Black Flag – My War

My War

Black FlagMy War SST 023 (1984)

So much ANGST!!!!!  Fans divide over the legacy of the mighty Black Flag.  Pioneers of the 1970s and 80s California underground, they went through personnel changes and stylistics shifts through the years.

On the one hand, you have those who say “Stop after The First Four Years.”  Those were the early hardcore years.  Black Flag played fast, loud and snotty.  They were often pretty funny too.  Vocalists Keith Morris and then Chavo Pederast took the mic in the early years.  The thing about those early days was that the Flag was very balanced.  Founding guitarist Greg Ginn was the reclusive introvert, the enigmatic wizard behind the band’s totally unique approach to punk rock.  Hey, maybe the music should matter more than the clothes!  Confrontational and contrarian, the band leavened those elements with the wild, lackadaisical efforts of the vocalists, singing blunt lyrics so often drenched with monochromatic irony.  Bassist Chuck Dukowski, the outgoing, confrontational clown of the band, was in some respects the polar opposite of Ginn.  All together, they came up with a few devastating recordings of the likes of “Nervous Breakdown” and “Jealous Again”.  Not everybody got the jokes, like “White Minority.”  But fuck those people, seriously.  You could see the Flag as an extension of punk.  They were just the new product of a different central California culture.

When Dez Cadena took over vocals for a while, something kind of changed.  Cadena was a pretty weak vocalist.  He belted out a kind of gutteral howl.  That was about all he could do though.  The band was still kind of funny (“Louie, Louie”), but they kind of took on a more serious overtone too.  They were growing, but they suffered from growing pains.

Then you have the Rollins years.  Henry Rollins came along, by chance almost, mid-tour while Black Flag played the East Coast, and filled the void on vocals after Cadena focused on playing guitar.  Rollins came to an established band as a fan, a kid no less.  Rollins brought a much deeper vocal palate to bear.  Yeah, sure, it was all angst, but it was a deeper and more nuanced range of angst than the previous vocalists could deliver.  There is no shortage of Henry-haters.  Was he pretentious?  Maybe.  He started off as just a ball of pure enthusiasm.  As he grew older, a macho streak developed and he inserted a lot of “poetry” into the music.  But for a time he was just performing the songs written and developed by the existing band, for the most part. My War was the second full-length album from the Henry-era band.  The first with Henry was Damaged, which was and remains the band’s greatest achievement.  It’s a bombshell.  Great songs are everywhere and it never lets up, mostly fast and furious but with the fiercely sludgy closer “Damaged I” like a brick wall at the end of the line.

After all sorts of legal hassles surrounding the release of Damaged, and two of the band members doing a little jail time for surreptitiously releasing Everything Went Black against a court order in the unruly aftermath.  But by 1984 the band was clear of its legal troubles enough to release new records again, and they did so with no less than four full-length albums that year.  My War was the first of the new crop.  It opens with the departed (er, booted) Dukowski’s title track, a seething cauldron of paranoia and rage, followed by the driving “Can’t Decide” coupled with another Dukowski number “I Love You” plus “Forever Time” and “The Swinging Man,” providing a relatively brisk pace for the first side of the LP.  Side two just grinds to almost a halt with the achingly slooooow “Nothing Left Inside.”  What, “Damaged I” no fluke?  Hell no.  This was the new sound of Black Flag.  The second side of the album continues to ooze forward and the same crushingly slow amble.  Henry hits his stride with curdling screams.  All through the record he thrashes about and rips apart every bit of the lyrics, which are usually pretty blunt.  Yet he manages to convey that there is something deeper to what seems so simple and crude.  He does a lot with very little.  He had a lot of charisma.  Greg Ginn plays like crazy.  He’s also on bass under the alias Dale Nixon.

The “early years” crowd often points to My War as the nadir of the band.  Many can’t stand it.  Others look at it as simply flawed.  But there are also a lot of real, dedicated Black Flag fans out there (this writer included) who come to this album more than the others.  It’s got the most extreme elements of of what Black Flag had to offer all in one place.  There aren’t the funny songs, but you can listen to those too, just elsewhere!

My War can be summed up in a sentence, by RateYourMusic reviewer bnoring, “Side one slaps you, while side two drowns you.”

