Graded on a Curve:
Black Flag,
The First Four Years

Celebrating Dez Cadena, born on this day in 1961.Ed.

What was that? Did you feel it? It felt like, to quote the dour French poet Charles “Flowers of Evil” Baudelaire, “the wind of the wing of madness” passing over me. I felt said wind from said wing whilst reading an article written by Stereogum writer James Jackson Toth, in which he calls Black Flag “a very good band that didn’t become great until vocalist Rollins (nee Garfield) joined in 1981.

What sets Black Flag apart from their contemporaries and imitators is not the supercharged beach-bum punk of the great, early records, but the hateful, heretical hardcore they produced behind the young Rollins. The fruits of this collaboration are why the band continues to earn a place within the furthest reaches of the counterculture alongside Hendrix, Garcia, and Cobain.”

Placing Rollins amidst the immortal likes of Hendrix and Cobain? This is sheer barking madness. Indeed, reading Toth’s insane words left me feeling as queasy as a lion that has just eaten a bad missionary. And they so startled the cigarette butt clinging for dear life to my lower lip that it made a suicidal leap into a nearby cup of coffee.

Sure, 1981’s Damaged is an indisputable classic, but most of its songs had already been appeared on EPs prior to Damaged’s release. And things go downhill fast from there. 1984’s Slip It In has its moments, but does anyone give a flying Chihuahua about such drags (and I mean literally; the songs drag) as My War (also released in 1984), or 1985’s Loose Nut and In My Head?

As for 1984’s Family Man, it boasts a great cover by Raymond Pettibon, but aside from that it’s a complete waste of precious vinyl and proof positive that Rollins is the worst poet in rock history. No, I hold the opposite opinion; Henry Rollins ruined Black Flag with his humorless angst and macho posturing, with a noticeable assist from Greg Ginn, at whose helm B. Flag took their ill-fated swan dive into pure B. Sabbath sludge.

If you share my opinion, the 1983 compilation The First Four Years is the one for you. With a few inexcusable omissions (“Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” “Police Story,” “I Don’t Care”) The First Four Years captures Black Flag in the days when they could do no wrong. On it, all three of the vocalists—Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, and Dez Cadena—who came before H. Rollins deliver intense performances filled with rage, self-loathing, and a delirious black humor. Meanwhile, founder and guitarist Greg Ginn spits out some of the most ferocious and twisted guitar you’ll ever hear. His buzzsaw guitar on “Nervous Breakdown” is Thee Sound of Hardcore at its most berserk, just as Keith Morris—who would go on to fame if not fortune with the Circle Jerks—demonstrates that he was America’s best-ever response to Johnny Rotten.

Meanwhile, Ron Reyes (who inexplicably reappeared on 2013’s “comeback” LP What The…) delivers the goods on such classics as “Jealous Again” and the furious “No Values,” which takes Iggy Pop head on and comes out the winner. As for Dez Cadena, he’s the voice behind my all-time favorite Black Flag tune, “Six Pack.” Can’t tell you how many times I listened to this baby drunk, chuckling at the lines, “My girlfriend asks me which I like better/I hope the answer don’t upset her!” Throw in some unhinged Ginn guitar and those great backing vocals, and “Six Pack” is one for the ages. That said, and I add this just to prove I’m a fair-minded bigot, I actually prefer the Rollins version on Damaged, if only because he closes the tune with the immortal lines, “What do they know about partying?/Or anything else?”

There are other decent Black Flag compilations out there. 1982’s Everything Went Black is comprehensive, but I’m not sure I want to listen to three different versions—each featuring a different vocalist—of “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” just as I really don’t need to hear alternate takes of such songs as “Depression,” “Police Story,” and “Clocked In.” And to add insult to injury, Everything Went Black doesn’t even include “Nervous Breakdown” or “Six Pack.” Unforgiveable.

Then there’s 1987’s Wasted… Again, which happily includes “TV Party” but wastes space on such later boneheaded Rollins rockers as the unbearable “Annihilate This Week” and “Loose Nut,” which unlike “Annihilate This Week” is almost redeemed by Ginn’s guitar skronk. If later Black Flag has to be represented, better to have included “Drinking and Driving,” which is hummable even if is insufferably preachy in a humorlessly straightedge kinda way. The song has propulsion, but might as have been written and performed by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

So far as I’m concerned, Black Flag was the best hardcore band ever. Like any sane human I love the Circle Jerks, Minutemen, Meat Puppets (their first LP is crazy great), and Flipper, as well as a bunch of other bands (No Trend!) I’m too lazy to name. But when it comes down to the fast and hard ethos, your early Black Flag is untouchable. That said, the first rule of punk club is that bands inevitably evolve, or devolve in the case of Black Flag. Black Flag’s detour into metal was fatal, as was their choice of Rollins as a front man. Say what you will, the guy didn’t have a hardcore bone in his hard body. And his lyrics blow.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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