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Black Flag

One of the first and most influential American combos to take d.i.y. punk-rock into its hardcore hybrid, BLACK FLAG’s seething sound would be duly revered by punk, metal and grunge disciples; these included followers such as BAD RELIGION, The OFFSPRING, NIRVANA, GREEN DAY, among a flag-pole of others. Prior to settling with the manic muscle of HENRY ROLLINS, guitarist guru Greg Ginn and crew stood tall alongside successive singers, Keith Morris, Chavo Pederast (aka Ron Reyes) and Dez Cadena.
BLACK FLAG formed in summer 1976, in Hermosa Beach, California. UCLA graduate Greg Ginn and aforesaid vocalist Keith Morris duly roped in drummer Brian Migdol, and rehearsed without a bassist for a whole year; Greg’s artist brother Raymond Pettibon and Glen “Spot” Lockett would fill-in on occasion. Ere their inaugural gig in December ’77 in Redondo Beach, WURM bassist Chuck Dukowski (real name Gary McDaniel) was only too happy to become a full-time member of Panic. Inspired by The STOOGES and RAMONES, the quartet played the toilet circuit.
By the end of ’78, the group chose to dispense with their overused Panic nom de plume and convert into BLACK FLAG; it was Pettibon that suggested the moniker; right down to its anarchist-styled logo represented by four black bars. The band also dispensed with the considerable time independent Bomp! Records were taking to release their `Nervous Breakdown’ platter; a demo which had lain dormant for several months since early ’78. Instead, Greg and Chuck – with apprentice sound men David Tarling and the aforesaid Spot – formed their own label, S.S.T. (taken from Ginn’s long-standing mail-order business Solid State Tuners), in order to dispatch the aforesaid record the following January. Finally the group were up and running.
As main songwriter Ginn was relatively introvert, and Dukowski was the polar opposite, the latter worked on the promotional and tour side of the business, while the former concentrated on distribution and writing songs. Migdol would be first to bail; his replacement coming through Columbian-born sticksman Robo (born Julio Valencia); the stage presence of Class-A drug-taker, Keith Morris, was only really missed when he too bailed – BLACK FLAG’s loss was the CIRCLE JERKS’ gain.
With ex-REDD KROSS singer Chavo Pederast (aka Ron Reyes) piloted in the interim, a second SST release; the 12-inch `Jealous Again’ EP, was unleashed in August 1980. Worryingly, the line-up had its teething problems from the get-go, and after providing tracks such as `White Minority’, `Revenge’ and `Depression’ to the soon-to-be OST for punk documentary, The Decline Of Western Civilization, Ginn decided to rope in another ex-REDD KROSS singer Dez Cadena, when the allegedly unreliable Reyes quit his post again.
1981 saw a couple of singles, the Posh Boy-endorsed re-vamp of the classic `Louie Louie’ (featuring Cadena’s own lyrics), and the 12-inch `Six Pack’ 45. Subsequently switching to rhythm guitar, Cadena’s unwillingness to take the mic led to an opening for the stage-hogging Henry Rollins, who almost immediately gave up his old band State Of Alert (S.O.A.), to muscle in as the BLACK FLAG’s frontman.
The US punk movement was now on a high, but the 5-piece were quickly brought back down to earth when Unicorn Records (a troubled subsidiary of MCA), decided in their wisdom to baulk on dispatching the band’s debut LP; citing its outrageous content as the reason. Perturbed by the whole sad situation, Ginn and SST decided to release the DAMAGED {*8} album in December ’81. Bolstered by the fist-pumping `Rise Above’, an all-new `Six Pack’ track, next single `TV Party’, and a host of other trail-blazers, the record became to be regarded by some as a classic.
Robo’s visa ran out thereafter, and by the time a single version of `TV Party’ was sneaked out to Britain in July ‘82, Emil Johnson, and then teenager Bill Stevenson (ex-DESCENDENTS) – who superseded ex-D.O.A. drummer Chuck Biscuits – was drafted in as a replacement; Biscuits (aka Charles Montgomery) would find a home at CIRCLE JERKS, and later DANZIG. As it turned out, the single-minded people at Unicorn Records decided to sue the pivotal hardcore group, and thus preventing the release of anything remotely to do with the BLACK FLAG moniker (e.g. a subsequent compilation LP, “Everything Went Black”, was initially nameless on the cover).
The problems with the injunction had meant that prior insignificant quarrels involving Ginn and Dukowski had turned into major ones; the former was perfecting his lead guitar style, and the latter felt it irrelevant at this stage, and bailed forthwith (later to SWA); oddly enough, Chuck remained as their tour manager.
