For a few years there, that persistence paid off: The Arsenio appearance was followed a few weeks later by the band’s SNL debut. In May 1989—a full year after its release—Vivid peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200, en route to double-platinum sales, and that summer, Living Colour’s old pal Mick invited them to open for the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels stadium tour. But even as they were being welcomed into the rock establishment, Living Colour were once again thrust into a position where their mettle was put to the test. Their co-openers for a handful of Stones dates were Guns N’ Roses, then embroiled in controversy surrounding their song “One in a Million” and its use of racist and homophobic epithets. During a pre-show radio interview, Reid and Calhoun expressed their discomfort with the song, leading to a backstage standoff with the GNR crew and a crudely defensive “I’m not a racist, but…” retort from Axl Rose onstage. At the following night’s show, Reid decisively shut down any further debate on the matter: “Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them ‘f*****s. If you don’t have a problem with Black people, then don’t call them ‘n******s.’ I never met a n*****r in my life. Peace.”
In the wake of the GNR showdown, Living Colour seemed to actively recede from the world of mainstream hard rock, perhaps to avoid a situation where they’d ever have to share a stage with someone like Axl Rose ever again. Vivid’s 1990 follow-up, Time’s Up, was a more confrontational collision of Bad Brains-schooled hardcore, doomsday metal, and sacred-cow slaughters that helped land Living Colour a slot among like-minded misfits on the inaugural Lollapalooza tour the next summer. But before long, alt-rock’s shift away from polyrhythmic punk-funk to the more monolithic sound of grunge cast Living Colour to the margins once again. Following 1993’s grimly intense, lukewarmly received Stain, the band split up (at least until 2003’s reunion effort Collideøscope ushered in an ongoing, if highly sporadic, second act).
Given that Living Colour made their greatest commercial and cultural impact with their first album, it’s tempting to confine their story to the turn of the ’90s. And the relatively brief timespan of their groundbreaking first run might explain why this band has yet to be properly canonized by rock’s remaining gatekeepers: The fact Reid was nowhere to be found on the 100 greatest guitarists lists published by Guitar World and Rolling Stone feels like an especially egregious injustice; ditto for Glover on the latter’s greatest singers list. You won’t find Vivid on any best debut albums lists from rock-centric publications of note. And an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—for which Living Colour have been eligible since 2013—seems less likely with each passing year.
But the legacy of Vivid has a very long tail, extending from Rage Against the Machine and Sevendust to Ben Harper and Gary Clark Jr. to TV on the Radio and Bartees Strange to Brittany Howard and Black Pumas to WILLOW and Soul-Glo. Not all of these artists are necessarily direct sonic descendants of Living Colour, but they’ve all flowed through the cracks in the industry barriers that Vivid breached, and, in their own unique ways, have each inherited the mission of reclaiming Black creators’ frontline position at rock’s vanguard, both under- and above-ground. Just last month, a DIY Black artist with the No. 1 single in America could be seen rocking a guitar on SNL while dressed as a Dead Kennedy—and in moments like these, the way to the America that Living Colour and the BRC envisioned back in the mid-’80s seems a little more clear.
Additional research by Deirdre McCabe Nolan