Black Flag’s incessant musical progression alienated listeners. Some of this was by design –again with the band’s confrontational attitude – but some of it was as a result of the choices they made, too: their release schedule didn’t allow listeners to catch up. It comes as no surprise that the back end of the band’s catalogue is often overlooked, or dismissed as sellout hippie blah blah blah.
It’s easy to make the argument that the glut of post-injunction albums is too thin: more albums means more songs, some of which aren’t up to snuff. “In My Head” was originally to be Greg Ginn’s first solo album, so the killer/filler ratio rests heavily on the left side of the slash. It’s one of the band’s best, and is criminally overlooked.
I mentioned the other day that Black Flag’s fanbase was unduly shocked by side B of ‘My War’ despite the sonic hints forecasting the band’s imminent change to a heavier, sludgier sound. Similarly, the records that led up to “In My Head” show Ginn’s evolution as a guitar player, away from rote punk riffery in favor of an aggressive jazz/rock fusion reminiscent of John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Ginn’s style remains instantly recognizable – his particular vernacular consists of chains of bent and squealed notes which each seem to have nothing to do with those that preceded and followed them. It’s tough, and cringe-inducing and first listen (even at like tenth listen), until the design of each song/solo emerges. There’s nothing sloppy or accidental about Ginn’s playing. He practiced playing like that, as evidenced by the abundance of Black Flag live shows available online. Mistakes prove to be intentional as the sound of a finger hitting a fret, say, recurs in performance after performance. In line with the band’s overarching dual ideologies of confrontation and progression, Ginn created and developed his own language on guitar and didn’t care what anyone thought.
It’s tough stuff to listen to, so it’s no surprise that the albums which chart the evolution leading to “In My Head” are some of the most neglected in the catalogue. “Family Man” features Henry Rollins’ first recorded stabs at spoken word, while side B is largely instrumental. The raw shock of the A-side and, at the time of release, the novelty of a side of just talking makes the spoken stuff more accessible than its musical flip – it’s no surprise, then, that across the land vinyl side B’s of ‘Family Man’ remain pristine while the A-sides are deeply grooved.
“The Process of Weeding Out” is another instrumental album, one that’s not as talked up as its full-band contemporaries. Ginn, Stevenson and Kira are locked in throughout, playing something that is certainly punk rock in its attitude, if not execution. It’s funny to think that one of the most revered punk bands of all time starting mutating into something resembling jazz more than anything else, but that’s exactly what happened, and if the fanbase didn’t like the change, fuck ‘em (as the title implies).
So it’s in the wake of these changes that “In My Head” arrived, the last of a chain of records which shifted in production and execution. Lots of fans were pissed off by at least one variant of the band’s presentation and dropped off, or were just exhausted, either financially or aurally, by the full-bore assault.
“In My Head” features “Drinking and Driving,” an accessible anthem very much in the mold of “Annihilate This Week.” The title track’s chorus riff is chunky and heavy – but the verses are showcases for acrobatic single-note oddity. That’s as straight as the songs on the record play.
For my money, the apex of Ginn’s guitar playing in Black Flag comes back to back on side B with “Society’s Tease” leading into “It’s All Up To You.” The former, in particular, is an expo of Ginn’s ridiculously particular talent for creating cacophony, and, in doing so, forging something perfect. The precision with which he plays the exact wrong notes time and again reveals that his choices are precisely right throughout. The whole album – with these two songs, back to back – is a clinic.
I understand all the reasoning for not listening to album –and there’s the matter of the mix, which finds Rollins’ vocals buried so low as to almost be inaudible, perhaps a political decision predicting the band’s end in the summer of 1986 – but all the clues are there on the preceding records, and the performances throughout are stellar, as the Ginn/Rollins/Stevenson/Kira lineup had played something like 180 shows a year for two years in 1984 and 1985. They knew how to work and play music together, and it all gelled, especially on “In My Head.”