Monday, 21 September 2009



In many circles this is considered the best Black Flag album.  Certainly it is the most compact and economic bust out 16 songs in only 26 minutes.  And they aren’t just hardcore bursts of energy; they are tastily crafted balls of anger sewn into solid songwriting that does not exhibit an ounce of fat.  Greg Ginn described what they were doing as “modern blues”.  It seems he already had one eye on legacy and tradition.

Essentially it’s a compilation but to refer to it by such terms feels demeaning and severely missing the point.  Early into Get In The Van, Henry Rollins states that “in my opinion the finest Black Flag record released is The First Four Years compilation.  Its all the singles and compilation cuts that the band made before I joined. The record spans three singers that came before me.  Its 34 minutes (sic) and it’s about three full length albums worth of anyone else’s music.  It is the densest batch of jams I have ever heard on one record besides the Fun House album by The Stooges.  When you put it up against what’s out there today, its hilarious.  These bands would have been eaten alive at a Black Flag show.  Music has mellowed out to the point where it just doesn’t interest me anymore.  And I’m not a snob either, I just can’t forget what I know.”

“Self as cell, body as cage”.

The onslaught kicks off with “Nervous Breakdown” and the subsequent additional three tracks from the EP which was the first SST release.  It features Keith Morris on vocals who always offered a more snotty, swinging style than Mr Rollins.  “Nervous Breakdown” is a concise explanation of circumstances referencing the anxiety and energy that comes with being a punker.  The playing is wickedly tight with slicing hooks that punch proceedings as the words pierce the senses and serve the mind.  Early Black Flag was such a well oiled machine.

The following tracks from the first EP are equally stonking and astonishing.  “Fix Me” possesses the finest countdown ever in music and within a minute so many expressions and emotions are displayed in relentless fashion.  The next track “I’ve Had It” succinctly represents the frustrated mind with threats of “I’m going to explode” in heavy emphasise.  And then there is the pure joy of “Wasted”, of delirium and reckless abandon.  The manner in which Morris drags out the hooks and chorus makes the words bigger and more powerful than they ought be.  Within a few listens, you already know these lyrics by heart.  The words were already it just took this band to bring them out in you.

Up next is the “Jealous Again” EP and five tracks of frustration.  “Jealous Again” is a solidly condensed one way conversation, a brief interview with a hideous man/woman.  In the words of Rodney Dangerfield: “I can’t condone it but I can understand it”.  Continuing the frustrated flow the equally aggressive “Revenge” arrives like a war-cry and disgusting declaration.  This is the sound of a person getting things done.

Then we arrive at “White Minority”, a song the word problematic was born to be strapped/tagged onto.  It is a rant about being the underclass, a section of society where race isn’t necessarily an issue when the main consideration is survival.  I have compared it to being their version of “White Man In Hammersmith” but that song never had the ferocity or hook of this rocketing explosion.  A great song and very bold holding gestures that could worryingly misappropriated by right wing wrong ‘uns.

Remaining on the Jealous Again EP, “No Values” follows which is another crushing track from the off unleashing a ferocious first few lines of “I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what you say”.  It is a song that truly motors and pummels all in its path as the band plays out the part of a crucified nihilist.  And with good reason.  Then finally this section closes with the slightly slower tempo “You Bet We’ve Got Something Against You” which also serves to bulldoze surroundings and the bystanders inhabiting.  With Chuck Dukowski booming condemnation on his sole singing role it verbally busts heads open.

Track ten is “Clocked In” which originally appeared on the New Alliance compilation Cracks In The Sidewalk which was the first release by the label run by the guys from the Minutemen (D Boon and Mike Watt).  “Clocked In” is also legendarily the song Henry Rollins jumped onstage and sang with the band when he was merely a fan and not a member.  It is a ninety three second blast of griping about doing menial work and being tied to a clock.  Again the Ginn playing is spacious and chunky, happily going way out when it comes time to provide one of his weird solos.  And even though it sounds like Rollins singing, it is actually the first vocal workout by Dez Cadena on the record (Rollins ain’t anywhere on here).

The original version of “Six Pack” brings in the next three tracks from what was the third Black Flag EP.  To be honest the Cadena sung variant doesn’t sound much different to the form Rollins later owned on Damaged.  “Six Pack” is a celebration of denial, escapism and wilful disregard.  It is the band rocking satire big time.  From here things move onto “I’ve Heard It Before” which is a prolonged threat that exists like a bomb with a lit fuse.  When it eventually arrives the track explodes as another aggressive dismissal and heated message.  Closing the EP is “American Waste” a song about positioning and celebration of the fact that the band knows its place in the grand scheme and is fighting to ascend on its own terms when really knowing the game is rigged and a big win is beyond their realm/means.

“Machine” arrives screaming as another track that previously appeared on a New Alliance compilation (this time the twelve song twelve band Chunks).  It’s a swift blast very much playing one note with the declaration of raging against the machine long before it became vogue.

With that we enter the final release of the compilation and the Black Flag take on “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen.  In the process of making this a staple they mutate the words and amplify the riff sculpting it for their own needs.  Then with that it all ends on “Damaged I” and an early workout of what would later become the title track of their debut album.  “Damaged I” the song was described by Simon Reynolds in his book Rip It Up And Start Again as a “slow-grind as drawn out as the death throes of a wound animal”.  This was where the band was heading.

At this point many argue that when Henry Rollins he ruined the band.  There was certainly something of an audible change between these tracks and those of Damaged.  Whether this was increase or decrease is down to the tastes of the listener.  Black Flag the band changed music forever.

Thesaurus moment: effectual.

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