Black Flag - The First Four Years (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Black Flag

The First Four Years (1983)


Keith Morris has had a pretty good year creatively and critically with OFF!, but his hardcore legacy always was assured. I'm not even referring to Circle Jerks when I say that either. No, Morris had a spot in the California punk canon thanks to the four songs that appear on Nervous Breakdown, a pivotal 7" from Black Flag. Those tracks, along with 12 other very important early Black Flag tunes, appear on The First Four Years.

Just so we're clear, Black Flag is one of the most important punk/hardcore bands of all time. Setting aside the raw, energetic music, if you enjoy independent music in general, you have to appreciate the work ethic that allowed the band to open up underground channels in the '80s via constant touring. Some people will (foolishly) tell you that Henry Rollins ruined the band, because apparently Damaged and My War weren't good enough for those jerks. But to be fair, when they hold up First Four Years, which features all the singers who took to the mic for Black Flag before Rollins joined the band, they don't appear totally wrong.

Morris fronts the best tracks of the comp. Nervous Breakdown is just as much the beginning of the Circle Jerks' sound as it is Black Flag's. "Nervous Breakdown," "Fix Me," "I've Had It" and "Wasted" are crowd-baiting bursts of anger and sarcasm. Morris fires off missives while Greg Ginn plows ahead on guitar. Black Flag eventually got sludgier and more expansive; nothing they did would ever be this fiery and direct.

Ron Reyes (a.k.a. Chavo) took over singing for follow-up EP Jealous Again, and while he does a decent job, he ultimately can't compare to Morris. Besides, the best song of that set was "You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You!", and the Flag gave that song to bassist Chuck Dukowski.

I back Rollins on Damaged, but Dez Cadena puts up a strong barrage on tunes like "Six Pack" and "Damaged I." "Machine" comes off a little too immature and sloppy all these years later, but the dude absolutely destroys "Louie Louie." If you like listening to white guys yell about beers, look no further.

It's easy to knock the Rollins years simply because his run comes with peaks and valleys. The First Four Years, however, is all high points, and in a way an ideal introduction to one of the best, most important, plain ol' good hardcore bands. Black Flag explored some more diverse territory later on, but the blistering focus presented here is terrifying.