# 10 – Public Defender (State of Alert)
Opening up our top 10 Henry Rollins songs list is a killer cut from State of Alert, which was Rollins’ first band before he joined Black Flag. SOA was an early and short-lived Hardcore band from Washington D.C. who were active from 1980 to 1981. During his time with them, Henry had not yet adopted the name Rollins and was going by his real surname of Garfield. The original line-up was Rollins, guitarist Michael Hampton, bassist Wendel Blow, and drummer Simon Jacobson.
Their only actual release (apart from their first demo) was the EP No Policy from which this track is taken. It was recorded at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington, Virginia, produced by Skip Groff, and engineered by the studio’s owner Don Zientara. A notable thing about it was that it was the second ever release through the now legendary label Discord Records owned by Rollin’s childhood friend Ian MacKaye who was the frontman in Minor Threat and later Fugazi. Their only recorded output outside of this was three tracks that appeared on the compilation album Flex Your Head.
Even though the EP contains ten tracks, it clocks in at just 8 minutes and 20 seconds with most of the tracks being less than a minute long and played very fast. Although the band’s sound is somewhat generic by hardcore standards, it is evident even at this early stage in his career that Rollins’ hoarse voice is unique. This song deals lyrically with the issue of harassment from the police. Rollins’ lyrics are rather similar to Greg Ginn’s on Black Flag’s “Police Story” which Rollins would later record vocals on. It is a classic example of early 80’s thrash punk, being one of the EP’s longer songs at 90 seconds. Although the production is very primitive, the band sound very tight which makes for an intense listen.
# 9 – Move Right In (Velvet Underground cover)
The cover of The Velvet Underground is a very different sounding version. Whereas the original is a bluesy sounding six-minute instrumental, this is just over two minutes long and showcases Rollins delivering a vocal performance over the top of the riff which is played in a heavier rock style. As is always the case when Rollins covers a song, he is doing it to create his own interpretation rather than just covering it for the sake of it.
The track was released on Rollins’ first ever recording after Black Flag’s split titled Hot Animal Machine which was brought out as a solo album. It was released in 1987 and recorded in England with guitarist Chris Haskett who would later join him in The Rollins Band, along with drummer Mick Green and bassist Bernie Wandel. The material played here could be seen as a continuation of what Black Flag produced in their later years, with the difference being that it is slower and incorporates elements of jazz and blues.
The record also included other covers of Suicide and Richard Berry. Rollins wrote all of the original song’s lyrics himself. It is now only available as part of a double pack with the Drive By Shooting ep which was recorded at the same time.
# 8 – Burned Beyond Recognition
This track is from the Rollins Band’s debut album Lifetime also released in 1987. Once again written by Rollins, it features Haskett on guitar along with bassist Andrew Wiess and drummer Sim Cain. With it being a very early track from the band, the traces of Black Flag are still evident here with the difference being that it is heavier and more metallic sounding.
Produced by Ian MacKaye, the original pressing of it included four live bonus tracks recorded in Kortjik, Belgium. These tracks were not included when it was subsequently re-released and re-mastered in 1999. Instead, the reissue included three session tracks from the Do It ep released the same year. The second reissue in 2014 once again included the live tracks and not the session tracks.
# 7 – Kick Out The Jams (Bad Brains)
This cover of the MC5 classic by hardcore stalwarts Bad Brains was recorded for the soundtrack to the cult film Pump Up The Volume released in 1990 and features Rollins as a guest vocalist. The film starred Christian Slater as a high school misfit running a pirate radio station and the soundtrack featured several prominent alternative artists such as The Pixies and Sonic Youth. It was released through MCA Records and reached Number 50 on the Billboard charts.
Rollins has always been a huge MC5 fan and here he and his peers in Bad Brains are re-recording the song for a new generation. It is a song that has always been synonymous with youthful rebellion and this version successfully manages to maintain its spirit and ethos.
# 6 – Bottom (Tool)
1993’s Undertow was the first album by progressive metal band Tool and this track features Rollins doing a spoken word part during the middle section. Although Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan wrote the lyrics, Rollins modified the words for his part in order to express himself better. He has been a long-time fan and friend of the band, however, there is a rumor that he made this appearance to pay off a gambling debt. Haskett also makes an appearance on the album’s closing track “Disgustipated.”
Aside from Kennan, Tools line-up on this album was guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Paul D’amour who left the band shortly afterward. It was released through Zoo Entertainment. The band produced it themselves along with Sylvia Massey.
