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Dirty Work: Black Flag
Taking an in-depth look at the trashy "bad" albums in a great band's history and finding the gems.

 
By: Jeff Daily
Follow Jeff Daily on: Twitter
September 5, 2012
 

"I feel like I need to briefly explain what a great “bad” record is: It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating—so long as the artist in question is a genius—because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety. That makes it great. Dylan’s infamous 1970 debacle Self-Portrait is the Sgt. Pepper of great “bad” albums; the closest to a modern master of the form is Ryan Adams." - STEVEN HYDEN, "The Five-Albums Test," -AV Club 7/19/2011

Angular electric guitar distortion notes splatter the speaks. "MMMYYYYYYYYYY WWAAAAAARRRRRR!!!!" screams Henry Rollins at the opening of Black Flag's second full-length album and first after almost three years of legal battles that prevented them from releasing any music under the band's name. It was their war for sure, but it was also a conflict between those who challenge the established order and those who want to maintain the status quo. Black Flag's 1984 album My War is a monster from a band that has come to define the indie-80s in America's fertile underground.

1984 was a helluva year for music. Akin to 1966's outpouring of stone cold classics like Blonde on Blonde, Aftermath, Pet Sounds, andRevolver, '84 had The Replacements' Let it Be, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, and The Meat Puppets' II. Black Flag's label SST (founded and led by guitarist/songwriter Greg Ginn) released all but one of these titles. HOLY SHIT! I know, right? BF's My War was one of a remarkable four (count 'em...4...) albums the group released that year alone, yet it was not well-recieved. The band was a hardcore punk rock group which meant faster and louder than The Ramones. They were supposed to be aggressive beasts, blasting through minute and half songs about boredom, anger, and other fucked up attitudes. Singer Rollins (singer #4 for the band by the way: Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, and Dez Cadena) roamed the stage maniacally when he wasn't spitting venom at the audience of slam dancing disaffected youths. Something happened to the group between their classic Damaged (1981) LP and 84's My War that the audience wasn't expecting. That was the band's embracing of Black Sabbath-like slower tempos, sludge riffs, and lengthy atonal (angry free jazz!) guitar leads.

What makes My War GB is the entire second half of the album punishes the unsuspecting listener with slower than slow riffs that seem to swim in thick mud. Most fans of the band hated this album (B-side especially) and most critics were repulsed by the tedium of a punk band playing metal, but there's magic in that madness. Where would Seattle be without Black Flag's bridging hardcore and atonal metal? The Melvins begat Nirvana and how did that workout for the music world? Buzz Melvin's gift of a mixtape to a young Kurt Cobain that featured lots of BF's gloomy heavy punk. Listen to Nirvana's Bleach and then go back five or so years. All the ingredients are right there in Ginn's guitar work. Entire sub-genres like "doom metal" and "sludge metal" took latter period Flag as one important model.

The album is best examined in two parts. First there is the A-side's transitional (but still moderately up tempo) hardcore songs. While the aforementioned second side is stagnant summer air thick and slow death rattles. One big reason the band sounds different from their earlier incarnations is the dismissal of secret weapon bass player Chuck Dukowski. His departure (probably instigated by notoriously prickly Greg Ginn) left a void in terms of the group's sound. Ginn played all the bass parts on the album (credited under the name Dale Nixon) which lead to a monolithic oneness to the overall band sound. Ginn's searing guitar work (both rhythm and lead) nearly steals the show. Rollins is left wailing at a wall, screaming bloody murder 'til his vocal chords leap out of his mouth and crawl away. Exorcism music.

The title song is where it's at because it's tough, heavy, and totally punk. Ironically, the tune was written by Chuck Dukowski (he also wrote side one's "I Love You"). "My War" is the first time Rollins seems integrated as a sonic force in Flag. Before 1984, to my ears, he was simply the next vocalist after Dez Cadena (my personal favorite - listen to the compilation album The First Four Years for proof of Cadena's essential hardcore bark), but on My War Rollins finds his voice...literally. The move towards metal and atonal free riffage blends perfectly with Rollins' macho "Jim Morrison" vibe. I think this is stunningly aggressive music and completely scary too.

"Can't Decide" and "Beating My Head Against the Wall" are two other explosive highlights from the first half of the album. "Can't Decide" features a particularly inspired guitar riff and the song is probably second only to The Who's "I Can't Explain" in regards to the frustration at the affliction of indecision. "Sun's coming up and I can't decide/To spill my emotions or keep them inside," Rollins cries at the start, then later name checking The Who song (perhaps just coincidentally) when he scream, "I conceal my feelings so I won't have to explain/what I can't explain anyway." These two songs and the others on side one depict a struggle that is both internal and external. There is a war with the adult world, the working life, the growing up, and the deep seated emotions one has inside that searches for self-worth and love.

Rollins emerges on this album as a lyricist. He cowrote four tunes overall and two of the second side's three epic sludgefests. Of those two, "Nothing Left Inside" is pure exorcism. Harrowing muck metal guitar passages battle with Rollins wailing his guts out - all for nearly seven minutes...this is bleak GRUNGE!!! "Three Nights" and "Scream" make up the rest of side B and they all continue the template of slow, thick, angry, terrifying, and metallic music. The guitar of Ginn must have been covered in blood and sweat after each recording because his sound rips and shreds the innermost fibers of the soul.

Unlike my previous column choices for "Dirty Work," My War is graced with disturbingly brilliant art courtesy of artist Raymond Pettibon (Greg Ginn's brother). Pettibon did all the artwork for Black Flag as well as the bulk of SST releases in the 80s. The cover picture is odd and unsettling. A red oven mitt covered hand holds a large kitchen knife against an older man's cheek. There are no bodies in the frame and the proportions seem wrong, yet the violence is scary. Pettibon's art always makes me feel uncomfortable and also provokes my mind. The visual aids the music and vice-versa. This is quality stuff.

Black Flag remain one of the most important and influential American bands of all time. They helped usher in hardcore punk and independent labels. They struggled to carve out a network for young bands that continues to be a template today. When they embraced slower tempos, heavier riffs, and more jagged tonalities they didn't care about the "rules" of punk because they believed in the truly wild independent spirit that music could and should be taken anywhere, to any extreme. My War is damn amazing.

Next Month: Further Listening and Wrap Up

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