ALBUM REVIEW: BLACK FLAG- My War
BEST TRACKS: My War, Beat My Head Against a Wall, Nothing Left Inside, Scream
Though Black Flag was already a widely popular west-coast punk band with an affinity for harder, faster, and more experimental music than virtually any of their contemporaries, it was the addition of Henry Rollins that defined the band’s distinct sonic and aesthetic composition. “Damaged”, the first album with Rollins as frontman, was simultaneously one of the first definitively “hardcore” punk records ever created and the inception of the young movement’s most charismatic frontman. For these first few years at the turn of the decade (“Damaged” was released 1981), Black Flag echoed other hardcore pioneers such as Minor Threat in their rampaged delivery of staccatoed screams under the banner of a disciplined, straight-edge lifestyle. But just as Minor Threat disbanded in 1983 amid founder Ian McKaye’s realization that playing incredibly fast and loud was limiting, Black Flag was forced to reflect on how the band could move forward without relying solely on uber-aggression (which was becoming increasingly violent). The result: Black Flag became an art punk band. Well, I guess that’s not fair to say. Black Flag was actually always known for their intricate posters and album covers designed by Raymond Pettibond, and they had always demanded that their listeners take their music more seriously than some of LAs earlier punk bands which had become incredibly silly by the end of the 1970s. But when faced with the crossroads brought on by the end of basic hardcore punk, two distinct voices emerged within Black Flag. Greg Ginn, the guitarist, founder, and only consistent member of the group began experimenting with free jazz and doom metal in what became the invention of the classic “anti-solo”, and Rollins began his descent into poetry and spoken word performance of bleak, basic lyrics hinged on frustration and alienation. Unsurprisingly, the two ended up tearing the band apart with their separate aggro-insistences on the future of alternative music, but the albums that were released prior to this inevitable fracture are some of the most interesting and crucial in any punk library. And nowhere is that more clear than on “My War”, the punk rock equivalent of Johnny Marr and Morrissey dueling with their equally insufferable voices and somehow creating a musical texture unlike anything else. Ginn and Rollins are rarely in step together, their ideas flowing out from vastly different channels. But, somehow, as if a flash of congruency lined up beneath the band for the recording of the album, “My War” is Black Flag’s magnum opus.
California’s most important contribution to punk rock was birthed in 1976 by father Greg Ginn, in the vein of typical influences like the Stooges, MC5, and, of course, the Ramones. Ginn’s role as the band’s guitarist and primary creative force meant that there was more of a focus on what Ginn could make his guitar do rather than having it purposefully act as the simple engine for pounding aggression. Ginn quickly established his new band, freshly named “Black Flag” (“Panic” was taken) as distinct from punk contemporaries in the sheer work ethic he required from every member of the band. While this was partially a conscious effort to avoid the excess which killed off many members of punk’s first wave, this work ethic was also necessitated by LA’s lack of (figurative) underground infrastructure. With no punk-friendly clubs or distribution avenues, Black Flag created America’s most impressive DIY music network. As Ginn boasted a plethora of posters advertising each performance (a minimum of 500), self-booked shows at picnics, schools, and abandoned warehouses, a list of punk-friendly fans who could host the band to stay the night, and a comprehensive map of every all-you-can-eat buffet in within their touring scope, Black Flag as an entity required its members to commit every fiber of their being to punk rock. And it paid off. Fans all over the country were enamored with what was then the least compromising sound or image of any other American band, and Black Flag’s cult status propelled them to underground stardom sans support from anything that even resembled mainstream music institutions. That’s where Henry Rollins comes in. In 1980, when Ginn’s rotating array of vocalists signaled that it was time to find the newest iteration of Flag’s frontman, Washington D.C. superfan, and Haagen-Daz manager Henry Rollins was tapped to join the band. Packing up his custom-built muscle T-shirt and nothing else, Rollins moved to California so the band could record “Damaged”. The shaved-head muscle bound Rollins was visually antithetical to everything that punk initially promised, in his ratty jeans and vocal abstention from anything vice-related. But he soon embodied what would become “hardcore punk”. Their second full-length album instantly cemented them among the Gods of the movement’s newest wave with acts like Bad Brains and Minor Threat (led by