Professor Kimberly Mack’s satisfying addition to Bloombsury’s 33 1/3 series, an exploration of Living Colour’s Time’s Up, begins in a familiar place: the Academy in midtown Manhattan, at Living Colour’s December 1990 two-night homecoming.
To quote “Type”, the album’s lead single, those concerts — which both Mack and I experienced in person — felt like a moment when everything was possible. The band whipped the audience into a moshing frenzy, and coming off a double-platinum, Grammy-winning debut (1988’s Vivid), its second album was earning even more praise from critics than its first. But everything wasn’t actually possible. Time’s Up quickly fell off the charts, and though it finished at #5 in the year-end Pazz & Jop critics poll and won the band a second Grammy, it sold only about a fourth of the copies Vivid had. This mismatch — between critical success and commercial decline — is at the heart of Mack’s book about the album.
The concept of a sophomore slump is a familiar one. The question of how Living Colour would follow Vivid was crucial: would they deliver more of the same or something different? Either tactic carried risks, but the band moved strongly towards the latter approach. “I wasn’t interested in building off of or continuing Vivid in any way,” bassist Muzz Skillings told Mack. Similarly, Ed Stasium, who produced both Vivid and Time’s Up, told Mack, “We didn’t want to duplicate what had been done on Vivid.”
One of the many strengths of Living Colour’s Time’s Up is that it includes extensive comments from all four of the band members who played on the first two Living Colour albums and many others who worked with the band on those records. What the band members shared with Mack about their upbringings helps explain why they chose this more adventurous route, as it’s clear their high level of sophistication nudged them in that direction.
Guitarist Vernon Reid described no “guardrails” around the music his family listened to when he was growing up, and vocalist Corey Glover — whose interests ranged from pop to hip-hop to hardcore — reported hearing “music from different places constantly”. The legendary jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius first introduced Reid to the band’s drummer Will Calhoun, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music.
Mack describes Time’s Up as “edgier and more confrontational than Vivid and less easily categorized.” It was an album on which the band took “a range of styles and genres of music (hardcore, hip-hop, funk, soul, and soukous)” and pulled them together “into an exciting rock melange”. For example, “New Jack Theme” mixed metal with Larry Levan-style House music. For Mack, Living Colour was “confident, jarring, fierce, collaborative, and hybrid—of their diverse backgrounds and commitment to racial, political, and social justice.”
Critics, too, noted the band’s courageous risk-taking. In a November 1990 Rolling Stone cover story, music journalist David Fricke commented, “Musically, Living Colour’s refusal to simply fall back on the funk-metal meal ticket of Vivid illustrates the band members’ deep-rooted spiritual resolve.” Stasium, who had also worked with the Ramones, Talking Heads, the Pretenders, and others, told Mack that Time’s Up was “truly the only masterpiece that I ever worked on.” Overwhelmingly, the critics joined him in holding the album in high regard, but that didn’t guarantee its commercial success.
The question, then, is why this album, despite its high quality, sold poorly compared to the band’s debut. According to Mack, as Living Colour “became a message band”, and as the music “became more experimental, more challenging than the best of hard rock”, more “complex than Van Halen or Led Zeppelin”, it gave “casual fans of the band” a reason to “move on”. She describes Living Colour as “trying to become itself in the face of a music industry and fans who weren’t sure how to react to them.”
Some smart critics understood that as it was happening in real-time. Entertainment Weekly‘s Greg Sandow gave the album an “A” but noted that it “gets so complex, in fact, that it’s fair to wonder whether there are any pop hits on it.” With three decades of hindsight, lead singer Corey Glover conveyed to Mack that he had reached a similar conclusion about Time’s Up:
We were trying very hard to break away from Vivid, which was, in my estimation, looking back at it, a mistake. We had time to break away. Time’s Up is a brilliant record. But in terms of our career, that was a third or fourth record, not a second record. How do we keep going on the trajectory that we’ve been on? I think that our time in the limelight would have been much brighter and would last a little bit longer.
Following Time’s Up, the band’s fortunes declined further. Stain, from 1993, failed to crack the top 20, win a Grammy, or achieve gold certification, and the reaction of critics was mixed. In 1995, the group disbanded. Mack correctly notes that “major commercial success did not sustain itself long enough” for Living Colour’s music “to be deeply engaged by a larger public over a long period of time.”
Of course, there’s also racism to factor into this equation. Certainly, part of the reason many people looking for an easy listen didn’t buy Time’s Up was its sophistication and complexity, but the fact that the band was Black — and continued to directly address, in Mack’s words, “racial, political, and social justice” — almost certainly played a role as well. Mack reports on the band’s interaction with Little Richard, who guested on standout Time’s Up track “Elvis is Dead”. Richard told Calhoun not to look for “pats on the back or sanctioning from this industry or from this country.” According to Calhoun, Richard “wanted us to know” that certain people are “not going to be for y’all,” and he advised them to stick to their guns. “You’re gonna have to know that the acknowledgment comes from the family, comes from us,” Richard said.
Mack helpfully shines a light on a still-excellent album and band that have all too often been overlooked over the past 30 years, but it’s important to note as well the inspiring personal element of her book. Living Colour helped validate Mack as a Black woman who is a die-hard rock fan. She grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses, the same projects as Jay-Z, so some might have expected her to listen exclusively to hip-hop. She was sad to see so few Black faces at the rock shows she attended, but Living Colour was an important corrective. Let’s give her the final word:
Living Colour not only gave me permission to love rock music but also inspired me, through songs like ‘Pride’ (‘Don’t ask me why I play this music./ ‘Cause it’s my culture so naturally I use it.’), to learn more about the Black origins of rock and roll and rock music. And I did.