Deconstructing: Black Flag, FLAG, And Punk Nostalgia
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.”