Black Flag

Everything old is new again: a glance at some leading indie blogs might have you wondering if you’d suddenly time-warped back to some utopian alternative rock version of the ’80s, with names like the Replacements and My Bloody Valentine sharing headline space with Kanye West and Daft Punk. It’s easy to cynically view these ‘reunions’ as bogus cash-grabs and vain attempts to recapture past glories, because that’s often exactly what they are. “The reunion album is better than anything they’ve ever done,” said no one ever. This trend has a reverse effect as well, making bands and artists that stubbornly refuse the lure of manufactured nostalgia seem all the more credible: Neil Hagerty was conspicuously absent from a recent Pussy Galore reunion; Morrissey has reportedly turned down $75 million to reunite The Smiths; and it doesn’t appear that Ian MacKaye has plans to revamp Minor Threat (or Fugazi) anytime soon. And as for Ian’s pal Henry Rollins, well, he won’t be found anywhere near either of the two competing Black Flags this summer.

Yes, as you surely know: competing Black Flags. Joining the ranks of LA Guns, Christian Death, and Asia, former members of the hardcore punk pioneers have, after two decades of dormancy, resurrected two simultaneously touring versions of the group.

There’s FLAG, featuring original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris, Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski (who, while not an original member, wrote a large portion of the band’s most well-known tunes), Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson (Black Flag drummer, 1983-1985), guitarist/vocalist Dez Cadena (Black Flag vocalist and occasional guitarist 1980-83), and Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton.

Then there’s Black Flag, which features Ron Reyes (Black Flag vocalist, 1979-1980), a rhythm section no one’s heard of, and, most crucially, guitarist Greg Ginn. Ginn remains the only constant member of the band since its 1976 inception. He is also the sole legal owner of the Black Flag name (and the band’s iconic ‘bars’ logo, designed by Ginn’s brother Raymond Pettibon), as well as the founder and owner of SST, the legendary punk label that introduced the world not only to Black Flag, but the Meat Puppets, Husker Du, the Minutemen, and Dinosaur Jr., among others.

The two bands do not coexist in anything resembling harmony: On the band’s website, Ginn’s Black Flag asserts that he and Reyes are “not to be confused with the ‘fake’ Flag band currently covering the songs of BLACK FLAG in an embarrassingly weak ‘mailing it in’ fashion.” Morris, in a recent Rolling Stone interview, counters: “When it comes to Greg Ginn, there are some of us that could really care less. Normally, you don’t talk like that about friends. But he’s not a friend, so I could just go down a list of people that have sued him and people that have not received royalties.”

It’s telling that even if these two competing bands somehow put their longstanding differences aside and combined forces, fans might still feel shortchanged by the absence of their beloved Henry Rollins, and with good reason: Black Flag was a very good band that didn’t become great until vocalist Rollins (ne Garfield) joined in 1981. What sets Black Flag apart from their contemporaries and imitators is not the supercharged beach-bum punk of the great, early records, but the hateful, heretical hardcore they produced behind the young Rollins. The fruits of this collaboration are why the band continues to earn a place within the furthest reaches of the counterculture alongside Hendrix, Garcia, and Cobain.

But that’s beside the point. Barring a highly subjective ‘fantasy roster’ of former Black Flag members we’ll likely never see, the Morris-Dukowski version of the band comes closest. Morris and Stevenson come from two different eras of the band, and have never played Black Flag material together; nor have Morris and Cadena. This is an exciting prospect. Ginn, Reyes, and two hired guns, less so.

This is not the first time Black Flag has reunited in mongrel form: In 2002, the Rollins Band released an album of Black Flag covers called Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs To Benefit The West Memphis Three, proceeds of which went to raise money for three teenagers tried (and eventually convicted) for a well-publicized murder in 1994. The benefit album featured guest vocals by artists ranging from Ice-T to Ryan Adams, as well as Dukowski, Morris, and former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler (1983-1985). A year later, in September 2003, Ginn organized three Black Flag reunion shows to benefit cat rescue organizations. The lineup for two of these performances included Ginn on lead guitar, Cadena on vocals and rhythm guitar, C’el Revuelta on bass guitar, and Robo (Black Flag drummer, 1978-1981) on drums. A second version of the band, featuring Ginn, pro skateboarder Mike Vallely on vocals, and drummer Gregory Moore, performed the My War album in its entirety, using pre-recorded bass tracks.