Rollins’ DC friend Ian MacKaye). The reliance on pure, inflamed rebellion proved unsustainable, though, and rather than become irrelevant or force off their wheels, Black Flag turned to more experimental sounds and, well, lifestyles. While Ginn remained relatively the same whip cracking band leader (albeit with a little more interest in avant-garde jazz), Rollins began his transformation into his most unbearable form. Often performing in just his boxers, Rollins insisted on opening ‘83 and ‘84 era performances with lengthy readings from his journal. He was visibly larger, becoming a devout bodybuilder and frequent aggravator of crowd violence. He would carry around a pool ball that he would grind in his palm for nearly an hour before the set started, staring down the crowd with an ever-more concerning insistence on brute masculinity. He and Ginn grew their hair out, alienating them from the classic Black Flag skinhead fan base. They no longer committed themselves to hectic live performances focused on pure energy, but would rather let the audience stew in silence while Rollins prowled in near nudity. At the time, it was confusing. And “My War” was the final nail in the coffin which forever broke Black Flag from standard hardcore. The album’s slowed down, meandering, tempo-shifting landscape was hated by fans of the original straight edge scene. However, despite an inevitable backlash brought on by the band’s abrupt shift to more experimental and brooding tones, it is this experimentation and willingness to break from a sound which they helped originally establish for the sake of artistic integrity that makes “My War” Black Flag’s most daring and interesting album.
It’s fair to point out that not every song on “My War” was destined to be placed on a Black Flag greatest hits compilation. The titular song was a pretty standard Flag romp, with Ginn’s classic mid-drenched overdrive pulverizing a single riff while Rollins peeled his throat to paranoia drenched lyrics like “My War/You’re one of them, you said that you’re my friend/ but you’re one of them.” So, immediately, the greasy shaved head fans of the band’s earlier material were at least momentarily satisfied. Though the intro may have deviated slightly from “Damaged” era speed-power just because it acted as a pressure build to elevate Rollins’ eventually shriek, it supplemented the breakneck pace of the rest of the song quite well. Great, so this is Black Flag’s new sound? Skinheads could handle their violent tempos occasionally coupled with a dissonant platform for Rollins to thrive if that’s what they needed. But after the album’s titular track, songs begin to drift further from any resemblance of original hardcore punk. “Beat My Head Against the Wall” is a bizarre combination of classic Sex Pistols abrasion, pop music, and experimental west-coast noise bands like Flipper. Adopting doom-metal tempo shifts, the song shifts between Rollins screaming about ramming his head on a wall before switching to a sugar-coated pop chorus garnished with a heavy Ginn line, before switching again to a blisteringly dissonant free-jazz guitar solo and then leading into a final sludgy riff to end the song. In a span of two minutes, Black Flag recorded what is probably the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life. But it’s genius. Once the initial disgust has worn off, it becomes evident that to remain relevant within a molting scene, Black Flag was forced to continually subvert expectations even within punk rock etiquette. The result is almost unlistenable at its worst but thought-provoking when it gets it right. And “My War” gets this formula right more so than any other late-stage Flag album. “Nothing Left Inside” is a seven minute, doom metal march of a song where Ginn does his best Black Sabbath meets Miles Davis impression as Rollins groans endlessly of self-hatred and agony. “Scream” takes “Nothing Left Inside” a step farther and, while still relying on slow methodical drum patterns and punk jazz heaviness, features Rollins literally screaming and croaking for seven minutes straight. If you were to judge punk rock strictly off of how distant it drifted from the Ramones, then Black Flag would certainly be disqualified by this point. But “My War” has the sheer ability to drive every person who listens to it up a wall, something that no other genre drives to do.
In the years following “My War”, Black Flag released three more studio albums before calling it quits. By the end of the legendary Punk band’s demise, Rollins had become drowned in his own ego, forcing too much conflict with Ginn’s long-established control freak attitude. “Family Man”, “Loose Nut”, and “In My Head” all contained the warring personalities which first butted heads on “My War”, but each suffered more from a bitter disconnect. “My War” might be an accident in its beauty, but hardcore punk’s transition into darker and weirder territories has never been exposed in its naked horror more than on this Black Flag classic.
– Cliff Jenkins