Black Flag are remembered as one of the three original hardcore bands who defined the sound (the others being Bad Brains and Minor Threat.) While they were great at hardcore, their sound developed to include so much more, such as jazz improvisation, spoken word, heavy metal, Sabbathy sludge and some pretty embarrassing jock rock. A vast majority of their work is (unfairly) ignored by their fans, who tend to discount everything after their debut album, Damaged (or, if they are adventurous, My War.) It's a shame, since Black Flag continually challenged listeners and each other during their 11 years of existence.
Also, you'll notice as you scroll through that they had awesome album art. Guitarist Greg Ginn's brother Raymond Pettibon (original bass player) did all the art (except for Damaged) and is a widely respected artist to this day.
Members of Black Flag:
The First Four Years – Grade: A (1976-1980)
Black Flag started as Panic in 1976. This is a compilation of their recorded work from the first four years of their existence. It shows them at their most basic, raw and insane. Keith Morris was their first singer, and while he only appears on the first four songs (The Nervous Breakdown 7”), he basically wrote the book for hardcore punk. Nervous Breakdown is perhaps their quintessential track, a Ramones-at-double speed riff with Morris ranting over the top, a noise solo and great rhythm backing. When I first heard this song, I just went nuts, and to this day I can’t help but thrash about and scream along whenever I hear it. It’s just visceral fun. They blast through all four songs in about 5 minutes, and they don’t waste a note. The essential hardcore document. After that, they started recording an EP, only to have Morris take off and steal one of their songs for his new band, the Circle Jerks, first album. The band re-recorded the next five tracks (Jealous Again EP) with Ron Reyes of Redd Kross on vocals. Jealous Again, Revenge and No Values are every bit as pummeling and intense as anything on Nervous Breakdown. White Minority is kind of ridiculous in retrospect, and You Bet We’ve Got Something Personal Against You is a rip on Keith Morris that has some impressively bad vocals. 11-13 (Six Pack 7”) is the next step. Six Pack has an incredibly awesome bass intro, and Dez Cadena is funny and crazy at once on the vocals. I’ve Heard it Before and American Waste are of a piece, two crazy belters. The Louie Louie EP was the second recording of this lineup, and Dez really goes nuts on Damaged. Many people would say this is the essential document of Black Flag. It’s certainly a peak in their catalog and just a great time. Plus, the songs are so short you won’t waste much time listening to it.
Damaged – Grade: A+ (1980)
Henry Rollins is an icon in the underground rock scene now, and this is where that really started. He replaced Dez on vocals after a brief audition in New York. He flew out to California at 18 and soon after recorded Damaged. He’s hungry and also insane on the album, delivering Ginn’s lyrics with force. Dez Cadena moved to rhythm guitar, which allowed Greg Ginn to free up his playing and really explode. This album is so full of noise and fuzz, it’s incredible. If you like grit, this is the place to find it. Fortunately, behind the great sound is a pack of fantastic songs. They redo Six Pack to killer effect, with Rollins really playing up the humor, and his take on Damaged is intense and a tad bit disturbing. Rise Above is one of the quintessential hardcore punk tracks, and can get the nerdiest kid flailing. They throw slogans at you left and right: Spray paint the walls. They hate us, we hate them, we can’t win. Try to stop us, it’s no use. Left and right, these songs hit their mark, because they deliver them with an intensity as well as a looseness and, at times (TV Party, an immortal) a sense of humor. Hardcore Punk at its finest, and Greg Ginn at his most compressed and frenetic.
Everything Went Black – Grade: B+ (1982)
Damaged was going to be distributed through a major label, but they weren’t exactly stoked on the lyrics or anger presented on the album, so that led to a two and a half year legal dispute that kept new Black Flag material from being released. They kept touring and playing new stuff, with both Dez Cadena and bassist/longest member besides Ginn Chuck Dukowski leaving the band to focus on other work. Since they couldn’t release anything under their own name, they put out this compilation of old songs (Jealous Again EP to Damaged era) with different singers doing the material. That means you get to hear Keith Morris (doing 9 songs, which is a trove for those who find him to be the best Black Flag singer) , Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena singing the stuff that we mostly know as Rollins material. The quality is up to par with everything else they did at the time, so it really comes across as alternate universe versions of some of their best songs. Keith Morris turns in spectacular versions of No Values, White Minority and does I Don’t Care, the song he wrote and took to The Circle Jerks. Dez Cadena shows that he could have been an able singer for a full album, turning in nothing but scorching vocal takes. These recordings are also different in that Ginn is the only guitar player, so the sound is thinner and less cluttered than on Damaged (not NECESSARILY a good thing, since the claustrophobia on that album was one of its selling points.) The biggest complaint against this is that some songs are repeated (THREE versions of Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie and Depression.) Still it’s a really awesome compilation showing how great these singers were, and how great these songs are.
