Originally by ninthandash, posted on 8/9/2009
Black Flag, a name known by every punk rock kid worth their salt. In the hardcore genre, Black Flag are named as being one of the three most important and influential bands, according to the documentary film American Hardcore. And Michael Azerrad, author of the book This Band Will Change Your Life, calls Black Flag the ‘godfathers’ of the genre. There’s no doubt about the fact that Black Flag are certainly a hardcore band to be reckoned with, one of the most popular and well-known. But why are they so unarguably awesome?
Reason #1: The Ethics.
Black Flag were formed in 1977 by Greg Ginn; the guitarist, songwriter and — unusually — the only continuous member of the band through their many member changes. Black Flag are important not only for their music, but also for the ethics surrounding them. They were one of the first bands to tirelessly promote a very strong DIY ethic; Black Flag were all about what you can do yourself, without relying on anyone else, particularly the major corporate record labels. This is emphasised by the way Black Flag released the majority of their material through SST Records, which is Ginn’s own independent label.
Black Flag started a revolution. There’s absolutely no arguing with that. They started the whole idea of doing it yourself, of booking your own tours, releasing your own music, and many bands followed their lead. They were all about the word-of-mouth network, utilising hardcore and the punk scene as a community. Black Flag toured relentlessly, barely stopping, so dedicated to making this work. Before you even listen to the music, Black Flag demand your respect.
Due to their strong work ethic, many members quit in the early days. Ginn was the guitarist and songwriter and Keith Morris was the original singer, but they had a hard time finding a bassist. I’m trying not to turn this article into a history lesson, believe me, but there’s so much more to Black Flag than just the music. Black Flag are, at the risk of sounding overdramatic, about the lifestyle. They’re more than just a band; they’re a subculture, an ethic, a revolution. When they started, there were barely any places for punk rock bands to perform — because as well as pioneering hardcore, Black Flag were part of the first wave of American Coast punk rock.
They would perform at picnics, house parties, schools, anywhere that was available. Imagine growing up in ’70s California and having Black Flag perform at a picnic. The kids who were there for those first few shows were a part of history, and it must certainly have been an enviable experience. Morris was still the singer at this time, and he is without a doubt my personal favourite of the singers that Black Flag have had. The original line-up; Greg Ginn on guitar, Morris singing, Brian Migdol on drums and Chuck Dukowski on bass, was undeniably amazing.
Reason #2: The Members.
Keith Morris is, without a doubt, an amazing frontman. His stage presence is one of the most energetic seen in punk rock; throwing himself about the stage with a boundless and manic energy. He helped the band gain a reputation in LA, commanding the audience and demanding all their attention. Dukowski was also key. Although Ginn formed the band and wrote the lyrics, Dukowski was usually the spokesman to the press. Very intelligent and a fast talker, even after he left the band as bassist he stayed with them as tour manager and his contribution should not be overlooked.
Migdol was replaced as drummer by Roberto Valverde, known as ROBO. ROBO was such an awesome drummer, and he had a new sound due to the metallic bracelets he always used to wear. They’d clink as he played the songs and this soon became a part of his unique sound. After Morris left, Ron Reyes was singer, and after him came Dez Cadena, who was originally a fan of the band. He was much more reliable and the band started to become much more commercial and popular, although he’d had no formal training as a singer and soon had to leave.
Then, came Rollins. Henry Rollins was Black Flag’s longest lasting singer, and attracted a lot of attention from critics. Sub Pop critic Calvin Johnson wrote: “Henry was incredible. Pacing back and forth, lunging, lurching, growling; it was all real, the most intense emotional experiences I have ever seen.” Even after a lot of the members have left Black Flag, they are still important parts of the music and punk rock scene. Keith Morris now fronts Circle Jerks, and Rollins is well known for his spoken word, as well as campaigning for human rights in the United States.
Reason #3: The Music.
This, is a difficult one. Black Flag’s music is absolutely fantastic, but I’m bound to be entirely biased as they are one of my all-time favourite bands. They were one of the first punk bands (a phrase I’m sure you’re sick of hearing but, as I said, Black Flag were completely revolutionary and therefore one of the first punk bands to do a lot of things) who incorporated heavy metal melodies into their music. Not just that, but Black Flag also used a lot of different elements from different genres, such as free jazz, breakbeat, and contemporary classical. Black Flag’s discography sounds so much more varied than pretty much any other punk band’s due to this.
Black Flag have a lot of albums and EPs, so I’m obviously not going to talk about them all here in detail. My personal favourite has got to be the Nervous Breakdown EP. Released in October ’78 while Morris was vocalist (he never sang on any of the band’s studio albums), Nervous Breakdown is probably the band’s most well-known song, and according to Dukowski was used as a ‘badge of legitimacy’ and led to them getting a lot more gigs in the LA area. It was also the first release on Ginn’s SST records.
Nervous Breakdown is an absolutely classic song. Morris’ raw energy is audible through the sound, and the band sound both rough and together at the same time. For me, Nervous Breakdown as a song sums up Black Flag as a band — raw, loud, and slightly out of control. If you only ever listen to one Black Flag song, it should be this one.
Damaged is, arguably, the band’s best studio album. Damaged was incredibly controversial and many thought it would single-handedly corrupt America’s youth. Not so. But Damaged could even be called one of the best albums to come from the ’80s California hardcore punk scene. Rollins gave Black Flag the edge they needed to attract attention; his guttural roar energised the songs and pulled them together, providing the missing link.
Although My War has been called “a pretentious mess of a record” by critics, there is no denying the influence it’s had on many other bands, who cite it as influential for the departure it showed from the standard punk rock model. Although side two was not the great music expected from Black Flag, it wasn’t bad, just not up to their standards. If any other band had released side two of My War, it would’ve been awesome, but for Black Flag it was distinctly lacking. But that’s not to say that the album was worthless. The title track is formidable, with Rollins ‘howling like a caged animal’, and it is definitely worth checking out.
Reason #4: The Legacy.
This section is going to be a little less formal, a little more flailing. Black Flag have basically left a mark on musical history. Their experiences have become legendary, apparently blacklisted by the LAPD and clubs in the LA area, mainly due to the violent nature of their shows. So many bands have covered their songs, become influenced by them, so many bands have simply just formed because of Black Flag. They are a band who everyone into punk or hardcore has an opinion on. They are a talking point, a revolution, an inspiration.
Black Flag are what got me into hardcore, and I have never looked back since. I heard their song playing on a jukebox at some shitty run-down venue and found out who it was, and what song it was (unsurprisingly, Nervous Breakdown). I went home and I found out everything I could about this band. Black Flag led me to Bad Brains, Minor Thread, the Bouncing Souls. They were so unlike anything I had heard before — and they still are.
In conclusion? If you haven’t listened to Black Flag yet… why not? Go. Listen. And be inspired.