Cult of Musicality: How Living Colour Defied Expectations and Defined Hard Rock in the ‘80s

Living Colour didn’t just fight racism in the 1980s—they wrote songs about it.
Living Colour
Living Colour / Niels Van Iperen/GettyImages

There weren’t a lot of hard rock bands like Living Colour in 1988. Their lead singer was into wearing neon Body Glove wetsuits. Their big Top 20 pop single name-checked Joseph Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi. Their bass lines could be as funky as their guitar riffs were heavy. And perhaps most jarring—at least to record executives trying to sell this music to a mass audience—they were Black.

“One person [at a label] thought I sounded too much like Ben Vereen,” Living Colour lead singer Corey Glover told SPIN in 2008, referencing the legendary Black singer and stage actor who originated the role of Judas in the Broadway show Jesus Christ Superstar. “Or they said the songs didn’t have hooks. But the bottom line was always: ‘We don’t know how to market this. We don’t know where to put this in a record store. They’ll put you in the R&B section because they’ll see your faces on the cover.’ ”

Those label execs were wrong. On the strength of the blistering “Cult of Personality”—the song with those aforementioned historical references—the group’s 1988 debut album, Vivid, reached No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum. Living Colour toured with The Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses and exposed millions of impressionable teenagers to songs about racism (“Funny Vibe”), gentrification (“Open Letter [To a Landlord]”), addiction (“Desperate People”), and other important issues. Living Colour also wrote plain-old love songs. They were never one thing.

Nearly 40 years later, Living Colour are still rocking crowds and defying expectations, and for a variety of reasons—some related to professional wrestling, some to video games—“Cult of Personality” remains extremely relevant. This is a rock ‘n’ roll story unlike any other.

Made In Brooklyn

Living Colour is the brainchild of virtuoso guitarist Vernon Reid, who was born in the UK to West Indian parents then moved to New York City as a young child and grew up in Brooklyn. He credits his folks with exposing him to all kinds of music—not just the stuff deemed “Black music” by record companies and radio programmers at the time of the band’s rising.

“It was very eclectic,” Reid told Red Bull Academy in 2014 of his musical upbringing. “And the best thing about my parents, they never said this is white music, and this is bad music, and we don’t listen to that kind of music. My parents never said that. My mom was actually into British invasion bands like The Dave Clark Five. She literally had records of the Dave Clark Five and stuff like that.”

Inspired by Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix, Reid picked up the guitar as a teenager and eventually began listening to genre-pushing jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. These and other sonic voyagers became major influences, though Reid never stopped spinning his James Brown and Kool & The Gang records. In the early ’80s, Reid linked up with avant-garde jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and joined his fusion band The Decoding Society. 

In 1983, after leaving Jackson’s crew, Reid formed Living Colour, in an attempt to marry his various divergent influences. “So punk was affecting me, the avant-garde was affecting me, pop was affecting me, all these things, and I wanted to find a way to pull it together—pulling all the various weird spaces in my head together,” Reid told Red Bull.

The following year, Reid accompanied his sister to a party and heard a guy sing “Happy Birthday.” The singer was Corey Glover, a multi-talented singer and actor from Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who had soaked up the diverse sounds of his neighborhood. Glover told Reid, “What I really want to do is sing in a rock band,” and the two soon joined forces. Drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings rounded out the lineup, and the band began playing around New York City.

Black Rock Coalition

Around the time he formed Living Colour, Reid went to see Eye & I, a new group started by his bassist buddy Melvin Gibbs. Reid was perplexed and incensed to find nobody in the audience, and that led him to call his friend Greg Tate, an influential music critic at The Village Voice

Living Colour
Living Colour / Paul Natkin/GettyImages

“I just got all these people in the room, and I was like, ‘Is it just me or is there something going on here? ’Cause I just went to this gig, there was nobody there, nobody knew about it. I just wanted to ask you all, am I bugging?’ ” Reid told Red Bull. 

From these conversations was born The Black Rock Coalition (BRC). Tate penned a manifesto that includes the following pronouncement: “The BRC embraces the total spectrum of Black music. The BRC rejects the arcane perceptions and spurious demographics that claim our appeal is limited. The BRC rejects the demand for Black artists to tailor their music to fit into the creative straitjackets the industry has designed.”

Reid became the organization’s president, and as Tate recalled years later, the attention generated by the BRC helped Living Colour cultivate its fanbase. 

“The early audience for Living Colour was definitely a Black BRC audience,” Tate said. “And it really kept that band’s name alive and afloat until things really started to happen for them, really even after the release of the record.”

