Friday, April 24, 2020

Time's Up: A Musical Masterpiece

The year 2020 marks the 30th Anniversary of the release of the Living Colour album Time's Up. During this time of quarantine I've had time to go through my music collection and once I realized the significance of this year for one of my favorite albums of all time I knew I had to share both my thoughts and experiences with this masterpiece.

The official release date was on August 28, 1990 with the album peaking at number 13 on the Billboard 200. It would go on to achieve gold status in terms of sales and won a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. These public achievements would certainly deem this album a success but its meaning for me goes far beyond a chart topping multi-platinum selling release.

This album had a huge impact on me both as a musician as well as a music fan because it not only changed my musical life at a very important time in my journey but continues to inspire me to this day with its socially conscious lyrics to the personal stories that are told both in the lyrics as well as in the musical expressions from each member.

Like so many other music fans I certainly have my favorite albums and when I take the time to break down such favorites with other music fans I tend to categorize them by genre. There are always favorite songs of mine in terms of the fan in me that just loves to listen to his favorite tracks. Then there are songs that inspire the drummer or the songwriter in me. But it is rare to be able to say that every single song on an album had a deep impact on me both as a fan and as a musician. To me I would compare it to finding the one. The attraction you feel to that person, flaws and all, and how for some reason you can't stop thinking about this person because they truly grabbed you...and you know that no other person in all of human history could ever have such an impact on you.

That is what the Living Colour album Time's Up did to me.


When I started college I was a clueless 18 year old that decided to study music at El Camino Community College in Torrance, CA because musical ambition was all I had at that point. I really didn't know who I was as well as my place in this world so I preferred to get lost in any good music I could find. A lot of times it would be nothing more than knowing the popular songs that were on the rotation cycle at MTV and that included several selections from the band Living Colour. I remember being very impressed with what I had heard but it had never dawned on me to go out and buy their albums. Then one day I was talking music with a friend of mine named Holly Owens, who was also the daughter of my Jazz Theory professor. When the topic of rock  music came up Living Colour was one of the bands that we discussed and before I knew it she had strongly suggested that I buy the two albums that they had out at the time because to paraphrase her words: The singles are good but there are so many other great songs that you need to hear.

Soon after that conversation I was at one of my then favorite music stores, The Tape & Record Room in Long Beach, CA. This is the place I would go to for import and bootleg albums but I was also aware of the fact that they also sold used albums. Being the poor college kid that was almost out of money after adding to my illegal collection I had just enough cash in my pocket to buy two $3.00 used cassette versions of the band's first album Vivid as well as Time's Up. To this day these two purchases that I made at that time (in case you are wondering I have since purchased multiple CD copies of both of these albums) are some of the greatest musical investments I have ever made in my life.

Vivid was an amazing album. To hear rock songs that had both a pop edge along with elements of funk blew my mind. Vocalist Corey Glover had a power and emotion that I had never heard in anyone before and he really knew how to get into character when he sang the story line of each song. Guitarist Vernon Reid had a great presence, wrote some amazing riffs and was downright scary when it came to both his rhythm playing as well as his soloing ability. Bassist Muzz Skillings was both solid as a rock, smooth as silk and had this amazing way of moving around the fret board. On top of that, his slap bass in the grooves was so refreshing since it was not something one would hear in rock songs at that time period. Finally, drummer Will Calhoun definitely had my attention as he had some serious power in his playing yet I could also hear his familiarity with many of the other musical styles that I too had grown up. I was a big fan of the feel in his groove, his beautiful two handed ride patterns as well as well as his melodic fills. Yes, Living Colour is a rock band but it would not be incorrect to identify them as a fusion band as they knew how to blend so many elements from so many other styles of music to create their own sound.

