Black Flag

Punk + Metal - Melody = America's Best Hardcore Band

For all intents and purposes, Black Flag invented the hardcore punk sound that most punk bands emulated in the '80s and '90s. Stripping away the pop hooks and power-poppy melodies that were '77-era Britpunks' bread and butter, Black Flag left nothing but raw, in-your-face agression and Greg Ginn's jazzy, amelodic guitar work. Reducing punk to the core element of senseless rage, the sound Ginn & Co. developed was very bleak, and very powerful. Black Flag defined the essential American punk aesthetic, influencing thousands of young punk bands across the country, the vast majority of which never came close to the quality of prime Black Flag. Unfortunately, this only lasted for a few years. After a several-year layoff, when they were barred from releasing new material due to a lawsuit with Unicorn Records, Black Flag reemerged as a considerably different, and much less interesting band. Even in their earliest days their debt to metal and jazz were evident, but after 1983 those elements overshadowed their punk roots, to the band's detriment. If Black Flag had broken up in 1981, they might be remembered as the greatest American punk band ever. But they didn't break up in 1981, and released a string of mediocre records that did nothing but damage their reputation, though in fairness Black Flag's latter-day jazz/metal albums did help invent grunge. Whatever, Black Flag's first few releases are as a pure distallation of punk rage and agression as it gets.

The First Four Years (1983) ****

Starting with 1978's Nervous Breakdown and ending with scattered 1981 singles, this collects all the previously released pre-Rollins Flag material in one place. Nervous Breakdown might get five stars by itself, if I handed those out to 4-song singles that clock in under 5 minutes: singer Keith Morris (later of the Circle Jerks) is the best Black Flag ever had, sounding completely believable as a loud-mouthed drunk bellowing out a bad Johnny Rotten impersonation - "I'm going to have a nervous breakdown/My head really hurts", "I'm going to explode/I've had it!" "Fix Me," sounds like the Ramones gone psychopathic; Ginn's strangled guitar wants nothing more than to kill you. And "Wasted," remains to this day the ultimo Cali-punk anthem, all 50 seconds of it.

Fast forward to 1980, and Black Flag have released the Jealous Again EP with new singer Chavo Pederast. Pederast isn't the singer Morris was; he sounds like a normal kid fronting a punk band, not like a deranged lunatic. But that's okay, 'cause Pederast sounds just fine on yet another seminal punk classic: these 5 songs aren't quite as good as the 4 on Nervous Breakdown, but they still pretty much define American punk and are as good as Black Flag gets. The lyrics to the title track and Pederast's straight-faced delivery are classic - have I mentioned Black Flag's sense of humor? Flag are so ironic they're not ironic. Case in point: having "White Minority," sung by Pederast, a Hispanic immigrant. Their threat to the LAPD, "Revenge," is one of the two songs here that doesn't have its tongue somewhere in cheek. The other one is "You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You," sung (if you really stretch the definition of "singing" that is) by bassist Chuck Dukowski as an attack on Keith Morris for ripping off some old Black Flag lyrics and claiming credit for the Circle Jerks. Inspirational verse: "I've got no values/Nothing to say/Might as well blow you away!" I think they're being ironic.

Side two of this compilation contains some '81 singles and miscellany sung by their third lead singer, Dez Cadena, who's the least enjoyable of the trio. He's fine, but not as good as Morris or Pederast - or Rollins, for that matter. The '81 material isn't as good, either; I guess they were saving the best up for Damaged - Cadena's version of "Six Pack," is nothing compared to the Damaged version. "I've Heard It Before," is a hilariously stupid anti-authority rant, and their cover of "Louie, Louie," contains the lines, "Who needs love when you've got a gun." I say, quite an entertaining little package, all in all - and I do mean little, as this entire compilation clocks in around 25 minutes. I once blew my voice out driving along with this blasting full volume and me screaming along with the lyrics. Don't dare call yourself punk if you ain't heard this, is all I've got to say. Too bad it's so short.

