Thursday, March 30, 2017

THE FIRST FOUR YEARS and EVERYTHING WENT BLACK albums reviewed















The first four years, aka pre-Henry years, officially consisted of a mere sixteen tracks that total less than twenty-seven minutes, with three different singers. That doesn't include demos (which consist of rougher versions of the same tracks) or re-recordings (which you can find on the compilation Everything Went Black). It doesn't feel like much, especially when you consider that all sixteen track were originally released across four 7" EPs/singles-Nervous Breakdown (Keith Morris on vocals, Brian Migdol on drums), Jealous Again (Ron Reyes on vocals, Robo on drums), Six Pack, and Louie Louie (Dez Cadena on vocals). Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski play guitar and bass, respectively, on all four albums.

Collected on the compilation The First Four Years the songs make a definitive document or blue print of what hard core punk is. Black Flag lead the genre as a whole with everyone else trying to keep up. Regardless of the scenes that were springing up across the country, particularly in Washington DC and New York City, those early EPs were game changers. Black Flag didn't sound like Minor Threat or Bad Brains or any of the other noteworthy hard core bands of the time. Even on their fastest tracks Black Flag wasn't playing up and down oompa loompa rhythms, they swung (I believe it was in Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad that I first saw this pointed out, before I never really pin pointed what made Black Flag stand out so starkly from their peers). So even if they weren't as accomplished as musicians as they would become, Black Flag still sounded more musical than the majority of their contemporaries. They could play though. Ginn was self taught and experimental. Dukowski and Robo were maniacal as a rhythm section. If you can focus on Dukowski's bass lines, he's a monster.  

"Nervous Breakdown," "Fix Me," "I've Had It," and "Wasted" (Morris) are quintessential hard core songs. You want to introduce someone to punk, this and the Ramones first album are where you start. Morris seemed born to sing these songs and no one performed them better (now that's not a 'best singer' statement, the specific songs of each singers' era were never performed better by the other singers, in my opinion. Rollins could do a good "Fix Me," so could Reyes, but it's a Morris song. Morris sang "My War" with Flag, and it's sick, but it's still very much a Henry song.) All four tracks barrel past like a locomotive in about five minutes.

"Jealous Again," "Revenge," "White Minority," "No Values," and "You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You" (Reyes/with Dukowski on "You Bet...") was a crucial set and nearly perfect. It's this era of the band that appears on Penelope Spheeris' Decline Of The Western Civilization. In the film, you can hear an early take on the Damaged track "Depression." Reyes had a ton of energy and just poured himself into these performances. Ginn and Dukowski are more of a cohesive unit, the playing much tighter, and the addition of Robo on drums propels the whole set.

The Dez era feels like a stop gap between Reyes and Rollins in hindsight. He wasn't the lead singer long, but left an indelible mark and for a great many people he was Black Flag's best singer (I don't buy into that, as I've indicated before, each Black Flag singer is important for their specific era. As the music progressed the singers would have needed to change whether they were fired or quit anyway. No it wasn't planned like that, but I'd hate to think of what we would have missed out on if Morris, Reyes, or Dez were still the vocalist in 1985). "Clocked In," "Six Pack," "I've Heard It Before," "American Waste," "Machine," "Louie Louie," and "Damaged I" signaled Black Flag's biggest leap forward in a thrashier, definitively hard core direction that would be fully realized on Damaged, Rollins' debut. This is why I think the Dez era feels like a stop gap; Damaged feels like a Dez album. "Six Pack" and "Damaged I" were both re-recorded with Rollins and they're not bad versions at all, the difference lies in the fact that Dez was more sure of himself when he recorded his versions. You can find other Damaged songs Dez recorded on Everything Went Black. I wouldn't want to replace Rollins on Damaged, really, but if he'd had more time to grow into his role and find his voice before the sessions then Dez's version of "Six Pack" wouldn't out shine his. This was a growing and experimenting time for Black Flag too. Where "Clocked In" and "American Waste" continued where Jealous Again left off, "Machine" and "Damaged I" signaled a massive shift in aesthetic wouldn't be fully realized until My War.  

