The Over/Under: Black Flag

BlackFLag

You could make the argument—and several critics and historians have made it—that American hardcore punk begins with Black Flag. By any measurement, Black Flag was one of the most important bands in punk, a crucible in which the speed and energy of the genre later mixed with angular noise, jazz freedom and literate explorations of alienation, fear, rage and isolation. Guitarist/cofounder (with vocalist Keith Morris) Greg Ginn, alongside bassist Chuck Dukowski, all but set the template for DIY recording and touring, kicking open a space for punk bands to play locally and abroad, as well as release their own records when absolutely no one had done so before. It was an upstart process with very little in the way of a pre-existent business model, and Ginn’s SST Records eventually landed at the center of a number of legal actions and complaints about artists’ rights. But through SST, Black Flag issued a series of records of hardcore punk, spoken word and instrumentals, and experimental rock. Important albums by Sonic Youth, the Meat Puppets, Hüsker Dü and Dinosaur Jr, in addition to several other acts, also found their way into the world through the pipeline that Ginn and Co. opened. And unlike most punk bands, when audiences had the temerity to act up and get violent, Black Flag gave it right back to them, handing back kicks and punches so that the group’s shows were often as much genuine guerilla warfare as guerilla art. The band’s story has been partially documented in books like Michael Azzerad’s historical overview Our Band Could Be Your Life and singer Henry Rollins’ Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag, drawn from his own 1981-1986 tour diaries. But the full story of Black Flag has yet to be published, and when that happens, let’s hope the book does the band’s impressive history justice. Until that time, as a gentle nudge to critics and historians, here’s our take on the most overrated and the most underrated cuts in Black Flag’s catalog.

:: The Five Most Overrated Black Flag Songs
1. “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” (1981)

In its historical-pastiche book Fair Use: The Story Of The Letter U And The Numeral 2, the band Negativland referenced the title of this song as a snarky précis of what its saw as Ginn’s tendency to go after control of all music released on SST, often to the detriment of the artists themselves. Like a handful of Black Flag’s earliest songs, “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” was recorded no fewer than four times, in versions featuring all four of the band’s vocalists: Morris, Ron “Chavo” Reyes, Dez Cadena and (heard here) Rollins. But in any of its four versions, it’s one of the group’s most formulaic songs, alternating between a charging, drum-driven statement and a handful of verses about guns, atom bombs, shootin’ my mouth off and my poor old fucked-up punker’s head. For fans who prefer the earlier material, “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” is an oft-referenced cut. But the song would have sounded much the same had it been recorded by any other first-gen punk outfit, which isn’t something you can say of Black Flag’s best material.

2. “I Can See You” (1985)
And way over here at the other end of the historical and musical spectrum, we have latter-day Black Flag, now fully committed to deconstruction of the song form and post-production studio fuckery. Ginn seems to have been especially fond of “I Can See You”; it appeared on several releases, including the CD reissue of the band’s final album, In My Head; 1985 SST compilation The Blasting Concept Vol. 2; and on an eponymous post-breakup EP released in 1989. In common with some of the material from this era, the song seems to be less about interplay between music and lyrics (oh my, those lyrics) than an opportunity for Ginn to stretch out musically in the between-verse solos. But Black Flag had already released The Process Of Weeding Out EP and the second side of the Family Man album by this point, both of which offer music that’s a lot more interesting structurally. Ginn was also happy to muck with punk audiences’ expectations, however, and the simple, touchy-feely vocals—multi-tracked and effects-laden—might be a sly twist of the knife intended for the hardcore purists. As a piss-off attempt, it’s not bad; as a stand-alone cut, not so much.

 3. “Slip It In” (1984)
I can’t find much wrong musically with the album Slip It In
, which to me stands track for track as one of Black Flag’s high points. Ginn’s guitar work on this, the leadoff song, hits like the first hard turn on a rollercoaster, the point at which you know you’re locked in and you’re not getting off until this big metal bastard is done thrashing you around. But lyrically, “Slip It In” trades in one of hardcore punk’s worst attributes: the slope-browed, thuggish misogyny that a lot of punks, for all that raging against conformity and lockstep thought, never seemed to be able to shake. The song boasts one of Ginn’s more adolescent lyrics—and one that finally comes off unsavory rather than cheeky. And get away from me with that crap about how L7’s Suzi Gardner tackles the backup/spoken part with Rollins, and how that takes the curse off it. The song is about callin’ out a ho for being a ho, and Gardner does little but protest weakly at the beginning and make happy gurgling sex noises for six minutes thereafter. I suppose it might have been intended as a satirical swipe at the gonad-driven element of punk fandom, but it must be said that “Slip It In” doesn’t display a lot of self-awareness. If there is a joke embedded here, I submit that it’s a joke the song itself doesn’t get.

 4. “Nervous Breakdown” (1978)
How it hurts to include this. The Nervous Breakdown
EP is where Black Flag’s recorded legacy starts, and this song therefore represents the first appearance of the band in the punk history books. But let’s go back and hear it again. It’s a great track, rough-edged, jittery as a thermos full of espresso and signaling what would become the band’s signature theme and aesthetic: pain, and the howl that emerges directly from that pain. But it’s not, as it’s sometimes called, the seminal early-phase Black Flag recording. Hell, it isn’t even the most interesting song on the EP. That would be “Fix Me,” which in its complex structure and frantic execution stomps all over “Nervous Breakdown” and runs less than half as long.

