When it comes to hardcore punk, it’s hard to think of a more revered band than Washington, D.C., quartet Bad Brains. Over the decades, celebrated artists have waxed rhapsodic about the band’s life-altering impact on their respective musical paths. Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Vernon Reid, Adam Yauch, Dave Grohl, Chino Moreno and Randy Blythe are just a few among those who unequivocally cite Bad Brains as one of the most important acts in music history.
No surprise, then, that the release of the band’s self-titled debut in February 1982 has gone down as a pivotal moment in the evolution of punk into hardcore. Even the album’s iconic cover of a yellow lightning bolt striking the dome of D.C.’s Capitol Building seemed to signal what the band’s cult following had known for over two years by that point: that Bad Brains delivered a jolt unlike any other band before or since. But the group could arguably have left an even deeper imprint had the public at large gotten to hear its first formal recording shortly after it was completed in a single afternoon in August 1979.
Initially distributed as a small-run cassette, that recording was bound for perpetual obscurity until its proper release (with an updated mix) in 1996 under the title Black Dots. By that point, the band’s legend was so thoroughly consecrated that even the vitality that Black Dots captured didn’t much enhance the aura already surrounding the Brains. It probably didn’t help that the band’s forward momentum had sputtered spectacularly just a year earlier due to an ill-fated attempt at mainstream recognition with 1995’s God of Love on Maverick Records. With Bad Brains’ glory days retreating into the rear view, this then-newly uncovered evidence of the band’s visionary creative power was relegated to side-note status.
Now, though, with the first official vinyl pressing of Black Dots in over 20 years arriving March 29 via Wax Audio Group and Think Indie via Universal Music Special Markets, we get another opportunity to appreciate how Bad Brains arrived more or less fully formed right out of the gate. The one-time pressing of 1,500 white vinyl units will be followed by a run of black vinyl in April.
For Rollins, a fellow D.C. native who went on to become an unlikely pop-culture fixture in the years after his tenure in the like-minded pioneering hardcore act Black Flag, there’s no questioning the impact the initial cassette release of Black Dots should have had.
In the 2012 documentary A Band in DC, he says that his life started the moment Bad Brains frontmanPaul “HR” Hudsonleaped offstage and landed on him midsong at a show. He also observes that, “had the Bad Brains pressed up a thousand LPs of that tape, that single album would’ve been a determinant record in what’s known as American hardcore music and independent music, and it wouldn’t have taken into the new century for a documentary on that band to come out.”
“It’s all speculation, but I’d kind of have to agree with him,” muses producer Don Zientara, who recorded the session at Inner Ear Studio, which was then based out of his home basement. “As a matter of fact,” he says during a call with Billboard, “I’m actually sitting in the room that we used as the control room during that recording.”
Though Zientara soon racked up a list of recording credits with some of the leading lights of the D.C. punk and post-punk movement, includingMinor Threat, Jawbox and Shudder to Think, he reckons he was still fairly inexperienced when the members of Bad Brains walked into his home on that sunny August day.
“There was one door, no windows, a gas water heater and a furnace in there,” he recalls. “In the summertime, it got hot — very hot. So just to break things up a little bit, and also to get some isolation, HR was singing outside in the backyard while the rest of us were sweating away inside.”
Like so many low-budget recording efforts, Black Dots is chock full of warts-and-all charm. The stray sounds between songs — like one of Zientara’s daughters, who was about 4 years old at the time; crickets chirping outside; and guitarist Gary “Dr. Know” Millercalling out, “Can you hold it for a secooooond?” — play as much a part in the album’s structure as the songs themselves do, particularly since several Bad Brains staples like “Banned in DC,” “Attitude,” “Pay to Cum,” “Supertouch/Shitfit,” “Don’t Need It,” “The Regulator” and “How Low Can a Punk Get?” all appear in different versions on later releases.
There are certainly signs of naivete, like the track “Redbone in the City,” which borrows a little too overtly from the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.” Likewise, Miller’s clean guitar parts and bassist Darryl Jennifer’s lines tend to wobble within a boxed-in mix. Still, the listener gets a palpable sense of the ambience of the physical space the music was made in, a crucial distinguishing element that’s mostly missing from the denser, more aggressive style of the band’s subsequent work. Where the self-titled debut leans toward frenzied, breakneck tempos, Black Dots documents a scrappier group of musicians whose delivery adheres much closer to traditional punk.
Make no mistake, though: In spite of its limitations, it would be unfair to classify Black Dots as a mere archeological curio or even a “demo,” per se. By 1979, not long after a shift from their previous incarnation as a fusion-emulating act named Mind Power, Bad Brains show a startling — and wholly natural — flair for precision.
Of all people, HR should know. He fondly recalls how, in the lead-up to the session, “Darryl and Gary wanted to play more precisely, and they were saying that my guitar playing wasn’t up to par.”
“They were,” explains Zientara, “very well-rehearsed. And they knew what they wanted to present and get across to the listeners: this tornado of music.” He says that he’s proud of the mix that longtime Bad Brains manager Anthony Countey came up with in ’96 and that not much was lost from the raw power of the original mix he did straight to cassette.
Indeed, drummer Earl Hudson’s cymbals sound positively thunderous. On “How Low Can a Punk Get?,” Hudson (HR’s younger brother) plays the intro figure that inspired Grohl’s signature intro to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And even at proto-thrash speed, it’s clear why Grohl once compared Hudson’s tastefulness to session drumming giant Bernard Purdie.
“It’s hard to find new, innovative acts,” offers Zientara. “The Bad Brains were exactly that. They were doing something that nobody else did. They took punk music and said, ‘OK, here’s a new form of music, and we’re going to do something new with this new form of music.’ It’s sort of like someone climbing Mount Everest and saying, ‘I’m going to do some glider-flying from the top.’ ”
Perhaps most tellingly, HR — who long ago renounced the fast-and-furious approach that put Bad Brains on the map and affirms that he would say, “No, thank you,” to singing again in the punk style — still looks favorably upon Black Dots.
“A friend brought it to me recently,” he says. “It sounds great.”