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.