The upside to the end of the Dez era and the start of the Rollins era, is that Dez didn't leave, he just moved over to second guitar, which was like pouring jet fuel on a fire, and anything lacking in Rollins' early performances (listen to some bootlegs from that era, he'll blow out his voice two or three songs in) are made up by the assured beefier sound. For further proof of how monsterous this line up was just listen to the 1982 demos, where Chuck Biscuits replaces Robo on drums, Dukowski is still in the band, and Dez plays second guitar on tracks that would later make up My War and Slip It In. It will become clear why a lot fans prefer these versions over the official releases and the demos deserve an official release of their own.    

 

Originally released without the group's name on the LP, as they'd legally lost the right to use their own name, Everything Went Black was a sly attempt to sneak an album out in the post Damaged fiasco with Unicorn Records. The compilation is mostly demos and outtakes, but features some interesting bits, like Morris singing Damaged era songs, so even if you disagree with me about each singer owning their own era, you can at least get an idea of how that album would have sounded with your favorite pre-Henry singer. It's a lot of the same tracks repeated between the three singers, but we're talking about some great songs and I don't mind hearing "Gimme Gimme Gimme" three times in the span of a few minutes. As an LP, it was a double album and all of side four consisted of Black Flag radio adverts, which are pretty fun to listen to. There's not much else to say about the album, really. It's a more of a fan thing to own, as it doesn't contain any tracks more definitive than the versions released on official albums, nor does it contain any tracks not available on other releases.



Friday, March 17, 2017

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE MUSIC AND ART OF BLACK FLAG

The line can be drawn from Black Flag to the Ramones and further back to Black Sabbath and The Stooges. Another line can be drawn forward to some of the better grunge bands, as well as some doom/sludge metal acts, and other crossover groups. At the end of the day though, no one ever really sounded like Black Flag. Some of the early hardcore bands that tried to bite their style could only capture one aspect or another of their aesthetic. No one played guitar like Greg Ginn. Kieth Morris, Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena, and Henry Rollins were each very distinct and explosive front men. And between drummers Robo, Bill Stevenson, and Anthony Martinez (not to mention Chuck Biscuits on the '82 demos) and bassists Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, and C'el Revuelta Black Flag always had really solid, unbeatable rhythm sections.

Taking into consideration that Black Flag was only around for ten years, with a few years in the middle where they legally could release no music under their own name, they progressed by leapsNervous Breakdown still sounds like the band that recorded In My Head, regardless of the years and the thousands of miles of highway that separated them. It was more than the shifts toward heavy metal and free jazz, the slower tempos and weird time signatures. It was the artwork of Raymond Pettibon, it was the unfaultering drive of Greg Ginn, it was the grueling tour schedules, it was the confrontational shows with their legendary violence and police presence, the daily practice sessions that stretched for hours, and it was the attitude- no one said 'fuck you' quite like Black Flag.
and bounds between line up changes and albums and yet the band that recorded

What sets Black Flag's 'fuck you' apart from someone like GG Allin or some other "extreme" or "shocking" band is that Black Flag didn't resort to theatrics or naughty behavior to get attention. They didn't dress particularly punk, they weren't really political, and they weren't coming from any particular religious or anti-religious stance, so in that way Black Flag could never be pigeonholed into any particular box and their songs were far more universally relatable. And amid the furious tempos and the enraged vocals their was a sly sense of humor that was sometimes subtle, like "White Minority" (which sounds like a pretty racist song until you consider that the singer, Reyes, is from Puerto Rico and the producer, Spot, is half African-American) and sometimes overt, like with "TV Party," which doesn't attack commercial television the way the Dead Kennedys attacked MTV, but rather revels in TV obsession, celebrates the stupidity, thus putting the point across in a fun and entertaining track that doesn't beat the listener over the head with rhetoric. Other times, the stabs at humor can come off as a more extreme stance, or even misogynistic, like with the song "Slip It In," which opens with a man convincing a woman (who has a boyfriend) to have sex with him-then spends the rest of the song slut shaming her. Kira played bass on the track and back up vocals were provided by Suzi Gardner, who co-founded the all-female band L7. The song is really the opposite of slut shaming, instead Ginn is making a statement about only girls are called sluts when they enjoy sex, but not men. The band could have made this point more clear, but again, they weren't a group out to beat you over the head with rhetoric. Black Flag expected you to use your fucking brain and read between the lines sometimes.