Ginn’s unscrupulous accounting practices are the stuff of legend, and have, in recent years, begun to overshadow his pivotal role in shaping the now-ubiquitous guitar sound we will forever associate with punk. This is unfortunate. Even standing 12 feet away from him at the recent Black Flag show at Buster’s in Lexington, KY, I still haven’t the foggiest idea how he coaxes such sounds from his guitar. His tone still sounds like some wet, venomous creature being wrung out against its will, while shapeless, howling feedback fills those sonic spaces when his left hand strays from the fretboard (which is often). Even more than Dukowski, whose frenetic distorted bass lines anchor the best Black Flag tunes, Ginn remains the supreme architect of Black Flag’s sound, and age has not diminished his prowess an iota.

As for the rest of Ginn’s group, they occasionally resembled a competent Black Flag cover band that somehow managed to convince Ginn to sit in. Of 16 Black Flag lineups comprising 17 people, Reyes was the shortest-tenured vocalist, lasting a mere seven months and producing only four songs (not including the unofficial versions of Rollins-era songs on 1982’s Everything Went Black compilation) rendering his presence more token-like than essential. While he admirably held his own on tunes like “No Values,” “Fix Me,” and “I’ve Had It,” he couldn’t quite muster Keith Morris’s scenery-chewing whinge on “Nervous Breakdown,” on which his monotonic shriek occasionally recalled an out-of-breath Jamey Jasta (of Hatebreed).

Even weaker were the Rollins-era tunes, during which the set seemed to swiftly devolve. Contextual quandaries were difficult to ignore: Reyes introduced the cautionary “Six Pack” by conspicuously procuring a can of PBR from backstage, while you got the impression that many of the fans screaming along to the sarcastic sloth-baiting of “TV Party” have likely never missed a single episode of Mad Men. Ginn’s Black Flag transforms these dejected odes to isolation into tantrums by rote; the 12 kids unconvincingly moshing at Buster’s seemed enticed not by the admonishments to rise above bullshit mainstream culture, nor by the presence of legendary figures onstage, but by the innocuous sound generally associated with some Warped Tour version of “aggressive music.” The crowd experiences exuberance, not transcendence; they’re partying, not purging. Now, far be it for me to criticize how a college freshman chooses to crowd surf, but the cognitive dissonance I felt as a grown man with a Black Flag tattoo was difficult to overcome in full view of such play-acting.

Recent clips of the Morris-Dukowksi itineration of the live band appear more promising than Ginn’s showing at Buster’s, but neither band seems especially necessary at a time when the average postmillennial nonconformist is far more likely to relate to a band like Converge, or Iceage, than to dudes older than their parents hollering about beating their heads against, spray-painting, and/or staring at walls.

So why do it? Why are silver-haired quinquagenarians suddenly revisiting the youthful, highly emotional music of a bygone era? One answer is that the market for punk nostalgia has never been more lucrative. If the Black Flag demographic has indeed shifted from kids with homemade haircuts stealing Thrasher magazine from the 7-Eleven to middle-aged professionals with disposable income, the timing couldn’t be better. We are, after all, living in an era in which the Metropolitan Museum Of Art currently features an exhibit called Punk: From Chaos To Couture. How long until we’re treated to a six-CD box set of The Complete Slip It In Sessions?

Tickets to see Ginn’s Black Flag start at $25.00. According to Rollins’s indispensable tour diary Get In The Van, that’s more than band members netted from entire tours during Black Flag’s heyday. But conspiracy-minded punks citing greed as the reason for these reunions miss another important aspect: pride. The razzing on Ginn’s website seems to indicate a vitriol motivated less by economics than by some compulsive desire to stake claim. It can’t be lost on the competitive Ginn that while his punk-jazz jam band the Texas Corrugators can’t seem to give their records away, OFF!, the Black Flag-ish band fronted by Morris, has earned wildly enthusiastic praise for their conspicuously-titled First Four EPs CD, and are frequently discussed alongside contemporary (and relevant) punk bands like Trash Talk and Death Grips.

Ginn’s Black Flag are reportedly “putting finishing touches on a new album.” An oversaturated market’s need for newly recorded material from this band ranks somewhere below ‘Furby,’ and should be considered as necessary a purchase. New songs “Down In The Dirt” and “The Chase” sound like music no one under 20 would ever listen to if it were the product of some group of pierced rapscallions profiled deep within the pages of Revolver or Alternative Press. As for FLAG, the members all seem busy enough with their own full-time bands, and, mercifully, have announced no plans to record new material. Strangely, this is ultimately what lends the slight advantage to FLAG. Morris’s band may exist solely as a nostalgia vehicle, but isn’t that at least an honest appraisal? That distinction, too, indicates a self-awareness absent from Ginn’s current enterprise, which appears, in contrast, spiteful and delusional. Still can’t decide? Well, children, look to Morrissey: “Buy both, and feel deceived.”

