Graded on a Curve:
Black Flag,
Slip It In

I’m no fan of Henry Rollins, and I don’t say that because he once threatened to sock me in the kisser. I consider being threatened by big bad Henry a badge of honor. No, I don’t like him because he’s the straightedge stinkbug who single-fistedly transformed one of punk’s funniest bands into a sullen bummer. His patented combination of testosterone and angst leached every last ounce of hardy har har out of the band that brought us “TV Party” and “Six Pack,” and frankly if I hadn’t had the crack-ups in the Angry Samoans to fall back on I might have croaked from sheer cackle deprivation.

But the decision to transform Black Flag from the most explosive hardcore band in the known world into Black Sabbath Mark II was guitarist/songwriter/band leader Greg Ginn’s, and it’s Ginn who is chiefly to blame for the sludgefest that is 1984’s Slip It In. Going from playing ‘em fast and hard to cranking out dinosaur ‘eavy riffs may have satisfied some atavistic need of Ginn’s, but by abandoning himself to the impulse he largely sacrificed the blowtorch intensity that made such songs as “Police Story” and “Nervous Breakdown” so breathtakingly awesome.

Slip It In has its moments, and some of its songs are keepers, but as the almost unlistenable grind to nowhere that is “Rat’s Eyes” proves, aping Black Sabbath can be just as disastrous a move as aping the Doobie Brothers if you lack the good sense to realize that even at their heaviest Black Sabb’s songs actually go somewhere. And Rollins’ “lyrics” don’t help; popular music has rarely gone lower than Rollins’ invitation to touch his “filth.” I think I’ll pass, thank you very much. And the same awful fate would have befallen “Obliteration” had Ginn not seen fit to slather liberal amounts of his deranged guitar skronk all over it.

Fortunately, the remaining six songs on Slip It In possess a modicum of forward momentum. Why, “My Ghetto” almost approaches hardcore velocity, although it still manages to lumber somewhat. And I have to hand it to Henry for the inspirational line, “Cuz I got nothin’/And I’m giving it all to you!” On the other hand, Rollins’ turn as seducer on the groovy title track is unconvincing; as Robert Christgau astutely noticed, the song obviously comes from somebody “who learned about sex from the movies.” Is there a—dare I say it?— almost playful feel to Rollins’ vocals? It kills me to admit it, but yes. And this is what saves the song. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Ginn serves up some truly twisted guitar, his notes insanely tumbling over one another and getting all snaggled up in a furious rush that I can only describe as a wonderfully inarticulate love letter to chaos from the old reptile brain.

“Black Coffee” falls into the great straightedge tradition of just saying no to deadly substances, the subject of this one being caffeine, that universally agreed upon assassin of youth. Moral in short: This is your brain on Starbucks! Fortunately I can just laugh at the words while admiring Ginn’s ‘roid rage guitar wank and the lively tempo, which definitely sounds caffeine-induced. “Wound Up” could (and should) be more wound up; the constant stops and starts slow the song down, killing what could have been a by no means negligible addition to the catalogue of Black Flag standards. As it is, I only listen to it for Ginn’s brief turn on the guitar. Say what you will about old Greg, he’s a bona fide six-string genius.

“The Bars” boasts some great bass and a monstrous riff and ain’t half bad; unfortunately I can’t stand the way poor Henry natters on and on about how he can’t shut off his mind, and can’t help but think a six-pack would help. These straightedge guys have a knack for turning their puritan noses up at the obvious solution, and it never fails to get my goat. As for the song itself, it’s not as good as “Slip It In” or “Black Coffee” but is sure as shit better than “Rat’s Eyes” and “Obliteration.” Album closer “You’re Not Evil” is as close as the Flag comes to perfecting their new formula; the stops and starts make sense sonically, Ginn’s guitar playing is both ferocious and utterly untethered, and Black Sabbath ain’t far behind.

I liked this album a lot when it came out because I didn’t know any better. I’m tempted in hindsight to say that the thing I most liked about it was the hilarious Raymond Pettibon cover, but that would only be partly true. I’m also tempted to say it’s a betrayal of everything hardcore, but that would be absurd; hardcore had a sell-by date on it just like everything else, and a refusal to move on would have killed Black Flag just as surely as Black Flag kills bugs dead. Which makes me wonder why Black Flag didn’t call this baby Kills Bugs Dead. Copyright reasons, no doubt. But if you’re afraid to stick it to a giant pesticide corporation, just how hardcore are you?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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