The BRC wasn’t the only thing responsible for breaking Living Colour. Reid met Mick Jagger while the Rolling Stones frontman was auditioning musicians for his 1987 solo album Primitive Cool, and while Reid’s tryout was “terrible” in his own estimation, something good came of the session. Jagger told Reid that he’d heard good things about Living Colour, and that he wanted to see them live. Not long after, Jagger accompanied guitar god Jeff Beck and music journalist Kurt Loder to catch the band at CBGB, the iconic punk club where Living Colour were regulars. 

Jagger loved what he heard and offered to produce some demos for Living Colour. They recorded two songs, “Which Way to America” and “Glamour Boys,” and that led to some major label interest. Living Colour wound up signing with Epic. In 1988, they released their debut album, Vivid, produced by Ed Stasium, whose credits included Ramones and Talking Heads. The LP features Jagger’s two demos, a Talking Heads cover (“Memories Can Wait”), and a certain politically charged hard-rock anthem that would become Living Colour’s signature song.

Cult of Personality

“Cult of Personality” came together during a single band rehearsal in Brooklyn. Glover sang a run of notes, and when Reid tried to match him on guitar, he created a mammoth riff that reminded him of both Led Zeppelin and the jazz-fusion group Mahavishnu Orchestra. The heavy lick demanded equally heavy lyrics, and luckily, Reid had already written something about world leaders and their ability to captivate followers. As Reid told Louder in 2016, the song is about “celebrity, but on a political level.” 

Corey Glover of Living Colour.
Corey Glover of Living Colour. / Dave Hogan/GettyImages

“It asked what made us follow these individuals who were larger than life yet still human beings,” Reid said. “Aside from their social importance, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King both looked like matinee idols. That was a strong part of why their messages connected.”

The lyrics mention Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, John F. Kennedy, and Mahatma Gandhi—four very different men with similar levels of charisma. (Reid was originally going to name-check Adolf Hitler, but he decided against it.) The song samples speeches by Malcolm X, JFK, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the title takes its name from a 1956 speech by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. 

It was hardly the stuff pop-radio dreams are made of, and yet “Cult of Personality,” which was released as the LP’s second single, became a massive hit. The music video was all over MTV, and the single reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also earned the group a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. The follow-up, “Glamour Boys,” all about shallow dudes who wear designer clothes and party their lives away, also cracked the Top 40, and Vivid peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200.

“There was a certain amount of, well, we arrived,” Reid told Red Bull. “You know, it felt almost disembodied, but of course we worked really hard for it to happen. It was cool, it was weird, it was hard, it was awesome, it was strange.”

Living On 

Living Colour didn’t fare quite as well with their 1990 sophomore LP, Time’s Up, another sonically adventurous collection featuring guest spots from Little Richard and rappers Queen Latifah and Doug E. Fresh. It stalled at No. 31 and managed only gold sales, though Living Colour did pick up another Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance.

Vernon Reid, Corey Glover, Will Calhoun, Doug Wimbish
Living Colour / Gie Knaeps/GettyImages

The following year, Living Colour joined Jane’s Addiction, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nine Inch Nails, and others on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour, a signpost of the alt-rock era just getting underway. Living Colour’s third album, Stain, arrived in 1993, by which time Doug Wimbish had replaced Muzz Skillings on bass. Interpersonal issues were starting to take their toll, and the group split up in 1995. 

They reunited in 2000 and have since released three studio albums: Collideøscope (2003), The Chain In The Doorway (2009), and Shade (2017). The last of those—a “deconstruction” of the blues in the band’s unique style—includes covers of songs by The Notorious B.I.G., Robert Johnson, and Marvin Gaye. 

As the band continues touring and creating new music, “Cult of Personality” remains a part of popular culture. In 2004, the song turned up on the soundtrack for the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and in 2007, wannabe shredders wailed along to the song in Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock. It’s since been used in various other games, including Shaun White Snowboarding and NBA 2K16

In 2011, professional wrestler CM Punk used “Cult of Personality” as his entrance music when he made his grand return to WWE’s Monday Night Raw after a highly publicized contract dispute. As a condition of re-signing with WWE, CM Punk insisted that the company pay to license the track, as it was his Little League team song in 1989.

“Wrestling is such a spectacle, and it’s so ritualized, with these storylines and narratives about good versus evil,” Reid told PopMatters. “The whole story of CM Punk taking on ‘Cult of Personality’ is a very moving story. We were talking one time, and he said, ‘When I was playing Little League when I was 12, “Cult of Personality” was our get-out-on-the-field music.’ They won their championship that year, and that stayed with him. It’s interesting to think of the life of the song.”