JULY 21, 2011: NO FLAG

Photo by Lance Bangs

Last night, following No Age’s set at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, infamous site of LAPD hooliganism (start here to learn more: LA Times), this happened: an unannounced bonus set (6 songs, 10 minutes), NO AGE plus original BLACK FLAG members bassist Chuck Dukowski and vocalist Keith Morris, playing classic BLACK FLAG songs… NO FLAG!

NO FLAG setlist: “Wasted,” “Revenge,” “Fix Me,” “I’ve Had It,” “No Values,” “Nervous Breakdown”

“You security people, could you just please stand where you’re at and not move?” – Keith Morris turns the tables on the LAPD. Unbelievable, intense, historic.

Major kudos to FYF Fest promoter Sean Carlson (and the City of LA) for making this righteous & beautiful event possible.

(above image via J. Wyatt!)

THEIR WAR: Black Flag, the First Five Years

A version of this article ran in MOJO’s December 2001 issue — the one with Michael Jackson on the cover. That version was 6,000 words long. What follows is my original 9200-word draft. Also, you might want to check out “Black Flag: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance,” a companion piece that I assembled for a special issue of the LAWeekly. There is a bit of overlap between the two, but not too much. If ever there was a band that deserved multiple histories from different angles, it was this one, I think. Enjoy. —Jay Babcock

THEIR WAR
or, Black Flag, 1977-1981.
or, Black Flag: The First Five Years
or, The Making of Hardcore: the problem child of punk rock

by Jay Babcock

“When I first joined Black Flag, I thought I was ready,” Henry Rollins told Mojo recently. “Greg Ginn taught me otherwise.”

During the four years preceding the then-20-year-old Rollins’ entrance as Black Flag’s fourth singer in midsummer 1981, the proto-hardcore punk rock band had already become a formidable musical and subcultural force. They’d looped across North America on epic-length low-budget tours, released a string of full-frontal, open-throttle, dark-humored EPs on their own label, and had become an underground sensation despite ongoing poverty, record industry disinterest, lead singer churn, news media hysteria regarding the violence surrounding the band’s performances and, most ominously, an ever-escalating amount of real-life conflict with local police departments. In those years, Black Flag had perfected a practice-tour-record-24/7/365-Do-It-Yourself work/life ethic that few people–even a young Henry Rollins–were prepared to adopt as their own.

Almost all of the songs on Black Flag’s Damaged–the band’s landmark debut album released 20 years ago this month–were written by Flag founder-guitarist Greg Ginn and/or bassist Chuck Dukowski before Rollins joined the band. It’s a remarkable, uncompromising album. But some would argue that _Everything Went Black_ and _The First Four Years_ — compilations of the band’s earlier recordings featuring vocalists Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena — may have been even better.

“In my opinion, the finest Black Flag record is The First Four Years,” Rollins himself wrote in Get In the Van, his 1994 Black Flag memoirs. He still stands by that assessment today: “Greg had great work all through the rest of the Flag stuff but there’s something special about that early stuff. There wasn’t anything like it anywhere else. [Singing those songs] was a challenge because they were all great singers and I didn’t think that I measured up, really. I did the best I could.”

This is the story behind Black Flag’s first four years: how a group of self-described “geeky, nerdy beach rats” from Hermosa Beach, California took the punk rock emanating from New York and the UK and reshaped it into something more intense and single-minded. Aggressive, furious, desperate and darkly satirical music. Music completely divorced from fashion moves and art-school pretenses. Music that almost no one was ready for.

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BLACK FLAG: A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance

A 12-Step Program in Self-Reliance
How L.A.’s hardcore pioneers BLACK FLAG made it through their early years

by Jay Babcock

Originally published in the June 28, 2001 LAWeekly

By midsummer 1981, when the then-unknown, now-notorious Henry Rollins joined Black Flag as its fourth singer, the South Bay–based punk band had already tasted some extremely hard-earned success. Despite a set of severe hurdles — from an initial difficulty in getting local club gigs and a record deal to sensational “punk violence!” coverage by the news media and constant harassment of both the band and its fans by police — Black Flag had managed to self-release three EPs, tour North America several times, and grow from playing to a couple of dozen people at a San Fernando Valley coffeehouse to headlining shows at the Santa Monica Civic and Olympic Auditorium.

Black Flag accomplished this by developing a do-it-yourself work and business ethic which, although common in jazz, rhythm & blues and folk circles for decades, was almost unique for American rock bands at the time. It was an ethic that was hugely effective, and one that would prove hugely influential over the next two decades.

But what’s ironic about the band’s current historical status as one of American punk rock’s original DIY pioneers — “They may well be the band that made the biggest difference,” says no less an authority than Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye — is that Black Flag’s original aspirations had nothing to do with building an alternate model to the existing music industry.

“The beginning and end of it was always working on the music,” says Black Flag founder, guitarist and chief songwriter Greg Ginn today. “The other stuff was very much at the periphery.”

As they tell it now, Ginn & Co. would have been quite content to let someone else handle the mundane trivialities of being recording artists and performers: the nuts and bolts of producing and releasing records, doing publicity and marketing, booking tours, handling legal matters, lugging equipment, etc. Black Flag would play while others would work. But the music industry, broadly speaking, wasn’t interested in Black Flag—so Black Flag had to figure out, almost on their own, how to get their music heard. This is how they did it, in their own words:

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