Damaged (1981) ****1/2

"The epitome of generic hardcore," has gone down in history as one of the all-time stupidest things a critic for Spin has writ, which is saying something. Generic? How can it be with Ginn's wildly atonal axework at its absolute finest, swinging brilliant noise all over the place into an overpowering overload of crushing guitar frenzy? I'm in awe -- I don't think I've ever heard a racket this loudly powerful. And better yet, Ginn writes "tunes" almost to match, making this one of the most intense and essential punk records anyone has ever released. It also introduces the fourth and final Black Flag vocalist, Henry Rollins, a very angry young tattoed muscle freak. He's not the best vocalist the Flag have ever had, but on this album songs and singer are as perfect a fit as you'll find: Rollins sounds like he was born to howl lines like, "I ain't got no friends to call my own/I just sit here all alone/There's no girls that wanna touch me/And I don't need your fucking sympathy!....They say things are gonna get better/All I know is - THEY FUCKING BETTER!!!.... Depression/It's gonna kill me!" I don't know about you, but "Depression," always cracks me up. I mean, it's never that bad, is it? Too bad side two wallows a bit too much in its manic-depressive murk; sure, no one has captured pure pain quite as well, but that doesn't mean it should be painful to listen to. Side one, though, is as powerful and uproarious as punk rock gets - all but a couple of the songs are out and out classics. For a while the Flag are able to drown their sorrows with beer, loud guitar, and loud TV, but even in "Six Pack," and "TV Party," their fun is kind of fucked up. "My girlfriend asks me which one I like better/I hope the answer won't upset her" is the most hilarious line I've ever heard concerning alcoholism (and sadly, truest). And you know, I'm old enough to have vague memories of all of the shows the Flag salute in "TV Party," - 1981, has anything really changed since then? Not really, once you think about it. Except for this new-fangled internet thingy. For example, punk rock has not evolved in the least bit since Damaged was released nearly 20 (!) years ago. In fact, punk rock has gone steadily downhill since Damaged was released -- Black Flag inspired a lot of mediocre hardcore bands that indeed do sound "generic". But not this record -- it's too overpowering and emotional. Inspirational verse: "I know the world's got problems/I've got problems of my own/Not the kind that can't be solved with an atom bomb!" I suspect they're being ironic.

Everything Went Black (1982)

A compilation of pre-Rollins outtakes and radio ads.

My War (1983) **

Unicorn Records went bankrupt in 1983, allowing the band to release new material -- which they did at an insanely prolific rate, beginning with this album. With new recruit Bill Stevenson (of the Descendents) on drums, Henry Rollins on vocals, and Greg Ginn on guitar...and, um basically everything else (that "Dale Nixon" on bass ain't fooling nobody), Black Flag emerge a much different sounding band. A much sloooower band, particularly on side 2, which consists of three heavy dirges that sound like Black Sabbath at half speed but with Hank ranting about his emotional pain on top. The 3 tracks are very weird, and interesting to listen to at - once; they're not exactly enjoyable, though, unless you're strung out on heroin and collapsed in a near coma. Ginn & Co. were shooting for some mood, they missed it, and what they were aiming for just wasn't that compelling anyway (sorta goth-metal primal scream fuzz stomp). Side 1 fortunately doesn't wallow in the tar pit muck, and actually gets off to an invigorating start with the paranoid militaristic bark of the title track ("You say that you're my friend / But you're one of THEM!"), and "Can't Decide," which boasts killer Ginn guitar and interesting Hank lyrics about why he always smiles (?!). AFter that, the album quickly loses steam, as the rest of side 1 ranges from the passable to the mediocre; "I Love You," sounds like an attempt at crap-poppy Descendents melody-punk, and funnily enough, it wasn't Stevenson who wrote it (that would be departed bassist Chuck "You Bet I've Got Something Personal Against Keith Morris" Dukowski). If you're into numbingly slow Sabbathy sludge, this is the Flag LP to own...otherwise, bleah.

Family Man (1984) *

The first side consists of Rollins reciting his "poetry"; the second side consists of Ginn & Co. jamming. "Armageddon Man" unites the two, and it somehow manages to become the worst track on the album. Some of Rollins' spoken word stuff can be amusing, but these readings are just stupid -- juvenile crap that makes Jim Morrison sound like Dylan Thomas in comparison. Alright, the one told from the P.O.V. of a rat is kind of okay, but it's still stupid. Flip the tape over and you've got a side of Ginn & Co. sloppily wanking off, and since none of them are virtuosos, and it sounds like they didn't ever bother to "compose" but just plugged in and jammed for fifteen minutes, it's even more worthless and unlistenable than the Rollins side.

Live '84 (1984)

Exactly as it bills itself as.

Process of Weeding Out EP (1985)

More atonal jazz-metal instrumentals. Yawn.

Slip It In (1984)

The title track succeeds on its intentionally repulsive level, with a future L7 chick (who must have been jailbait at the time) moaning in the background. "Irony", I guess.

