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Living Colour: Keeping The Music Alive

One of the most recognizable guitar riffs recorded in America belongs to Living Colour. The band's 1988 hit "Cult of Personality" regularly makes "100 Greatest Songs Ever Written" lists and won the group Grammy Awards. But what made Living Colour unique was that all of its members were black in a genre — hard rock — dominated by white musicians.

For a time, the band broke up, but it regrouped in 2000. Spearheaded by guitarist Vernon Reid and vocalist Corey Glover, Living Colour's latest album, The Chair in the Doorway, is an unapologetic homage to American hard rock, with a bluesy twist.

In an interview, NPR's Guy Raz wonders if "Cult of Personality" was a mixed blessing. Written in one session and performed at CBGB just a night later, Vernon Reid says the song has had an amazing life.

"Many artists have a rueful feeling towards their most popular song," Reid says. "I actually still love the song, 'Cult of Personality.' It's really so much more relevant now then it was then."

Living Colour doesn't sell out arenas anymore. The band plays small clubs and sells fewer records. But, compared to the literal mobs of attention in those early days, Glover says he welcomes the change.

"What I'm doing and how it's going right now is so much better for me, because there is no pressure," Glover says. "There is no fishbowl experience."

The years have also given the band wisdom. With age, Reid says "the music becomes even more crucial as a motivating factor." For Reid, if the music isn't the center, it falls away — he says he's seen it happen with many older musicians.

In this interview, Glover talks about the surreal experience of recording "Not Tomorrow," a song about his dying mother. The band also weighs in on being an all-black hard-rock group in a white-dominated genre.

"It didn't start with us," Reid says. "It won't end with us."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

Here's one of the most recognizable guitar riffs ever recorded in America.

(Soundbite of song, "Cult of Personality")

RAZ: That's guitarist Vernon Reid, founder of the band Living Colour, from the 1988 song "Cult of Personality." "Cult of Personality" is on nearly every list of the 100 greatest rock songs ever written. It won the band critical acclaim, Grammys and stadium rock fame. But what made Living Colour unique in the world of hard rock was that all of the band members were black in a genre dominated by white rockers.

For a time, Living Colour split up, but the band regrouped in 2000. Guitarist Vernon Reid, singer Corey Glover and the rest of Living Colour are back again with a new record. It's called "The Chair in the Doorway." And like their previous work, it's an unapologetic homage to American hard rock but with a bluesy twist.

Vernon Reid and Corey Glover join me from NPR New York. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Mr. VERNON REID (Guitarist, Living Colour): Hi, how's it going?

Mr. COREY GLOVER (Vocalist, Living Colour): Hi.

RAZ: Vernon Reid, I want to ask you about the song "Cult of Personality," which is your most-recognizable single. Has the success of that song been a mixed blessing for Living Colour?

Mr. REID: I remember the day that song was written. It was literally written in one rehearsal session, and there was no cult of personality at the beginning, and at the end, there was, and we played it I think a day or so later at CBGB's for the first time.

So the song has had this amazing life, and nobody was prepared for it on a level, but many artists have a rueful kind of feeling towards their most popular song, and they kind of despise it. I actually still love the song "Cult of Personality" because it's really so much more relevant now than it was then.

RAZ: Corey Glover, Living Colour became really huge really fast at the end of the 1980s, Grammy Awards and touring with the Rolling Stones, a cover of Rolling Stone magazine. These days, you're playing to smaller crowds and you're selling fewer records. Is that, in any way, harder to deal with?

Mr. GLOVER: I'm always reminded of an incident in Raleigh, North Carolina, where we were on the Stones tour, and I decided to go to a mall. For whatever reason, I didn't have a hat on, so my hair was long, and it was down my back, and I got mobbed for some strange reason, and�

RAZ: Everybody recognized it because you had�

Mr. REID: Girls�

Mr. GLOVER: It wasn't just girls. It was a lot of folks. It was people. It was just a crush of people. Now, I was really taken aback, and I was - and it really sort of traumatized me.

