Black Flag: Five essential albums to get familiar with
Over four decades later, Black Flag remain fresh and explosive because of the conviction of their antisocial songs.January 2, 2020
When foundational Brazilian death-thrashers Sepultura recorded “Rise Above” as a bonus track for their 2001 album, Nation, they understood the power of that call to arms. Black Flag have always been the rebel music of society’s rejects.
The rock ‘n’ roll process has always been an intensification of whatever came before it. Elvis and Chuck Berry amped up blues and country basics, then the British Invasion did it to Elvis and Chuck Berry, while the American garage bands acting in reaction to the British Invasion took their sonic reductions and made ’em louder, nastier and distorted as fuck. Which, when you think about it, is what Black Flag did to the Ramones and the rest of punk rock as it revved up in 1977. Rebel children everywhere always eat their parents.
As time went on, wonky leader/guitarist/songwriter Greg Ginn grew tired of being fast, hard and basic, even as he compounded punk’s essence and made it harsher. Now he got more extreme and free-jazz complex…then slowed it down. Black Flag became a mutation of heavy metal. Music obviously designed to incite riots was now making the shaven-headed thugs who’d fallen in love with Black Flag riot against them. Some dysfunctional, alienated kids aren’t happy until they alienate those with whom they sought community. They decide they are happier being rejects.
Black Flag remain fresh and explosive, because of the ferocity with which they hammered into those most vicious of riffs and Ginn’s squalling, idiosyncratic guitar science. Ultimately, it’s the conviction of those antisocial songs that still translates. Like all the greats, they meant every poetic threat they made.
Here are the five most crucial Black Flag records.
1. The First Four Years (1983)
Black Flag evolved rapidly across the years leading up to 1981’s crucial debut LP, Damaged. The progress was charted across a series of EPs and singles, collected on 1983’s The First Four Years. Best-known/longest-running BF vocalist Henry Rollins has proclaimed this his “favorite Black Flag album.” Tellingly, he isn’t on this record. Future Circle Jerks/OFF! singer Keith Morris features on the earliest material, the only Black Flag vocalist to sing with a semblance of melody over music more akin to the Ramones.
Jealous Again initiated the leather-lunged howling that would characterize Black Flag’s sound henceforth, courtesy of Ron Reyes. Ginn also began use of a Peavey solid state PA head for amplification. The harsh transistorized distortion added a squealing, serrated tonal edge to the atonal, free-form lead guitar science he’d added. With Dez Cadena replacing Reyes, the throat-shredding, sonically, resembled an atomic blast, rendering palpable the threat in new anthems such as “American Waste.”
2. Damaged (1981)
Picking up shaven-headed, D.C.-based howler Henry Rollins on their ’81 summer tour and moving Cadena to rhythm guitar, Black Flag honed the material that would become Damaged on the road while en route to West Hollywood’s Unicorn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard. With Cadena filling out what space existed in the already dense sonics and Rollins leaving even more tonsil shrapnel on the mic screen than any previous vocalist, Black Flag cut the greatest long-player in hardcore’s early history.
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Damaged was less about hyperthyroid tempos than future thrash bands. This was about explosiveness, heaviness and enough drumming propulsive to ensure this was not heavy metal. Mind you, Ginn’s six-string fusion of Ritchie Blackmore, Ornette Coleman and Captain Beefheart added a crazed, discordant threshold that saved them from proto-speed-metaldom. Factor in A-side tunes that were a long exercise in antisocial fuck-youism, with a flipside that appeared to be an extended treatise on a psychotic break. Damaged is one of punk’s canonical records, a template for musical aggression wherever it may appear.
3. 1982 Demos
Despite the artistic quantum leap Black Flag took with Damaged, it marked the beginning of a hard period in their history. For starters, longtime producer Spot felt the two-guitar lineup “ruined” their sound. Then Unicorn Records, an MCA subsidiary distributing the record, dropped the ball after MCA executive Al Bergamo declared it an “anti-parent record.” Black Flag plastered stickers bearing Bergamo’s judgment across Damaged‘s sleeve; Unicorn sued, preventing Black Flag from issuing recordings under their name for a number of years. The band still toured for the album, losing drummer Robo, a Columbian national reportedly AWOL from his country’s military, when he was detained by U.K. Customs following a fraught English tour. Emil Johnson temporarily drummed on their summer 1982 tour. And the band learned in Vancouver that D.O.A.’s teenage Keith Moon-alike Chuck Biscuits was suddenly free and brought him back to L.A.
