Black Flag was, for all intents and purposes, America’s first hardcore band. They emerged from Southern California to gain international prominence, touring enough to become a major attraction in virtually every city where a scene existed and undoubtedly inspiring others to get in the game. Via the band’s still-thriving SST label, Black Flag played an essential role in the development and popularization of American punk. Through countless revolving-door personnel changes — which spawned numerous spin-off bands along the way — Black Flag persevered until 1986, finally dissolving after locating and exploring the zone where punk and heavy metal intersect and overlap.
The four-song 7-inch Nervous Breakdown (SST 001) and the five-song 12-inch Jealous Again offer brief but convincing blasts of primal punk roar by two early lineups; the ghost of the Sex Pistols comes floating through the brazen blare of guitars and vocals. Damaged features a superior cast (most significantly, Washington DC singer Henry Rollins, ex- S.O.A., had joined) and includes the culture classic “TV Party,” as well as other goofy paeans to dissipated suburban life (“Six Pack,” “Thirsty and Miserable”) and the classic American punk anthem, “Rise Above.” Rollins’ hoarse shout grates, but the barely contained rock energy and tongue-in-cheek lyrics make Damaged a great rock’n’roll LP that isn’t beholden to any clichéd genre. (The Damaged CD also contains the contents of Jealous Again.)
In the midst of a horrible legal dispute with Unicorn Records, the group found itself enjoined from using the Black Flag name and logo on any new records, and resorted to releasing the double-album outtakes-and-more career retrospective, Everything Went Black, with only a listing of band members on the cover for identification. (It was later reissued with all the proper nomenclature and unexpurgated liner notes.) The tracks, which date from 1978 to 1981 (the album’s European edition is substantially different), feature various configurations of the Black Flag gene pool attacking a motley collection of songs. (“Police Story,” “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” “Damaged” and “Depression” all get done twice.) As a developmental Black Flag sampler, Everything Went Black is both illuminating and entertaining, but the real treat is Side Four, “Crass Commercialism,” a hysterically funny collection of crazed radio spots for Flag gigs, most with music, that say a lot about the cultural milieu in which the band existed. The First Four Years is an extensive compilation of early releases, including the 1981 Six Pack maxi-single, Jealous Again and two tracks from a New Alliance compilation.
Following the resolution of their litigation (Unicorn helpfully went bankrupt), a new and prolific Black Flag — Rollins, guitarist Greg Ginn (who doubled in the studio on bass, using the pseudonym Dale Nixon) and Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson — drifted vaguely towards metal on My War, a mediocre album with some interminably long songs. (One plodding side has a grand total of three!) There are some good punk tunes (“I Love You”) but elsewhere, a labored heavy-bottomed sound and appallingly bad guitar solos cross the line from sarcasm into sheer awfulness. Rollins’ vocals are the same as ever, which makes the bad tracks even stranger.
Kira Roessler (sister of 45 Grave keyboardist Paul Roessler) took over on bass for Slip It In. With far clearer sound on the eight tracks, the LP further blurs the line between moronic punk and moronic metal. Songs are mostly built on trite riffs repeated endlessly; the rude lyrics of the title song are performed complete with enthusiastic sex noises for anyone who fails to grasp the point and/or be offended by it. Other songs are less tasteless but little more interesting. Family Man deconstructs Black Flag into a side of Rollins reading his poetry and a side of group instrumentals.
Live ’84 puts the band’s recent creative output and selected oldies onstage for an hour of wanton loud fun. Black Flag concerts were typically an utter mess, which suits the songs perfectly, making this chaotic explosion naturally one of their best releases.
Black Flag continued their torrid pace in 1985, releasing three new records: Loose Nut, The Process of Weeding Out and In My Head. Weeding Out is a Henryless instrumental EP: four lengthy improvs displaying unexpected technical prowess (especially Kira, on “Your Last Affront”) and a new side to the band. There’s a certain nostalgia factor for those who remember Canned Heat or Ten Years After in the old days, but on its own merits, little here would entice you into multiple listenings. The other two records feature the complete Rollins-Ginn-Kira-Stevenson lineup and are fairly similar: nine songs each of varied but mostly medium-tempo guitar rock that keeps a safe distance from metal, hardcore and sleaze. Loose Nut has clean sound, Rollins’ brutally self-hating “This Is Good” and lyrics on the inner sleeve — the best Black Flag LP of 1985. (The In My Head cassette contains three bonus tracks.)
With new drummer Anthony Martinez, Black Flag recorded the live Who’s Got the 10 1/2? in Portland, Oregon on 23 August 1985. Besides a great cover photo of the band’s actual tour calendar that says more about the rock’n’roll life than any half-dozen magazine articles, the album features hot versions of ’84-’85 material, plus a genuine oldie, “Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie.” (The cassette and CD add 24 more minutes of fun.)
The posthumous Wasted…Again neatly recapitulates Black Flag’s high career points with a dozen essential tracks, from “Wasted” to “Drinking and Driving.” Everything you’d want in a single disc is included, and brief annotation adds the veneer of history.
In 1989, SST quietly issued I Can See You, an EP of tracks by the ’84-’85 quartet. The music isn’t extraordinary for that era of Black Flag, but Rollins’ colorful vocal performances — on the complacent “Kickin’ & Stickin'” and the aggrieved “You Let Me Down” especially — make this a surprisingly rich nugget.