5. “TV Party” (1981)
“TV Party” is as close as Black Flag ever got to a novelty record, and like most novelty records, it doesn’t date well. (Take that, Hill Street Blues!) The best thing about “TV Party” is Dukowski’s bass playing, which holds the piece down like a counter-sunk anchor. The worst thing is all that shit about a bunch of meatheads watching television. We can hold Alex Cox’s sci-fi/punk film Repo Man
responsible for keeping this one on the radar; the lyrics are mumbled by brooding loner Otto (Emilio Estevez) at a rare meditative moment in the story. And sure, it’s kind of funny. But let’s not go nuts here, people. If you want Dukowski at his best, you’ll find it on “My War” or “What I See,” not on this comparative one-off.

:: The Five Most Underrated Black Flag Songs
1. “Bastard In Love” (1985)

“Bastard In Love” comes from Loose Nut
, but the version heard here, from excellent live recording Who’s Got The 10-1/2?, presents the song in its cleanest, most stripped-down form. By 1985, Ginn was often less interested in pop forms than experimentation; here, though, he hews straight to the medium-tempo, verse/chorus/verse model. That makes “Bastard In Love,” in addition to being one of the most emotionally direct Black Flag songs, one of the band’s most pop-friendly. That’s an odd thing to say about the hardest of hardcore bands, but in its weird way, “Bastard In Love” sounds like what pop music might be if more musicians wrote songs about what it actually feels like to feel love fall apart, rather than giving us all that processed, clichéd pabulum. The repeated line “My love is real” looks cheesy on the page, but driven by Rollins’ fervent delivery, it sounds like a cross between a genuine expression of emotion and an urgent need to go on record, just in case everything is about to blow to pieces.

2. “Black Coffee” (1984)
Jealousy, fear, anger, pain, insomniac brooding and self-loathing: Here, in just less than five minutes, is a distillation of everything Black Flag was about. The song speaks for itself so well that the best argument is simply a close listen, but this is exactly what it sounds like inside the human heart, at the very darkest moments of life—and, weirdly, a reminder that other people go through it, too. When I heard “Black Coffee” for the first time, it was like a record needle got jammed directly into the reptile part of my brain, and the sound of all that angst and insecurity was getting sucked up and spat out of the speakers.

3. “I Won’t Stick Any Of You Unless And Until I Can Stick All Of You!” (1984)
Apart from boasting the best title of any Black Flag song, “I Won’t Stick” is also the best reason to own Family Man, an album divided neatly between Rollins’ earliest spoken-word recordings and the free-form instrumental excursions of Ginn, drummer Bill Stevenson and bassist Kira Roessler. The opening riff sets the mood and the structure for the song, and thereafter explores and tweaks that structure until the song almost falls apart, but not quite. Many years later, Stevenson told me that he wasn’t ready to play this loosely and intuitively when Ginn asked him to. Still, I challenge anyone to listen to “I Won’t Stick” and deride Stevenson’s playing, or Roessler’s, for that matter; both stop/start on a dime and give Ginn a perfectly elastic space in which to work out. I was around when this album first hit, and let me tell you, Family Man upset all kinds of punks. But it was also a giant step that suggested where hardcore might go, given free rein and a solid grounding in skill and discipline.

4. “I’ve Heard It Before” (1981)
Ah, Dez Cadena. Ranking various Black Flag incarnations by singer would be pointless and stupid, but if I can get unashamedly subjective for a second, for my tastes, Cadena gave the band its most arresting vocal performances. “I’ve Heard It Before,” originally released on the Six Pack EP, is his finest moment, half a strangled, semi-articulate growl (“Authority! Bullshit!”) and half a chunky, angular salvo against anyone who’d mandate their interpretation of the world as received gospel (“Fuck all you people who can’t see my side/I’ve got my own strategies for my life”). In Get In The Van, Rollins writes that this was the first song he heard Black Flag perform live, and it was a life-changing moment. Nearly three decades on, the song doesn’t lose any of its rage or impact.

5. “Nothing Left Inside/Scream” (1982)
Black Flag’s legal wrangle with Unicorn Records following the release of Damaged—Ginn put out the album
on SST after Unicorn, which had originally contracted for its release, passed on it—prevented the band from releasing music under the name Black Flag for two years. During that blackout, the Damaged lineup, with Chuck Biscuits replacing Roberto “Robo” Valverde on drums, recorded a set of demos that would provide material for Slip It In and My War. This 11-minute recording, discussed specifically by Rollins in Get In The Van, actually provided the rudiments of two songs for My War, but heard at a single pass, “Nothing Left Inside/Scream” offers a template for where Black Flag was about to go: beyond hardcore, into brainy noise jams that didn’t sacrifice any of the dark, throat-scraping energy of the band’s earliest recordings. This is the tipping point; after the 1982 demos—which are well worth seeking out in their entirety—Black Flag was something more than a hardcore band. It became a shifting platoon of musicians who pushed the boundaries of punk into shadowy, gutsy regions. Few other groups followed them into that territory, but it was just as well. Ginn and the band had already planted their flag, and there it stayed.

—Eric Waggoner

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