at CBGB by 1982. On Christmas Eve that year the club setup a holiday show that was meant to showcase a new heavier form of punk rock that kids were just starting to call hardcore.

Bad Brains headlined that show, and fortunately CBGB welcomed a small camera crew in to capture Bad Brains at what Anthony Countey says was the top of their maximum rock game.

Mr. COUNTEY: The bands intent was always to create a unity. By this point it was really an absolute kind of thing. The band and its audience were really of one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. COUNTEY: I mean HR walks on stage at the beginning of the whole DVD. He walks right off the stage into the audience and starts, like - and he's in there for a minute (unintelligible). And he's back on stage just as the song hits. I mean everybody knew why we were there and the band knew what they were doing, and here we go.

(Soundbite of music from “Bad Brains Live At CBGB 1982”)

BAD BRAINS (Punk Rock Group): (Singing) Mama had (unintelligible)

JOHNSON: The new DVD, Bad Brains Live At CBGB 1982, also shows the group at a creative crossroads. Just a couple of years earlier, the punk kids watched the Jamaican reggae film Rockers and had also seen one of Bob Marley's last concerts in D.C.

Anthony Countey describes the impact Jamaican music was having on the young black punks.

Mr. COUNTEY: They realized that their roots were these roots as well. And that started them thinking in new directions. They started writing reggae songs, for one thing, even though they were still writing punk rock.

JOHNSON: Countey says the '82 Christmas Eve show marked the group's movement away from strictly hardcore music and deeper into roots reggae. And that night Bad Brains flaunted the breadth of their talents, switching from high-speed punk rhyme to dubbed-out roots thick with Rastafarian philosophy.

(Soundbite of music from “Bad Brains Live At CBGB 1982”)

BAD BRAINS: (Singing) Jah children, Jah children. Yeah.

JOHNSON: The group's reggae sounded experimental, sometimes even awkward. The audience seemed to patiently tolerate the songs as if they were roots interludes between the music they've really came to hear.

What Bad Brains did best in '82 was hardcore punk. As HR flailed, kids jumped on the small stage, jumped on the singer, jumped on each other and took flying leaps back into the crowd.

It's easy to see there's lots of slam dancing, bodies going every which way. But what the uneven footage also makes you feel is lots and lots of sweat.

Mr. COUNTEY: It's pretty hard to believe how hot it gets under those lights. We've recorded it; it's been about 130. It's steamy and the air starts running out. You have to keep in motion or it's just going to knock you down anyway.

(Soundbite of music from “Bad Brains Live At CBGB 1982”)

BAD BRAINS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

JOHNSON: HR and the gang have an impressive amount of teenage stamina and their musical precision keeps the band fist tight through all the heat and chaos. The singer says almost nothing to the crowd for the entire show. There's really no time to talk anyway. The expression on HR's face says it aches just to slow down.

Anthony Countey says the non-stop onstage action in this film is an excellent snapshot of Bad Brains' positive mental attitude ideal.

Mr. COUNTEY: There's an unrelenting spirit. There's a spirit of never-give-in that cuts through even the ability to stop and have any kind of self-reflection.

(Soundbite of music from “Bad Brains Live At CBGB 1982”)

BAD BRAINS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. COUNTEY: The feel of this video is an exuberant moment of not backing down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHNSON: This disc isn't the best footage the Bad Brains shows. The shots are amateur and the sound quality is sometimes muddy. But it's still valuable for fans who never got to see this influential band in their heyday. That's according to filmmaker James Spooner, who created the black rock and roll documentary Afro-Punk. He sits to do classic Bad Brains' live film before. He says films like these are part of Bad Brains' legacy and could teach other black punks a valuable lesson.

Mr. JAMES SPOONER (Filmmaker): Bad Brains never went out of their way to tell the world that they were black. They just did their thing in, like, the only way they knew how. A lot of black rockers are so caught up in making sure that they sound black that they don't let themselves sign, yet everyone sweats (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: Soon after their Christmas Eve show, Bad Brains put out their first album, Rock for Light. After that, though, recording in toneless sporadic as been it was broke off to pursue their own musical projects. They recently re-united to work on a new album.

Last night, they wrapped up their last of three-packed CBGBs shows. When the club closes for good this Sunday, the Bad Brains DVD will truly be a punk's slice of American rock history.

Christopher Johnson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: You could watch clips from the DVD Bad Brains Live at CBGB 1982 and hear a club owner Hilly Kristal look back on the venue's early days at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

BAD BRAINS: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by the NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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