The fragile mix in place for My War didn’t last all that long.  It was only a few years later that the slightly older Rollins kind of withdrew from his involvement within the band’s interpersonal matrix and Ginn got distracted running the then rapidly expanding SST Records label.  It did hold together here, though, well enough.

Black Flag might be said to represent the best of what punk ever had to offer.  They were inclusive yet confrontational, they drew in influences that seemed the antithesis of what “simple” punk rock was allegedly about (hippie rock like The Grateful Dead and modern jazz).  Through sheer determination they built up a following on their own, from nothing at all.  My War was a kind of transformation that kept the brilliance of their music alive by rethinking its makeup.  Sure, there were inklings early on that Black Flag took inspiration from the likes of Black Sabbath, but the context for how that was expressed radically changed in 1984.  If Black Flag once prided themselves on playing more intricate music than typical three-chord punk, then playing at a pace so achingly slow you cannot ignore it is a new angle.  In a way, it put the concept behind the music in the forefront.  Years later, the band was more insular, not so much rethinking its purpose but trying to refine it in a reductionist sense.  They still rocked but it kind of wound down.  Glory in the wonderful, liberating and fleeting possibilities that My War presented every time you listen.  Maybe Black Flag didn’t carry the torch themselves later on.  Others did.  But what shouldn’t be forgotten is that others wouldn’t have carried it so far or with such purpose without Black Flag being there already.  Part of that was because Black Flag refused to give their fans what they expected.  That kind of willful alienation is often at the heart of something special.  This is sinister motivational music.

Black Flag – The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More!

The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More!

Black FlagThe Complete 1982 Demos Plus More! Manson 003 (1996)

When fans talk about Black Flag and long for the early years, I kind of tune out.  Don’t get me wrong, the early years produced some great music (“Nervous Breakdown,” “Jealous Again,” etc.).  But for me, Damaged and the slew of 1984 albums represented the band at its peak.  Damaged, My War and Live ’84 are my favorites, and among the best rock the 1980s had to offer, in my opinion.  The bootleg The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More! presents recordings from the time when everything went black, and legal issues prevented them from releasing any recordings (Greg Ginn tried, in fact, but ended up in jail briefly for doing so).  These are lo-fi demos, no doubt.  But there are things to like.  For instance, it helps that there are no stupid, uh, “sound effects” on “Slip It In”, but it would still sound better as an instrumental.  The tempos aren’t nearly as lethargic and sludgy as on My War, which makes this somewhat more forgettable and generic sounding.  Henry Rollins‘ singing is much less effective here than on the studio recordings that saw formal release.  So, to sum up my feelings about this, I would have to say that if you took my favorite Black Flag albums and took away many of my favorite aspects, you would end up with something like this.  To me, that’s a dumb proposition, but I’m still glad to hear more Flag so I won’t complain too loudly.

Black Flag – The Process of Weeding Out

The Process of Weeding Out

Black FlagThe Process of Weeding Out SST 037 (1985)

An EP that revolves around guitarist Greg Ginn melding hardcore punk with free jazz.  It’s an interesting concept for an album (or EP at least), though the actual results do get a bit tedious, as exemplified by the title track.  Ginn really doesn’t have the chops of a Blood Ulmer or Sonny Sharrock, and the rest of the band is by no means up to the task.  There are some good moments, particularly on “Your Last Affront” and “Southern Rise”, but they aren’t really sustained.  So, this is kind of an oddity of potential interest, but probably isn’t something that will earn lots of repeated listens even for dedicated Black Flag fans.

Black Flag – Loose Nut

Loose Nut

Black FlagLoose Nut SST 035 (1985)

There is a real blue collar/working class attitude on Loose Nut.  Maybe that was always present in Black Flag’s music.  But this album taps into a really angry version of it.  Take “Annihilate This Week.”  It is about just getting through the week, beating back the drudgery and routine with alcohol and cigarettes.  It sums up the attitude of lots of people I used to work with at stupid minimum wage jobs, enjoying the time spent doing work that actually did accomplish something, however small and faceless, by taking up a low-rent kind of hedonism.  But maybe they take the low-rent hedonism as the focus more than getting something done along the way, not seeing anything beyond the week.

