The most important American band of the last 35 years is Bad Brains.
Nirvana may have reshaped popular music by bringing the ethos and aesthetics of hardcore punk to the mainstream charts, but that ethos and aesthetic largely came courtesy of Bad Brains a generation earlier; a band that solidified punk’s second wave by stripping away much of the nihilism and “trendiness” that had been associated with the genre under the reign of British bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned.
When it was revealed this past November that Brains guitarist Dr. Know was fighting for his life after suffering cardiac arrest and was on life support following massive organ failure, fans were braced for the worst. Doc, born Gary Miller, managed to pull through, thankfully; the band and Miller’s family kept fans updated on his condition as he steadily improved.
“The Family of Gary (Dr. Know) Miller and the entire Bad Brains family would like to thank everyone for their well wishes. We are happy to say that Dr. Know’s condition is no longer considered critical.
He still remains under the close care and watch of doctors at this time so please continue to keep him in your thoughts and prayers. We continue to ask that you honor our privacy during this time. Positive vibes and PMA!”
Dr. Know is expected to make a full recovery, but not without months of rehabilitation. It was announced this week that a GoFundMe has been set up to help him and his family address his medical expenses, as he had no insurance to cover the steep medical costs.
“As many of you know, Gary Miller (a.k.a. Dr. Know or Doc), guitarist of the Legendary Washington D.C. punk band Bad Brains, suffered cardiac arrest in early November last year,” read a message posted on the Bad Brains Facebook page. “His condition quickly progressed to multiple organ failure, and he was on life support for almost 2 weeks. At the time, his doctors gave him a 5 percent chance of survival. But by the power of PMA, LOVE and FAMILY, he was able to pull through and survive.
“We started this campaign in an effort to raise money for Doc’s medical expenses and additional care that will be needed once he returns home.”
The group has received overwhelming support from fans and followers, who’ve donated and tweeted their support. The fact that Dr. Know is out of the proverbial woods is encouraging and wonderful news because the magnitude of losing him would be devastating for so many fans of punk and hardcore. This is Bad Brains. Dr. Know’s guitar is an indispensable part of what makes that band go. And Bad Brains is a cornerstone of American punk and the godfathers of hardcore.
When they emerged in the late ’70s as a phenomenon born in Washington, D.C., that was making waves in New York City’s punk scene, there was no other band like Bad Brains. The speed, the virtuosity, the sense of purpose and camaraderie with the audience—it all stood in stark contrast to what many people had believed “punk” meant. You were not supposed to care about playing well. You were not supposed to give a fuck about anything. You certainly weren’t supposed to champion a “Positive Mental Attitude,” as Brains frontman H.R. decreed. And you certainly weren’t supposed to have ever cared about jazz.
Dr. Know’s jazz chops, born of an early fascination with fusion players like John McLaughlin and Chick Correa, was transposed to a punk sonic approach after the young guitarist discovered The Damned. “A lot of different people,” he told guitar.com. “Whoever was out there, everything from jazz fusion to rock ’n’ roll to [Led] Zeppelin to [R&B group] Rare Earth—which was one of my first records and concerts. I was always keepin’ an open mind and checkin’ out the music. The early ’70s was a very fortunate time. There was a lot of different kinds of good music. I would see whoever I could.”
As a result of his disparate influences, he gave hardcore bands—and all bands influenced by hardcore—a musical template for combining virtuosity with raw emotion. You’re very aware that this guy can play; and he doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of energy or power in his playing. Everyone from John Frusciante to J. Mascis owes a debt to Dr. Know. He can channel Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols one second and deftly incorporate the rhythms of Peter Tosh the next. The earliest Bad Brains recordings highlight his intense virtuosity, even on the most frenetic recordings, like “Black Dots” and “How Low Can A Punk Get?” from the band’s 1979 Black Dots cassette demo. Over the years, Bad Brains would incorporate metal and funk into their established sound and Dr. Know’s playing is the backbone of it all. How many L.A. bands were influenced by his metallic crunch on I Against I songs like “She’s Calling You?” How easily did he channel the shredding tendencies of late ‘80s hard rock guitar? Listen to the guitar solo from “Soul Craft” on 1989’s Quickness. And you can hear him shift seamlessly between punk, reggae and metal on “The Messengers” from the same album.
Bad Brains’ legacy is well-established among those in the know, but they’ve still remained a big cult band; which is what happens when artists refuse to be boxed in stylistically or when acts don’t opt for the big, glossy crossover album. There has also always been criticism for homophobia in some of the band’s early lyrics; and the drama of unpredictable on-again, off-again frontman H.R. would tend to undermine high-profile moments; such as signing to Maverick and touring with the Beasties in the mid-1990s. But none of it obscured Bad Brains in reputation or importance. Ultimately, they were beloved for being open while also staying Bad Brains.
“You got to be true to yourself. We purposefully went out of our way to be different. And we just let the spirit lead us,” Doc once explained. “We weren't like, ‘Well, we gotta write a part like this, because this is what's playing on the radio now.’ We tried to grab from all of our influences and just put it in the pie.”
Husker Du opened for Bad Brains. Henry Rollins got early exposure performing onstage with Bad Brains.Fugazi, the Chili Peppers, Living Colour, the Beastie Boys, Minor Threat, Faith No More, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Nirvana; they’re all directly descended from Bad Brains. While U.K. punk godfather Don Letts once said Bad Brains was to America what the Sex Pistols were to England, it could be argued that the band meant even more to America. The Sex Pistols’ aesthetic and philosophy was somewhat muted by the emergence of acts like New Wave and 2-Tone, but Bad Brains’ influence was still evident 15 years after their 1982 single “Pay To Cum.”
So we should all be ecstatic that Dr. Know is pulling through. We’ve lost too many legends already in 2016. Since he has the opportunity to continue performing and recording, if you have the chance to catch a show or hear a record—do it. Because you should relish any chance to hear one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.
And the most influential American band of the last 35 years.