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Black Flag's 'My War': Source Material

by Chuck Eddy

Black Flag's 'My War': Source Material


So, if you haven't heard, Black Flag are back! Twice! Sort of. Which is to say, there are the guys actually calling themselves "Black Flag" now: guitarist-forever Greg Ginn, vocalist Ron Reyes (who had been their front dude circa 1979-'80), drummer Gregory Moore (apparently with them around 2003) and, theoretically if not touring with them, one "Dale Nixon" (supposedly their bassist circa My War and earlier, though actually that was Ginn in disguise). And then there's the lineup now billing itself as just plain "Flag," which consists of cofounding ex-singer Keith Morris, cofounding bassist Chuck Dukowski, drummer Bill Stevenson (who played on a bunch of B.F.'s '80s albums) and guitarist Stephen Egerton (who was never actually in the band, though he was in Descendents). "Black Flag" have 2013 festival and rodeo (!?) gigs booked so far in Tennessee, Germany and the U.K.; "Flag" have dates lined up in Las Vegas (Punk Rock Bowling!), Germany and Belgium. Fans of both rosters who always thought Henry Rollins was completely ridiculous are said to be thankful that he evidently has other obligations.

Anyway, two of these fellows (Ginn and Stevenson) played on Black Flag's My War, released in 1984. That perhaps wasn't the Southern California band's most influential album ever (that'd more likely be 1981's Damaged and/or the collection of even earlier tracks The First Four Years, which spawned a zillion really bad and a handful of really good hardcore punk bands), but it was super-influential nonetheless. As the album where America's favorite hardcore gang slowed down and decided Black Sabbath were at least as cool as The Ramones, it paved the way for decades of sludge metal, doom metal and stoner rock (and given that it undoubtedly opened up more than a few metal ears to punk, too, you might wanna blame it a bit for genres like thrash and grindcore as well).

In his cranky but intermittently spot-on 1990 book Rock and the Pop Narcotic, in fact, Joe Carducci -- erstwhile A&R-guy-and-whatever-else for the great Ginn-founded indie label SST -- suggested that Black Flag (like Sabbath and The Ramones before them) represented one of the major generational paradigm shifts in the history of rock music. It's up to you whether you buy that (Canadian metal critic Martin Popoff, for instance, opts instead for Sabbath/Uriah Heep/Deep Purple, then Judas Priest in 1976, then Metallica in 1984 instead), but Black Flag were a big deal, no matter what.

My War also represented a major shift in Flag's own career: It followed an extended hiatus from album-making, but was the first of five studio albums the band would put out in 1984 and 1985 alone. By the fifth of those, In My Head (or maybe even the instrumental second side of the second, Family Man), they were heading in an increasingly instrumental and heavy jazz-fusion direction; Ginn has long claimed to be inspired by free-jazz saxophone players. Hence the Albert Ayler track capping this playlist of music that may have influenced the band's mid-'80s sound. Most of the mix, though, is acid-rock-era metal (Blue Cheer, Bang, Sir Lord Baltimore, Purple at their punkest and Sabbath of course, albeit in a post-Ozzy incarnation here due to availability issues); hard rock of the less blue-collar continuum that culminated in punk (MC5, Stooges, Alice Cooper, Ramones); and punk/metal mergers that preceded Black Flag getting explicit about it (Motörhead, Flipper, Butthole Surfers and, inevitably, L.A.'s own Germs).

Carducci insists in his book that Flag (unlike, say, Minor Threat on the other coast) were inspired not at all by "the U.K. punk sound." Taking his word for it, I've omitted potential picks like The Sex Pistols and The Damned (who apparently had quite a following in punk-era L.A. otherwise). I did include the noisy early Grateful Dead live instrumental "Feedback," though, since people have drawn Garcia/Ginn connections in the past, and here that link might make sense. Quibble if you must -- though with this stuff, beating your head against the wall would be more appropriate.