Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Black Flag Defined Punk of the 1980s

A book review, at the Los Angeles Times, "Review: The L.A. man behind the music that defined the 1980s."

I saw them play many times, though I didn't care much for Henry Rollins. 

Black Flag's co-founder and original lead vocalist, Keith Morris (of later Circle Jerks fame), was irreplaceable.

The band played Baces Hall in Los Angeles, October 24, 1980 (set list), and I was there with Gerry Hurtado (a.k.a., Skatemaster Tate), my best friend friend at the time. We got there late. The band was just starting to shred when I heard commotion and saw fans fleeing out the side doors of the club. Thank goodness there were side doors. I sorta didn't realize what was happening. But I saw a row of cops, with billy clubs and riot shields, pushing the crowd toward the front of the hall. 

It was proverbial pandemonium. I look over at Gerry and he was scared shitless. I'd never seen that look on him before, which was complete terror. I said, "Come on!" And we ran out the side, and luckily my car was just across the street. We get in and another car backs up into mine, bashing the front bumper, but we didn't care (I had a 1970 Volkswagen Bug, and their bumpers where pretty hard and durable.) After the little "fender bender" we scrammed. I have a very good recollection of it --- and this was 40 years ago. 

In any case, the books under review are, Glenn Friedman, What I See: The Black Flag Photographs of Glen E. Friedman, and Jim Ruland, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records.

From the review:

The June 29, 1980, edition of this paper spoiled Angelenos’ Sunday morning by dropping a dire warning on their doorsteps: The punks had arrived, and they were murderous.

Audiences at punk shows “mug each other,” Patrick Goldstein reported. “Accounts of reckless violence, vandalism and even mutilation at some area rock clubs read like reports from a war zone.”

At the center of this alleged chaos was the band Black Flag, whose shows had become a magnet for police crackdowns since its formation in Hermosa Beach in 1979. They brought some of that scrutiny onto themselves: Founder and guitarist Greg Ginn finagled a slot at a family-friendly festival at Manhattan Beach by saying they were a Fleetwood Mac cover band, then delivered a typically loud, profane set. But the media’s pearl-clutching was disproportionate to the danger. Ginn wasn’t trying to sow anarchy, just locate the spaces that wouldn’t reject punk outright.

In “What I See,” his lively, lavishly assembled collection of Black Flag photos, Glen E. Friedman recalls the violence as wholly on the police side of the ledger. Promoters called in the LAPD, scared by “overwhelming crowds that were showing up that often looked threatening to them.” The band goaded the cops with songs such as “Police Story,” and its fury is palpable throughout the book — even rehearsals look like barnburners. But the response — SWAT teams, billy clubs, helicopters — was absurdly disproportionate. “Corporate Rock Sucks,” Jim Ruland’s well researched history of Ginn and the label he founded, SST Records, puts some context around the absurdity. And it’s a thrilling story in the early going, the tale of a culture being stubbornly constructed from the ground up. In its 1980s heyday, SST released at least a dozen canonical rock albums that were notable for their rejection of convention. Black Flag’s piercing hardcore and Sabbathy sludge shared little with the Minutemen’s springy, spiky punk-jazz fusion, the Meat Puppets’ Dead-like excursions or Hüsker Dü’s blend of pop savvy and stun guitar. But together, they made SST the decade’s preeminent indie label. As Ruland writes: “Ginn was interested in punk rock as a concept — a creative call to arms — not as a specific style of music.”

In that regard, it’s a little disappointing that Ruland — a fiction writer who’s also co-authored two earlier books on Southern California punk — generally sticks to label history and doesn’t make a stronger argument on his subject’s behalf. SST’s accomplishment wasn’t just signing a host of enduring bands; it became the wellspring and prime mover for much of Gen X culture and the indie rock that followed. Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins exemplified a generation’s sour, antiestablishment, heavily ironic posture. The second side of its 1984 album, “My War,” was a grunge touchstone. Hüsker Dü and Sonic Youth gave the ‘90s alt-rock explosion its melodic textbook. Negativland set a template for anticorporate pranking and culture jamming. The touring paths that indie bands across the country took — and still take — were largely developed at SST’s Torrance offices. Its ads and review copies fueled a generation of zines and their writers.

So much of this sprang from Ginn — or more precisely, from his resentment of authority and institutions. Beyond the police bullying and hyperbolic media attention, Black Flag’s recording career was stalled by an extended legal squabble with MCA Records after an exec dubbed 1981’s “Damaged” an “antiparent record.” (The band made that into a literal badge of honor, slapping stickers with the quote on copies of the LP.) Ruland’s chapter titles are framed as confrontations led by the label — “SST vs. the Media,” “SST vs. Hardcore” — but the battles were often Ginn’s.

Still, Ginn wasn’t anybody’s idea of the leader of a cultural movement. He grew up obsessed with ham radio and other engineering-geek phenomena. (SST was originally a small electronics outfit, short for “solid-state transmitters.”) He spoke little as a musician or label chief — and not at all to Ruland, who was told, “I retired from interviews a long time ago.” In “What I See,” Ginn is usually dressed as if he’d just come off a shift assistant managing a Kroger’s.

What made Ginn, Black Flag and SST so distressing to outsiders was partly a matter of aesthetics. Cover art and show flyers designed by Ginn’s brother, Raymond Pettibon, featured feverish, provocative imagery obsessed with sex and death. It was also a matter of timing. The soporific Reagan era made the music and lyrics SST trafficked in seem an active threat. The infamous 1982 punk-rock episode of “Quincy, M.E.,” plainly inspired by news coverage of Black Flag from The Times and elsewhere, was so determined to depict the scene as violent and nihilistic that Jack Klugman’s no-nonsense Quincy took the remarkable step of defending the ‘60s counterculture to make punk seem all the worse.

SST’s contempt for law-and-order conservatism didn’t exactly make them what we’d consider progressive today. Women and people of color were scarce; Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler curtailed her recovery from a hand injury for fear of being booted from the band, leading to permanent damage. Songs like Black Flag’s “Slip It In” were overtly misogynistic. Cover art and SST letterhead flirted with Nazi rhetoric. Bad Brains frontman H.R. was known for homophobic outbursts. The label came grotesquely close to releasing a Charles Manson album...
I still have a few of the Raymond Pettibon concert flyers, packed away somewhere.

A great moment in rock and roll history. An iconic band for the ages.