Earlier this year, the internet was blindsided with the announcement of the reformation of one of America's greatest hardcore legends, Black Flag, featuring original guitarist and main songwriter Greg Ginn and the band's short-lived sophomore singer Ron Reyes. This would include a performance at U.K.'s Hevy Fest this summer with further dates still being added daily as of this writing. This would mark the first Black Flag tour since Ginn put the Black Flag name on ice in 1986. The tour will also be in support of a new record that is being released this summer.
But just a mere hour-and-a-half after the news of the Black Flag reunion came another announcement to set the hardcore heads on fire, the formation of a band called Flag. Flag would feature original Black Flag singer and current Off! frontman Keith Morris manning the mic and fleshed out with Black Flag founding bass player Chuck Dukowski, long-time Black Flag drummer Bill Stevenson (The Descendents, All) and Decendents guitarist Stephen Egerton. Adding further ballast to Flag's blast was the recent announcement of second Black Flag singer and long-time guitarist Dez Cadena also joining the fold.
Flag have also announced a summer tour and will take aim on Black Flag material that will span Black Flag's whole discography and will including the NXNE music festival headlining a Friday, June 14 showcase at the Opera House in Toronto.
In a matter of hours the world had gone from zero to two legitimate, active Blag Flags — albeit neither boasting the band's most famous alumnus, Henry Rollins (and some apparent bad blood remaining between them: "Greg is a thief and a liar," Dukowski says of his former bandmate.)
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For many, Rollins would arguably remain the ultimate frontman for this juggernaut. Having carved out his place behind the mic for Black Flag for five years while recording five studio records and two live records it was the Rollins-led era of Black Flag that had the band really firing on all pistons. Rollins and co. hit the ground hard with constant touring, recording and rehearsals. It was Ginn’s backbreaking work ethic that would play a huge influence in the muscle-bound singer’s life. Rollins continues to work at a dizzying pace as a writer, spoken word artist, actor, political activist, former talk show host and just about any role he can squeeze himself into.
One occupation he won’t be reacquainting himself with ever again is, “musician”. If anybody was harboring any thoughts of him returning to his most famous role as a singer he quickly dashed any chances of that in his May 5 blog for LA Weeky with the succinct heading “Why I’m Not Playing Music Anymore."
“This is why I stopped touring with a band” he writes. “I put up my fists and there was no longer anything there. It was heartbreaking, but it was clear. Music had moved on, such was my reverence for its limitless power, I faced the truth and moved on in search of new battles”
Although it's clear that Rollin has moved on new battles were definitely being waged between the two recently resurfaced Black Flag camps. Flag’s Dukowski and Morris have hardly spared an ounce of venom for their former guitarist Ginn. Although Ginn’s Black Flag have remained tight lipped and refusing interview requests they did throw this barb in a May 5 their downloadable song “Down in the Dirt” from their upcoming record. “Note: not to be confused with the fake ‘Flag’ band currently covering the songs of Black Flag in an embarrassingly weak ‘mailing it in’ fashion. We urge you to check out the real Black Flag they hit your area”. Eeyowza!
Pissing matches aside, the news of both band's touring this summer will surely satiate the ever-growing masses of Black Flag fans who never got a chance to witness their sheer power. Largely unsung during their prime, Black Flag's sole reward for their relentless toil was simply their music. Throughout their career between 1976 and 1986 the band would remain financially destitute and completely abandoned by the mainstream. Ultimately, though, they would leave an indelible dent in the current state of punk rock and independent music that resonates louder with each passing year.
The level of aggression and teeth-gnashing intensity of which all members of Black Flag played at remains unparalleled to this day. Simply put, the band played it like they lived it — hard and heavy. After delivering the epitome of hardcore punk with their 1981 sonic blast "Damaged" the band constantly challenged their audience while covering their tracks with the sludgy dirge of 1983's "My War" up to their swan song, the metallic and experimental "In My Head" in 1986. Because of these giant musical leaps the band often lost more myopic fans along the way as they musically progressed at an alarming rate.
If we subscribe to the old adage of "whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger" then surely members of both Flag and Black Flag are men of Herculean proportions. The early days of Black Flag are marked with struggle, poverty, exhaustion, incarceration, lawsuits, waving "sell out" fingers from "fans," police harassment, riots, violence and a rotating membership that caused a loss of traction. Yet these lean times only furthered their passion and increased the singularity of their focus.
"Oh man, that's a book if I really got into it," writes Chuck Dukowski when recounting his heady days laying down the thumping low end in Black Flag in an email exchange. "We made no compromises. We were full on, full out, full time and against all obstacles. We put our bodies, our lives on the line to make this music. I lived in a car and then under a desk. I starved. There was a lot of violence. There was jail, police... that's all true."
With message boards already drawing a line in the sand between Flag and Black Flag the nagging question still remains, will the real Black Flag please stand up?
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Although, Ginn and Reyes have been declining all interviews, the members of Flag insist there is no competition coming from their camp.
"I like to call it more of a tribute," says Flag guitarist/singer Dez Cadena over the phone. "It's really about old friends connecting again and paying tribute to our past. My focus is to just be true to the music. When I was in Black Flag we wanted to play the music in the correct spirit and conviction it should be played. That's the only thing I care about."
The usually acerbic Morris is also quick to dash comparisons with Flag and his former guitarist's version of Black Flag.
