Black Flag’s initial sound was very raw and stripped back and as they went on, they incorporated a more heavier metal-influenced sound. Ginn wrote most of the lyrics which generally got across the band’s stance against authority and conformity, with a lot of their songs discussing aspects of the human condition such as social alienation, loneliness and confusion. These kind of themes became particularly apparent when Henry Rollins joined as the vocalist in 1981. Most of their recorded output was released on Ginn’s own SST label.
During their initial time together in the 1980’s Black Flag made a very big impact within the underground music scene. Along with their ground-breaking music, their DIY ethos and lack of involvement with corporate media inspired many who were involved in the American punk movement. They surpassed many of their peers by going beyond the basic hardcore sound and experimenting with other styles such as jazz and even classical guitar, with their later material containing long technical tracks, which was not a common thing found in the genre.
10. Rise Above
Despite forming in 1976 at the beginning of punk, Black Flag did not release their first full-length album, Damaged,until 1981 when Rollins joined on vocals, where he put in a legendarily ferocious performance through a set of songs of which most had been previously recorded with former vocalists.
Rollins proved here that he was the definitive singer for the band, not just with his hoarse sounding voice but also his sense of messed up charisma, with Ginn’s muffled guitar sound providing the perfect backdrop. He may not have wrote the lyrics but Rollins definitely did the song’s ethos of rebellion and revolution justice and it is something that he still preaches to this day through his numerous works which includes not just music but also books and spoken word.
9. Fix Me
From 1979’s Nervous Breakdown, at just 58 seconds long, this is one of many Flag tracks that deals with the theme of angst and frustration. The track is very raw sounding and under-produced which gives it an extra boost when it comes to conveying the feelings of anger and hatred for mainstream society. Ginn financed this recording himself and when it was first released it was limited to just 2000 copies. They distributed it locally which helped them to start getting booked for shows within the Los Angeles area.
8. Six Pack
From Damaged, this track is something of a companion piece to their other track “TV Party” also from the same album both of which are about lampooning lazy Americans who do nothing but drink cheap beer and watch trashy television. The track was also recorded with previous vocalist Dez Candena for the EP of the same name and while that version is also very good, this version with Rollins is the best as it contains the classic line “I’ve got a six pack and nothing to do!”.
The title and closing track from the first album may be a racket, but a brilliant one nonetheless. Here, the band are already showing their evolution beyond the standard hardcore punk formula, as this track is more reminiscent of something like Throbbing Gristle rather than Minor Threat, with the guitar being completely and deliberately out of tune as Rollins semi-coherently screams over it with lyrics about a bully and his victim, showing both of their perspectives.
He is clearly wrestling with his own demons here, tapping into his dysfunctional relationship with his conservative father. When he delivers the final line “No one comes in. STAY OUT!” you feel like you should take his advice.
6. Jealous Again
The title track of the 1980 ep, it features Ron Reyes on vocals. The EP was intended to be the band’s first full length album. However, original vocalist Keith Morris reportedly had an unprovoked breakdown which caused him to quit the band, resulting in the original plans being shelved. Lyrically, it deals with the feeling of jealousy which is an emotion that a lot of people don’t like to admit to having. Reye’s time with the band was not a particularly happy one, as he reportedly walked out during the recording sessions several times. Prior to him quitting, they had already asked Candena to join as a second guitarist before asking him to take Reye’s place.
5. What Can You Believe
From the My War bootleg released in 1982, this was recorded by a short-lived line up with Chuck Biscuits on drums. It was unfortunate that his time in the band only lasted a few months, as this mark of the band reportedly played some of the band’s best ever live shows. Even more unfortunately My War is the only thing Biscuits ever recorded with the group and this song was neve re-recorded for any subsequent releases.
4. Slip It In
The title track from their fourth album released in 1984, it is without question the most sexual song they ever produced, with rather uncomfortable lyrics seemingly about women saying that they do not want sex when they really do, although the lyrics are likely a critique of chauvinist culture given the band’s largely feminist stance.
With that aside, musically the band were progressing here, with the track being over six minutes long and featuring some very impressive blues-influenced guitar playing courtesy of Ginn and Rollins giving yet another delightfully sinister vocal performance coupled with a twisted sense of humour. It also features guest vocals from Suzi Gardner who would later become the guitarist from Riot Girl band L7, which further suggests that it is not a sexist song at all.
This track from Jealous Again is another short, fast and angry track that talks about getting revenge on authority figures for harassing the band for playing punk rock. There was a particularly memorable performance of it on the now infamous film The Decline of Western Civilization which documented the American punk scene at the time with Candena of vocals. The song is very much an example of their early period and see’s them taking the more conventional hardcore approach as opposed to their later experimentation.
Although the band’s lyrical bleakness may have been perfected by Rollins, this song which ended up being recorded with him on Damage was actually written by Morris and, as the title would suggest it is quite possibly their most bleak and DEPRESSING song. It’s lyrics are very much out in the open with its subject matter
All four vocalists did a recording of it during their own individual stints and in all fairness they all did a solid job, but it was Rollins who gave it a whole new dimension, as the lyrics are perfect for his deranged and annoyed-sounding vocal style. Despite not writing the lyrics, they clearly mean a lot to him as the song is very much a platform to vent his own frustration with the world. Despite it’s melancholy subject matter, the sound of the song is fast and angry, making it perfect to blast out if you have had a bad day. Fans of vacuous pop songs about partying stay well clear.
1. In My Head
Ginn originally planned the band’s sixth album released in 1985 to be a solo effort but that did not end up happening and instead and it ended being the final Black Flag album until 2013’s poorly received What The…At this point, relations in the group were turning sour which may have been creatively bad for a lot of bands but for Black Flag it resulted in one of their best works, with this title track being one of it’s highlights.
Featuring a galloping riff that would not be out of place on a doom metal album, on top of it Rollin’s delivers yet another tortured vocal performance. Clearly not the work of people who are satisfied with life, it marked a great note for the band to end on.