“Bastard in Love” is a great love song.  The title alone conveys that being “in love” is when social obligations are suspended.  But in this case, some “bastard” is just using this as an excuse for shitty, abusive behavior that masks narcissistic self-pity.  Meanwhile the song’s narrator is isolated, taking a more authentic view of love, but finds his view unwanted, and is stuck with pain.  The best part of the song is just repeating the epithet, “bastard…in lo__ove”.  It is the insistence of somebody pushing their stupid shitty relationship into other people’s faces.  Just a few lines of the song convey this perfectly.

There is nothing innovative about how this album sounds.  It basically adopts the sort of metal/hard rock sound that much of the working class (at least the men) in the USA listened to around 1985.  There also isn’t a whole lot of space separating Loose Nut from the sort of bluesy 1970s hard rock that was probably still on a lot of jukeboxes at the time, either, in bars that weren’t really about listening to music as much as drinking and meeting up with pals.  Yet it still hits pretty hard.  The guitar plays a more restrained role that in years past.  The riffs are often predictable progressions, but they cut loose in angular, eccentric solos, with dissonant resolutions all over “This Is Good,” and in a few other brief patches.  Loose Nut was the last time the mighty Flag summoned any real power in the recording studio.  The band’s demise was just around the corner.

Yet the most curious juxtaposition of Loose Nut is that it invites feminine perspective ever so slightly.  Kira complained about the role of the group’s sole female member, but the lyrics at least accept a position of non-dominance, even as those words are delivered with a solid roar against aggressive guitar and rhythms.  The macho perspective is consistently mocked across the album.  Maybe it isn’t transcended, but there are strides to counteract it.  Yes, maybe more could have been done.  There was still more happening in that regard on this Black Flag effort than in most hard rock of the late 1980s.

Black Flag – Who’s Got the 10½?

Who's Got the 10½?

Black FlagWho’s Got the 10½? SST CD060 (1986)

Listeners self-segregate into a number of different camps when it comes to Black Flag’s music:

Group I – The early Flag (pre-Henry Rollins) is the pinnacle; believes that proficient performance is blasphemous to punk rock; usually explicitly dislikes Henry; loves The First Four Years, Everything Went Black

Group IIDamaged is great but doesn’t understand what the big deal is with anything else; loves Damaged

Group III – Admires the sludge-rock, free jazz/punk experiments and metal touches of the crop of 1984 albums; most likely to appreciate the band’s entire career arc in varying degrees; loves My War, Live ’84, The Process of Weeding Out

Group IV – This group doesn’t actually exist, but theoretically they like the slicker hard rock of the later years; loves Loose Nut

These groups aren’t clearly demarcated.  But by-and-large, Groups I and II tend to dominate.  Count me in Group III.  But it’s worth keeping in mind where you fall on the spectrum, because if you fall in Group I, you’ll probably never like the later years.  Too bad, though, because Black Flag was a group that evolved and made a lot of great music in surprisingly different ways through the years.  The much-maligned later years garnered a poor reaction in part from two studio albums (Loose Nut, In My Head) that have wide reputations as being too slick and failing to capture the group’s strengths.  Their popularity declined too.  Once capable of filling sizeable venues, they were playing to scant audiences in small places by the later 1980s.  Personal frictions within the band also didn’t help matters.  But they could still put on a fierce, well-executed performance and Who’s Got the 10½? is all the evidence anyone should need.  In fact, anyone skeptical of the later years should head here first.  Every song cooks, with a pummelling energy that is paradoxically wielded with scalpel-like precision.  If you stack up all the lineups (ALL of the them), you probably have to concede that this one was the most technically proficient.  The real surprise is drummer Anthony Martinez, who manages to find the perfect balance of straight-ahead hard rock steadiness with a supple ability to switch gears that perfectly supports the music.  If you want Greg Ginn guitar freakouts, you won’t get as much as the ’84 live album, but still plenty to keep you happy.  Kira is still a more versatile bassist than Chuck Dukowski, even if Dukowski had more punk bona fides.  What you end up with is a well-oiled machine.  This band sounds professional while at the same time sounding like one with something real to say.  Unlike the studio albums of this era, Who’s Got the 10½? actually makes full use of the group’s strengths.  It’s the most sympathetic document of Black Flag’s work of this time, free from essentially all encumbrances of the studio.

Get the CD version.  The original LP issue was shortened, and there are plenty of good tunes added to the expanded CD.

