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.