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Comments (18)
  1. Artist motives aside, do you think we as an audience are nostalgic for counterculture scenes? Music scenes don’t really exist in a local sense the way they did before the internet, and bands like Black Flag are artifacts of the days when certain styles of music served a purpose for a subculture’s identity that was equally defined by its geographic location. East coast and west coast punk were distinct in the late 70s through the 90s, and Black Flag was compelling when Rollins joined because it combined “supercharged beach bum” California sound, as described here, with the neurotic and angry energy of the east coast.

    If there was a Minor Threat reunion, would there be much to appreciate outside of their role in the past, and their placement in the grand narrative of the evolution of punk? Songs like “Guilty of Being White” are so specific to Ian MacKaye’s experiences growing up in Washington D.C., that they’re almost irrelevant to any other place and time (so irrelevant that I think there have more neo-Nazis misinterpreting it than people who can truly relate to it). But I think to be punk fan today is to have an aching nostalgia for the specific places and times in which the classics were conceived, even if we weren’t alive to have possibly been a part of it. It’s ironic that to be an authentic punk you have to worship music from a distant time and/or place that was made as a direct response to that specific time and place

    And indie fans are interested in this Black Flag stuff because they have the same nostalgia for scenes. Is there a modern equivalent to early Sub Pop’s Seattle? To Elephant 6′s Athens? Hell, to Saddle Creek’s Omaha? The identity of a subculture is not as closely tied to geographical location as it once was, bands grow on the internet rather than within communities, and I think a lot of people today long to be a part of these communities of the past because we are nostalgic for the solidarity they symbolize.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Interesting post, Nathan, thanks. You are right, who would really have predicted that a great art scene would emerge from a smallish city 30 minutes outside the capitol of the deep south? Or Seattle, which in the early 90s, on the brink of the tech-boom, might as well have been as remote as Alaska?

      Nostalgia in a de-localized world is definitely part of it — but one thing that frustrates me is how young bands seem less and less devoted to building those local scenes, and how rabid many just seem to pack it all up, leave home, and get to over saturated, over priced, insufferable Brooklyn. The internet was supposed to make music more accessible and wide-spread – and while it certainly has done that in positive ways – I wonder what part it’s played in eradicating the good parts of localism (or as you mention communities), and what that ultimately means for the music we enjoy.

      • Both of you make fantastic points to a good read. Nathan’s line “bands grow on the internet rather than within communities” kinda scares me. Local music scenes/communities are dying. I live in New Jersey, and unless you are in a 90′s adult contemporary cover band, you have nowhere to play. I was in a band recently, but it’s so hard to get any sort of attention when no one cares what you are playing. Even if we lived in Brooklyn or something, it still wouldn’t matter. NYC has now become an over-saturated wasteland of sound-alikes and posers. It’s in small towns in middle America or Nowheresville USA where bands and music scenes have a chance to grow and prosper. This is because people there actually are willing to hear you out and they aren’t yet jaded by the constant barrage to faceless bands. Big cities are better for a mass audience. Small towns are better for support and character.

        • Not sure what part of Jersey you’re from, but what about Ted Leo/Titus Andronicus and that whole scene? That right there is something to be proud of.

          • It is, but the scene is dying. There’s no interest in exciting new music. Take the famous Hoboken club Maxwells for instance, which is closing its doors in July (I believe). It’s a different culture now.

    • Strange aside: I was looking up Minor Threat lyrics like six or seven years ago and somehow ended up not knowing what it was. There are legitimately people out there in the world who believe Ian McKaye is a white supremacist. This is a terrible world sometimes.

  2. Great piece. It sounds like the author believes Damaged is the only album that matters from Black Flag. As evident by the assertion that the band never became great until Rollins joined and Dukowski played bass on their best songs. That intersection only leaves Damaged.

    That’s a valid opinion shared by most. I think Dez and Rollins ruined the band, with the tuneless shouting. I think their best album is The First Four Years and their most interesting is The Process of Weeding Out. But great piece and nice read.

    • I agree with Dave that Rollins ruined the band (not sure I would say the same about Dez though). I’ve talked with many Black Flag fans who feel the same way. The Morris/Reyes/Dez(maybe) years are considered by many to be the best, with Damaged representing the last gasp of the great Black Flag eras (it’s telling that all but one or two songs from Damaged had already existed when Rollins joined, and that the Rollins-penned tunes are by far the worst on the album).

      As for the reunions: I agree with the article that FLAG seems the better choice. The videos I’ve seen simply show FLAG putting on a better show. Also, I’m not wild about the new Black Flag songs, and I’m even less happy about Ginn’s bitching about FLAG.

