Friday, April 30, 2010

The following is a review/article which music writer Robert Palmer (who died in 1997) had published by the New York Times on February 23rd, 1986. It's been reprinted elsewhere before (most notably in Hank's Get In The Van), probably because it stands as the single greatest piece of writing on the band. If you think there's been a better article written on the group, then send it my way. One of the most interesting aspects of the article remains the fact that Palmer writes purely about the musical development of Black Flag, possibly the only time - outside of Michael Goldberg's excellent article on the post-hardcore musical landscape in a 1985 edition of Rolling Stone - that was achieved in the mainstream music press... ever! Not only that, but the piece concentrates on and appraises my two favourite post-Damaged albums by the band: The Process Of Weeding Out 12" EP and In My Head. The former I've written about several times before - an instrumental free-form EP I wish had been stretched out to a double LP - and the latter, their last studio album, which was originally planned as Greg Ginn's first solo disc (according to Joe Carducci), an album that for me remains a near-masterpiece of powerhouse rock, off-kilter rhythms and frenetic, jazz-inspired guitar riffery.
If you have no interest in Black Flag then the following article will likely mean zip to you, but then again, if you have no interest in the band, you're probably reading the wrong blog, too. For everyone else, this is required reading, and in hindsight makes me wonder why Palmer has never been ordained the level of status granted to the likes of Bangs, Meltzer, et al.

Read on...


Black Flag, formed as a punk rock band in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, has been growing by leaps and bounds lately, with every new record release - growing musically, and that's perhaps the hardest thing for a rock band to do.

While some beginning punk rockers develop minimal competence on an instrument principally so they can participate in the life style and make a lot of noise, others have genuine musical talent, and a decent musician will improve, even without trying. And it is at this point that the basic punk rock bands and the diehard punk audience reach a crisis point. Some bands are going to want to keep banging out those two or three chords in lock-step rhythms forever; other bands are going to evolve. The trick is persuading their listeners to come along for the ride.

Throughout a stormy career, Black Flag has done the latter, while contending with problems that would have wrecked other bands. For one thing, there was frequent turnover in personnel. In addition, volatile audiences at the band's early shows earned it a reputation for violence.

But through it all, Greg Ginn, Black Flag's guitarist and only remaining original member, persevered in his vision of what Black Flag could be. He helped form the independent record label SST to insure that the band would retain complete artistic control. He found new, like-minded musicians when others left.

Early Black Flag albums like ''Damaged'' were classic punk rock, chronicles of spiritual decay behind southern California's prim suburban facade, ironic comments on the punk life style that compassionately traced its causes, often to parental and societal neglect, without ever glamorizing it or pretending it could be anything but a dead-end street.

Things began to change when Black Flag brought in Henry Rollins, a powerfully physical stage performer, as its new lead singer. For all his apparent ferocity, Mr. Rollins proved to be a thoughtful and resourceful lyricist, adept at describing inner turmoil and the hidden wounds that can result from power games and interpersonal relationships. He has now published several books of stories and poetry, and his lyrics have given the band's songs a sharper focus and added emotional punch. They are angry and direct; angry at least partly because Mr. Rollins sees so many of his contemporaries - the lock-step pre-meds and the lock-step punks -reacting to the transition from schooldays to adulthood by shutting off their feelings and no longer thinking for themselves. For Mr. Rollins, not feeling is the ultimate obscenity. ''I smash fists/into my face/I feel it/ this is good,'' he sang on a recent Black Flag release.

There was always a certain musical tension between Greg Ginn's rhythm playing - his ability to fashion guitar riffs into the backbones for songs makes him a kind of latter-day Keith Richards - and the wilder, tumbling chaos of his solo breaks. What he needed was a sturdy but adaptable rhythm section, and after many failed attempts he has found it in the bassist Kira, a willowy young woman whose playing is a model of firmness and strength, and the fine drummer Bill Stevenson. But the group chemistry didn't sort itself out overnight.

