Corporate rock still sucks, and Black Flag is still the best antidote to the stage-managed Ticketmaster thralls headlining your local arena.
The seminal hardcore band set out on a major tour to mark the 40th anniversary of ‘My War,’ a landmark of independent rock that saw Black Flag break all the rules they’d just codified scarcely three years earlier on their debut full-length. The My War 40th anniversary tour hit Gas Lamp in Des Moines on April 26, and I made sure to get to the venue early enough to stake out a spot right next to guitarist Greg Ginn’s corner of the stage so I could get as close as possible to one of the true giants of underground rock and roll.
My wife and I literally had to step aside so Ginn, who founded the band back in 1976, could make his way to the stage and remove his guitar from its road case. We spent the entire performance inches from Ginn, staring straight up at him as he swayed back and forth in front of his megalithic amplifier. I didn’t take the time to do a systematic head count, but the venue felt packed and was certainly near capacity, which is about 200.
Long story short, I sat at the feet of a punk icon for a $25 general admission ticket. The corporate rock industry just can’t compete with that kind of experience. Every week seems to bring a new wave of stories about outraged fans getting fleeced by Ticketmaster for Bruce Springsteen nosebleeds or whatever. Skip all that. Delete the Ticketmaster app. You can have a far more rewarding experience at your local rock club for a lot less money. I promise.
Black Flag performed two sets on the evening. The first consisted of the entirety of ‘My War,’ while the second set drew on the rest of Black Flag’s legendary catalog and included some of the greatest anthems in the punk canon.
Mike Vallely, a professional skateboarder who now lives in Des Moines, has served as the lead singer for several years now. It takes serious focus and intensity to credibly channel the aggressive energy of Black Flag, and Vallely delivers. He contorts his muscular frame in time with Ginn’s twisted riffs and coils like a snake near the kick drum between songs as if replenishing his energy for the next number. Sweat rolled down his shaved head from the opening moments of the first set.
Obviously, anyone who takes on frontman responsibilities for a ‘My War’ anniversary tour is going to receive comparisons to Henry Rollins, who sang on the record. I wouldn’t say Vallely possesses the same combination of menace and charisma that made Rollins one of the most recognizable faces in the history of heavy music, but Vallely more than holds his own.
But let’s talk about Greg Ginn a little more, because this stuff’s important. Not only did Ginn form Black Flag and mastermind the band’s direction through the decades, he also founded SST, one of the most important independent record label in the history of rock. At its height, SST was a cultural powerhouse that released some of the most influential rock music of the 1980s, laying the foundation for the Nineties alternative rock explosion. According to Jim Ruland’s “Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise and Fall of SST Records,” Ginn burned some bridges and made some questionable business decisions, and SST today is little more than an online storefront for merch and reprinted vinyl.
It’s my sincere hope that, despite the controversy Ginn generates in some quarters, he’ll get his due as one of the true visionaries of independent music. The sheer scope of the revolutionary music he helped to release as the founder of SST will melt your face. Soundgarden, Bad Brains, the Descendents, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, the Minutemen, the Screaming Trees and Dinosaur Jr. all spent time on SST and benefited from the label’s imprimatur. He played a crucial role in the DIY ethos that drove punk and indie music of the 80s and 90s, and he flouted the rules of the music business at every step in the process.
Take Black Flag’s first few records as an example. With “Damaged,” the band’s first full-length album released in 1981, Black Flag created a blueprint for hardcore punk that would inspire countless copycats across the country. And it’s easy to see why. Anthems like “Rise Above,” “Six Pack,” and “TV Party” deliver the fist-pumping speed, volume and aggression that define hardcore. Then, less than three years later, Black Flag would turn the loud-and-fast formula on its head with ‘My War.’ Or, more accurately, with side 2 of ‘My War.’
The first side of ‘My War’ delivers the kind of hardcore punk fans expected from Black Flag. The second side, however, gets considerably slower and weirder. Black Flag’s first official release, the Nervous Breakdown EP, features four songs with a combined runtime of just 5:23. Of the three tracks on side 2 of ‘My War,’ the shortest song clocks in at 6:02. That’s positively interminable compared to the band’s earlier output. The riffs churn downhill like a slow-motion avalanche. They’re brutal and unstoppable – and they owe more to Sabbath than to the Ramones. It’s no wonder the album proved polarizing among the punk scene at the time.
Side 2 of ‘My War’ opened new possibilities for the punk world, and its influence can be heard all over the Pacific Northwest bands that would take over the world in just a few short years. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say you can draw a direct line from Black Flag’s “Nothing Left Inside” and “Scream” to “Floyd the Barber” and “Sifting” on Nirvana’s ‘Bleach’ or pretty much everything on ‘Gluey Porch Treatments’ by Melvins.
Black Flag’s double-barrel sets at Gas Lamp last week showcased the impressive scope of the band’s development and vision. It was a little like watching the Beatles perform Sgt. Pepper’s in their brightly colored psychedelic regalia, take a 20-minute break and then come back onstage in black ties and moptops to perform “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” Maybe that comparison is anathema to the punk purists of the world, but that would be in keeping with Ginn’s willingness to thumb his nose at punk strictures. Whiplashing between ‘My War’ and a second set of punk classics reinforces just how much Ginn wrote and rewrote the rules of underground rock.
What could be more punk?