Although SST finally won the battle when Unicorn dissolved, the on-hold BLACK FLAG still had to fork out a 6-figure sum in expenses. But at least they were back in circulation. The commotion had left Cadena drained, so he too bailed; he later formed DC3. The remaining trio of Ginn (who literally doubled as pseudonymous bassist Dale Nixon), Stevenson and the ever-so-patient Rollins, released that long-awaited difficult sophomore set, MY WAR {*6}, in March 1984. Gone was the anthemic punk-rock, and in its place came the sprawling sludge-fest of longer BLACK SABBATH-styled pieces such as Side Two’s `Nothing Left Inside’, `Three Nights’ and `Scream’.
Finding a bassist to supersede Chuck was essential, and by that summer, Connecticut-born Kira Roessler was in place for FAMILY MAN (1984) {*5}. Unconventional to the extreme for any band since Jim Morrison (whilst with The DOORS), Henry Rollins contributed a spoken-word side, a process that he’d do more often when he morphed into a solo star. Of the latter half of the Side Two jazz-punk jams (with the exception of the lengthy `Armageddon Man’), only the sprawling `I Won’t Stick Any Of You Unless And Until I Can Stick All Of You’ was worth the admission price.
Subsequently issued only a few months down the line, the back-to-basics punk-versus-avant-rock SLIP IT IN (1984) {*6} split both the resolve and opinions of fans old and new. While the opening title track featured future L7 lass, Suzi Gardner, and follow-on piece `Black Coffee’ became instant semi-classics, the set still bludgeoned a path leading to an uphill struggle of sorts and an eventual musical cul de sac. It was indeed quantity over quality, and when an all-encompassing rough-around-the-edges, cassette-only LIVE ’84 {*6} ended the year on a high, BLACK FLAG could be forgiven for simply making up for lost time.
1985 was equally prolific for the hard-pushed hardcore-punk combo. LOOSE NUT {*6} and the wholly Rollins-less/instrumental THE PROCESS OF WEEDING OUT {*6} were tracked by the much-improved IN MY HEAD {*7}; but all sounded raw, unrehearsed and paranoid – intense and exciting nonetheless. Apart from the odd piece of musical meat thrown to Kira and Bill respectively, Greg – and at times with Henry – proved they could tune-in by way of `Paralyzed’, `Retired At 21’ and the title track.
The year ended with yet another personnel change; Anthony Martinez filling the berth of Stevenson, who opted to resurrect his DESCENDENTS, so to speak. As it turned out, the double-entendre live-in-Portland set WHO’S GOT THE 10½? (1986) {*7}, was BLACK FLAG’s swansong; a double-LP in order to incorporate fifteen head-banging sludge-fest tracks, including the near 15-minute medley of `Slip It In – Gimmie, Gimmie, Gimmie’. By the time of the record’s release, Cel Revuelta replaced Kira, who’d formed DOS alongside then-hubby Mike Watt; ex-MINUTEMEN and future fIREHOSE leader.
Greg Ginn then split BLACK FLAG and, as his influential SST imprint had kick-started the careers of HUSKER DU, MEAT PUPPETS and the aforesaid MINUTEMEN (to name but a few), the workaholic continued to expand on the label with fresh signings DINOSAUR JR, SOUNDGARDEN and SCREAMING TREES. Ginn also formed an instrumental punk-jazz combo, GONE, before he too – like HENRY ROLLINS – pursued a solo career.
The legacy of BLACK FLAG was almost swept under the carpet by both GINN and ROLLINS, but from time to time the band cropped up; indeed Henry published his memoirs and a spoke-word album, Get In The Van (1994). Several years later, after cutting free from his ROLLINS BAND, in 2002, and to raise money for a legal defense for the wrongly-accused West Memphis Three (up on murder charges), Henry and a plethora of Various Artists produced a benefit album of BLACK FLAG covers, aptly-titled “Rise Above”.
The BLACK FLAG saga continued, when originals Morris and Dukowski (along with DESCENDENTS Bill Stevenson and Stephen Egerton), took up an offer by Californian concert promotion corporation, Goldenvoice, to perform at a 30th anniversary celebration in 2011; but only playing early affiliated songs. This spurred on a reunion of sorts a few years down the line; Dez Cadena joining FLAG (as they were now known) when they toured.
In conjunction with these shows, Ginn decided to sue his old muckers for trademark infringement, and to re-form BLACK FLAG with singer Ron Reyes and drummer Gregory Moore. On the back of another lawsuit that turned sour (a recurring nightmare of sorts), Ginn’s trio rather rush-released their comeback set, WHAT THE… {*4}, in late 2013. Consisting of 22 perfunctory punk-rock assaults that neither strolled into jazz nor jam territory; in fact the whole reunion lay stuck in the mud, rather than in the mind.
© MC Strong/MCS-1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2018

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