Once I got through Vivid I couldn't wait to hear it's follow up. To say that my jaw hit the floor was an understatement. In my mind, it is not only the band's best album but I would go as far as saying that it is as good if not better than any of the greatest rock albums of all time. The diversity of the songs alone are what make it a musical masterpiece but I have always been amazed at the flow of the songs because they take the listener on an emotional journey. The musicianship is second to none and while we all have our preferred tastes there is no rock band in my mind that collectively have better musicians than the four members of Living Colour. From chops to deep grooves, amazing dynamics to beautiful musical expressions...this album still has so much to offer both to any musician looking for something fresh to inspire them to the music fan hungry for a unique sound.

Being a music student at the time meant that I was learning so much from music theory to different musical genres. It was always good to listen to any kind of music that featured many of the things that we were learning in class as it definitely brought all of those lessons to life. Aside from that, this album also gave me a lot to learn in terms of drumming as I not only listened to Calhoun's performances with a curious ear but also transcribed the drum parts to the songs Time's Up, Elvis is Dead, Type and Information Overload in order to get a deeper understanding of his playing.

Outside of my college studies I was performing in clubs with an original progressive rock band that featured school mates of mine that proudly wrote music based on a lot of what we were learning in our music classes. Many people complimented our sound as they compared us to other great bands such as Iron Maiden and Queensryche. I was proudly playing all of what I thought were interesting part on my then 11-piece drum set and thought that I was on the right track. However, the album also showed me something that I really needed to hear at that time: the groove! Suddenly I realized that it was no longer just about how clever one could be with their fills or their tricky time signatures even though Living Colour mastered such concepts. It was about being one entity, one driving machine filled with energy and power and I just couldn't get enough of it. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. Everything from the old school funk, to the current R & B, to my parents' Latin albums to the driving rock songs of my teen years...nothing sounded like the groove of Living Colour. 

The Masterpiece 

In this portion of my blog I am going to list each song along with a link while also sharing a bit of either what I observed in the song and/or what I learned from the song.

1) Time's Up:
Anyone who was a fan of the album Vivid knew that Living Colour could bring the energy. Songs like Cult of Personality, Desperate People, Funny Vibe, and Which Way to America really got us moving. But I had no idea what was waiting for me when I heard the title track, which was also the opening track of the album. It hit me in the face like an opponent in a classic Mike Tyson fight as the opening groove rivaled the speed and energy of bands like Anthrax, who were musical peers of the band . Then they kick into a solid mid-tempo groove for the verses before taking us back into opening section again after Calhoun takes us back with a fill that sounds almost like someone is stumbling back into a raging river. The guitar solo section begins over an intense syncopated groove before going into a max for speed section where Skillings plays off of Reid's guitar solo while Calhoun pounds the opening groove with even more intensity. Then back to the verse section before they go into one last guitar solo before ending the song with a strong finish. Amazing!

2) History Lesson: 
This band certainly has progressive elements to their music but one thing that they are really good for was giving their audience something to think about, especially when it came to culture and/or racial injustice. This musical selection allowed us to have a greater insight to the musical approach of their ancestors and it led perfectly into the next song.

3) Pride:
One thing about this band is that they are proud of their heritage. They also have no problem looking anyone in the eye and telling you exactly what they think or feel. As a drummer I have to admit that I had a special sense of pride in this song because of the fact that it was written by Calhoun who we already know started to have a huge impact on me first as a drummer. The song features nice riffs that feature some tricky rhythmic parts that was very refreshing for that time period. The songs also featured some honest lyrics that were delivered with that now signature personal performance that I had grown accustomed to hearing from Glover.

4) Love Rears its Ugly Head:
If you're a guy this song already resonates with you on so many levels. Musically it's brilliant as you can see a combination of the band's R & B and rock roots joined together in a beautiful way. As always the band is going to add some tricky elements to their songs but it is never done in a way to upset their beautiful flow. Lyrically the song is filled with lots of honest humor and can only cause the listener to walk away with a smile on their face.

