Black Flag: An Old Fart’s Recollections

by John Paul McBain

I’ll skip the history mumbo jumbo and get straight to the point. Without Black Flag we’d have nothing. No punk rock. No grunge. No stoner rock. Nada. Zip. If you never saw them live all I can say is you missed something truly inspirational. You missed the most powerful music experience of your life. God how I love Black Flag.

While punk may be nothing more than a watered down cocktail these days, what with the current group of bands who label themselves as punk rock artists grave robbing for cash and fame without one iota of sincerity or originality, the lessons that can be learned and applied through Black Flag’s music and their still unheralded genius is still valid.

Greg Ginn was the most original guitarist of his time. I have yet to hear anyone since Ginn bare his soul through his instrument like he did. Listen to his playing on the Damaged LP and try to find a comparison. You can’t. Greg created his own niche. His was a sound so monstrous and utterly real that to even compare him to any other guitarist of his or any time is unfair and pointless. Charlie Parker played like Charlie Parker and Greg Ginn played like Greg Ginn. Alright, you want a comparison? I’ll give you one. Bird and Ginn. There you go. Melodic and artful music to the highest degree.

I recall seeing Black Flag in the early eighties. At that point I had completely immersed myself in their music. I was a huge fan of American hardcore music and it’s immediacy but most of it struck me as either hypocrite/fascist junk or jokey jock party rock. Eventually I fell under the spell of the more “out there” stuff like the early Butthole Surfers, Washington D.C.’s Void and Flipper. These were bands that traveled in the hardcore circles yet possessed a truly brain damaged approach to their craft. They refused to adhere to the punk rock code of ethics. They were outcasts in a world of outcasts. You either loved em’ or despised em’. Me, I loved em’.

So anyway, I had been a Flag fan since I first heard their Jealous Again E.P. From there I began to collect and pick apart the various elements in their music. I knew that I dug it but for the life of me I didn’t know why. Why was I not playing my Clash records anymore? What redeeming qualities did this stuff have? It sounded horrible! What are these guys so angry about? And what in gods name was the guitarist playing?! Sounded like a wall of noise, feedback and bum notes. Solos that reminded me of Coltrane soloing with a mouthful of mashed potatoes. I was at once dumbfounded and enthralled. I had to see it in person.

“They’ll never be able to duplicate this shit live cause it all sounds so improvised. The solo on “Jealous Again” could not have been planned. No way. He just got lucky.” I was convinced that one person could not play like that. It was all too fast, too Beefheart and way too ugly. I chalked it all up to editing tricks and studio magic. Always a doubting Thomas.

Eventually they came through my neck of the woods. Here was my chance. I donned my homemade Dead Kennedys shirt, gathered up my courage (shows back then were incredibly mean spirited and violent. You really had to be careful.), made the trek to NYC and planted myself directly in front of Ginn’s ten foot high wall of crappy gear and waited for the letdown.

And wouldn’t you know it, I was completely wrong. They sounded like their records. Every bum note was right where it should be. And not only that, it was better. THAT GUITAR SOUND! JESUS H. CHRIST! THIS IS WHAT IT’S SUPPOSED TO SOUND LIKE! FUCK CLAPTON! GINN IS GOD!

His guitar practically caved in the walls of the club. It dragged every song into a swirling pit of bad drugs and ill will that made me rethink everything that I thought I knew about the power of rock n roll. And make no mistake, Black Flag rocked. These guys had top notch songs. Beautifully constructed and laid out. An unholy amalgam of three decades of rock, heavy metal, jazz and what have you spit out through shitty equipment by a bunch of stoned thugs and losers who just didn’t give a damn. I was enraptured. This was music that I could call my own. And with practice I could even play this shit. Sign me up, motherfuckers!

So I went out and bought a guitar, amp and fuzzbox. From there I literally forced myself into my friend Kevin’s band. Kevin did the punk rock show at the local college radio station. He opened my eyes and ears to a whole hell of a lot of music. Thanks, Kevin.

Oh yeah, Black Flag.

Ginn was my inspiration. I tried my best to emulate his sound and approach. And although I failed in that respect, it set me on a course that eventually led to the formation of my first “official” band, a like minded bunch of pot addled freaks who went by the name of Monster Magnet. Looking back on my time in Magnet, I can hear the Greg Ginn influence. I even used the same model Peavey P.A. head that he played through. Man did that thing sound awful.

Ginn is still influencing and amazing me to this day. Always the little bird on my shoulder reminding me to turn up louder and make a mess of things.

God how I love Black Flag.

Suggested listening:

  • Black Flag…The First Four Years – SST Records: Includes their Nervous Breakdown 45, The Jealous Again E.P., and various compilation tracks.
  • Everything Went Black – SST Records: Mind blowing collection of Flag demos. Absolutely essential.
  • Damaged – SST Records: So what if Henry Rollins is singing on it. He does a damn fine job. Punk snobs will tell you that he ruined Black Flag. They’re wrong. They were already on their way when he joined. This record still gives people the creeps. Grade A retard metal.

Avoid everything else after Damaged. It aint Flag.