Life used to be a whole lot simpler in the rock and roll business. Back then, the only thing a band had to worry about was putting the music across -- getting the live show into shape and making sure the material came across properly on album. Because once those elements were in place,suucess was usually just a matter of time and perseverance.
It doesn't work that way now, though. Nowadays, pushing an album to the top of the charts depends as much on image and marketing as on music -- and that, says Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, makes for some very strange times.
"These are different days," he says, over the phone from an Orlando, Fla., hotel. "The stakes are so much higher now. To get media attention of any kind is a battle, because you're competing with Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butt-head. And that's not me being flip -- that's very real."
At the moment, Living Colour is on the last American leg of a yearlong tour in support of "Stain," the band's third and latest album. Musically, it's been great, particularly since all that roadwork has helped cement new bassist Doug Wimbish's role in the band.
"One of the things about playing with people is that it's like having a relationship with their rhythm and with their ideas," says Reid. "And those relationships shift and change and grow. So with a song like 'Desperate People,' we play it now in a way we've never played it before. It's not that it's got major, radical differences, but there are new things that you find, and things where you say, 'OK, this is what really works.' "
Reid feels that kind of evolution within the group is only fitting, though, because the music world itself seems to be going through so many changes.
For instance, it used to be that the biggest acts in rock were also among the most innovative. Think back, and it's easy to remember how artists like Bob Dylan, James Brown or the Beatles led the way into new ideas. But now, it's rare that you'll find a platinum-plus act that's willing to risk reinvention.
"A good example would be U2," he says. "They went out on a limb in a way that the really big bands just don't do. Because the essential motivating factor [for really big bands] is different than it was. I mean, I can't see, like, Def Leppard doing it. If Def Leppard had it within its aesthetic to make a radical reinvention of itself, I think that would be worthwhile to hear. But I don't think it's likely."
Why not? "Because there is a grinding tension between the various movements in popular culture -- between what's going on above the surface, what's going on below the surface," he says.
"But what's interesting is what was going on above the surface used to ignore what was going on below the surface; now, what goes on above the surface is taking its cues from what's going on below the surface. And what's going on below the surface is acutely aware of being observed.
"When this band came in, we came in with an honest, maybe naive idea of wanting to deal with just day-to-day life, and somehow set it to music," he says. "That's the cheesy, Reader's Digest version, but that's sort of what it was.
"But now, the amount of calculation that has become involved in making records and manipulating media -- and, really, manipulating the consumer public -- is [incredible]. OK, there's always been stuff like Fabian, you know. But I don't think that there's anywhere near the amount of cynicism. Alan Freed got caught paying off DJs, but he also believed completely in the music. He loved what was being made."
Despite a growing cynicism in both the business and the marketplace, Reid remains more interested in than appalled by the way popular culture is evolving. And he refuses to let Living Colour just be swept away by the shifting tides of popular culture.
"We're a band in the Information Age," he says. "We're trying to maintain a human connection in the middle of it. A lot of stuff along the way has affected and changed and influenced. We're a band that's subject to influence."
But Living Colour is also a band that stands for certain things, and that's where Reid draws the line. "You know, we've been accused of being preachy, but we believe in certain things, whether it's P.C. or not. Because the hard and fast edges of morality, of right and wrong, are not as solid and as firm now as it once seemed to be.
B6 "And maybe they never were. But I don't think so."
When: Saturday at 7 p.m.
Where: Hammerjacks, 1101 S. Howard St.
Tickets: $14.50 in advance, $16.50 at the door
ACall: (410) 659-7625 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets