Friday, January 17, 2014

I've Had It: The Sorry State of Black Flag

This is certainly up for debate, but in most fans’ estimation hardcore punk’s ground zero can be found in October of 1978. That month, an inauspicious Southern California electronics company called Solid State Transmitters morphed into SST Records and released the first salvo from what would make up one of the best runs of any record label in any genre ever: Black Flag’s debut EP Nervous Breakdown. With SST founder Greg Ginn on guitar and Chuck Dukowski and Brian Migdol filling out the rhythm section, the young band proved themselves an immediate and exciting force in the world of punk. Frontman Keith Morris found the perfect balance of snotty and intimidating, fashioning his own gritty style out of the remains of Johnny Rotten.[1] It isn’t too surprising that his charisma and amazing voice have allowed him to sustain the most satisfying post-Black Flag career of any member.

The Nervous Breakdown EP is just over five minutes long. Even if it was the only music that Black Flag ever released, it’s so incredible and groundbreaking that they would still have gone down as one of the all-time great punk bands. For the next eight years, the band soldiered on, hemorrhaging members but continuously redefining hardcore punk. Keith Morris left soon after that first EP to form the Circle Jerks, and he was followed by two other singers, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena, who also departed quickly. They handled mic duties on one excellent EP each (Jealous Again and Six Pack, respectively) before leaving the band (as Reyes did) or shifting into the role of rhythm guitarist (as Cadena did). The vacancy left room for Henry Rollins to storm into the role in 1981. Rollins, who remained frontman through all of their LPs until the band broke up in 1986, is the best and most highly regarded of Black Flag’s singers. Even as the band’s quality control decreased rapidly after 1984’s My War, Rollins remained a monstrously powerful force on stage and an increasingly outspoken and occasionally hostile presence off of it. Through four singers, countless instrumentalists, and dozens of incredible tunes, Black Flag was the first and the greatest of hardcore bands.

All of that was a long time ago. The 35th anniversary of Nervous Breakdown came and went with barely a mention back in October. This would be unfortunate even if it hadn’t come in the middle of the saddest and most frustrating year in the band’s history. On January 25, Greg Ginn and Ron Reyes announced that they were reforming Black Flag with a new bassist and drummer. Two weeks later, former Black Flag members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, and Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton announced that they would tour performing Black Flag songs as FLAG. Dez Cadena joined FLAG soon after, and Ginn initiated hostilities with the competing Black Flag reunion not long after that. Claiming that the members of FLAG were violating copyrights that he held, Ginn filed an injunction against the band in August. For some strange, petty reason, he also sued Henry Rollins, who had made it clear that he wanted no part in either Black Flag reunion. The suit was dismissed in October, but not before it left a bad taste in the mouths of everyone who just wanted to enjoy the two reunions as best they could.

While FLAG continued to do shows that were clearly just for fun, Black Flag began promoting their first album in 28 years, titled What the… The album landed with a thud on November 5, roundly bashed by critics and fans alike. And then, after a pointless lawsuit and a legacy-tarnishing album, Ron Reyes was summarily fired from Black Flag mid-concert on November 24 and replaced by Ginn’s bandmate in Good for You, skateboarder Mike Vallely. Three days later, Reyes published an open letter expressing disappointment at the reunited band’s efforts and frustration over the uneven power dynamics in the band.[2] “The writing was on the wall since before we played our first show,” he said. “So many things went wrong from the start.” With Greg Ginn the only original member left, Black Flag has ceased to be Black Flag and is now just an expanded lineup of Good for You under a different name.

To say that this year has been a disappointment as a Black Flag fan would be an understatement. Yet looking back, it seems inevitable that things would have gone down this way. While FLAG has proven to be a low stakes affair, a bunch of old friends getting together to jam on some of their old tunes, Black Flag’s reunion has felt like a cynical move almost from the start. SST’s fortunes have never recovered to the level they were at during the label’s heyday, and Ginn’s albums that haven’t had the words “Black Flag” on the cover haven’t exactly sold all that well. I don’t think I’m out of line in assuming that What the… was a calculated attempt to both reverse Ginn’s declining commercial fortunes and upstage FLAG.

The interminable What the… certainly supports this theory. When the band announced that they had a new album on the way, it seemed far too soon. Surely they’d want to shake off some of the cobwebs first, I thought. Yet when they revealed the truly half-assed cover art and the album’s tracklist, it became clear that they hadn’t bothered to do anything other than pump out a bunch of songs as quickly as possible.

There was reason to be optimistic though. The first single from the album, “Down in the Dirt,” was surprisingly robust. In spite of some anemic, poorly mixed drumming, Ginn and Reyes sounded great, and while it didn’t quite match their earlier stuff it seemed like the band might manage to pull off an enjoyable album.

They didn’t. As much as I enjoyed “Down in the Dirt” on its own, listening to it amid twenty-one other mostly generic and warmed over hardcore songs made me kind of hate it. Greg Ginn’s guitar sound remains as exhilarating and unparalleled as ever, but great guitar tone amounts to a big pile of nothing when he can no longer seem to write a memorable riff and his songwriting as a whole is mostly uninspired. I’ve listened to the album probably a dozen times, and with the exception of “Down in the Dirt” I can’t for the life of me remember any of the songs unless the album is actually playing. Compared to “Rise Above” or “Nervous Breakdown” or the Reyes-sung “Jealous Again,” all of which lodge firmly in the brain on first listen, nothing on What the… sticks at all. The only songs that are in any way memorable are ones like “Off My Shoulders” and “Go Away,” but those are only noteworthy for being among the absolute worst on the album. To make things even worse, the album was mixed horribly and the drums are barely audible on most of the songs. It’s just as well, since Gregory Moore is the worst drummer that the band has ever had, both unable to mesh with the rest of the band or play anything that feels exciting or powerful, two things that Black Flag sorely needs in a drummer.

During its original run, Black Flag sustained the quality of its music through sheer momentum. Even as it lost and replaced members continuously on the road from Nervous Breakdown to Damaged, everything the band released ranged in quality from excellent to classic. No other band has gone through so many lineup changes between releasing its second best project (Nervous Breakdown) and its best (Damaged). Loss of momentum rather than a cohesive membership was the great enemy of quality for Black Flag. When they were forced to take three years off from recording, as they did between Damaged and My War, their music suffered. A contract dispute between the band and MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records, which signed a contract with the band to distribute Damaged but then refused to do so,[3] led to a court injunction that prevented the band from releasing new music. The material on My War had been written and demoed in 1982, and the album is a worthy follow-up to their first album.

When it came time to write and record new music after burning off most of the material they demoed in ’82, something crucial seemed to be missing. Family Man, released six months after My War, was a disjointed mess of poorly fused jazz-metal and spoken word. Slip it in, which followed three months later, was better as the band had figured out its new sound a bit more but it came nowhere near the group’s earlier material. The band’s last two albums, Loose Nut and In My Head, both released in 1985, were similarly disappointing.[4] The band petered out halfway into 1986, its momentum spent and members’ competing creative interests no longer reconcilable. The band’s recording, release, and touring schedules were faster than ever in its last two years, but the forced three year hiatus left it running on fumes.

The twenty-eight years between In My Head and What the… seems to have magnified these problems exponentially. Ginn has had some good material both solo and with other bands, but something about the music he writes for Black Flag appears to have been wholly supported by the nonstop nature of his creative process. He stopped writing Black Flag songs for nearly three decades and those years made him lose access to whatever drove him creatively during those first five years.

Comparing Ginn’s current activities with Black Flag to Keith Morris’ last few years shows some stark differences. Like Black Flag, Morris’ second band the Circle Jerks has one of the greatest recorded legacies of any punk band from the ‘80s. When the Circle Jerks went on hiatus in 2010, Morris entered the third act of his career with the (don’t call it a) supergroup OFF! The band’s First Four EPs set from 2010 and its self-titled album from two years later are both astonishingly good, each consisting of sixteen tracks that are over in as many minutes. While OFF! is clearly working in a classically hardcore style, they aren’t simply trying to recreate Nervous Breakdown or the Circle Jerks' Wild in the Streets. Instead, they’re bringing that old sound into the present and finding a new vitality in an old sound.

While OFF! has been all about moving hardcore forward, FLAG has been all about looking back. FLAG hasn’t tried to be anything other than a nostalgia act and as such they have been clear that they have no plans to record any new material. FLAG only exists because these guys felt like it would be cool to get together and play those old Black Flag songs in front of an audience. I haven’t gotten the opportunity to see them play, but the video of their performance at Redondo Beach Moose Lodge No. 1873, where Black Flag played their first show 35 years earlier, is a blast. As far as exercises in nostalgia go, FLAG actually seems fun. Black Flag is just going through the motions and cashing in on a name.

Ron Reyes hit the nail on the head. So much about the empty shell that’s been operating under the name Black Flag has seemed wrong from the day they announced their reunion. Amid the countless ‘80s indie bands that have reunited over the past few years, it’s a damn shame that one of the very best of them has been the very worst.

[1] Johnny Rotten transformed back into his original self, John Lydon, when he started his terrific post-Sex Pistols project Public Image Ltd. While his voice remained the same, the inflections, delivery, and overall style that he embodied as Johnny Rotten were gone, at least until it was picked up by a thousand other punk singers. Few other than Morris managed to make anything distinct out of it.
[2] He also took issue with the band’s shitty new drummer. More on that in a bit.
[3] They refused to distribute Damaged either because an MCA executive decided it was “anti-parent” or because Unicorn was horribly mismanaged and in a substantial amount of debt.
[4] I will admit that In My Head has its moments.

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