Black Flag

Showing 13 posts tagged Black Flag

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We generally like to reference stuff in song titles and in songs because we think they’re funny or if people see a Simpson’s reference in a song title, they might look at it a little more.” - Mikey Erg

The Ergs! collectively know too much about everything, most of all music (this is where the beauty of The Erg’s! sound comes in, you have to have a PhD in pop/punk rock/indie rock/power-pop/rock and roll/rap/anything and everything history to fully appreciate all the diverse influences that are welded into The Ergs compact and ready to roll rock and roll/pop tunes-be it a musical or lyrical influence or simply a liner-note/live banter reference), and are not afraid to let their opinions be known…They are however certifiable dorks, and will be the first to admit it. So any and all bickering is meant only in good fun. - Lew Houston, Vinyl a Go-Go

The final proper Ergs! release, the aptly titled “That’s it…Bye,” begins with Jeffy Erg playing naggingly familiar power chords. Personally, it took me a solid .2 seconds to recognize his intro as a nod to a classic MTV bumper spot (specifically, the one that introduced MTV to the world in 1981). It’s fortunate that “Anthem for a New Amanda” is a good song on its own, as Schroeck’s intro mentally prepares you to watch Trevor Horn creeping around a spaceship.

The pop-culture references that drifted off the edges off music, however, were what usually burst the top of the fun-o-meter. The Ergs! were unabashedly products of the 1990s. They made no pretensions to bury their pop culture loves under a blanket of post-modernist angst like so many punk bands of the Bush era did. Relatively early in their existence (due to a valuable MC Chris connection), they recorded an adult swim lineup theme. This felt appropriate considering how their body of music was not unlike the Venture Brothers: thoroughly enjoyable for people who didn’t get the strings of references, but full of bonus prizes and extra vindicating for those who did. Then again, the Ergs! hardly presented themselves as exclusionary; one could feel like they were in on whatever joke existed just by listening to the song.

When Rik Mayall died a few weeks ago, the first person I thought of was Joey Erg. Honestly, it was mainly because I was in the middle of writing this, but also because of Keller’s rare vocal turn on dorkrockcorkrod, where he attempts what the liner notes called a “bad Rik Mayall impression” sandwiched in between the dude from Deadguy screaming references to his own song on “Maybe I’m the New Messiah

I’ve decided to throw together a sample list of references buried (no matter how thinly or deeply) in Ergs! songs. I’ve decided against (intentionally) using the internet for assistance for a couple of reasons. First, considering how I’m in the same age group as Schroeck, Yannich, and Heller, much of our sub-cultural sensibility was informed by media we ingested years before it was instantly available in archived form at the push of a button. People our age had to remember and quote, rather than search and pull up on a phone to relay a funny anecdote from a television show. With certain exceptions late in the series, Mystery Science Theater 3000 built an empire off of the collective pop-culture knowledge of writers who couldn’t google-image search Ray Davies to make sure that Sartoris looked like him in “The Final Sacrifice.” Second, and more pragmatically, if I were to use Google and dive into the deepest corners of the internet, this list would never fucking end. As a common adage about academic publishing goes, there are two types of work: perfect and done. Watch me apply that ethos in quite possibly the nerdiest way possible here.

To begin with a Sideshow Bob reference, I’m aware of the irony of writing an article for a website on the internet while making a point to decry it, so don’t bother pointing that out.

THE SIMPSONS

  • “Fishbulb” - perhaps the band’s most blatant Simpsons reference. In episode ep 4F18 “In Marge We Trust” (first aired 4/27/97), Homer finds his face on a Japanese box, and after calling the Mr. Sparkle factory in Hokkaido to get a video press release, he, Bart, and Lisa see that Mr. Sparkle’s face is the combination of a happy fish and a yellow lightbulb of the detergent’s two parent companies. “There’s your answer, Fishbulb,” says Bart. According to Keller, this song’s name (much like “August 19th”) originated as a non-sequitur written at the top of the page.
  • In “More Vocal in the Monitor,” which Yannich admits in the ‘Hindsight is 20/20’ liner notes was written while watching The Simpsons, includes the line “you won’t be needing this no more” a blatant nod to Bart’s classic heartbreak sequence when Laura, the attractive older girl next door, excitedly tells him she has a boyfriend. (Editor’s note: watch this particular episode of The Simpsons before ANYTHING else referenced on this list. “Can yer grandfadda do THIS?”).
  • “Fall Back” (on the band’s debut recording ‘F’n’) opens with a clip of Homer finding a pair of eyeglasses (that belong to Henry Kissinger), putting them on, and quickly spouting a theorem about isosceles triangles, getting corrected by an anonymous man in the stall next to him that he was talking about right triangles. He poetically yells “d’oh.”