The Complete 1982 Demos – Grade: A+ (1982)
And this is why I love doing these reviews. Despite the fact that Black Flag couldn’t release new music during the legal dispute, they were still writing and recording stuff. It’s one of the great shames that the lineup of Rollins, Ginn, Dukowski, Cadena and Chuck Biscuits on drums never had an official release. I’d always heard that, and after listening to the 1982 demos, it’s pretty clear that this was Black Flag at their peak. These demos contain much of the best material from the forthcoming trio of albums they released in 1984, only before Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena left, leaving them short a rhythm guitar and a strong bassist. The material here, while obviously of demo quality, is ungodly loud, full of driving rhythms and forceful playing, but with the rhythm section so much more in tune Ginn and Rollins were free to explore their strengths in ways they wouldn’t on record again until In My Head. The first two songs never received official release, and they alone are worth the listen: huge, metallic, pummeling prime Black Flag tracks with the propulsion of the early Flag and the sludge and freedom that they were just starting to develop. Every song that was later represented on an album sounds better here, but in particular the recording of Nothing Left Inside/The Scream would have wiped the floor with those who complained that slow, droney Black Flag sucked. I had not heard this before, and it’s essential: the best document of the metallic Black Flag I’ve heard, it’s huge.
My War – Grade: A- (1984)
A profoundly different Black Flag than we’ve heard before, in almost every way. Only Rollins and Ginn are still around from the early lineup, with Bill Stevenson of the Descendants on drums and “Dale Nixon” (really Greg Ginn) on Bass. Without Dez Cadena and Chuck Dukowski filling the rhythm section, these songs could have suffered from sounding too thin. Instead, they decided to slow down and sludge out. Ginn was a noted Black Sabbath fan, and their influence was never more clear than on the second half of My War. The title track is one of the band’s all time greats, a huge punk song with Rollins showing off his increased vocal control. Ginn is a stronger guitar player here, but you can’t help but miss the rhythm section when he solos. Still, I love every song on this album and think it’s one of the best Black Flag releases. Can’t Decide and Beat My Head Against the Wall both have killer riffs and Rollins delivers the pissed off lyrics to a T. He and Ginn were, by this time, a finely oiled machine and they work in perfect tandem throughout the record. The second half is likely what REALLY pissed people off at the time. It consists of three slow, Sabbathy dirge jams that sound more metal and sludgy than any hardcore punk at the time. You can definitely hear the Melvins and early Soundgarden in the thick fuzz and screamed vocals. Don’t listen to the hardcore kids at the time: this one’s a beast, even if it’s not quite as good as Damaged (or, apparently as good as it could have been, given the 1982 demos.)
Family Man – Grade: B (1984)
Hoo, and if you think My War pissed people off, imagine what this did. The first half is spoken word from Rollins, the second half is instrumental jams with Ginn and Stevenson, and the introduction of Kira Roessler on bass (sister of Paul Roessler from the Screamers, and later Mike Watt’s wife.) Rollins’ side is full of lyrical slams on society and descriptions of hatred and violence. If you like Rollins in spoken word form, this stuff is pretty damn entertaining: he has great delivery and keeps a good rhythm and pace throughout. It’s not essential, but certainly fun. The instrumentals on the B-Side show why Ginn chose to keep the more spare guitar-bass-drum lineup: his increased focus on jazz playing led him to more expansive jams with the band. These tracks are driving and hard, but are neither fully punk nor jazz. I enjoy them even though they’re kind of noodly and long, because Ginn has a great way with guitar sounds and really can play. The one track that they do together, Armageddon Man, is a long track with Rollins, uncharacteristically clear in the mix, going on what basically amounts to a spoken word excursion as the band jams behind him, tying the two sides together. None of this stuff is essential, and it will likely put off most people who would enjoy the regular Black Flag recordings, but I’m a fan of this one. It’s a bizarre release that is fun for its oddity, and that has some really entertaining and engaging performances.
Slip It In – Grade: C (1984)
I always remember this one fondly for the first three songs. Each one of them is an absolute beast, with Black Coffee sporting some of the best performances from both Ginn and Rollins. The riff is like a heavy blues, Ginn gets a great noise solo halfway thru and Rollins is just rant heavy. Slip it In is them being somewhat goofy, and also shows Ginn’s increasing lyrical fascination with calling out sluts. Wound Up is a high energy blast. But oh god is Rats Eyes terrible. Just absolute dreck, slow and droning and without any motion; it’s how critics described My War. The instrumental is fun and rockin’, but forgettable. The songs are all definitely a further step away from early Black Flag hardcore into a slower, more metal grind. The Bars pulls this sound off really well, with some great screams from Rollins, and My Ghetto shows how crazy Bill Stevenson could be on drums. Whereas My War sounded like a fresh take on their ideas, Slip it In just sounds like a refinement of the ideas on that album. At the time people absolutely hated this stuff, but it’s aged really well and sounds like the forerunner to lots of late 80s/early 90s grunge/punk. As a whole, Slip It In is better than most people give it credit for, but the back half isn’t terribly memorable and Rats Eyes is just terrible. Lesser Flag.