      • I’ve never understood people who say Rollins “ruined” black flag. His tenure with the band was by far the most interesting, bold and intense. And while they released some lousy music (hint hint “Slip it in”) in that era, you can’t deny that they broke new ground and inspired counted musicians by playing slow, playing weird, and not being afraid to wear their classic rock and jazz fusion influences on their sleeve. The fact that they lost fans everytime they released an album, and they knew that, but kept evolving and changing anyway is incredible.
        FLAG definitely seems like the better choice. I’d rather see a band sans Greg Ginn playing the songs as I know them, and looking like they’re having fun, than the passionless going-thru-the-motions renditions of police story and jealous again (not to mention the awful new songs). Also, Chavo was always my least favorite singer.

  3. These dudes can piss all over each other as much as they want. Just don’t expect me to pay money to watch it. I do know people that are excited to go see the new black flag but they were all born after 1984.

    • Well said. I saw Black Flag twice in the 80′s and it was sad to see the recent live performances that surfaced on youtube. Ginn’s guitar playing is horrible…the drumming sucks as well. only thing they got going for them is chavo. Black Flag 2013 are playing in miami. I refuse to see them but would see Flag.

      • Good point about the drumming. I don’t know what was going on with the drumming in the Black Flag video I saw. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” just sounded….wrong. FLAG sounded ok though.

    • Honestly though, I’ve only heard good things from fans about FLAG. I’m inclined to give the band a chance after the positive press and the few live clips that have appeared on the Internet.

  4. Wow. That’s too bad about Black Flag. Not that it’s really any surprise. I’m actually a huge fan of the era of “rediscovery.” So many incredible albums are being given the attention that they never got the first time around. A definite silver lining has to be all of these artists who didn’t realize how much of an influence (if any) they had. It’s true… there are very few artists that I would pay to see in the second chapter of their career. But… there are some… R. Stevie Moore, Bill Fay, Vashti Bunyan, Kraftwerk (even though they only play computers now), etc… It’s a risky business, but I hope that some of the true originators don’t shy away.

  5. Wow. That’s too bad about Black Flag. Not that it’s really too much of a surprise. I’m actually a huge fan of the era of “rediscovery.” So many incredible albums are being given the attention that they never got the first time around. A definite silver lining has to be all of these artists who didn’t realize how much of an influence (if any) they had. It’s true… there are very few artists that I would pay to see in the second chapter of their career. But… there are some… R. Stevie Moore, Bill Fay, Vashti Bunyan, Kraftwerk (even though they only play computers now), etc… It’s a risky business, but I hope that some of the true originators don’t shy away.

  6. Really good article. As listeners, we’d like this band to remain on the shelf so that they don’t screw up our memories of them. But, with the possible exception of Rollins, none of these guys ever made a lot of money, so it’s hard to blame them for coming back.

    I have tickets to the Replacements, who I last saw live in 1985, which I’m approaching with a deep mixture of dread and profound excitement. I think that there is some reason for hope: some reunion tours (see The Pixies) are actually pretty good.

  7. This is just another form of Beatlemania. If you were not there in the moment you missed it. This is not something that can be manufactured night to night. It happened. It’s gone. Move on.

  8. I, probably like many of us here, have lost many of hours of sleep over this and similar “HEY REMEMBER US!?” affairs. Its probably a little like the feeling you get when you actually meet a musician you admire and find out he/she is not such a great person (Why Billy Corgan?…why…) This kind of thing really shows vulnerability in the artist, and not in a good way. Suddenly, someone you always thought placed artistic value above personal gain doesn’t appear so beautifully martyrish anymore. I mean, as much as any band wants to spin it, if you bring the whole thing back which you once called off because you were done with it and moving on to other things…it just couldn’t be any more obvious that you have ulterior motives. It’s no longer about creating something, it’s about cashing in, whether thats monetarily or emotionally. Saying you “do it for the fans” doesn’t really change anything, you’re still pandering, and you didn’t pander before…quit pandering!

    However, when it comes right down to it, who’s to blame here? The artist or the fans? We buy the tickets, we buy the records, if there really was something deeply wrong about this kind of thing I think we’d just totally ignore it in the first place (Hmm? The Smashing Pumpkins? Noooo they haven’t played for 15 years!) But we don’t. We front the money and show up in the audience and give them a very, very good reason to continue what they’re doing. If nobody went to these shows, the band would certainly stop immediately.

    I’ve probably thought about this too much. But, in any case, I’m going to see Neutral Milk Hotel in a few months. So please, point the finger at me.

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