What I'm doing right now and how it's going right now is so much better for me because there is no pressure. There is no sort of like fishbowl experience in that.

RAZ: There's a track on this record, and it's got so much energy. It's about not being a young man anymore. The song is called "Young Man." I want to hear it for a moment.

(Soundbite of song, "Young Man")

Mr. GLOVER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) young man. Now that I'm grown, I don't really (unintelligible). I know that I haven't arrived. I never felt so far away.

RAZ: Vernon Reid, how does age change the way you approach music now?

Mr. REID: The funny thing about is that the music becomes even more crucial as a motivating factor because you can be carried by youth and beauty and the excitement of it all and, you know, cute girls and things like that, and there's a funny thing. As you get to a certain age, if the music for its own sake isn't central, it falls away, and I see that with a lot of - just a lot of other artists. They simply don't want to work that hard, I mean, and I can understand that.

The thing about music for me, it's always been about the possibility of doing better, of being better, of transcending everyday experience. You know, of course, like anybody else, you know, I would love for things to go well, I want the room to be filled, I would love for the record to be all over the radio, but really, to do the thing well for its own sake is a very important factor.

RAZ: We're speaking with Vernon Reid and Corey Glover, members of the legendary rock band Living Colour.

There's a song on this record, on your new record, that for some reason reminds me, at least lyrically, of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," and it's called "Not Tomorrow."

(Soundbite of song, "Not Tomorrow")

Mr. GLOVER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) nothing even matter. Women cry, people die�

RAZ: Corey Glover, you're singing: Women cry, people die. Today I look for truth. What's this song about?

Mr. GLOVER: The bittersweet part of this, of making this song, was my mother was in the midst of dying while we were recording this song, and I don't know if the muses came down or what, but it was about her. We had just about finished it, and I just laid down the last bit of the vocal, and the phone rang, and it was very, very, very, very surreal that these things that I was talking about, the person that I was talking about, sort of reached out to me somehow. I'm getting upset, sorry.

RAZ: No, no.

Mr. GLOVER: Well, it was a very powerful moment. A really deep silence descended on the session. Everybody became very quiet. Everybody stopped moving, and it was one of the things that gave this record a soul.

RAZ: I want to ask you guys about being African-Americans in a genre that is, has been and still is dominated by white musicians. There have been some rock bands with African-American members, Bloc Party for example, from the U.K.

Mr. GLOVER: Yeah, great band.

RAZ: But it hasn't really changed much since the time when you guys really broke out.

Mr. GLOVER: You know, I don't know if I agree with that because it hasn't changed enough, but it has changed to a certain degree. You know, it didn't start with us. It's not going to end with us. I mean, with the rise of the Afro-punk movement alongside the Black rock coalition, with bands from, you know, TV On the Radio to the Noisettes. You know, a very good friend of ours, William DuVall, is now the lead singer of Alice in Chains.

RAZ: Right.

Mr. GLOVER: And that would have been literally unthinkable. For one of the seminal bands of that movement to have an African-American lead singer and for that to be accepted is tremendous. Not enough has changed, but the landscape is vastly different than it was when we came on this scene. I mean, it was like - when you think about a band like Bad Brains, what they went through, and we're standing on the shoulders of The Isley Brothers and Bad Brains and, you know, many people who are not remembered as well as they should be now.

And now, we see a whole new landscape of artists, from Tamar Kali through the Bloc Party and so on. You know, it's still a struggle, a struggle for identity, and a struggle for recognition, a struggle for marketing dollars, you know, especially now that the record business is collapsing. But having said that, you know, the best days of rock 'n' roll are ahead of it.

RAZ: That's Vernon Reid and Corey Glover of the band Living Colour. Their new album is called "The Chair in the Doorway."

Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, thanks for joining us.

Mr. REID: Thank you.

Mr. GLOVER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. GLOVER: (Singing) (Unintelligible) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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