So: Dez shifts over to guitar, Henry Rollins is plucked from Washington DC’s State of Alert and installed as the singer, and Black Flag finally records ‘Damaged,’ their debut LP. And it’s amazing.
Then came the legalese which cast a shadow over the rest of the band’s recorded output and career: the Flag guys didn’t think floundering MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records was doing the job they had promised. Ginn and co. took things into their own hands, and were summarily served with an injunction preventing the band from releasing anything (1). When the injunction was lifted, it was two years later. In that time, the band had burned through:
Drummers Robo (who couldn’t get back into the US after playing overseas)
and Emil (ask Mugger about this one)
and DOA’s Chuck Biscuits
as well as bass player extraordinaire Chuck Dukowski,
and Dez Cadena set out on his own, leaving the band without a permanent rhythm section or a second guitar player.
There were a few times in Black Flag history when the band was in a lurch and had drummer Bill Stevenson of the Descendents fill in, as he already knew the songs. So, Bill was a natural choice to play on the new batch of material.
When “My War” came out, the fan reaction was extreme. The ‘A’ side consists of some great stuff: the amazing “Forever Time,” live staple “Can’t Decide,” and the Dukowski-penned song which bears the album’s name spring to mind here. These songs are in the same vein as a lot of Flag’s other songs. But the flip—‘Nothing Left Inside,’ ‘Three Nights’ and ‘Scream’ – was close to twenty minutes of trudgery. And it’s infuriating.
But not because the material has changed: I love that the band’s confrontational attitude manifested in their refusal to adhere to their audience’s expectations, both physically and aurally, in a time when the hardcore scene was becoming more orthodox. And not because it’s long – remember that by the time “My War” was released, the Wipers’ “Youth of America,” featuring a ten-minute title track, had already been in release for more than two years, and the Subhumans’ “From The Cradle To the Grave” had been released shortly before. Long punk songs were nothing new.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, Black Flag are a frustrating band. My War is one of these times. I understand why the band recorded the album when they did – they had new songs to record, and were gung-ho to release them following the injunction being lifted – but the how is tough in this case. A lot of stories told about the band –their history, or at least the shorthand for it — revolves around the Black Flag work ethic, both in the act itself and at Ginn’s SST imprint. So I find myself wishing that they had applied that ethic and had waited until they had a solvent lineup that practiced for a zillion hours a day until the songs were perfect. This was the case on the albums that followed. On “My War,” Ginn played bass himself under the pseudonym Dale Nixon (2).
The popularity of the widely-bootlegged 1982 demos, with the Greg/Chuck/Dez/Henry/Biscuits lineup playing, hints at the greatness of the five-piece lineup. So do some shows from 1982 which recently surfaced as ‘Live At The On Broadway 7/3-24/1982.’ Listening to these makes the studio album all the more frustrating – the bootleg/live stuff sounds better than the studio recordings.
Yeah, we can argue that the b-side, with its three songs in nineteen minutes, is designed to be a trudge. The thin production adds to the effect (whether or not this was the intention). I would counterargue that it’s also designed to kick ass. And while the songs are great, the timing and execution of the recording don’t always serve them. I know times were tight, and I know that, like Raw Power, a new mix might make me appreciate the first one more. I wish things had been done differently is all. Yeah, shoulda/coulda/woulda. But still.
Check out this live video of the five-piece slaying “Nothing Left Inside” in Germany, 1983.
(1) They did, of course: “Everything Went Black” was originally released without the band’s name on the cover. Of course, it was released with a bunch of Black Flag songs on it, so Ginn and Dukowski were hauled to jail.
Something I forgot to mention yesterday: ‘EWB’ is a fascinating rec because it allows for some direct compare/contrast between the band’s first three singers and their respective takes on things: play ‘Depression’ and or ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ in three different iterations and see where you stand regarding The Singer Argument.
(2) Dale Nixon was credited on the Fucking Champs’ album IV, on some Campaign For Real-Time records, and, perhaps not surprisingly, as the photographer who took one of the author pix in my novel.