When Living Colour showed up on the scene in the late ’80s, they did so with impressive assets at their disposal. Bandleader Vernon Reid could wail and moan on lead guitar, Corey Glover was a potent singer, and the rhythm section of bassist Muzz Skillings and drummer Will Calhoun swung as convincingly as they rocked.
Equal to the ferocity and finesse of the band’s musical approach was the intelligence contained within their songs. And that feature was on full display in their 1988 breakthrough single “Cult Of Personality” from their debut album Vivid. The song is now approaching its thirtieth birthday and still amazes with its combination of prescience and timelessness.
As Reid explained in a recent interview, the song, for which writing credit was shared by the four members of the group, burst forth in one memorable rehearsal session. “It was funny,” he says. “As we started the rehearsal, we had no ‘Cult Of Personality’ and at the end of the rehearsal there was ‘Cult Of Personality.’ The entire rehearsal was the writing of one song. We played that song the next time that we played at CBGB’s and people instantly dug it. We started playing the riff and people started bouncing off the wall.”
The music essentially came from the jam session, while the lyrics were lifted from a notebook of ideas that Reid carried around with him. These lyrics speak to the unwavering power some leaders have over their followers, a power sometimes based more on charisma than the actual impact or effect that any of their deeds might cause. To drive the point home, the song includes brief audio clips of Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt in between Reid’s furious leads and Glover’s muscular bellows.
Reid’s lyrics hint at how blindly following people based on their words alone can enable the worst kind of behavior on a grand scale. “I exploit you, still you love me,” Glover sings. “I tell you one and one makes three.” But the drawback to gaining so many adherents to your beliefs is that you’re likely to cultivate enemies as well: “Neon lights, Nobel Prize/When a leader speaks, that leader dies.” The names dropped in the song prove that a cult can form around anyone from peaceniks (Gandhi) to fascists (Mussolini), as long as the people listening vault them to an unrealistic pedestal: “I’m every person you need to be.”
Although it’s tempting to say the song is more relevant now than ever, Reid insists that “Cult Of Personality” never quite goes out of style and that it’s not really a political song. “The process of charisma and celebrity is outside of politics,” he says. “People come into the mix and they become divisive. They become celebrated and denigrated. There’s a kid right now who’s at his mother’s breast who’s going to be the world-famous fill-in-the-blank. That’s always gonna happen.”
“Cult Of Personality” was just the beginning of what’s been an impressive career for Living Colour, one that thankfully continues with a searing, soaring new album arriving in September of this year. The band has developed their own group of followers, but, unlike the narrator of their most famous song, it’s not likely they’ll lead them astray.