Black Flag’s place in punk rock history will always be secure. Led by frontman and guitarist Greg Ginn, the Hermosa Beach band essentially created the American hardcore punk rock sound with 1981’s Damaged. The group also developed the grassroots national touring template for most American underground acts that followed. And we can’t forget about the Ginn-owned and operated SST Records. The indie label released seminal works by Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Bad Brains, Soundgarden and more.
Founded in 1976 by Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski, SST released Black Flag’s Nervous Breakdown EP in 1978. During the ’80s, Black Flag put out iconic albums at a furious pace, including Damaged, My War and Slip It In.
Throughout Black Flag’s history, Ginn has been the group’s sole constant member. However, the group’s alums make up an impressive roster of punk rock stalwarts, including Henry Rollins, who famously worked at a Washington D.C. ice cream store before jumping onstage and joining the group. There was also Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Off!), Bill Stevenson (the Descendents, All) and Chuck Biscuits (D.O.A., Social Distortion). The current incarnation has professional skateboarder Mike Vallely on vocals.
The last time I spoke to Ginn was in 2008, when his instrumental bands, Jambang and the Texas Corrugators, were performing in Monterey. He said two things of note: his favorite band was the Grateful Dead, and he would never do a Black Flag tour.
“There’s something a little sad about seeing a band confined to playing the music of their youth,” Ginn said. “I don’t wanna feel sorry for myself.”
Even a punk rock legend should never say never. With that, let’s look at five iconic Black Flag songs.
1. “Nervous Breakdown”—Riding a dirty garage punk-rock guitar riff, this Keith Morris-sung gem on their debut EP shows a band influenced by other British and American punk and garage acts. Simple but effective, the song only hints at the band’s brute force to come.
2. “Wasted”—The original version of “Wasted” is a 56-second blast of smirking humor sung by Keith Morris that debuted on the Nervous Breakdown EP. Morris took the song to the Circle Jerks, who recorded a more produced version for their Group Sex LP. Later, oddball Santa Cruz-based outfit Camper Van Beethoven stretched the tune out to almost two minutes and slowed it down while adding violin for its inclusion on their 1985 album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory.
3. “Rise Above”—The opening song on Damaged, “Rise Above” packs a lot into its brief two-minute and 25-second runtime. There’s that iconic spiraling riff, Henry Rollins’ yelled vocals, the splintering guitar solo and the uplifting gang chorus of “Rise above/ we’re going to rise above!” A must-listen for any fan of punk music.
4. “My War”—“My War” is the opening song on 1984’s My War, an album that polarized fans and music critics with its second side. The song begins with 30 seconds of somewhat jazzy instrumental music before exploding when Rollins’ voice comes in singing, “My war, you’re one of them/ you say that you are my friend” over a prodding guitar by Ginn. This is not boilerplate punk rock, as the song’s mid-section has an essentially spoken word section over some tumbling drums and atonal guitar before it rockets off again in the last section.
5. “Nothing Left Inside”—Black Flag’s 1984 album, My War, was widely dismissed for its second side, where Ginn and the band gave fans whiplash by slowing down Black Flag’s sped-up anthems to a metallic, lumbering crawl. The much argued about three songs—“Nothing Left Inside,” “Three Nights” and “Scream”—caused critics to bash the band for embracing elements of heavy metal.
Tim Yohannan of Maximum Rocknroll wrote of the album that “to me, it sounds like Black Flag doing an imitation of Iron Maiden imitating Black Flag on a bad day,” and added that “the three tracks on the B-side are sheer torture.” Yikes!
The best of the three songs is the almost seven-minute-long “Nothing Left Inside.” It starts with militaristic drumming joined by a lumbering guitar riff as Rollins stretches the lyrics like taffy. By the song’s end, Black Flag had essentially set the table for sludge metal, drone metal, stoner metal and Rollins’ post-Black Flag career.
Black Flag would have the last laugh on those who despised the second half of My War. When the band performed My War’s songs in Seattle on September 25, 1984, just months after its release, the audience included Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell, Buzz Osborne and others, while Green River—a band whose members went on to form Mudhoney and Pearl Jam—opened. There is no doubt that My War’s second side, including “Nothing Left Inside,” gave the Seattle musicians the template for grunge, the music genre that would come to dominate the next decade.