Black Flag - Biography
Southern California’s outlaw rockers Black Flag helped define the sound of West Coast punk with the release of their debut album Damaged (SST Records) in 1981. Black Flag’s music continues to have an enormous impact on the American underground, and its career has taken on mythical dimensions. Ginn and original member Chuck Dukowski operated SST Records, Black Flag’s label, which grew into the premier American independent label of the 1980's. SST's roster included Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, Saccharine Trust, and Screaming Trees. Despite poverty, legal disputes, an adversarial relationship with police, and a reputation for violence, Black Flag produced uncompromising music, pioneered touring circuits for underground bands and gathered a dedicated, still-growing following.
Black Flag originated in Hermosa Beach, CA in 1977, when hard rock fans Ginn and Keith Morris formed the band Panic. By late that year, Panic included the rhythm section of bassist Dukowski (born Gary McDaniel) and drummer Brian Migdol. In 1978, Panic changed its name to Black Flag, a name suggested by Ginn’s brother, artist Raymond Pettibon. Pettibon designed the band’s logo (four black bars staggered to resemble a flag in the wind), and his drawings dominated the band’s fliers and the cover of nearly every Black Flag release. Drummer Migdol left in 1979. Roberto Valverde answered an ad placed by Ginn and became “Robo,” so named because the band thought his drumming sounded robotic.
Black Flag self-released the Nervous Breakdown (1978 SST) EP under the name of Ginn’s ham radio electronics business, SST (Solid State Transmitters). The EP comprises four short, fast punk songs: “Nervous Breakdown,” “Fix Me,” “I’ve Had It” and “Wasted.” Morris screams that he is insane with rage, broken down, and unable to function. Ginn’s physical guitar attack distinguishes him from other guitarists even when he only plays powerchords. Morris left the band in late 1979 and formed the hardcore band Circle Jerks, taking with him Flag songs “Wasted” and “I Don’t Care.” Teenage fan Ron Reyes, who makes his mark on the Jealous Again EP (1980 SST), replaced Morris on vocals. The obsessive lead guitar on the song “Jealous Again” introduces Ginn’s distinctive style: Chuck Berry bends alternate with furious atonal runs played hard against the song’s rhythm. Some heard “White Minority” as a racist anthem, though Black Flag more likely intended the song as a parodic character sketch in the style of Pettibon’s cartoons, not to mention that Reyes was Puerto Rican and Robo Colombian. Penelope Spheeris’s LA punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) features Jealous Again-era Black Flag in performance footage and interviews.
Reyes abruptly left the band in the middle of a March 1980 show. His replacement was Red Cross guitarist and Flag fan Dez Cadena, whose hoarse scream would echo in countless future hardcore bands. This version of Black Flag released 1981’s “Six Pack” (SST) and “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy, then SST) singles. “Six Pack” is a classic, driving punk number about preferring beer to the company of human beings (“when my girlfriend asks me which one I like better / I hope the answer won’t upset her”) punctuated by wild Ginn solos.
Years later Ginn would tell Punk Planet: “The band reached the peak of its popularity with Dez. He was people’s favorite singer and connected most with an audience.” Cadena’s voice was losing strength, however, and he wanted to play guitar. The band invited Henry Rollins, a fanatical Black Flag fan who had fronted the Washington, DC hardcore group S.O.A., to sing. Cadena, meanwhile, became Black Flag’s first (and only) rhythm guitarist.
Whether or not Damaged is the first hardcore album, it remains for many fans the genre’s definitive statement. Black Flag rehearsed, toured and recorded tirelessly throughout their career, and the band is in fearsome shape on its debut LP. The only light moment on Damaged is the immortal “TV Party,” where Black Flag assume the roles of boneheads who live for their favorite TV shows. Flag members take turns shouting the names of current TV shows into the mike, and there is something about hearing the name of Aaron Spelling’s “Vega$” screamed with the passion, bewilderment and rage of a hardcore lyric that never ceases to be funny. The rest of Damaged provides no relief to the listener, as the band storms through “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” “Damaged II,” “Damaged I” and “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” to name just a few of the album’s classic songs.
Black Flag had signed a deal with Unicorn Records to gain distribution for Damaged through MCA, but MCA executives found the album’s attitude and content appalling and refused to distribute the album. A lengthy legal battle between Black Flag and Unicorn followed, and for the duration of the case Black Flag was prohibited from recording or releasing any records bearing its name or logo. The band’s great 1982 lineup — Ginn, Rollins, Cadena, Dukowski and ex-D.O.A. drummer Chuck Biscuits — secretly recorded rough demos that have never been officially released, though much bootlegged, including the still-unreleased “What Can You Believe.” Though initial copies of the double album Everything Went Black (1983 SST) featured neither band name nor logo and the album comprised recordings made before Damaged, SST’s owners Ginn and Dukowski were found in contempt of court and each served five days in county jail.
