on 28 January 2003
Here we have 3 discernable phases and "vibes" of Black Flag, aided by line-up (mainly vocalist) changes, and amounting to separate (although closely-related) and refresheningly liberating stances in themselves.
There's the first, 1978 'Nervous Breakdown' e.p. with vocalist Keith Morris (later frontman of the Circle Jerks), which is a really powerful and trashy, beach-bum, 'don't care', messed-up, kind of lazy scream of throwing glitz, false manners, composure and status to the wind.
Then, using the previous as its starting point, there's the snotty, obnoxious, incorrect, directly anti-authority, impudently individual and nihilistic, even threatening, and even more powerful, almost violent venom of the 1980 'Jealous Again' e.p.
Then there's the sharper, darker, sinister, even more cynical and controntational stance (attacking a perceived even wider, more impersonal, deep-rooted, frightening authority) expressed in barking rejection and overdrive guitar in the 'Dez Cadena' phase of, I think, 1980/81 (having moved from guitar to vocals, and moving back to guitar to provide a second guitar when Henry Rollins joined in 1981), including the 'Louie Louie' single ('Damaged I', from the b-side of that single, may be slicker, but it's also sharper and more sinister than the version on the 'Damaged' LP) and the 'Six Pack' e.p. (massive rebellious rage and screaming powerful guitar on 'I've Heard it Before') and the compilation tracks from 'Chunks' and 'Cracks in the Sidewalk'. All that hatred of work, of being forced into a conformist system, of being told how to live and be, and expressed so rawly and unequivocally. And this is an even more muscular, powerful, totally rejecting rage.
This last is probably my favourite phase of the three (though I love the others too, and it's maybe a matter of mood) because it strips even more flesh from an even darker, visceral reaction to the world around itself. And this then basically becomes the musical background that backs up Rollins on the thinner-sounding, but nonetheless brilliant 'Damaged' album which followed when he joined the band a little later.
The only ommisions here that could add to the whole journey are the 'TV Party' e.p. (at least it's b-side, with 'My Rules' and particularly the brilliant and powerful 'I've got to run', seems like it should have been here, but I guess it doesn't fit the concept, being 1982 and featuring Henry Rollins), and the powerful compilation version (on 'Let Them Eat Jellybeans' and 'Copulation'; far better than the 'Damaged' version) of 'Police Story', which would have perfectly completed that 'Dez Phase'.
Nontheless this is a full transitional picture of Black Flag, their sound and attitude, as it developed until 'Damaged', and along with that very LP and maybe 'Everything Went Black', it is to me an essential for anyone who loves the freedom that rock music can both represent and inspire.
It has to be said that to many this music might seem like rubbish (metaphorically) and you could easily imagine that technical ability and musical correctness were the furthest things from the minds or even capabilities of the performers here (and so beware, if slickness and 'professionalism' are what you admire, because they really aren't the values cherished here). But I would go so far as to say that, to people who see this music from 'the other side', that not only sounds like a potentially good apprach to making a record, but is also a far-from-unreasonable, artistically vivid and in-no-way necessarily negative evocation of this music. In fact, as a more elaborate metaphor, it may be possible to say that it really is rubbish, maybe a little filth, or grit at least, maybe some 'headache' thrown in, a whole bunch of stress, and certainly some violence, even if suppressed from actual physical expression. But that's the beauty of it. And this record is one of the best in that tradition, and probably the ultimate fusion of enraged frustration with the world and patterns around oneself and total release into a sonic blast of freedom.
Punk was, besides other things, a reaction of the depths of the human organism to the overly abstracted and ordered, gilded and veneer-like, gaudy and glitzy, quiffed and stale, haughty and uptight, closed and superficial, if complex and 'professional', processes that had developed in mass culture over the previous decade, particular, of course, in popular music and the culture around it, that in turn served as a model for values and aspirations of young people's lives. Or, perhaps, the life everyone was (is?) supposed to swallow was the model for the culture. Whatever it was (and even is now, and always has been, wherever it might be found), here's a reaction.
Any live person, should, it seems to me, be able to see beauty in the person who reacts to a very controlled corporate cocktail party by tearing his clothes, using the most direct and coarse language, talking about all the 'wrong' and taboo things, and expressing deep and confused feelings of loathing and impulses to destroy the patterns around himself. All of us sometimes want to sweat and flex our muscles and rage about all of that controlled pandering to some idea of life that somehow didn't really come from us, but became some stifling system with a life of its own.
Punk at its best and most real is an antidote, whether snotty and irreverant, or perhaps angry, cutting and potentially violent. And Black Flag were one part of this, moving from the former snottiness to the latter rage, and one of the more real, honest, intelligent, straightforward and generally free exponents of that lifestyle and form of expression (and they were very organically tied in with their place, time and culture, the influence of the fashionable explosion of punk accross the Atlantic being a small part of what influenced and gave birth to them). Real life, real people, real context, real freedom; as far at least as virtually any human has been capable so far in human history. No fashion, no bs, no imposed ideology; visceral but not against the cerebral (rather, allowing the two to have a genuine and open relationship). A real primal blast that is served by a sharp wit and perception of what it's blasting against, breathing freshness and energy into the young mind that doesn't fear its id, but rather lets it rinse out, energise, inspire and become integrated with its rational counterpart.
There are other, already 'integrated' and mellow, controlled, ways to be, of course, which are perfectly valid, and many probably didn't and don't need this kind of catharsis, but for many it was and remains a vital release and tool for personal freedom. If you look at a band like the Minutemen (friends, tourmates and labelmates with B.F.), you see more clearly how this is the challenge of opening up the energy of the the whole breadth of life and feeling, with full honest breadth and clarity of mind. Black Flag were closer to the abyss of dark raging feeling, and in a sense narrower, because the letting rip with abandon took over more than the humanistic awareness and analysis (unlike the minutemen), but it's just a position on a line that accepts and facilitates the whole breadth of human existence, and the 'project' was really very much the same. The band themselves gave themselves to the process, started to grow, went through some confusion, became less urgent and more controlled, and confirmed their art as a real process in a real-life, moving context, as compared to a shell-like, frozen, pretty artefact. I might not have liked it all, but a great and highly valuable process it was, and this, with the other records I've already mentioned, is it at its sharpest and brightest point.
This music is freedom.
'You know, the pain, that's in my heart...'