Agony Shorthand

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

It was hard to pony up & admit it back in the day, but a lot easier to say now: late period BLACK FLAG were pretty awful, weren't they? I mean, talk about a band that's dated horribly -- unfair, but let's start with fuckin' "Loose Nut": "Loose nut / in my head / a bolt of lightning between my legs". Wow! And I know it got far more preposterous than that quality lyric snippet -- the metalhead hair-waving, the dolphin shorts, the untold quantities of marijuana, Henry's workouts ("When I go into the gym it's like I'm going into WAR"), the revolving cast of musicians, the thinly-produced, barely-applauded late albums, the incredible bong hit wankery, etc. The real "nut", if you will, is coming up with that dividing line that transitioned Black Flag from one of the single greatest manifestations of 20th Century underground culture (and one of my personal 10 favorite bands ever) to the rock caricatures/beach blanket bong-out heshers they turned into. Was it the day Henry joined? Was it "My War"? Was it the instrumental record? The half "spoken word"/halfbaked instrumental record? Seems like in the mid 80s there was always someone ready to apologize for how shitty Black Flag truly were, myself included. But even Dave Lang makes fun of those records now, and I've never seen anyone save my wedding's best man & Darren Cifarelli so ready as he to jump off a bridge for everything SST. All due respect, of course, and please remember that we like to yuk around here at Agony Shorthand. But try to watch the video for "Slip It In" today and not piss your pants laughing. These guys were not kidding.

All that said, I'm not ready to blame Henry, nor dismiss everything the band did after "Damaged". That would be just a little too punk, and I'm no punk. Take "The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More" bootleg CD. Am I willing to take down Greg Ginn's guitar playing on "Can't Decide" or "Black Coffee" or the general roar of their sound during this era to stand on principle? No. Can I admit that their bold 1982 push away from punk and into verboten hard metal was 100 times better and more wild than anything the Boston bands (SSD, FUs, DYS etc.) puked out? Easily. These sessions were the fabled 2-guitar lineup with Ginn & my hero Dez Cadena, crazy Chuck Biscuits on the drums, Chuck Dukowski on bass & Rollins on vocals. The band were embroiled in their Unicorn Records lawsuits and counter-suits, and were unable to release anything under the Black Flag name. When "My War" finally crept out a year later, slammers and stagedivers were really taken aback by its solos, shrieks and Sabbath-like metalcore, but what this release makes clear is that this dye was cast very soon after Rollins recorded "Damaged" with the band. Like later that year! So don't be hornswoggled into thinking that this is some sort of magic "B+" bridge between the legendary and the not-so-good. It's clearly across the chasm. What's cool about it is how quality the recordings themselves are -- Ginn sounds totally possessed, as usual, and these tracks from the Radio Tokyo studio are mixed way hot-n-loud, like a record that should've actually made it onto the streets. But that still doesn't excuse what a gratuitous bunch of chest-thumping he-man bullshit it all is. Come on, do you still crank up "Slip It In" or the "In My Head" album? Of course you don't. You won't get too exercised about this stuff either, most of which was parsed out in different versions onto the 4 vocal LPs that followed. Now if you put on "The First Four Years" CD instead -- one of the pinnacles of human achievement, right up there with fire creation & the wheel -- well hey, all bets are off. Those 45s, EP and comp tracks obscured Black Flag's subsequent crimes for nearly a decade.