Sonic Reducer: Black Flag

It's Black Flag week and we are continuing our Sonic Reducer series! In the feature, Punknews writers compress a band, genre, theme, or time period into a playlist that would fit on a single CD. Along with the playlist, you'll get either an overview of the topic, such as a band introduction, or a story about how the music in the playlist moved or changed the writer.

Today, staffer Tom Crandle takes a good hard look at Black Flag (and BF related bands) and cherry picks the best tracks. Check out his band overview, below!

An Overview of Black Flag

Tom Crandle

I can’t remember the first time I heard Black Flag. It seems like the they’ve always been part of my musical DNA. I feel like I’ve been singing along to those songs my whole life. I suspect my first exposure to the band was probably from the Repo Man (1984) soundtrack. It was already a couple of years old by the time I finally heard it. It was one of those battered cassettes that got passed around and was talked about in revered tones. “TV Party” was certainly one of the highlights of that now classic soundtrack.

I can remember the first Black Flag album I bought. It was a used copy of Everything Went Black (1982). It’s a compilation of pre- Henry Rollins tracks, and a pretty good introduction to the band. (Not as good as 1983’s The First Four Years.) Keith Morris, Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena were all on display and all had their strengths as singers. From there, I went on to hunt down every proper Black Flag album. Damaged (1981) stands as their masterpiece, but all of their 80’s full lengths had moments of greatness. I claim no insider knowledge of the band. My only insight is based on the fact that I’ve been listening to them for almost 30 years.

Black Flag doesn’t really need much of an introduction. They were one of the bands that helped define the hardcore genre. They released and promoted their own albums. They toured the country several times over. They were the very definition of DIY, and always a step ahead of the other bands in the movement. They even grew their hair long and started playing metal before everyone else. Their influence was huge. Guitarist Greg Ginn was the visionary, but he always seemed to be able to surround himself with extremely talented people. Ultimately, it was Ginn’s force of will that carried the band for a decade.

It’s not easy to distill Black Flag’s career down to a single hour of music. There’s just so many eras and so many great songs to choose from. This music is still powerful after more than 30 years. There’s a reason why it has endured and continues to be discovered by younger generations. You feel it as much as you listen to it. It still moves me. I tried to include the songs that were most important as well as a few personal favorites. I think I gave you some good entry points, but you must take the time to explore this rich catalog on your own.

“TV Party”, as it appeared on the Repo Man soundtrack, was a lot of people’s first introduction to Black Flag. It was the rare early punk song that somehow managed to creep into the mainstream consciousness. The video is also a lot of fun.

The first officially released Black Flag song was the title track from the Nervous Breakdown EP. The Keith Morris fronted version of the band only put out a four song 7 inch, but it was some of the most incredible punk and hardcore of all time.

The second song from Nervous Breakdown, “Fix Me”, was almost as intense as the title track. The two go together so well that I’d hate to listen to one without the other. It was the perfect musical manifestation of the desperation of American youth.

When Keith Morris left Black Flag to form Circle Jerks, he took a couple of early songs along with him. The Jerks’ version of “Wasted” from Group Sex (1980) is not quite as good as the Nervous Breakdown original, but it has its own spastic charm.

Ron Reyes was Black Flag’s next singer. This incarnation of the band recorded the Jealous Again 12 inch EP and appeared in the film The Decline of Western Civilization (1980). “Jealous Again” has remained a personal and fan favorite.

Reyes also sang the most prominent version of one of Black Flag’s most misunderstood and controversial songs, “White Minority”. Because he lost favor with Ginn when he quit band, his impact on Black Flag is often unfairly marginalized.

The next singer was Dez Cadena. Cadena’s harsh vocals definitely took the band in a more hardcore direction. With Cadena, Black Flag started touring in earnest and recorded the “Louie Louie” single and the Six Pack EP. “Six Pack” is another one of the band’s most enduring songs.

Cadena’s voice eventually wore out from heavy touring, and he wanted to focus on playing guitar. He was replaced by a young singer named Henry Garfield from a Washington DC band called SOA. State of Alert had put out a single EP called No Policy on Ian Mackaye's Dischord Records. Songs like “Public Defender” showed his potential.

With Rollins in place, Black Flag entered a period of unprecedented creativity and productivity. On Damaged, he was singing songs that were written before he joined the band. He was still able to put his stamp on those songs. His definitive version of “Rise Above” is a good example.

I think we sometimes overlook the important influence of bassist Chuck Dukowski on the early Black flag material. He wrote the title track of the band’s second LP My War (1984) even though he wasn’t around long enough to actually perform on the album.

Slip It In (1984) was Black Flag’s most ambitious album to date. It showed the growing influence of Henry Rollins and an increasing musical adventurousness by Greg Ginn. The songs were getting longer and more complex as displayed by the six plus minute title track.

Loose Nut (1985) was similar to Slip It In musically. It also stuck with the band’s long running theme of impending insanity. The title track deserves a spot among Black Flag’s best songs.

“Annihilate This Week”, also from Loose Nut, is another one of the strongest songs from Black Flag’s later era. It has a big riff, a big chorus and a destructive bent.

In My Head (1985) was the final album of Black Flag’s original ten year run. Musically, it split the difference between the band’s early hardcore material and their later more progressive stuff. Songs like “Drinking and Driving” certainly felt like a nod to the past.

I was too young to see Black Flag during their original run. I was able to see Rollins Band twice in 1992. Rollins was still a fiery performer, and I was able to get a little taste of what those later Black Flag shows must have been like. I saw them headline at a club with Blind era Corrosion of Conformity opening. I also saw them open for Beastie Boys in a small arena. “Tearing” was the first RB song to get any significant radio airplay.

Rollins Band signed to a major label for The End of Silence (1992). “Low Self Opinion” was a legitimate hit. The similar but inferior “Liar” was an even bigger hit from Weight (1994).

I also saw Black Fag at a small but wonderful old man punk punk festival. (RIP Tesco Fest.) They call themselves an absolutely fabulous tribute to Black Flag, and are a lot of fun. Listen to their version of “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie”, laugh and sing along.

Greg Ginn reformed Black Flag in 2013, and even made a new record with Ron Reyes on vocals. Reyes was later replaced by hanger on/professional skateboarder Mike Vallely. This period of the band did nothing to significantly add to their legacy, and maybe even tarnished it. It did give a lot of us (me specifically) a chance to finally see the band, even if it was in a diminished form. Here’s the Vallely fronted Black Flag doing “Nervous Breakdown/Police Story”.

You could certainly argue that the true legacy of Black Flag is being carried on by FLAG. That band is made up of former members Keith Morris, Dez Cadena, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson and Descendents/ALL guitarist Stephen Egerton. Their shows are almost an idealized version of the Black Flag live experience. I’ll leave you with FLAG’s incredible version of “My War”.