Live ’84 – Grade: B (1984)
The first live Black Flag record, and it’s got a killer, very representative setlist. They play songs from all eras and every aspect of their career, starting out with a lengthy instrumental jam (of which you can read more about in the following review.) This is the only place I’ve found where you can hear Rollins rip into Nervous Breakdown and Fix Me: sure, Keith Morris did it better, but they were so brutally focused live at this point that you can’t help but be impressed. The CD copy I had of this album had horrible sound, but the recent download I just did is much improved, even though Rollins vocals can be pretty low in the mix on some songs. If you can find the decent sounding copy of this, it’s a really impressive live recording. That said, it does not give as strong an image of the band as their later live release, Who’s Got the 10 ½, which shows them at their demented, locked in peak. Here, they are strong, but they were only getting stronger.
The Process of Weeding Out ep – Grade: B (1985)
The first song starts with a very 70s-era Miles Davis bassline. Yup, Ginn is definitely in jazz mode here. Whereas the instrumentals on Family Man were definitely the sound of a new band gelling with each other, here they are a force. Kira’s bass playing is huge, Ginn is even more in control of his guitar chaos, and Bill show’s restraint on the drums. It’s an instrumental jazz-punk EP with two songs over 9 minutes. Basically, you know just by reading that whether or not you’re going to care. If you do, this is the best of this stuff they ever did. Rare form, and great jams. The title track in particular is a showcase for Ginn at his best, with notes flying everywhere, sounding chaotic and completely random. If you think that’s the case though, check back to Live ’84: they open with this song and Ginn nails so much of the guitar work live that there’s no way this isn’t composed. Killer stuff.
Loose Nut – Grade: B+ (1985)
My War moved them towards sludgy, Sabbathy metal and Slip it In sounded like some fairly bad heavy rock. Loose Nut moves more concretely into the punk/metal field, with the band finally having a firm control over the sound. The title track opens the album, and it’s a bright and well-produced pummeler of a rock tune, with some killer riffing from Ginn. Modern Man would have fit in well on the first half of My War, albeit with better sound and a more interesting rhythm section. Annihilate This Week is the highlight of their post-Hardcore songs, despite the third verse’s embarrassingly misogynistic lyrics. To be honest, that’s the only complaint about this one: the instrumentals are excellent and heavy, Rollins is more in control of his vocals than ever, but Ginn wrote a crappy set of lyrics. Because the album is better produced and mixed, that’s more obvious, but it doesn’t much lessen the power of the album. This is one of their better works, and probably the easiest entry point into later Black Flag.
In My Head – Grade: A+ (1985)
I just read an interview with Kira Roessler, who said that this was originally supposed to be an instrumental album, and that Rollins hopped in and wrote lyrics on the fly as they played. The combination of the experimental, jazz-leaning Black Flag and the hard-rocking, Rollins-fronted group had only existed on live albums before, and only side-by-side. Here, on their final record, they brought together all of the strands they had chased down after abandoning straight hardcore. Unlike before, Ginn’s solos segue into melodic guitar lines that become guitar riffs that transition fluidly into choruses: everything seems organic and alive. The band is playing at the peak of their powers (Kira would be booted out of the group soon after because her schedule at UCLA got in the way of touring, and the band fell apart soon after) and they have the strongest batch of songs they’ve worked with since at least My War, if not Damaged. The title track is an astounding meld of punk intensity, jazz-style melodic improvisation and hard rock drive. Paralyzed is a monster of a rock track with some almost pretty guitar lines. Drinking and Driving and Retired at 21 are both just monstrous. One thing that stands out, and that Kira said in the aforementioned interview was a result of the original intentions for the album, is how low Rollins is in the mix: he sounds like another instrument, and it works to great effect. By this point hardly anyone was paying attention to Black Flag anymore, and they missed out on a masterful record. Their second best, and even then it’s a tight race.
Minuteflag – Grade: D (1986)
Not technically a Black Flag release, this is collaboration between the Minutemen and Black Flag, consisting of three instrumental jams and a track with Minutemen vocalist/guitarist D. Boon singing. Fetch the Water, the vocal song, is goofy and laid back, completely away from Flag’s music but sounding similar to something off Three Way Tie (For Last) by the Minutemen, if not as good. The first instrumental goes absolutely nowhere, but you can hear Mike Watt, the Minutemen’s bass player (and Kira’s soon-to-be husband) funking up the proceedings on the second track. However, none of the instrumentals ever really pick up or take off, and while it’s cool to hear these guys play together and I’m sure it was fun to record, the EP is a chore to listen to. As a whole, it’s fun enough, but a complete throwaway and my least favorite release by either act.
Who’s Got the 10 ½? – Grade: B+ (1986)
This is a recording of the Kira-era band in 1985, after they had toured relentlessly and become a collective performing unit. While this show sounds miles away from their beginnings, it shows that they were an absolute force of nature live, careening through their songs with equal parts precision and abandon. The recording is a bit lo-fi (but that’s completely to be expected) but they really tear through the whole set, shifting seamlessly between songs and jams. The lengthy interpretation of Slip it In into Gimme Gimme Gimme is the best thing on the album, with a lengthy rant from Rollins that gives the album its title. Black Flag never got big, but they did sound huge, and this is a great document of them not long before their final demise.