A look back on Bad Brains’ self-titled debut – one of punk rock’s most definitive records ever
"You put on the Ramones during [the late '70s] and you think, 'Man, that's fast.' My competitive nature says, 'You think that's fast?'" - Darryl Jenifer
Armed with the motivation to play faster than their heroes, and the technical ability to do so from their background in jazz fusion, Bad Brains began writing a batch of groundbreaking songs that took shape just a year or two after the punk boom of '77 but sounded lightyears ahead of their forebears. To them, it was just punk rock, but to the rest of the world, it was the dawn of a harder, faster, louder new punk subgenre: hardcore. Their early repertoire was laid to tape a few times during the late '70s and early '80s, but they didn't get around to finally releasing an album until 1982, after the band had been banned from several venues in their hometown of DC and moved to New York (as immortalized on "Banned In D.C."). The result is their self-titled debut album -- originally a cassette-only release on ROIR Records and known colloquially as "the ROIR cassette" -- which is available today as part of Bad Brains' extensive, ongoing reissue campaign on limited edition, clear with yellow, red, and green splatter vinyl in our store. In honor of the reissue, we're looking back on what is one of the most timeless, classic, and influential punk rock LPs of all time.
If the songs on Bad Brains don't sound revolutionary today, it's only because of the countless bands that took after their sound. When you listen to the raw fury immortalized in songs like "Sailin' On," "Don't Need It," "Attitude," "The Regulator," "Banned In D.C.," "Supertouch/Shitfit," "Big Take Over," and "Pay to Cum," you're not just hearing one of the greatest punk bands of all time firing on all cylinders; you're hearing the seeds being sewn for the past 40 years of punk rock. Darryl, Earl, and Dr. Know all sound like they're racing against each other and constantly pushing the others to play faster. Their breakneck-speed rhythms are the album's beating heart, and H.R. is its soul, with his snarling voice, his profound grasp of melody, and the positive mental attitude in his lyrics that helped start the entire movement of positive-minded hardcore.
At this point, Bad Brains has done as much for punk and rock in general as any of the first-wave '70s punk bands that Bad Brains were inspired by. You'd be hard-pressed to find a popular alternative rock band who isn't influenced by Bad Brains -- Nirvana, the Beastie Boys, Jane's Addiction, and Red Hot Chili Peppers are just a few of their fans -- and no matter how many bands mimic their style, nothing stops Bad Brains from sounding fresh. Even with the primitive recording style that was common within early hardcore, the songs on this album sound like they could've come out yesterday.
We'd still be talking about Bad Brains like this even if it only had fast punk songs, but what makes the album even more innovative is that it contrasted the speed of those songs with slowed-down reggae on "Leaving Babylon," "I Luv I Jah," and "Jah Calling." Punk and reggae were already clashing (no pun intended) in the UK's Rock Against Racism movement, but the US hadn't really seen reggae infiltrate the punk scene until Bad Brains had the instinct to do so. Their background in fusion made the concept of mixing genres come naturally to them, and they pulled it off because they were never afraid to push themselves to try something new. (That fearlessness is why no two Bad Brains records sound alike, and why they achieved longevity when many of their peers broke up or faded away.) By the time ska-punk boomed in the '90s, the fusion of punk speed and Jamaican rhythms was all over American radio and television, and most of those bands had Bad Brains to thank too.
The songs on the ROIR cassette exist multiple times throughout Bad Brains' discography (including on 1983's Rock For Light (which we also have a new reissue of) and the Omega Sessions EP that was recorded in 1980 and is getting reissued in January 2022), but the versions on this record are the definitive versions. Having recorded them multiple times before hitting Jerry Williams' 171-A Studios in Alphabet City, Bad Brains knew these songs like the backs of their hands, and after playing them over and over at their legendary live shows, they were hitting harder and playing faster than they did on their earlier recordings. And as much as Rock For Light is also an all-time classic punk record, the more polished production (by Ric Ocasek of The Cars) softened Bad Brains' attack. The ROIR cassette captured Bad Brains at the peaks of their powers, and at their most purely punk rock. Bad Brains did great stuff later on (I Against I, Quickness, etc), but nothing gets the blood rushing like the self-titled record. These songs have long been canonized for a reason, and unlike some of the other decades-old albums in the rock canon, listening to it never feels like homework. These songs just feel so alive, so in-the-moment, and they make you feel the same. Context is needed to talk about how important Bad Brains is, but context doesn't matter once you click play. All that matters is the sheer thrill of it.
Bad Brains are in the midst of reissuing several of their classic albums, including this one, on their own Bad Brains Records via Org Music. We've teamed with the band on exclusive vinyl variants of each of the reissues, and we just launched pre-orders for three of them including the self-titled LP on 140g clear with yellow, red, and green splatter vinyl, limited to just 750 copies. It looks like this:
You can pre-order the I And I Survive EP (on clear with blue and white splatter vinyl, limited to 350) and Rock For Light (on translucent yellow with red and black splatter vinyl, limited to 500) too.
We also just interviewed Darryl Jenifer.
Browse our full collection of exclusive Bad Brains vinyl variants here.