Black Flag fans began to wonder what was happening to the band when at least three successive albums -''My War'' (SST 023 LP and cassette), ''Family Man'' (SST 026 LP and cassette) and ''Slip It In'' (SST 029 LP and cassette) - betrayed considerable confusion as to direction, capturing what was essentially a new band in the process of sorting itself out. Last year's ''Loose Nut'' (SST 035 LP and cassette) was an improvement. There were still plenty of problems, but the music had begun to cohere in a different sort of way. Still, nothing on that album prepared the listener for Black Flag's two new releases - ''In My Head'' (SST 045 LP and cassette), the band's most consistently inventive and invigorating album in years, and ''The Process of Weeding Out'' (SST 037 EP and cassette), a four-song, all-instrumental recording by Black Flag minus Mr. Rollins.

On ''In My Head,'' Black Flag's music is intriguingly, sometimes dazzlingly fresh and sophisticated, but the band hasn't had to sacrifice an iota of the raw intensity and directness that are punk's spiritual center. Instead of saving his more fanciful, prolix and anarchic musical inspirations for brief guitar breaks, Mr. Ginn and his team players have used these ideas to build up the structures of the songs. The title tune, for example, is part waltz, part old-time blues shuffle, but one doesn't hear the components, one hears a song, and a sound. Other tunes use multiple and mixed meters, tempos that speed up and slow down both abruptly and gradually, stacked chords that obliterate any sense of key center. And hearing the polyphony of shifting shapes that is the principal guitar motif in the brilliant ''White Hot'' is like listening to the once-revolutionary guitar break from the Yardbirds' mid-60's hit ''Shapes of Things'' while one's turntable goes up in flames.

Yet for all its sophistication, this is jagged, abrasive rock and roll, music hard and direct enough to appeal to any punk or hard-rock fan. How was this alchemy accomplished? The secret is in the way Mr. Ginn's guitar parts, Kira's bass, and Mr. Stevenson's drums cohere in the middle and lower range of the frequency spectrum, fusing into an immense, dark, primal sound that months of practicing, recording and touring, not to mention exceptional musicianship, have leavened with responsiveness and flexibility.

''In My Head'' is the sound of heavy metal rock as it could be but almost never is, metal without the posturing, the pointless displays of fretboard prowess, the bashing rhythm sections and banal lyrics that have become endemic to the idiom. ''The Process of Weeding Out,'' Black Flag's instrumental EP, is what jazz-rock could have become if the best of the musicians who first crossbred jazz improvising with rock's sonic fire power had followed their most creative impulses. In a sense, this Black Flag disk takes up where ground-breaking jazz-rock albums like John McLaughlin's ''Devotion'' and Tony Williams's ''Emergency'' left off in the early 70's.

Most of the jazz rock albums made since those two disks have concentrated on efficient ensemble virtuosity, with solos as exercises in ego gratification. Many jazz musicians seem to have forgotten that improvisation, the heart of jazz, is more than just noodling and display. In the best jazz, it tells a story, but now it is the punk rockers, rather than the jazz rockers, who most successfully create atmosphere and convey feelings and ideas in their improvisations.

This is exactly the sort of thing Mr. Ginn is after on ''The Process of Weeding Out,'' and with the help of Kira and Mr. Stevenson he achieves it, especially on the 10-minute title track. He begins with a thematic launching pad, a set of vaguely Eastern melodic figures that he examines, develops, twists and mutates, proceeding in a manner reminiscent of the processes at work in Ornette Coleman's music. As the piece picks up steam, the three musicians weave the original thematic threads into its onrushing momentum. The end result is an exciting, genre-stretching performance with an overall direction, coherence and unity.

Generic labels are never very precise, and their uses are limited; when music like this comes along, they should be dispensed with altogether. It would be ludicrous to suggest that this is progressive post-punk jazz rock, or something of the sort. The jazz great Charlie Parker insisted that there are only two kinds of music anyway, good and bad. Black Flag's ''In My Head'' and ''The Process of Weeding Out'' are good music.

1 comment:

Matt Stevens said...

Thanks for posting this Ginn - such an inspiration