Black Flag Refuse to Surrender Their Ideals
The dust has settled in the ongoing Black Flag legal beef, and the lawyers have demarcated the remnants of what was once called the best punk band on the West Coast, if not the entire universe.
The long and short of the settlement announced April 21 is that Black Flag's name and four black bars logo belong exclusively to Greg Ginn, the band's founder, guitarist and main songwriter. This all stems from a trademark-infringement suit filed last year by Ginn against his former band mates—Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena and Bill Stevenson—who had begun touring as FLAG last year, performing the band's classics and peddling Black Flag merchandise. Henry Rollins was lumped into the legal action as well; according to the lawsuit, Rollins colluded with FLAG members to "fraudulently" trademark Black Flag under his name after discovering Ginn's trademark period had lapsed.
"The problem with FLAG was they didn't come in the front door, and they used slandering Greg to promote themselves to drive up ticket sales," explains Black Flag's current lead singer, Mike Vallely, an '80s skate-mag celebrity and longtime Greg Ginn collaborator who fronted the band for 2003 reunion shows, then went on to manage them.
Vallely and Ginn learned of Rollins' trademark grab while on the road in Australia. The reunion run was failing miserably. Ginn had enlisted onetime Black Flag front man Ron Reyes, and the pending litigation caused personal friction between them. They bottomed out when Ginn removed Reyes from Black Flag midsong, which, coincidentally, was how Reyes first left the band in 1979.
"Ron came in and shit on the lawn," says Vallely, who took over while Reyes was still onstage. "He wanted to politic himself as a punk-rock legend—he saw Henry with that status, Keith with that status. He wanted to steer [the band] in the direction of pleasing the Facebook crowd."
That crowd, Vallely explains, is the 5 percent of fans who "are completely against everything and the loudest of them all." Indeed, Ginn bore the brunt of blogger fallout; after the Australia debacle, Reyes echoed their sentiments, telling Pitchfork he felt as though he were in the middle of a battle between "good" Flag and "evil" Flag—and he was singing for the bad guys. The U.K. Guardian characterized Ginn as "bitter" and acting in "desperation," and it harshly panned the new record.
Ginn characteristically fell silent. "It's so easy to demonize Greg because he doesn't go on the record," Vallely says. "There's been a lot of money left on the table over the years because Greg hasn't been willing to re-form the band for money. That's the exact opposite of what Black Flag are about. Black Flag would rather be sluggin' it out in clubs for real money."
For as much praise as Black Flag received, they took just as much shit for progressing their sound through the '80s. Evolution was the credo for Ginn, who managed to spin into his sound a Black Sabbath approach—even a touch of Jerry Garcia—bending the edge of the punk-rock confines he had created. As a musician, Ginn does what he wants, and that's his legacy as an artist. All the drama and money-wrangling from band mates and artists he signed to SST—that's Ginn's legacy just the same.
"Most old-school punkers have a chip on their shoulder," Vallely says. "If you think you're owed money, get a proper accountant and a lawyer instead of talking to the press. Greg Ginn was the only person on the planet willing to record your music and put out your band. That was the start of your career. Come on, grow up."
As it stands now, when Black Flag are on the bill, it's Ginn on guitar, Vallely out front, and a pair of session players from Ginn's north Texas hometown filling in on bass and drums. They will play a "classics" set, with the songs arranged to allow Greg to roam instrumentally. FLAG can tour as FLAG, though there are no plans for them to do so at press time. Nobody other than Ginn will see a dime from authentic Black Flag merch.
In the end, it turned out just as he planned: Ginn will slug it out in midsize rock clubs through August as Black Flag, punk as fuck and without apology—the way he's always done it.
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