The story behind Living Colour’s Cult Of Personality
How Living Colour’s overtly political song – which namechecks Stalin and Mussolini – gave the band the biggest hit of their career and was adopted by wrestling star CM Punk
Almost 30 years later, it’s difficult to contextualise the shock waves generated by the emergence of Living Colour. The four-piece group were articulate, exceptionally proficient musicians with a fresh sound that struck like a lightning bolt. Avowed to protest the political injustices of the New York City locale in which they’d grown up there was another significant reasons why Living Colour challenged the status quo of hard rock music: they were black.
While musicians like Maiden’s Steve Harris, Lemmy and Anthrax all stood in Living Colour’s corner, others were intimidated. In such less enlightened days the only way the band could disarm the situation was by sending it up. From the stage at London's Astoria in 1988, frontman Corey Glover announced: “Hi there. I’s your new neighbour.”
“Metal has always been a very tribal thing,” guitarist Vernon Reid reasons now. “It’s also extremely competitive. I embraced the power of hard rock, but we were unwilling to play by its rules and culture. Some felt we were provocative merely for existing.”
Some of Living Colour’s detractors also objected on the grounds that the group had friends in high places. The patronage of noted writers David Fricke and Kurt Loder had already set wheels rolling. And with a rival label turning them down, the band were signed to Epic Records at the instigation of Mick Jagger, who produced their demo tape, two songs from which appeared on 1988’s debut album, Vivid, produced (mostly) by Stones engineer Ed Stasium. Reid and drummer Will Calhoun expressed their gratitude by guesting on Jagger’s Primitive Cool album.
“In a very singular way, Mick Jagger is rock’n’roll,” Vernon Reid enthuses. “We had even been considering the possibility of making records independently, but Jagger’s belief in us opened lots of doors.”
The hook-up had been initiated by Reid attending an audition for Jagger’s solo band, where he impressed the singer so much that he kept a promise to see Living Colour at legendary (now defunct) Lower East Side club CBGB. With Jeff Beck also in the audience on the night concerned, it will forever live in Reid’s mind.
“Before we went on stage one of our managers told me: ‘He’s here,’” the guitarist recollects fondly. “I didn’t tell the rest of the band and just tried to put his presence out of my mind.”
Long before Jagger’s lending a hand, Living Colour had already pieced together Cult Of Personality, the song that would become their signature hit, fashioning it around a jarring guitar at a rehearsal in a loft in Brooklyn.
“That cool riff had a Zeppelin-ish vibe, but also a Mahavishnu Orchestra thing going on,” Reid recalls. “It was based on a series of notes that Corey had sung – my attempt to repeat that [on guitar]. I already had the lyrics, but with the music in place it very quickly took on a life of its own.” The use of sampled speeches from John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Franklin D. Roosevelt enhanced the political agenda of a song which seemed to denounce idolatry, reminding us how politicians always let down the common man. “Cult Of Personality was about celebrity, but on a political level,” Reid explains. “It asked what made us follow these individuals who were larger than life yet still human beings. 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. Even now it’s why Barack Obama has that certain something.”
Other politicians/statesmen name-checked in the song are Benito Mussolini, Joseph Stalin and Mahatma Gandhi.
“At first Hitler was in Mussolini’s place,” Reid confides cagily. “Stalin murdered more people than Hitler but, fearing it might be misconstrued, I decided not to [include] Hitler in any way.”
Cult Of Personality – Top 20 in America, number 67 in the UK – brought the band a Grammy for 1989’s Best Hard Rock Performance. Parent album Vivid sold two million copies.
“Tom Morello once told me that he had been thinking about forming a band when Cult Of Personality came out – it prompted him to do so,” Reid says proudly. “We were part of a genuine cultural change.”
For all their influence, Living Colour fragmented in 1995 during the recording of an uncompleted fourth studio album.
“I was getting divorced, there was a lot of personal turmoil,” Reid sighs at the memory. “It had all started to turn sour when Muzz [Skillings, original bassist] left [in 1992]. We found Doug [Wimbish] quickly and he was the right replacement, but we didn’t give ourselves time to heal. Besides that, Kurt Cobain’s suicide and the demise of Soundgarden affected me greatly. I never understood why bands broke up till it happened to my own.”
It was Wimbish who was with Reid, Glover and Calhoun when Living Colour reunited five years later. An album, Collideøscope, followed in 2003 with The Chair in the Doorway six years later.
“The anger [between us] is finished with and the past has been let go,” says Reid, his face a picture of determination. “It was time to get back to doing what we do best.”
In 2007, the band re-recorded the song for the computer game Guitar Hero III, and introduced the song to a whole new generation of fans and was later used by former wrestler CM Punk as his entrance music – the band played the song live in front of 80,000 people at Wrestlemania 29 on April 7, 2013 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It’s a song the band never get tired of playing.
“I’ll never understand those bands that resent their hit records,” concludes Reid. “When other artists say that they don’t want to perform them on stage any more, what is that all about? It’s four minutes out of your life, man. What’s the problem with making a few people happy?”