Hailed as America’s first hardcore punk band, Black Flag developed its aggressive Sex Pistols-inspired sound into an in-your-face, experimental rock band. The group formed its own record label, SST Records, and helped other similarly styled bands rise to success in the genre. Black Flag dissolved in 1986, yet several of the members continued their careers in music with various groups.
The seeds of Black Flag were planted in 1976, when guitarist Greg Ginn formed a band called Panic with singer Keith Morris. They set out to perform music far from the mainstream style of the time. “I felt that the pop music world was just people trying to make three-minute commercials,” Ginn told Robin Tolleson in Down Beat, “and I didn’t have much use for that.” The following year, they recruited Chuck Dukowski on bass and Brian Migdol on drums, and began performing. In 1978, the group found out that another band already had the name Panic. So Ginn’s brother Ray suggested the name Black Flag and proceeded to design their logo.
After they faced repeated rejection from record labels, the members of Black Flag decided to release their music through their own label, SST Records. The label grew to sign other bands, and became a well-known independent label that lasted for years past the demise of Black Flag. In 1978, the band released their first EP called Nervous Breakdown. By the end of that year, Morris had left the band and went on to form another punk rock band called the Circle Jerks. (On the Everything Went Black recordings, Black Flag credited Morris under the name Johnny “Bob” Goldstein.)
Ron Reyes, former singer for the Happy Tampons, joined the group as the new singer, but used the name Chavo Pederast. Not long after, Migdol left the group and was replaced by Robo on drums. The new lineup released the Jealous Again EP in 1980, followed by an extensive tour. Reyes quit the band at one of their shows, two songs into the set. Black Flag went several months without a singer, until they found Dez Cadena. With another lineup in place, they recorded and released the EP Six Pack.
Once again plagued with member changes, Cadena decided to step down as the group’s singer when his voice became too strained on the road. He stayed with the group as a rhythm guitarist, and set out to help find his replacement. Henry Rollins, singer for the band S.O.A., met with the band and audition in New York. He became the final lead singer for Black Flag.
The band released their first full-length album, Damaged, and headed out on tour. During most of their shows,
Members include Chuck Dukowski (born February 1, 1954, Los Angeles, California), replaced by Kira Roessler (born August 13, 1962, New Haven, Connecticut), bass; Greg Ginn (born June 8, 1954, Phoenix, Arizona), guitar; Anthony Martinez , drums (replaced Bill Stevenson); Henry Rollins (born Henry Garfield, February 13, 1961, Washington, D.C.), vocals; Bill Stevenson (born September 10, 1963, Torrance, California), drums.
Band formed as Panic, 1976; changed name to Black Flag, 1978; formed SST Records and released debut EP, Nervous Breakdown, 1978; released first full-length album, Damaged, 1981; recorded eight more albums, 1984–1986; appeared in the documentary Decline of Western Civilization, 1985; disbanded, 1986.
Address: Record company —SST Records, Box 1, Lawndale, CA; phone (310) 430–7687; fax (310) 430–7286.
Rollins performed without a shirt, displaying his many tattoos. He soon became known as the “illustrated man of rock.” Because of Black Flag’s aggressive style and appearance, the group was often stereotyped as violent, over-the-top rebelrockers. Yet a closer look at the band uncovered the fact that Rollins and Ginn didn’t drink alcohol or take any drugs. Ginn was also a vegetarian. “Our whole thing has been made out to be brutal, fascistic, and violent,” Rollins told Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone. “Those are three things that we’re very much not into at all. We’re not violent. We’re not evil. We don’t like to see anybody hurt at any time.”
After the release of Damaged, Black Flag embarked on another long tour. As they were getting ready to leave for a series of concerts in the U.K., Robo was detained by customs and not allowed to accompany the band on the tour. At the last minute, the group asked Descendants’ drummer Bill Stevenson to take Robo’s place in the U.K. When Black Flag returned to the U.S., Robo had decided to leave the group and join the Misfits.
Before their next release, the group went through two more drummers—Emil and Chuck Biscuits—in as many years. Biscuits was dismissed from the band for undisclosed reasons, but went on to join Samhain and then Danzig. In 1983, Stevenson became Black Flag’s new drummer. The 1983 retrospective collection Everything Went Black included songs from 1978 to 1981, through the groups various incarnations. The member roster hadn’t quite solidified yet, however. Cadena left the group to form DC3, and Dukowski split with the band to form SWA. Dukowski did continue to work for SST Records, and later became Black Flag’s manager.
