There is a guy in my office who alternates between two T-shirts as the entire basis of his wardrobe, and both of them are Black Flag T-shirts. This was a seriously powerful band, and their sound does strange things to people who follow them long after they’ve called it a day. Even their logo (illustrated by guitarist and primary songwriter Greg Ginn’s brother, Raymond) launched a million tattoos and became imbued with enough irony to sink a ship, at once a symbol of counter-culture and eventually becoming so recognisable that any passing music fan would get the joke when their name was replaced with ‘Justin Bieber’. Henry Rollins probably wouldn’t have appreciated that joke, but then, as his sold-out stint as a comedian and showman has proven, you’re going to have to be pretty damn smart to make this guy stop being angry at all. He was just as brash and fire-breathing as the twenty-something who would drive five hours interstate to watch his favourite band’s show in the early eighties until they co-opted him into the fold right before their debut album, and you can hear that crystallised on ‘Six Pack’ It’s an unbelievably intense, get-up-and-get-em blaster that seems intent on ruining itself before its audience does. And given that they used to come to show and stab Rollins with pens for fun, that’s definitely saying something.
I was a late adopter of Black Flag, and there are times when I really don’t like listening to them at all. While this might not resonate with the diehard, inked-out generation who used to run into each other at their gigs, it means I can appreciate the band from a distance without wholly subscribing to the fuzz. Personally I think that’s fair enough; for many, there are few elements at all that cast Black Flag as musical in any way. In fact, the first few albums that made their name and guaranteed them a place in the history books are nowhere near as interesting sonically as the ones that finished off their career. Of course, if you like punk music and you like it loud and messy and abrasive, this is Mecca and Medina rolled into one. It’s like the crunching power chords of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple have been sliced through a blender on maximum speed. It’s littered with mistakes and bum notes, but they fly past with such energy that you have absolutely no time to dwell on them properly, and that’s not really the point, anyway. The point is aggression, the point is statement and most importantly, the point is using the tools at your disposal to piss off as many people as you can; police, parents, record labels, your cat. Never has singing about beer sounded quite so impressive as when it’s been belched out of Rollin’s raspy mouth.
Like most great hardcore acts of the era, there are certain tenets of composition that Black Flag couldn’t give a rat’s ass about. You can hear them abandon most of them within the first thirty seconds of ‘Six Pack’, which starts out innocuously enough with that Iggy Pop-inspired demon bass line before collapsing onto itself when someone on the band takes it upon themself to ratch up the time signature without telling everyone else. If you hear the way the guitar braces itself against the timekeeping hi-hat, you can probably figure out where the blame lies, but it’s a useless game, because within a heatbeat they’re all on the bandwagon. Somehow they manage to come together in time for the second verse, a marvel that I have long since dubbed the ‘punk paradigm’ whereby going out of one’s way to play sloppily actually ends up working to one’s advantage. It’s not like Black Flag were ever going to do it any different in 1981. They’d released three EPs already but the reason they’d attracted people like Rollins in the first place was because of their live show. And in a live show, particularly in ’80s L.A., velocity and energy were paramount. They may not have been the most concise on record but in this, Black Flag were peerless. Songs like ‘Six Pack’ remain exciting, then, because despite studio limitations, you honestly feel like the stage is about to come down and the band is going to start fighting with you. It’s exhilarating, as puerile as that is, and one thing I realised when watching At the Drive-In ‘reunite’ earlier this year was that there really isn’t any space for that kind of aural violence anymore. Rock bands have lost their balls, and they’ve been swiped by rappers without instruments and producers without soul. I’m a sucker for the latter most days of a week. But every so often, it’s really nice to have a wake-up call.
Crank it up loud.
Black Flag – ‘Six Pack’