DIRTY WORK

  • The existence of The Hamiltons (stay tuned…)
  • The title of their “Hindsight is 20/20, My Friend” compilation is a throwaway line by Chevy Chase in the film, reflecting with Mitch (Norm MacDonald) on how he’s accumulated such massive gambling debts.
  • “It’s Like I Say, Y’Know” - this is a throwaway line from a scene where Mitch and his buddy/brother (Artie Lange) are drinking on a rooftop and reflecting.
  • "Note to Self"- This 7" collaboration title was also a reference to Norm MacDonald’s incessant catch phrase that almost never got laughs on SNL but appeared throughout ‘Dirty Work.’
  • The artwork for all of the split 7”s with The Measure (SA) featured Dirty Work references, including a drawing of Norm MacDonald, one of Chevy Chase, and one of two fishes that Mitch and Sam are holding as they overhear a brutal gangland shooting that they caused.

THE REPLACEMENTS

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  • The first words of their first album were “I’m in love, I’m in Trouble,” a play off one of the best lines from the Replacements’ first album. Badass. They’d eventually just complete the circle and cover the original song for a tribute compilation.
  • The “so what” studio bumper from the beginning of “I Hate Music” also adorns the beginning of “Bought a Copy”
  • In “Radio K,” Mike begins with ‘it’s getting kinda cold, so I’ll take the skyway home. New Jersey isn’t cold enough for skyways. This is about the Twin Cities, and the Replacements (see “Skyway” off of ‘Pleased to Meet Me’). It also references St. Paul. I could be missing something much more blatant here, but the jokes on me I guess.
  • “Feeling Minneapolis” (see above)
  • “Johnny Rzeznik Needs His Ass Kicked” on the Thrash Compactor EP screams that the lead Goo Goo Doll is no Westerberg, not that we didn’t already know that. By the way, if you’re into absurdist humor, read this.

BLACK FLAG

  • “You Bet We’ve Got Somethign Personal Against the Steinways” (If you didn’t get this one, you have a lot of homework to do).
  • At the end of “Pray for Rain” on dorkrockcorkrod, the band inserts a clip of Henry Rollins reading from his “Get in the Van” diaries about being dumped and hung-up on long distance. Nobody who remembers dating before cell phones should understand what an affront that was.

MINUTEMEN

  • At the beginning of “If You Don’t” on the Three Guys, Twelve Eyes EP, they throw in a clip of D. Boon yelling “I must look like a dork!” from “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing.”

  • They covered a very obscure (to the point where they taunt vinyl junkies with “it’s way out of print! good luck, fuckers”) Mike Watt project (Crimony) with “Vampire Party” on dorkrock, so don’t doubt their dedication.

THE BRITISH INVASION

  • Fuckin’ “Rod Argent.” Yannich was listening to the Zombies non-stop while writing this one, and it bleeds through. The lyrics aren’t about Rod Argent, but the feel and appeal of it certainly are. Once upon a time, I threw it on at the beginning of a cast party composed primarily of middle-aged people. To my pleasant shock, a bunch of them took to the dance floor as if “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been blaring. Tell me catchy hooks and sappy lyrics aren’t universal.
  • “When You’re Squeeze” - Squeeze were technically part and parcel of the second British invasion that arrived with MTV. Personally, I think that “Tempted” and “Pulling Mussels from a Shell” are unlistenable, but that’s just me. Literally. Every other human being I know loves those songs. Including, from what I can gather, Jeff Erg.
  • While we’re on the subject of the second British invasion (sort of), “Introducing Morrissey.” Apparently, the “last album I loved the whole way through,” which Mikey sings to open it, was a Prince line. Who knew?

MUSICALS

  • The “Trouble in River City” song title on upstairs/downstairs came straight from The Music Man. Like ‘Fishbulb,’ it seems like a non-sequitor. But then again, it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for Meredith Willson to have some influence on The Ergs!’ songwriting.
  • I’m really not that knowledgeable about musical theatre. I’m learning, though, give me some time. 

THE RAMONES

  • Any band that has existed and shared a last stage name in the past three decades has technically taken that cue from The Ramones. 
  • The Ergs! recorded an acoustic Ramones medley that made its rounds on the torrent circuit in the mid-2000s. All clues suggest it was just the trio jamming after-hours at the house of a friend who had a decent recording apparatus. It’s pretty effortlessly good.

"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.

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.