Black Flag

Showing 12 posts tagged Black Flag

"Sex, God, Sex" from Children of God

A bit of historical context: Wipers formed in 1977, Flipper in 1979. My War by Black Flag came out in 1983, the same year Melvins were formed. The Jesus Lizard and Eyehategod were just getting started or not even together yet when this record came out.

And, boy, is “Sex, God, Sex” just (mostly unintentionally) way ahead of everyone. This is god tier sludge, considering it’s 1987. Those huge, engulfing, downtuned guitars remind me of what Sunn O))) were able to do years later, and those almost-growled self-loathing vocals just enhance the whole thing.

There are bands even now that wouldn’t mind sounding like this song. What makes it all the more interesting is that “Sex, God, Sex” isn’t representative of the overall sound of Children of God, since the album has much more diversity than Swans releases before it. 

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.”

“Slip It In,” the third Black Flag studio album, is (select any/all that apply):

1) The first featuring bassist Kira Roessler.

2) One of the best Black Flag records.

3) An obvious ‘fuck you’ to a punk establishment  growing more orthodox in ideology as well as in fashion and sound. The original American and British punk scenes were free spaces for ideas and innovation. With the advent of hardcore, punk reached a younger audience hungry to latch onto something countercultural. Younger audiences tend to be more impressionable and eager to be accepted than their older counterparts, so what amounted to a dress code quickly came to the fore.  Bands in the suburbs, relatively detached from the immediacy of punk scenes in cities, grew more orthodox in their sounds, as well, aping already-established bands releasing records. In terms of ideological content, things began to become politically correct through the release of zines like Maximumrocknroll – so left-leaning that they began to seem right-leaning. Black Flag wanted to rankle kneejerk fans who adapted the more PC ideology for the sake of fitting in – remember that punk was originally a place for people who didn’t fit in. Black Flag wanted to reinforce this.  Releasing “Slip It In” fit the bill.

4) An extension of the band’s road-dog persona and general disrespectful attitude towards women. In the early days, they kept a running tally of the number of women they’d slept with in the van; stories of tour hookups abound. Songs like “Loose Nut” on later records confirm this reading.

5) One of the worst Black Flag records.

6) The first of a misunderstood series of songs designed to make people reflect on choices they make. The album’s title track lambastes hypocrisy – the band was setting a hard example through their constant work, practice, and touring. Of course, not everyone lives this way, so subsequent songs which also addressed  what they perceived as the public’s weakness and stupidity, especially concerning not being able to control primal urges – “Loose Nut,” “Annihilate This Week,” to a less carnal extent “Drinking And Driving” – were made a little more obvious so that listeners wouldn’t misinterpret them as easily and as often as “Slip It In” was.

7) The first of several studio albums which drag because the material isn’t strong enough to sustain repeated listens. After MCA’s injunction against the band lifted, Black Flag released records quickly to accommodate their backlog of songs and their seemingly endless touring. With that said, some songs didn’t fare well outside of the live setting, and the best songs were evenly distributed amongst the many releases to level the killer/filler ratio.

8) An okay Black Flag record.

9) The beginning of the end of a band ruined by Henry Rollins joining.

10) The sound of Greg Ginn becoming newly comfortable with his role as the band’s only guitar player. For years he had Dez behind him to fortify his sound. Ginn hit his musical stride after the release of “My War” and the ridiculous practice regiment maintained by the Ginn/Rollins/Stevenson/Kira lineup. The strength of the rhythm section allowed him to be more out there with his leads.

11) A mediocre Black Flag record.

12) A continuation of the band’s ongoing infatuation with metal. The longer, slower stuff on “My War” reflects the band’s infatuation with Black Sabbath; the production on “Slip It In” and “Loose Nut” is an attempt to aurally pass on this infatuation.

13) The first of five LP’s, two live albums and an instrumental EP released between 1984 and 1986.