A 10-track demo session was cut at Total Access studios, consisting of material the band road-tested on the Damaged dates. With tempos varying beyond the blitzkrieg speed hardcore audiences now demanded and the heavy metal and free-jazz elements becoming more pronounced, it’s no wonder Black Flag both antagonized and bewildered their audience. In truth, the tunes—most of which surfaced in a rerecorded form across the next two official BF releases—expanded upon Damaged‘s explosive, corrosive B-side. The Ginn/Cadena guitar attack sharpened and gained definition, Chuck Dukowski’s distorted bass chug became a cement mixer and Biscuits’ drumming swung more dynamically than Robo’s stiff military cadences. Rollins’ voice was now a howling, anguished instrument of destruction, delivering Ginn’s nerve-shredding poetry like no other. Versions of future standards such as “My War” and “Slip It In” received their definitive takes here. And material Cadena had written such as “What Can You Believe?” explodes here before he took it to his future DC3 project. This is possibly Black Flag’s best record, and it’s never been legally released. Thank you, Unicorn Records.
4. My War (1984)
By the time Unicorn Records imploded in 1983 and Black Flag could return to action, they were a vastly different band. Only Ginn and Rollins remained—bassist/right-hand man Dukowski, guitarist Cadena and Biscuits had all fallen afoul of Ginn’s singular, strict vision. Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson, adrift with Milo Aukerman gone to college, was drafted by Ginn and subjected to the band’s eight-hour practice grind, drilled by Ginn in how to play slower and heavier than his customary propulsion. So, the three entered Redondo Beach’s Total Access Recording with Spot in December 1983, with Ginn pulling dual six- and four-string duties, the latter under the nom du bass “Dale Nixon.”
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Perceptive critics have lambasted My War for its “lack of ensemble feel.” But of course—look at how it’s recorded. And most harassed Black Flag for having “gone heavy metal,” certainly exacerbated by their long-haired appearance on the road promoting the album, with Kira Roessler replacing “Dale Nixon.” This is simplistic thinking. Truth be told, though most of this and the following Slip It In was done better by the Chuck Biscuits lineup, My War was an evolution from Damaged‘s second side. True, the humor which had leavened Black Flag’s extremist bent since Keith Morris first opened his mouth was gone, but it allowed the brutality, anger and depression to fully flower. It doesn’t get more liberatingly hostile than the Dukowski-penned title track. Meantime, the trio of six-minute-plus dirges grinding from side two provided a road map for everyone from the Melvins to Name Your Fave Sludge Metal Or Slowcore Band.
5. Slip It In (1984)
The seeds sown by Damaged side two fully bloom here. This is Black Flag as an assault machine. The Kira/Bill rhythm section is completely road-hardened, and Rollins is comfortable in his role as a Morrison/Manson amalgam. The one-two opening punch of the slow-building title track and “Black Coffee” clear the vault of all the 1983 material. While “Slip It In”’s slut-shaming likely wouldn’t play well nowadays, “Black Coffee”’s 4 a.m. cigs-and-caffeine angst is one of Ginn’s most enduring copywrites. “Wound Up,” meanwhile, makes a more sinister ode to stalking than the Police’s period hit “Every Breath You Take” and rocks a hell of a lot harder, too.
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Rollins collabs with the long-departed Dukowski on “The Bars,” crafting one of the band’s most effective howlers. There would be a few more Black Flag records after this. But this was the last coherent, explosive statement from a band, perhaps better understood posthumously than in their tumultuous lifetime. Black Flag proved creativity could be stoked by living chaotically, and an already intense musical form could be rendered even more blown-out and wild. Black Flag ate shit in a tour van for 10 years for your sins. And all you got was a T-shirt with four black bars on it. Go figure.