For all the humor, though, Black Flag was a very dark band that lived on the frayed edges of America. They were very poor, practically homeless sometimes, and often hungry. They were under police surveillance for much of their existence and often harassed by the cops. They were met with violence at the shows from the audience, much of it being directed at their fourth vocalist Henry Rollins, who gave it right back. Critics lambasted the group once it started moving into musical territory where the songs doubled and tripled in length and metal and jazz influences became more distinct. The one time the band tried to work outside of their own SST Records (with Unicorn Records) they got screwed over and temporarily lost the rights to use their own name. Life was not easy, sometimes it was the band's own fault, but if things went smoothly-if Black Flag ever signed to a bigger label, would they still matter? Would they still be the same band?

Black Flag could easily be considered one of the hardest working bands of all time. Aside from the aforementioned practice schedule, Black Flag toured relentlessly, hitting the road for a good chunk of each year, and more than just playing where ever they could, they were playing places no one had played before. They were trailblazers for punk, post-punk, and alternative rock bands. If your podunk town ever had a punk scene, odds are good Black Flag came through there at one time or another.

Philosophically, Black Flag stood for rugged individualism at all costs. Even if it meant alienating
half your audience, chasing away more than a dozen band members, or inviting police brutality at your shows. The original intention of the band was never compromised until it was uncerimoniously ended by an impersonal phone call from Ginn to Rollins. And too Black Flag was like Brutus and the conspirators stabbing Julius Cesar in the back. Here was a band from sunny, idealistic Southern California-the place where dreams are made, and here comes an unwashed, wild and anarchic group-waving images of Charles Manson and promoting an anti-authoritarian stance. Disney Land? Hollywood? Forget it. Black Flag flips the American Dream on it's back and exposes the filthy under belly.    



Friday, March 10, 2017

HERE...WE...GO...

Sometimes you have a bad day, but sometimes that bad day inspires a project. On a day when things were starting to fall apart around me, I turned to music for distraction. I chose Black Flag's Slip It In, and it was a solid choice as all the bull shit started to melt into the background, becoming more and more irrelevant as I just got down to it and just plowed through the day.

It's not an exaggeration to call Black Flag my favorite band. Since buying My War back in high school, the band has been a bit of an obsession. I used to draw the bars on absolutely everything, had multiple Black Flag stickers on my car, had multiple t-shirts, including the Family Man t, which never failed to raise some eyebrows, and had all the albums on either cassette or CD, and started blindly buying any album with an SST logo (not always a smart choice).

When I decided to start self publishing my writing in book-zines, it was because of Black Flag and
Henry Rollins. My artwork was influenced by their album covers, which were done by guitarist Greg Ginn's brother, Raymond Pettibon. At this point I've been listening to Black Flag for more than half my life and unlike many bands that I either grew out of or stopped relating to, Flag remains a constant in my listening rotation.

Considering that Black Flag broke up in 1986 when I was ten years old and hadn't even heard of them and remained completely inactive until 2003, I've never had an excuse to write about the band at length, until the 2013 release of What The... which I had very little to say about.

Which brings us now to this; Thirsty And Miserable. What is it? Basically an excuse to write at length about Black Flag. I'm going to review every official album, demos, good bootlegs, and videos on Youtube. And perhaps some Flag related projects like...Flag, the group that features past members of Black Flag, but with Stephen Egerton of Descendents/All instead of Ginn. I'll dig into the history, recommend some books and generally exhaust myself of everything I have to say about Black Flag.

To start things off let me hip you to this short documentary about the artwork of Black Flag, which was just as important to who Black Flag was as the music.