Loose Nut (1985) ***1/2

Well, well, well...this one actually turns out to be not half bad, making it the one post-Damaged Black Flag album worth owning. It's basically mid-tempo metallic hard rock with Ginn aiming for MC5 party-punk rather than grinding Sabbath metal, which makes all the difference -- the fun is back in the Flag! Sure, you can complain about the moronic and highly sexist lyrics, but they're obviously tongue in cheek from where I sit ("Your carnal desires / Are fanning the fires / You're really burnin' em up / Partyin' and such" -- you tell me that isn't intentionally stupid). You can't write rhymes that awful by accident, and given the Flag's vaunted irony back in the good old days, I'm pretty sure the fratboy sentiments of the title track are intended as sheer sarcasm. "Vertical smile," is a rather... umm...creative way to refer to a vagina. Anyhow, Ginn's guitar rips very noisily and creatively, more so than any Flag album since 1981, so I can groove off the heavy stomp of his crushing riffage and deliciously atonal soloings to the complete ignorance of the lyrical matter if I wish. While Ginn's got a one-track head (heh heh lil' pun), the lyrics that Rollins writes involve his typical psychotherapuetic self-loathing, and only "Sinking," drags into the despond with music as draggy as the lyrical matter. I don't care much for Stevenson's "She's Black," which may or not be racist (who can tell?), either, but the rest of the songs are pretty solid, with solid melody lines and interesting riffs, and none of them seem to go forever, either. It's no Damaged -- I mean, it's intended as basically dumb party music, and while Ginn as usual hits offmark (the Flag are too dark to party-hearty), that only makes it more interesting, if not exactly emotionally resonant -- but it's better than anyone has a right to expect from late-era Flag. Now 'scuse me while I dial, I'll be back in just a little while, soon as I get some :)

In My Head **1/2 (1985)

Let me start off by stating that dark, jazzy avant-metal is not the way I like to brew my coffee. Sure it's "interesting" but damn boring to listen to. And Ginn demonstrates the limits of his imagination with the awful solos and stale riffs he throws around: is it just me, or do I hear the same notes repeated over and over again in half of these "tunes"? One good song that kicks off side two, "Drinking and Driving," an attack on Motley Crue's Vince Neil, who killed the drummer of Hanoi Rocks while mixing the two, is worth hearing. The criminal justice system in America is a joke -- if I killed someone driving drunk, I'd be taking it up the rear in correctional facilities right now instead of typing out this review. But no, since he's rich and famous, Neil gets "community service" instead. Fuck that moron, and fuck O.J. Simpson too. Fuck Christian Slater -- if I beat up my girlfriend and threatened cops with a gun while I was on a coke binge, where would I be now? To think that the things Bob Dylan was complaining about in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" are still going on today -- if you've got the money, you can do whatever the hell you want. Anyway, this album goes on forever even though it's not that long. Ginn remains fixated on sex and pain to a ridiculous extent -- can't he come up with something else to talk about? Crazy girl, it's in my head, you're society's tease and I'm paralyzed and white hot (gee, I wonder what substance that's referring to?).

Who's Got the 10 1/2? ***(1986)

Well what a surprise -- this isn't that bad. It's actually listenable, in fact, a rarity for late-period Black Flag. Most of the songs on this live album come from Loose Nut, which must be a good album because these songs are enjoyable. It also must be a rather, um, simple-minded album, because all these songs are about gettin' some. You know what I'm talkin' about, as Marvin Gaye says. 'Cept we ain't all sensitive people; Ginn sounds like a deranged fratboy let loose on spring break. Bonus points for Rollins' speech in the middle of the "Slip It/Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie" medley - it's hysterical, in more ways than one. When I feel like sexist moron, and let's face it, we all do from time to time, this is the cock rock I put on -- beats Bad Company for sure. The title is a dick joke, naturally. The 10 1/2 belongs to bassist Kira, who's a girl.

Wasted...Again (1987) ***

A best-of that leaves a lot to be desired. First of all, it's barely over a half-hour long, which makes it a bit of a rip-off -- which is doubly inexcusable because Greg Ginn is the label head. The song selection is is hardly ideal, either, but given the time constraints, I suppose it's the best one could do. Look, it's like this: the ideal best-of would include Nervous Breakdown and Jealous Again in their entirety, and half of Damaged for side one. Side Two would cover the rest of their career. Oh well, we'll never see my compilation, will we?

Reader Comments

I read your reviews of all of Black Flag's albums. You seemed to have missed the point. Black Flag weren't concerned with being the best "punk" band. They simply wanted to You certainly are entitled to your opinion. But to me you just sounded like a stupid punker who got all upset that Black Flag stopped playing fast. Passing off "the process of weeding out" as "more atonal jazz metal instrumentals. Yawn.". Give me a break. As far as im concerned Black Flag went beyond punk. Go listen to the Exploited if you want that shit.

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I've Had It