Everything Went Black compiles recordings of the band with its first three singers. Keith Morris and Ron Reyes, now personae non gratae in the Flag camp, are credited as “Johnny ‘Bob’ Goldstein” and “Chavo Pederast,” respectively. Since many songs are repeated, Everything allows a listener to hear how musically ambitious Ginn was even in the band’s early days, and how hard Black Flag worked to get the rhythmic feel of the songs right: each of the album’s three versions of “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” for example, radically alter the song’s drum patterns and rhythmic accents. The album ends with “Crass Commercialism,” a collage of Southern California radio ads from Black Flag’s early days.
The legal battle ended with Unicorn’s 1983 bankruptcy, and a flood of Black Flag records old and new issued on SST. The First Four Years (1983 SST) collects Nervous Breakdown, Jealous Again, Six Pack, Louie Louie and two compilation tracks. Dukowski left around this time, though he maintained an advisory relationship with the band and remained co-owner of SST until 1989. Ginn played both guitar and bass (credited as “Dale Nixon”) on My War (1984 SST), recorded with Rollins and Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson, an album that was unintelligible to many fans at the time of its release. Black Flag’s previous records had essentially presented the band’s weird version of punk’s adrenaline rush, but the songs on My War, shaped by Ginn’s developing instrumental talents and uncompromising musical vision, were too heavy and strange for many fans of Damaged. As a guitarist Ginn made few concessions to genre, but his playing here sounds closer to the speed and intervals of metal, stoner rock, and free jazz than those of punk. This is especially true on the three slow, painful numbers that make up the album’s now legendary second side.
Slip It In (1984 SST) introduces gifted bassist Kira Roessler, Black Flag’s first and only female member, whose presence does not redeem the title track’s hints of misogyny. Nonetheless, Ginn’s bizarre, inventive take on blues-rock guitar makes the song a thrill, and Black Flag sounds more like a live band with Roessler on bass than it had on My War. Like the jealous lover in “Black Coffee” who drinks cup after cup of the stuff and stares at the walls of his room, Slip It In builds up tension without providing the release of punk. “Obliteration” is a complex Ginn instrumental, the first Black Flag song to suggest that the band could perform without a singer. The forgotten gem “The Bars” leads into the terrifying “My Ghetto,” one of the heaviest songs in the Flag catalog. Family Man (1984 SST) is more satisfying conceptually than sonically. One side of Rollins’s early spoken word performances is linked to a side of instrumental cuts by “Armageddon Man,” a jam over which Rollins speaks. The diamond-hard The Process of Weeding Out (1985 SST) is a better representation of Black Flag’s instrumental side, and Rollins’s best spoken word lay ahead. Live 84 (1984 SST), a cassette release issued on CD much later, captures a furious performance at San Francisco’s the Stone. The set includes most of the songs from My War and Slip It In, a few early songs and two instrumentals.
Ginn approaches mastery of his own style on Loose Nut (1985 SST) and In My Head (1985 SST), Black Flag’s final studio albums, sounding ever more like Ornette Coleman’s sax and less like Johnny Ramone’s guitar. Like “TV Party,” both albums target what the band perceived as the most boneheaded aspects of American culture. Loose Nut’s title track is a hard-rocking complaint against the relentless urges of the male libido. The heavy riff-rock of “Annihilate This Week” warns of the dangers of “partying ‘n’ such.” “Modern Man,” an old Dukowski number dating from the 1982 demos, if not earlier, is refreshed, and the spooky “I’m The One” marries a great Roessler riff to one of Rollins’s strangest, most poetic lyrics. In My Head features disciplined modal guitar and is the album on which Black Flag sounds the most like itself, the least like any other band. “Paralyzed,” “In My Head” and “Society’s Tease” are classics of Flag’s late period, and the album as a whole is a genre-defying masterpiece. The CD release of In My Head adds three songs from the I Can See You EP (1989 SST).
Stevenson was kicked out of the band in 1985 and replaced by Anthony Martinez. The live album who’s got the 10½? (1986 SST) documents a 1985 show in Portland, Oregon with new drummer Martinez. The set is heavy on Loose Nut material, including every song from the album but Stevenson’s “Now She’s Black,” and the material thrives in a live context, outside SST producer Spot’s reverb chamber. Rollins’s voice is in good shape, and his ability to think on his feet, hold an audience’s attention and even entertain is audible. Towards the end of the set, Black Flag pulls off a 15-minute jam that, in the manner of their heroes the Grateful Dead, links “Slip It In” and “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie.” Shortly after the show that produced who’s got the 10½? Roessler was ejected from the band and replaced by C’el Revuelta. This lineup of Black Flag toured in late 1985 and 1986 but did not record. Ginn broke up the band in 1986.