"Starting a set with an eight-minute instrumental—no wonder people threw cups of piss at them."
—Stephen Egerton, guitarist for ALL and the Descendents, on his favorite band, Black Flag
A lot can be said about Black Flag, and a lot has been: the riots, the police harassment, the trailblazing indie touring schedule and the band's early influence all put them at or near the top of any short list of hardcore punk. And now they're back. Sort of.
Famed Gap spokesperson Henry Rollins—the fourth of Black Flag's singers—has put together a phantom incarnation of the band, backing original bassist Chuck Dukowski and original singer Keith Morris (who came into his own with the Circle Jerks) with some stringers from his own Rollins Band. It might not be the real thing—call it Fake Flag; original guitarist Greg Ginn has balked at any "reunion" bullshit—but it still packed 'em in at a recent free show at Hollywood's Amoeba Records with a set of all Black Flag covers.
But last week's set list said a lot about where standards for hardcore punk have settled: only one song performed came from the four infamously experimental studio albums that followed 1981's Damaged, with the rest drawn from the more popular—and palatable—earlier years. The implication? People don't want to hear the hard Flag—as opposed to the "easy" Flag. And that implies that Black Flag are still as stubbornly and brutally ahead of their time now as they were 20 years ago.
"Black Flag knew the trend element was essential to winning a massive audience, and they went after that audience deliberately," says Joe Nolte, singer/guitarist for the seminal Hermosa Beach punk band the Last. "It's cool that they then did things to alienate that same audience: the long hair, the increasingly 'difficult' music. With Damaged, they'd done everything that needed to be done anyway."
Black Flag always took the symbolism of a black flag—anarchy—to heart musically. And after Damaged and a legal debacle with MCA Records, the band finally escaped and released My War. The second side of the album comprised three songs, each more than six minutes long, all at Black Sabbath sludge tempo. The band had done the unthinkable in the punk world: they'd slowed down. From now on, there were no rules. Black Flag followed My War with a rapid succession of material seemingly designed to test just how dedicated their fans were, with half spoken-word, half jazz-inspired instrumental albums; riff-heavy rock albums; even what basically amounted to metal. Eventually, even Black Flag started to hate Black Flag.
"All the stuff before me I like, and the stuff after I joined I don't like," said Bill Stevenson, who played drums on every Black Flag studio album from My War on. "We were expanding musically, and we weren't pulling the stuff off. Black Flag doing contorted heavy metal wasn't as good as Black Flag doing contorted versions of punk rock. I don't think we sounded as good slow."
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In truth, they sounded better than ever. Black Flag were pushing the idea—as they'd always pushed the idea—of what punk rock was and what it could be. Half of an LP of a bitter malcontent talking about things like nailing a man to his front porch: Punk rock or self-indulgence? Or an instrumental EP that's as much free jazz as it is the Ramones: Punk rock or hippie wank music? Obviously, light-years more punk than a guy with a blue mohawk—in 1982 or in 2002. Black Flag excelled in this phase of their career. The only difference was that their audience was now attacking the band itself instead of one another—probably because their favorite punk band wasn't just vibing out some kind of easy "Fuck the government, dude!" spiel. Instead, Black Flag was saying, "No, fuck YOU."
And this new Black-ish Flag—the kinder, gentler Flag?—doesn't. Recently, Rollins—incidentally, Black Flag's most universally and most unfairly reviled singer—rerecorded classic Black Flag songs with his own Rollins Band and a laundry list of metal, alternative, rap and punk vocalists. While these sorts of things are sacrilegious, the cause is worthy: proceeds will benefit the West Memphis 3, a group of three very likely innocent young men charged with murder. And Rollins hasn't been one to milk his Black Flag past, either. In fact, right now would be a good time for him to milk more of it—like those four post-Damaged albums.
Black Flag has always been a convenient microcosm for punk rock in general, and as punk rock became more of a soundtrack for mayhem than an artistic movement, the band moved in the opposite direction—and into a shitstorm of confusion and disdain. It was the best thing they ever did, even if no punk rockers want to hear it—and even if the band doesn't want to play it. In 2002, it sounds like half of Black Flag's nine-year career is still too punk for the punks. Or it's just too hard to play.
THE ROLLINS BAND PEFORMS WITH THE KINISON AT THE GLASS HOUSE, 200 W. SECOND ST., POMONA, (909) 629-0377. THURS., DEC. 19, 7 P.M. $15. ALL AGES.