Black Flag – In My Head

In My Head

Black FlagIn My Head SST 045 (1985)

A couple good ones here, “In My Head,” “Drinking and Driving.”  Nothing is bad, exactly, but there is a claustrophobic effect to this one, like Greg Ginn letting perfectionism and micromanagement run amuck.  Rollins is so far down in the mix his presence seems only grudgingly permitted.  The drums are still all done up with a gated reverb effect that seems overused.  This is hard rock but it is recorded in a way that sounds almost hollow.  It’s not the band’s best, and probably closer to their least, but I’ll still take it.

Black Flag – Family Man

Family Man

Black FlagFamily Man SST 026 (1984)

You might say that Black Flag represented the very best qualities of a rock band from the country that gave birth to rock and roll.  They did new things and they pushed boundaries.  They came up in the late punk scene, one in which there was no “entry code”.  Anyone could self-identify as a “punk” — just like James Franco‘s character starts calling himself a “punker” in an episode of the TV show Freaks and Geeks (incidentally, Franco is heard listening to Black Flag in that episode).  But even without an entry code, there ended up being a lot of conformist behavior in the punk scene.  Many punks practically wore uniforms!  Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins commented in the documentary Punk: Attitude that lots of punks ended up being a lot more close-minded than they promised.  Rollins can safely say that because Black Flag was most definitely not made up of those kinds of punks.  Although in their first four years, Black Flag seemed like a band fairly close to the norm, with just a better guitarist than most — Greg Ginn — and less fashion sense.  But as time went on it became clear to anyone paying attention that Black Flag was actually really different.  They had long hair to piss off the close-minded punks in the audience.  And what is more punk than that!

After a draining legal battle, the band emerged from hiatus in 1984 with what seems like a truckload of albums.  The third (or second?) of them was Family Man.  It raised the stakes considerably for how far the band was willing to go.  Punk bands, before or since, were NOT releasing albums of roughly half spoken word pieces and half instrumentals.  Granted, the origins of punk lay in college-educated poets like Patti Smith, with very clear connections to literary and performance art circles.  Even Lydia Lunch came to fore in a scene of like-minded artists.  But when Rollins started doing “spoken word” (not that the term was even well-associated with it at the time), he did not come from any formal background in literature.  He took a very DIY (do-it-yourself), self-taught approach.  Side one of Family Man is devoted entirely to Rollins doing spoken pieces.  His words are, well, a bit juvenile and fueled by a disturbing amount of aggression and rage.  But, he is very earnest about what he is doing.  It also takes a considerable amount of guts to try to break spoken word performances to fresh audiences on the West Coast and Midwest with little or no reference points.  Punks would have found more refined performance at a William S. Burroughs reading, but that’s not really the point.  The real point is that Rollins was doing what he thought mattered even when it wasn’t what was expected — or accepted.  His earliest attempt here might be a bit rough-hewn, but he did get better going forward.

Side two of the album opens with “Armageddon Man,” the one true full-band track.  Even though that might lend the impression that it’s the “classic” Black Flag sound, it’s hardly that.  It’s another extended jam, running over nine minutes.  From there, the rest are instrumentals.  Guitarist Greg Ginn has plenty of space to stretch out and he makes the most of the opportunity.  It’s worth noting that side two is probably bassist Kira Roessler‘s finest moment with the band on record.  Drummer Bill Stevenson sometimes struggled to mesh with Ginn, but he does okay here, in spite of a few patches where it takes him a moment to lock into a good groove.  The influences on side two run the gamut.  The jammy, long-song format takes a cue from Ginn’s adored Grateful Dead.  But telling is the closer “The Pups Are Doggin’ It,” with Kira playing a bass line cribbed from “Right Off” on Miles Davis‘s A Tribute to Jack Johnson.  The jazz influences in Ginn’s playing work best when Stevenson hits a hard beat along the lines of what the great jazz drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson would do.  The results on the second side of the record are much more replayable than the first side.  For that matter, the instrumentals simply rock harder and come together better than on the following year’s all instrumental EP The Process of Weeding Out.

The best thing about this album is its capacity to surprise by taking chances and breaking the mold for what a hardcore punk band was supposed to be like.  The relentless drive to try to evolve and rethink the very foundations of the band’s sound take this album beyond just the literal contents of the recording.  An album like this provokes a dialog.  The outcome of that dialog can be anything…and the ending isn’t written yet.