Music » Music Features

Black Flag Waves On

Black Flag's reunion leaves some wondering why.



While many a punk rocker might argue where and when punk music first graced planet earth, there is one belief that is widely agreed upon no matter what section of the subculture is weighing in: Black Flag is THE hardcore punk band.

There isn't much about Black Flag that isn't iconic. There's the immediately recognizable logo, the genre defining cover art by Raymond Pettibon, the socially unacceptable lyrical content, and, of course, a front man by the name of Henry Rollins. But the hero of this cult-level band has and always will be Greg Ginn, the founding guitar player and only constant member of the band since it first started in 1976. On the surface, it's easy to ask yourself why you should care that a band that released its most important EP more than 30 years ago is rolling into town. But, like many reunion acts, it's important to understand the significance of what you're seeing before passing judgment.

Black Flag was one of the first hardcore-punk bands in Southern California, formed after bands like X and the Screamers made names for themselves in the beginning stages of the Los Angeles punk community. Behind a DIY-work ethic that is still copied to this day by underground bands, Black Flag quickly made a reputation as one of the hardest working bands in the national punk scene. While bands like the Germs found national success by maintaining a total "fuck it" attitude, Black Flag personified what it meant to be a hard-working punk band. The band would practice nearly every day, cranking out blast after blast of primitive hardcore with a style of ferociousness and immediacy that hadn't been heard before. With a lineup that included future Circle Jerks front man Keith Morris on vocals, Black Flag released its debut EP Nervous Breakdown in 1978 on Ginn's SST label.

After quickly establishing itself as the forerunner of the new noise coming out of basements nationwide, Black Flag went on to become one of the hardest touring punk bands in the country. Relying on a DIY system of networking that involved likeminded bands looking out for each other, Black Flag crisscrossed the United States, showing other bands the ropes on how to travel the country and promote music without booking agents or big time record labels. Black Flag and the "Bars" logo became the most recognizable symbol for a growing subculture of angry, young suburbanites.

Like most hard-working bands, the less-dedicated members of the group had to be weeded out. After losing vocalists Keith Morris and Ron Reyes, Black Flag fan Dez Cadena took over vocal duties before gracefully handing the microphone over to a young man named Henry Garfield in 1981.

Garfield, who later changed his name to Henry Rollins, became the poster-boy for the band, appearing on numerous magazine covers as a representation of a new breed of American rock star. But even at the band's pinnacle of success, the lineup experienced numerous changes on bass and drums. The member history for Black Flag is so confusing that a family tree of the lineup is one of the first images that shows up on an internet search, solidifying that the idea of what Black Flag represented was always more important than the personnel who carried out the message. After six studio albums, numerous other releases and countless tours, Ginn decided to officially put Black Flag to rest in 1986.

In the absence of Black Flag, Ginn maintained his SST label, putting out records from some pretty questionable acts (check out Zoog's Rift) to well-known bands like St. Vitus and the Descendants. He also went on to release his own bands like Gone and Mojack through the label. But other than a few bizarre one-off appearances with different lineups, Ginn made no indication that Black Flag would ever tour or record again. The band's other figure head, Rollins, also made it very clear that there were no plans to reunite.

Then in 2013, it was announced that Black Flag had reunited. Ginn announced that Black Flag would be releasing a new record with a lineup of past members, including early vocalist Ron Reyes. As any member of Black Flag (past or present) had to be expecting, hardcore-punk fans were not impressed. Here was the band that once represented the pureness of DIY underground music, only reuniting to seemingly make a quick buck. The outrage wasn't subdued when the band released the art for the new album What The... a title that seemed almost too-fitting given the atrocious cover artwork not made by Raymond Pettibon. To make matters worse, during the promotion of the band's first studio album in more than 20 years, Ginn was involved in a copyright lawsuit with Rollins and Keith Morris over the band's name and logo. On top of that, a different group of Black Flag alumni announced that they would be touring in 2013 under the name Flag, with a membership that included Morris, drummer Bill Stevenson, and longtime member Chuck Dukowski. It was certainly not the fairytale reunion that fans hoped for.

Just prior to the release of What The... vocalist Ron Reyes was asked to leave the group, with pro skateboarder Mike Vallely immediately replacing him. Vallely is currently the fifth vocalist in the band's 38-year history. Shortly after Vallely joined the band, Black Flag announced another extensive summer tour, including a date at the Young Avenue Deli. To make the Memphis Black Flag appearance even more interesting, local promoter Joey Killingsworth somehow convinced Black Oak Arkansas to join the bill, which helps to explain the $25 admission price. For as weird as things have been for Ginn and Black Flag since reuniting in 2013, the pairing of Black Oak Arkansas just seems par for the course at this point.

For anyone who followed Black Flag's trajectory, it's now easier than ever to ask the question, "Why?"


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