A recently reunited Black Flag plays tonight and tomorrow at the Observatory, which got me thinking: What songs do I want to hear live? The easy answer is “all of them,” but let's face it, I don't want to hear any band do every song they know. Then I started thinking, “Ok, what are my favorite Black Flag songs I sure as hell hope they play?”
This isn't an easy answer seeing as how the group had four singers, one rhythm guitar player, three bassists and six drummers between its initial run from 1976 through 1986. As you might have guessed, each lineup transformed the group into something it wasn't before. Whereas the original lineup with guitarist Greg Ginn, singer Keith Morris, bassist Chuck Dukowski and drummer Bryan Migdol drew heavily from the Ramones, by the time Ginn, singer Henry Rollins, bassist C'el Revuelta and drummer Anthony Martinez toured in 1986, Black Flag was a heavy blues band that borrowed as much from Black Sabbath and Ornette Coleman than they did the Ramones.
Add the fact that Ginn — the sole constant — has reformed his group with second singer Ron Reyes (featured on the Jealous Again EP and the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization) and a new rhythm section (bassist Dave Klein and drummer Gregory Moore aka “Drummer”) and you've got a headache as pounding as the second side to the band's 1984 record My War.
This blog was supposed to be a list detailing songs I wanted to hear, but I realized I'm a schmuck who doesn't know anything about the point I'm trying to prove because I'm a bass player and we all know bass player don't know shit. That's why I asked other, more talented musicians, to tell me what they think about their favorite Black Flag songs.
The first person I asked was Aaron North, a guitarist who played in Nine Inch Nails, the Icarus Line and Jubilee. North's playing owes a lot to Ginn, but that's not why I asked him to comment on his favorite Black Flag songs. I did so because North was my best friend in high school and one of the few people I talk to on a semi-regular basis (I'm a hermit). He's also the guy who made me a punk mix tape in our sophomore year. The first band was Black Flag — the first song was “Nervous Breakdown.”
The second person I asked was Stephen Egerton. He plays guitar in the Descendents, ALL and Flag, a newly formed band comprised of four former Black Flag members (and him) playing Black Flag songs. If anyone knows the intricacies of Ginn's avant garde playing, I figured it was Egerton.
Anyway, here's what they (and I) had to say…
“Slip It In”
Egerton: “My favorite Ginn solo is in the song “Slip It In.” It kicks in with an ode to Chuck Berry, quickly followed by a series of descending notes that seriously challenge the melody beneath them, before busting into a frenzied maelstrom of who knows what. I always thought 'Slip It In' showed that Ginn has a strong compositional quality to his soling. Very chaotic, yet somehow structured. He straddles the line between a very planned out solo and pure improvisation. Genius!”
Nervous Breakdown Sessions
North: “Any debate over early Black Flag/Ginn material versus their 1986 incarnation is like comparing apples to orangutans. Not to discount the various gems scattered throughout those years between, but nothing rivals Black Flag's very first recordings. Altogether, the eight songs they cut during the Nervous Breakdown sessions in January 1978 (while still actually named Panic, and funny enough, with Ginn rocking even longer hair than what he'd get shit for years later) is the crudest, loudest, rawest, no bullshit, sledgehammer to your skull rock 'n' roll ever committed to tape. Ever. Ginn's entire approach for this live four-hour session was so incredibly different than anything that would follow, it's a complete head scratcher. This was the only Black Flag recording he used a tube amp on. Considering the result was the most bad-ass guitar tone man has still ever heard, his move away from it is almost infuriating. These are also the only recordings of Ginn's not to feature a single lead guitar part in any of the songs. Yes kids, sometimes less is more.
From that point forward, Ginn's genius guitar performances were all created solely via Solid-State amps. The apex of his fearless, chaotic, wall of noise era circa the Damaged LP is hands down “Damaged II.” With a solid rhythm section and rhythm guitar player anchoring everything underneath him, Ginn's playing is so frantic, unpredictable and unhinged, it's somehow artistic and ass kicking simultaneously. The only other contemporary cat doing anything vaguely similar at the time was Ted Falconi of Flipper… and don't think Greg wasn't paying attention. Either way, the result is the same. Two bands whose records you will never be able to play guitar along to correctly.
Me: Here's where I'm at a loss for words because, really, what can I say about “Revenge” that isn't already said in this performance? If Ginn's downstrummed cacophonic chaos doesn't make you want to put your fist through a wall or start a band, then you need to get your ears checked. And, as if one-upping Johnny Ramone wasn't enough, he pulls off these leads that, I'm sorry, but no other punk rock guitar player could have played. On top of that, you've got the Ginn-penned, “I can't think of progress when/Just around the corner/There's a bed of cold pavement/Waiting for me” and “I won't cry if you die/We're gonna get revenge/You won't know what hit you/We're tired of being screwed.” If that's not the most awesomely pissed off song ever, I don't know what is.
“In My Head”
North: “Post Damaged Black Flag albums suffer from atrocious production, leaving them sonically neutered. However, Ginn's last genius offering in Black Flag, the song “In My Head,” was so incredible that even he couldn't fuck it up with sub-par studio work (however, far superior live versions exist). The entire tune is a clinic on how to turn impossibly complicated guitar noodling wizardry into streamlined, structured and memorable songwriting. The way he ends his solo by bringing it all back around seamlessly into the verse lick without even a hiccup is insane. Guitar dork bullshit aside, the song is hard as steel and easily one of Black Flag's greatest ever. I dare any songbook company to try printing that shit into tablature.