5) New Jack Theme:
Another song where you can hear the band's diverse musical influences. The verses feel like a Soka groove on steroids, which causes a dramatic feel since this song is about an arrogant character. Calhoun adds some nice trigger placements throughout the verses while Glover again plays the character well. Then we get to the guitar solo section where there are several electronic sounds that were common in up tempo dance music at that time. Add some electronic percussive overdubs and the groove only intensifies. The outro pushes even harder before hitting a wall at the end of the song that leaves the listener on the edge of a cliff. Why was this important? Because the album was about to change moods with the next song needing us to really stop and listen. 

6) Someone Like You:
A straight ahead song written by Skillings that is driven by a simple but catchy riff with some serious emotion as it may be the most personal song on the album. One can listen to this song and respond with either anger or tears as it tells various stories of the experience of inner city life. For those who do not know, Glover is not only a great singer but also a highly experienced actor and this song really shows that because of the various personas he plays including a narrator who is speaking to someone that may not care about the struggles faced by people living in these conditions. The choruses are short but the riff that unfolds under the vocals shows a sense of resolution as the character seems to be coming out of his struggle before stating openly that they know how to address these various struggles. It is a simple but brilliant song. 

7) Elvis is Dead:
What happens when a young drummer with a massive drum set hears a song like this? You want to rediscover your kick and snare and lay down some serious pocket. In other words, this song took me back to those moments when I first discovered the groove but came from a different perspective of both power and precision. It's so hard to put into words how it made be feel but I do know that it literally changed my life as a drummer. The band drives right through each verse before hitting the choruses, which are filled with some cool syncopated licks. Reid's amazing rhythm playing along with Skillings' amazing bass work have to be recognized along with Calhoun's performance because they help propel the groove. Lyrically, the song took some heat from Elvis Presley fans even though it was addressing many of the supposed Elvis sightings that were common at that time. Even though it was done with some humor Little Richard's guest performance reminded us that we should just appreciate all that Presley did for us while letting the man rest in peace. It s not only a fun song but a great piece of music.

8) Type:
This was another song that showed me what it meant to lay down a strong groove. For this to come right after the last song took me to groove heaven. The main riff was catchy as it really stuck in your head. The breakdown section after the second chorus was a nice little statement riff that also told a bit of a story before kicking into a final verse that had even more energy than the previous verses. Ironically, the sound of the song was joyful for me even though the lyrics kind of stopped you in your tracks and really made you think about the world around you. How much of it is real? 

9) Information Overload:
This is probably my favorite song on the album as it was the song that I studied the most during my college music studies. Calhoun's drumming style and performance gave me so much to take in and I spent hours listening to it before I decided to transcribe it. During that time there were moments when I was simply trying to figure out what Calhoun was playing and then there were moments when I tried to understand his approach. There were certainly elements to his playing that influenced what I did but I also wanted to see how a different approach would inspire me to find my own voice as a drummer. The power of the first half of the song always kicked me in the gut and yet I still had a ways to go on this musical journey. Enter the guitar solo section, which for me always felt like I was getting on a roller coaster. The musical performances are top notched but the energy the band produces is flat our scary because this section is not just about Reid's amazing solo but also the tight groove between Skillings and Calhoun that starts at the bottom and then rises until it seems to explode at the end of the section with the three of them playing the same hits in unison. Then it goes back into the last verse and chorus that help finish this story of great concern with a message that is arguably prophetic considering a lot of what is going on in the world today.

10) Under Cover of Darkness:
This is one of the most thought provocative songs I have ever heard as it addressed a subject that needed to be talked about during a time when AIDS became a big issue. Once Reid delivered his opening arpeggio we could hear that this song was going to be not only intense but very personal. The honesty in Glover's message and performance are stellar and the groove that the rest of the band lays down under his story of both desire and discipline shows the complexity that we feel as people when it comes to our sexuality. In other words, we know what we are feeling and in most cases that seems to overshadow the thoughts to come to mind when it comes to reminding ourselves of what we should be doing. Thankfully, at least in the song; there is Queen Latifah acting as the voice or reason even though for most of us that is not always the case.

