“Moment by moment, day by day, the world is just slipping away.”
That line from the Living Colour song “Time’s Up” seems relevant as ever. American life came to a grinding halt because of a global pandemic and, day by day, we’ve tried to decipher our roles in a virus-stricken and possibly permanently-altered world. Then, Americans emerged from their isolation in explosive fury last week in response to the killing of George Floyd. Wearing masks to protect against the novel enemy of coronavirus, they took to the streets to stand together to protest some of the country’s more traditional ailments.
To those unaware, a spin of Living Colour’s album Time’s Up, might suggest it was written in response to the last 30 days of life here. It was actually released 30 years ago, but its themes speak directly to matters of race, police brutality, the value of science, who controls information, even who is the rightful “king” of rock and roll – all topics that have jammed U.S. news feeds since the beginning of May.
Time’s Up was released in the fall of 1990, as the follow-up to the band’s successful 1988 debut album, Vivid. The video for that first album’s opening track, “Cult of Personality,” was aired morning, noon and night on MTV and what viewers saw was a departure from the standard hard rock videos. Four black men, wreaking havoc sonically with spectacular guitar-driven rock and potent lyrics that begged the question, what makes someone a leader? Specifically, we were asked to consider the charismatic traits shared by historical figures as seemingly disparate as Mussolini and Gandhi, Stalin and J.F.K.
It’s a pertinent question in modern American life. “Cult of Personality” launched the New York band into music’s stratosphere. It has remained in rare air largely thanks to Time’s Up.
It’s not just that it won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance or even that it boasts the musical precision and creative brilliance of Vernon Reid, the band’s founder and guitarist. Reid is considered one of the all-time guitar greats, a prolific artist who has been featured live or on record with diverse acts like Mick Jagger, Mariah Carey, Rollins Band and B.B. King. And, it’s not just that vocalist Corey Glover gave “hair metal” new meaning by whipping his dreads back and forth to the songs he passionately delivered and co-wrote. It’s not just that drummer Will Calhoun and bassist Muzz Skillings move the beat seamlessly from one song to the next, despite the album’s genre jumps from hard rock to funk and even calypso.
What makes Time’s Up important is its content, which took an unflinching look at what was wrong with American life in 1990 (and, sadly, peered into 2020). It doesn’t simply identify what’s wrong, it also offers some hope in the end and reminds listeners where change starts. The full band participated in writing the album, though Reid was the principal songwriter. The album opens with the title track and its call to make change or watch the world burn: “Moment by moment, day by day/The world is just slipping away/Your future won't save your past/The time is now, it won't last/The time is nigh/Time to do or die.”
That track goes into “History Lesson” and “Pride,” a pair of songs that focus squarely on race in the United States, drawing as far back as the slave trade on “History Lesson.” It sets the tone for what’s to come in lyrics like “In Africa, music is not an art form as much as it is a means of communication.” The rest of the album is Living Colour communicating its urgent messages to the masses.
“Pride” speaks to racism and is so direct Glover actually asks in song, “Can’t you feel my rage?” Since it speaks to black pride, the track also includes some telling lines about appropriation, as hot a topic now as it was 30 years ago. “You like our hair/You love our music/Our culture's large, so you abuse it/Take time to understand, I'm an equal man.”
Before the deaths of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor and scores of others, and long before this national revolt against police violence, Living Colour penned the lyrics, “Police, they chased my brother/Policeman licensed to kill/Oh how I miss my brother/Good shoes are so hard to fill/Policeman are you happy?/You snuffed a medical student out/Maybe he could have changed the world/I guess we'll never find out/But I know what to do/With someone like you.” Glover’s vocals shift from mournful to ominous, as perfect a musical metaphor for these current events as you’re likely to find on any record. “Someone Like You” is the sixth track on Time’s Up. Further down the list is “Fight the Fight,” which reminds those who are actively engaging for change that “We are all in the same revolution/You got to know what you're fighting for.”
Cultural appropriation is again addressed on “Elvis Is Dead,” which recalled a line from Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”: “Elvis was a hero to most/But that's beside the point/A black man taught him how to sing/And then he was crowned king.” To drive home the point, guest vocals on the track come from Little Richard, whose death just a few weeks ago resumed this conversation for a bit on social media.
On “Type” the big hit from the album, science and technology are equated to “the new mythology,” a line which hits home in COVID days, when the scientific community’s notions on the virus and best practices for keeping people safe are being second-guessed by politicians. The video shows the band against a dystopian backdrop, Glover delivering the haunting closing line, “Everything that goes around comes around.” The song “Information Overload” came more than a dozen years before Facebook, long before the explosion of social media and the unfortunate misinformation that is often the residue of that explosion. Living Colour even guessed at who controlled information back in 1990, though some would argue they were off by nine percentage points: “They say the future, it's on a microchip/Don't you know we're all on a sinking ship/Only ten percent control all the rest/Only ten percent decide what is best.”
“Solace of You” is the record’s penultimate track and it’s a soul-soothing gem that goes down easy after Living Colour’s extra-strength medicine. The serene calypso beat is a shift from the album's guitar crunch and is nearly muted by Glover’s assured vocals: “When it hurts to be out there/Where no one will care/I've got the solace of you.” Whoever or whatever “you” is in the song isn’t identified, it’s open to interpretation. In challenging times, people turn to their faith, their families, their friends. Maybe they take their hope from a successful manned space launch or their favorite comic offering “Some Good News” on YouTube. We’ve all had to lean hard on “you” recently and “Solace of You” is a song of gratitude and hope.
The album’s final track, “This is the Life,” asks listeners to examine their lives and consider all they don’t have. They start with the material things, like more money or a better car, but delve into more emotional desires by mid-song. “In another life, your friends never desert you/In another life, you never have to cry/In another life, no one ever hurts you/In this other life, your loved ones never die,” Glover sings before the song’s indisputable proclamation, “This is the life you have.”
After the songs about racism and systemic oppression, the album closes with the reminder that this is the life you have. According to Living Colour, you do have some ability to change it, even in a world that works against your autonomy. You can’t change every aspect of it, but your actions are the most important ones at work to make what’s left of it better. As the song closes, Glover sings, “In your real life, treat it like it's special/In your real life, try to be more kind/In your real life, think of those that love you/In this real life, try to be less blind. This is the life you have.” That may be Time's Up's most timeless message.