In 1984, the band began its prolific period. Ginn played bass in the studio under the name Dale Nixon, until they could find another bass player. They released another collection called The First Four Years before embarking on a marathon of recording and touring. With My War, they changed both their appearance with longer haircuts and musical style to slightly slower tempos, shocking many of their fans. The shift resulted in an expansion of their popularity and recognition.
Before their next 1984 release, they had enlisted Kira Roessler (the sister of 45 Grave keyboardist Paul Roessler) as their new bass player. This lineup became the most recognized member roster of Black Flag after their conclusion. Before the end of the year, the group released three more albums, Slip It In, Family Man, and Live ’84. Rollins had begun to establish himself as a spoken word artist and poet. (He often did readings with Exene from the band X.)On Family Man, Rollins read his poetry on one side of the album, and the group recorded all instrumental tracks on the other. In 1984, Rollins also established his own book publishing company named after his birth date 2.13.61.
Besides releasing multiple albums in 1984, Black Flag also performed 200 shows across the U.S. They toured the country in a beat-up van. After they paid their road crew expenses, the members usually ended up living on about $12.50 a day. Undaunted by the hardships and lack of compensation that went along with their tours, the group continued a grueling schedule. “We are the hungriest band I’ve ever seen,” Rollins told Michael Goldberg in Rolling Stone. “I’ve never seen a band who would go to any lengths to play like we will.”
The group continued their fast pace through 1985. They appeared in Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization, a documentary on the rise of the Los Angeles punk rock scene. They went on to release three albums that year: Loose Nut, The Process of Weeding Out, and In My Head. The group experimented with an all-instrumental format on The Process of Weeding Out, which didn’t include Rollins. Charles M. Young described the 1985 Black Flag approach in Playboy, “These guys just look at how dismal your life is and promise to kill you for it…. The trick in listening is just to go with it, and pretty soon, you’ll be angry about your dismal life, instead of merely depressed.”
By the end of the year, Ginn had asked Stevenson to leave the band because of musical differences. Stevenson rejoined the Descendants, which later became the band All. In the meantime, Black Flag recruited drummer Anthony Martinez. In 1986, they released their final album, Who’s Got the 10½? Not long afterward, Black Flag disbanded. Ginn said he had decided that punk rock no longer fit in to the music scene.
Ginn had already begun working with another band called Gone when Black Flag dissolved. He continued to run SST Records, and recorded solo albums into the 1990s. Rollins formed the Rollins Band and continued his publishing company and spoken word career. He also pursued acting and appeared in movies like Johnny Mnemonic, The Chase, and Heat. SST Records released two more Black Flag albums after the group broke up: Wasted… Again, a compilation of Black Flag favorites, in 1987, and I Can See You, which included unreleased tracks from the 1984–85 era, in 1989.
In spite of Black Flag’s volatility with so many member changes, the group managed to make its mark in rock music. They helped define the American genre of hardcore, and inspired many of the rebellious, hard-edged bands that followed—in the 1980s and beyond.
Nervous Breakdown, EP, SST Records, 1978.
Jealous Again, EP, SST Records, 1980.
Six Pack, EP, SST Records, 1980.
Damaged, SST Records, 1981.
Everything Went Black, SST Records, 1983.
The First Four Years, SST Records, 1984.
My War, SST Records, 1984.
Slip It In, SST Records, 1984.
Family Man, SST Records, 1984.
Live ’84, SST Records, 1984.
Loose Nut, SST Records, 1985.
The Process of Weeding Out, SST Records, 1985.
In My Head, SST Records, 1985.
Who’s Got the 10 ½?, SST Records, 1986.
Wasted… Again, SST Records, 1987.
I Can See You, SST Records, 1989.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, eds. Encyclopedia of Rock Stars, DK Publishing, New York, 1996.
Down Beat, December 1984, May 1988.
Guitar Player, June 1989.
Musician, January 1987.
Playboy, November 1985.
Rolling Stone, July 18, 1985.
Whole Earth Review, Spring 1989.
"Black Flag." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/black-flag
"Black Flag." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/black-flag
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