11) Ology:
Skillings is a musical giant and to hear all of the amazing sounds that came out of his bass to write this song was one of the most refreshing pieces of music on the album. He didn't just groove and then lay down another bass line over that groove, which we have seen in the past with bands that feature two bass players. He used his instrument to layer this song with various melodies and almost percussive like figures. In other words, he orchestrated a song with one instrument and showed how the bass can be used in ways other than just an instrument of support. 

12) Fight the Fight:
This is a very powerful song. The opening groove is light and kind of moves around in a lot of places before it kicks into a strong groove that has that signature Living Colour soul. The thing I like about this arrangement is that it really seems to express all of Glover's feelings who in a lot of ways is speaking for the rest of us. We share our thoughts and feelings before going deeper as we now share our deepest concerns. At this point many of us are now speaking with great intensity as the dialogue has now become more personal. On a musical level I love how the music starts lightly and then becomes more intense as it too is also sharing that same experience that Glover is singing about.

13) Tag Team Partners:
Here is a bit of fun that is had by Glover and guest performer Doug E. Fresh. The mouth percussion bit was real popular back then and like with the song Ology we see how this can be used in a refreshing way. You know, why not?

14) Solace of You:
This song has always fascinated me because it has that pleasant Calypso feel yet features lyrics about pain and struggle. Still, it goes to show that when we endure such hardships that we have to identify how we feel and then find a solution to our struggle. The chorus of voices that gather behind Glover are like a rising of the people who are aware of what they need to do to free themselves from the shackles that others have put on us. It is a beautiful song of hope. Meanwhile, the music driving the song is absolutely beautiful. Reid's guitar playing shines like the sunshine while Skillings offers that smooth signature bass line of his over Calhoun's beautiful brush playing.

15) This is the Life:
There are days when this song really hits home for me. It's usually when I am filled with disappointment while still searching for answers. The riff and the groove are light and reminds me of those days when I stood on the roof of my house and just thought about the world around me. Lyrically, it seems to address every thought that comes to mind during those what if moments. In most cases we think of the negative and try to identify the things that need to change. By the time we get to the guitar solo section there is a groove that has an almost offsetting feel, which seems to represent that feeling of discomfort. The last verse and chorus is the message of hope and encouragement that we need to hear as it reminds us what we have to do while also reminding us how we need to see ourselves. The end of the song is always sad for me because I enjoy the comfort that it gives me while also realizing that this masterpiece of an album has now come to an end.


So how does one truly summarize 30 years of gratitude for a musical masterpiece that still moves me to this day? Most of the time I'll revisit the album while I am alone and just immerse myself in the music. I rarely share it while I am in the company of others because if I see them get kind of ho hum about it I take it personally because of the way the album has impacted my life. That is not fair to others as I have to respect the things that move them so again, that is why I prefer to listen to the album alone.

I didn't get to see the band on that particular tour but to see them perform several songs from this album on the following tour was still a pretty amazing experience. What made that moment even better was to be at that show with two of my closest friends who were also musicians that were really into the music of the band.

On a very personal note the greatest moment I had regarding this album was when I met drummer Will Calhoun at NAMM 2016 in Anaheim, CA. I actually got to shake his hand, tell him how much the band meant to me while sharing how his drumming changed my life. The look of gratitude on his face took me back to the excitement of my teen years as it gave me a moment with one of my drumming heroes that I will never forget.

Writing this blog took me back to so many emotions that I felt when I first heard this album and it still amazes me that 30 years later I can still listen to the same collection of songs and feel such a level of excitement. Again, one can never underestimate the timelessness and impact of great music. To me this album was a such a gift as it not only helped shape my musical journey but also challenged my thinking in so many ways. There is so much more that I wish I could say but I can't put into words many of the feelings that this album stirs within me. Again, it's like encountering the one.

So with that, I say thank you to the amazing Living Colour:

Vernon Reid
Corey Glover
Will Calhoun
Muzz Skillings

Thank you for this gift that you gave to me as well as the rest of the world 

Carlos Solorzano
Twitter: @csolorzano18
IG: desertdrummer

No comments:

Post a Comment