Black Flag - Nervous Breakdown [EP] (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Black Flag

Nervous Breakdown [EP] (1979)


It would be hard to find a more auspicious debut than Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP. Released via the band’s own SST records after Bomp bafflingly delayed in releasing it, everything about the 7-inch screamed that here was something unique about this band.

Of course, the first thing listeners saw was Raymond Pettibon’s explosive cover, which set the release’s (and band’s) entire tone. Featuring a man backing another into the corner with a chair like a lion tamer, the art illustrated that this band was pissed off, and also, purposefully vague with a sort of understated intellectual tint. Was the man with the chair a teacher? A coworker? What caused this firecracker to be lit?

And, that doesn’t even mention the band’s ominous name, “Black Flag,” which had (perhaps unintentional) references to anarchism, bug spray, and even the mighty Black Sabbath. It didn’t hurt that Pettibone created what might be the most iconic band logo ever, the likes of which is still used as fodder for graffiti and notebook pencil design.

Yet, that’s only the packing. Once the needle hit the Side A, it was clear that things would be different in the punk scene. Obviously feeling that “Nervous Breakdown” was a seminal work, the band decided to give the track its own side, and put the three remaining cuts on the flip side as a way to focus on the first track, and also, to make the release feel like a collection of related songs, rather than “Two songs” and “two more songs.”

Still in their early primal form, Black Flag exhibited their core strengths right away. At the onset, guitarist Greg Ginn’s iconic riff set the song into motion. A combination of Stooges blues-power and early punk viciousness, Ginn’s playing was at once spastic and purposeful. One never felt that Ginn had total control of his instrument, but he had enough control to let it spiral out of control. Yet, whereas many punk guitarists would focus on brute simplicity, Ginn allowed a little jazz improv to slide in between the licks which made the music function as a sort of shifting catacomb. If one could turn teenage frustration into a sound, this would be it.

One would think it would be impossible to counter that kind of striking with any vocalist, yet, in an audition that consisted of a manic little short guy jumping off a table, onto a couch, and then onto the floor, the band found their foil for Ginn (in many, many ways). Keith Morris’ represented an unhinged id found rarely in music. As he spat and growled at the end “Nervous Breakdown,” he expressed the rage and frustration of many aimless youth even if those people didn’t have the ability to express it.

But, Morris’ mastery wasn’t only in his ability to be pissed off. Behind all the snapping was a sort of manic jester- one that danced while Rome burned, and yet that joy was built out of disgust. These layers of ambiguity were one of things that made the band so interesting. With a track like “Wasted,” as Morris cackled “I was sooo wasted!” it wasn’t clear if he was saying that was good or bad. Was he talking about himself or someone else? Likewise, “I’ve had It,” despite mirroring “Nervous breakdown” in its nihilistic helplessness, had a macabre humor under it. While some punk bands would revel in stupidity, there was an understated intelligence to Morris’ lines. His marvelous, shifting inflection let the listener know that not everything was shared outright in these tales.

Bassist Chuck Dukowski could possibly be credited as the raw power behind this recording. While Ginn had a penchant for shattering riffs, Dukowski understood the power of the thunderstick and supported Ginn’s lines with a simple, powerful lines. While Morris contrasted the music, Dukowski gave it its full due, pushing the whole thing to the breach with a noisy, violent low-end.

In his sole Black flag appearance, Brian Migdol handled the kit and it is a little surprising that he didn’t stay longer. Replaced by the iconic machine drumming of Robo, Migdol used a more tribal style which made these tunes more Stooges-like than they would be latter. True, Migdol wasn't quite as volatile as his three playing partners, which may in part explain his ejection. Then again, Black flag was a band famous for ejecting talent.

As soon as the band released the follow up, Jealous Again, Black Flag was already evolving- 50% of a new lineup, trickier guitar parts, and even more ambiguous themes. Also, with this release, the band would set the attribute that would come to define them- bad blood. Thus, Nervous Breakdown may only be four tracks in five minutes, but it is, at once, a perfectly formed statement, a radical evolution of the genre, a standard bearer for punk, and a harbinger of what was to come. This is as good as music gets.