It reached number 50 on the Billboard Charts upon its release and in the years since has sold up to 2.9 million copies, being certified double platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
# 5 – Man in the Laughing Mask (Tony Iommi)
Rollins is known for being a massive Black Sabbath fan and this track featuring him on guest vocals is the opening number of Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi’s solo album Iommi released in 2000. The album was a very long time in the making, being recorded over a period of four years from 1996 until the year of its release. Rollins was one of several high-profile vocalists to guest on the record, others of which included Ozzy Osbourne, Pantera’s Phil Anselmo, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters man Dave Grohl. Like all guest vocalists on the album, Rollins co-wrote the song with Iommi and producer Bob Marlette. The album charted at 129 on the Billboard 200.
Joining Rollins and Iommi on the track is bassist Terry Phillips and the late Jimmy Copley on drums who was largely known as a session musician having worked with a variety of artists ranging from Killing Joke to Seal. The track has a ’90s groove/industrial metal feel to it. Iommi makes much use of distortion with his guitar with the riff itself being very punchy and he also employs some rather chaotic sounding chord structures. Rollins’ shouty vocal style fits well with this sound.
# 4 – Rise Above
This next track is a reworked version of the classic Black Flag track featuring Public Enemy frontman Chuck D doing a duet with Rollins. It was recorded for a compilation of Black Flag covers that he put together titled Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three. It was put together to raise funds to help three teenagers who were wrongly imprisoned for the murder of three young boys in 1993. Aside from D, the album featured many other vocalists from well-known names in metal, punk, and hip hop such as Iggy Pop, Slipknot’s Corey Taylor, and Motorhead frontman Lemmy.
This is the first track on the album, of which the lyrics were written by Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn. It gets the record of to a blistering start as D starts the song by “declaring a public announcement” before Rollins quickly joins him in this brilliant dual vocal performance. Rollins sounds appropriately angry given the record’s intent, and the rest of the band, bassist Marcus Blake, Jason Mackenroth, and guitarist Jim Wilson sound as dynamic as ever.
# 3 – Drive By Shooting
At Number 3 on this Top 10 Henry Rollins songs list is this title track from a solo ep released in 1987 under the moniker of Henrietta Collins and the Wife Beating Child Haters. It was a mix of original songs and versions of other artists’ material. Among the covers is a version of Wire’s “Ex Lion Tamer” and “I Have Come To Kill You” which is a revision of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”. As previously stated, it was recorded at the same time as Hot Animal Machine and features the line-up of Haskett on guitar, Bernie Wandel on bass, and Mick Green on drums.
The song is a parody of a 60’s Beach Boys’ style number written from the perspective of a violent street gang. The lyrics were penned by Rollins himself. Like most of the tracks on this recording, its lyrical content is darkly humorous and not for the easily offended.
# 2 – I Have Come To Kill You
Although many fans of Rollins may be surprised to find this so high on the list, this twisted piece based on the Queen classic is one of his most extreme and boundary pushing songs both musically and lyrically. As I previously mentioned, it is also from the Drive By Shooting EP. Although it may come across as a silly novelty given that it is clearly a spoof, it deserves much more credit than that. As far as cover versions go, it is one that will stick with the listener.
This version of the song is similar sounding to the sound of lo-fi bands of the era such as Big Black and the Butthole Surfers. It is definitely an interesting and original take on one of the most popular rock songs of all time.
# 1 – Liar
At the top spot on this top 10 Henry Rollins songs list is the Rollins Band’s most famous song. The track was taken from their fourth album Weight released in 1994. It was the only single from the album to chart on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
There were two edits of the song released as CD singles, a short edit with a length of 4.19 and a slightly longer “video edit” which clocks in at 4:49. Both releases had outtakes from the album’s recording sessions as bonus tracks which were later included on the 2004 release Weighting.
The video edit was called such because it is the version that accompanies the song’s memorable promo video. It features a different vocal track and slightly altered lyrics in the opening section. The video directed by Anton Corbjin features Rollins portraying two different roles, one during the melodic verses where he is dressed in a suit and the other during the heavy chorus where he is painted red with no shirt on. Its heavy rotation on MTV led it to be famously lampooned on Beavis and Butthead.
Many years later in an interview with BBC Hardtalk, Rollins revealed that the song was originally a joke and the band did not intend to include it on the album. It was only when the record company heard it that they pushed for it to be the album’s lead single.
Updated July 11, 2023
Top 10 Henry Rollins Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2023
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