Not everyone liked “My War” — or, for that matter, the second side of it. The ‘sellout’ cry rang far and wide, even though the band was playing some of the most challenging, confrontational music of their career.
Tomorrow: the elephant in the room.

Not everyone liked “My War” — or, for that matter, the second side of it. The ‘sellout’ cry rang far and wide, even though the band was playing some of the most challenging, confrontational music of their career.

Tomorrow: the elephant in the room.

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. 

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(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.

So not punk to begin a discussion of Black Flag by talking about Pavement. But: when “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” came out, I knew right away that it was a better album than “Slanted and Enchanted,” which preceded it. But, when The Pavement Conversations happens, I still hype “Slanted,” because it was the first one for me. It’s my favorite even though I know it’s not as good.

Black Flag is like that. A lot. They made so many mistakes and had so many personnel changes that cases can be made for or against pretty much any member of the band, or song, or record. And as much as punk is supposed to be an anathema to sentimentality, people’s choices are often based on where they were when they got in: which incarnation they saw first, which record a friend dubbed, stuff like that.

The most obvious point of debate –and the most obvious place to start – is with the band’s four singers. There are cases to be made for (and against) each: Keith Morris, singer #1, was (and is) snotty as hell, stretching syllables to their breaking point from “Nervous Breakdown” on.  If you’re nitpicking –and why not, right? – maybe Morris is a little too Rotten. (Yeah, but “Nervous Breakdown” was recorded in the 70’s, I know. And Keith’s been singing more or less since then, so there’s that, too. And he hasn’t lost an ounce of steam in Off!)

Ron Reyes –or, depending on when, where and how you started listening, Chavo Pederast – was more explosive than Keith was, and  was great both on and off the stage in ‘The Decline of Western Civilization.’ He’s charismatic and full of energy and generally awesome, though in his recorded output he hits bum notes in ways that don’t always work for me. (I know, I know, punk isn’t about virtuosity, blah blah blah.)

Henry Rollins is a lightning rod – depending on your take, he either ruined the band (an oft-repeated chestnut) or took him to where they are today (whatever that means). I never bought into the first argument, that he ruined the band – like Greg Ginn would let some new, admittedly green singer drive the metaphorical van. Nope. Henry improved tremendously over his five year tenure as the band’s playing evolved out of punk/hardcore and into something entirely its own. He shifted from a hoarse barker to a bona fide vocalist, though, like everyone else, there are some missteps along the way (the “it’s all in my mind” bit from “Black Coffee” comes to mind here. I’ll get back into this later on in the week).

And Dez!

Dez is my favorite.

Sure, part of it is completely sentimental: my first exposure to the band came through a mix tape a buddy from summer camp mailed me. “Okay, we’re rolling, you can play,” Spot (right?) says in his weird reedy voice, then there’s clanging piano for a little too long, until Ginn’s guitar finally kicks in. Dez is fucking ferocious as he belts out the first line (and, for that matter, the rest) of Jealous Again. There’s some restraint in his vocals that’s lacking in the official Ron Reyes 12” version. The Dez version appears, as does so much amazing stuff, on Everything Went Black, the comp Black Flag released while under injunction by MCA records . Dez delivers an under-the-breath, muttered quality that makes the song sound less performative and more convincing, as if it’s part of the natural give-and-take of an argument instead of a rant to an already-converted room full of angry dudes.

A common thread, when talking about the band, is to mention how much energy and work was put into it by the band members and the folks who worked with and for the SST record label. Dez exemplifies this: if you listen to his recorded output (except maybe ‘Jealous Again,’ anyway), he’s totally going for it. Not that the other guys in the band aren’t, mind you, but c’mon. Dez shouts himself hoarse! As a result, some of his stuff isn’t as dynamic as with the band’s other singers, but I think it sounds great.

Part of the allure of Dez, too, is that he knew his voice wouldn’t sustain itself, so he switched to guitar. His contributions there are part of what makes Damaged such a crucial record….and the lack thereof are what make My War such a tough one. I’ll talk about both tomorrow.