"We're celebrating the fact that we are older guys who are still capable of playing these songs," says Morris over the phone. "When Chuck and I played these songs recently (Flag played a brief four-song Black Flag set at the Golden Voice 30th anniversary in Los Angeles in 2011) the response was overwhelming. We just thought if we didn't play these songs a few more times we're idiots."
Despite Ginn legally possessing the "Black Flag" moniker it actually may be Flag who are going to be pegged as the favourite horse out of the gate. Their members recent pedigrees more than proves they still possess the conviction and passion to deliver the punk rock goods while doing the Black Flag legacy proud. Morris remains brimming with piss and vinegar with Off!, and Dukowski remains as menacing on bass as ever in his own band the Chuck Dukowski Sextet as well as his recently flirtations in the defunct Black Flag-fueled band Black Face. Stevenson and Egerton continue to tour with All and the Descendents and remain two of the greatest punk musicians currently stomping the pines.
"For those of you who don't know about the history of Black Flag," says Morris. "I was there at the very beginning. Certain people will say that Black Flag is Greg Ginn, or Black Flag is Henry Rollins, the fact of the matter is, there needs to be happening people playing the songs now to make the songs what they are."
The announcement of these two simultaneous reunions is not the only time that these ex-members have "sweated it out to the oldies" and ravaged through the Black Flag songbook. Keith Morris has played the songs attached to his era in the band (1976-1979) in numerous bands including his old act Circle Jerks as well as in guest spots with Fucked Up, Refused and others. Morris also toured with the Rollins Band in 2003, performing a Morris era Black Flag set followed by Rollins taking the stage and revisiting his era of Black Flag.
Ginn had also performed three Black Flag reunion shows in Los Angeles in 2003, but with less then dazzling results. Although Cadena did contribute vocals for a portion of the nights, the absence of key members was definitely felt. Technical glitches got in the way as the passion and intensity of a true Black Flag show remained nowhere in sight. Morris was also asked to be part of the 2003 reunions, but was quickly shown the door by Ginn after only two rehearsals.
"Everything just went wrong with that," says Morris over the phone. "It wasn't right and I felt like I was kind of being used. The first rehearsal was me singing along with this karaoke CD. They re-recorded all of the Black Flag songs and they were playing it from this boom box. I was wondering why the tempos were slow. It sounded like senior citizens were playing the songs. When I asked Greg why it was so slow he told me we had originally recorded them too fast. That just kind of set the stage. It was a horrible way to get things going. They took the CD out and put it through the P.A. and they would rehearse to the CD. It was beyond comical. The second rehearsal was just brutally fucked up. They played free jazz and Greg just played bass. It had absolutely nothing to do with Black Flag."
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The elephant in the room though remains Greg Ginn.
Although Flag make no claims to being Black Flag, many would argue that, as good as the band promises to be, they will always be Mike Love's version of the Beach Boys to Ginn's Brian Wilson. Arguably it was Greg Ginn who wrote the lion's share of Black Flag's music and it was his angular, atonal and discordant guitar riffs that truly propelled the band during it's decade-long existence.
"Of course we know it's not really Black Flag without Greg Ginn," says Morris. "There are a lot of us that want to say bad things about the guy, but the fact of the matter is, the dude wrote some pretty happening and untouchable songs. As a businessman he is what he is and as a human he would get an F when they handed out the grades, but as a guitar player and an artist I don't think there's anybody who's touched him. The man has created some pretty amazing pieces of music and great lyrics and I totally respect him for that."
Cadena also takes the diplomatic high road here.
"Greg was really dedicated to his own work ethic, musical style and originality," he says. "It was really important for him to be original. When anybody hears just a bit of Greg's guitar playing they instantly know it's him. That's the best thing a musician can hope for."
Despite bassist Dukowski and Ginn sharing a long-time musical relationship that predates the days of Black Flag, as well as being one of the key figures in Ginn's SST record label there's hardly any love lost between the two. SST was probably one of the most successful, if not prolific indie labels of the '80s and included a roster that pretty much sums up the '80s underground — Soundgarden, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, Bad Brains, Minutemen and many more.
Unfortunately, over the subsequent years many of the SST bands have had to take legal recourse to receive royalties or to reclaim their master tapes.
"I don't think anyone has been paid consistently or fairly," writes Dukowski when asked about Ginn's dubious business dealings. "Greg is a thief and a liar. He's run his legacy into the ground. He destroyed SST Records; it's nothing but a lame vanity press now. It makes me sad when I think of all the great music we used to put out."
Although, it's obvious that at least Morris and Dukowski are hardly card-carrying members of the Greg Ginn fan club, Cadena chooses to not talk about personal relationships. Despite Morris and Dukowski's personal differences with Ginn, all members of Flag insist that their formation has nothing to do with personal vendettas and they're really just about protecting a legacy, having fun and revisiting an important time in their lives.
"I feel proud that we were inspirational to so many people," writes Dukowski. "We gave voice to a kind of anguish and desperation that resonated. We didn't back down."
When Black Flag first exploded on the L.A. punk scene in the mid-to-late '70s much of their inspiration was as a reaction to the music of the day. It was the tepid music of The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac that repulsed them, alienated them and ultimately what fueled them. As the 57-year-old Morris explains, not that much has changed after three decades and change.
"We have all of these sweater bands now that are making the rounds on all of these festivals and they're just kind of wimpy. There's a new folk wave and a keyboard wave or bands like Vampire Weekend. There are a lot of bands just clogging it up, so maybe we just need a band to play these Black Flag songs right now. I couldn't think of a better time for us to do this then right now."
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