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Black Flag, Unfurled

Those avatars of alienation may have flamed out in the '80s, but a new CD preserves their spirit

October 06, 2002

American punk would not be the same without Black Flag.

The Hermosa Beach-spawned band not only inspired hordes of alienated '80s youths to vent their discontent, but also showed them how to do it themselves. Its furious music, wailing vocals, intense work ethic, sarcastic-to-shocking humor and egalitarian notions have come to represent the principles, if not usually the reality, of punk.

Formed in 1977, the group kicked up controversy on many fronts. Its anti-status-quo lyrics and provocative artwork (nuns in bondage and the like) were extreme for the times. Its blue-collar values were at odds with the more laid-back Hollywood punk scene, and its audiences could be alarmingly destructive. Black Flag's tendency to experiment with jazz, spoken-word and noise alienated different fans at various points. The band endured a protracted early legal battle with an MCA Records affiliate, and relationships among the players were sometimes strained.

Still, the group gained followers all over the country through relentless touring, and it exposed listeners to some of its own favorite acts via its label SST Records, which in its late '80s heyday boasted such key alternative acts as Husker Du, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains and Dinosaur Jr. Before breaking up in 1986, Black Flag had even begun to fuse metal and hard-core, foreshadowing punk's next era.

But Black Flag never realized--or wanted, at least in founding member Greg Ginn's case--the commercial success that followers such as the Offspring and Green Day found in the '90s. Singer Henry Rollins went on to a higher-profile solo career in music and spoken word, as well as in writing and publishing. The reclusive Ginn released several solo albums in the '90s and still quietly runs SST and affiliate Cruz Records in Long Beach.

While a reunion is as unlikely as Johnny Rotten wearing flared jeans, Black Flag--or at least its music and its nose for a good fight--is back, in a way.

"Rise Above: Twenty-Four Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three," an album due in stores Tuesday from Sanctuary Records, features Rollins' current band (a.k.a. Mother Superior) backing a wide array of guest vocalists--including Rollins himself, original Black Flag singer Keith Morris and bassist Chuck Dukowski, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka, Ice-T, Hank Williams III and Nick Oliveri from Queens of the Stone Age--on vintage Black Flag songs.

Its proceeds will benefit three youths who many believe were wrongly convicted in the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in tiny West Memphis, Ark. The case has already inspired a 2000 benefit album and numerous fund-raising concerts, and it has been examined in two documentary films, "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hill" and "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," which HBO2 will air again on Oct. 15 and 16, respectively.

Launched with a menacing call-out by rapper Chuck D before Rollins' blistering update of "Rise Above," the album preserves the spirit of Black Flag. The metallic crunch on some tracks underscores the music's timelessness, updating the sound while preserving its eccentric rhythms. And the variety of performers reflects how deeply Black Flag's righteous fury touched a collective rebellious nerve.

"They were kind of like therapists, in a way," Hank Williams III (who performs "No Values" on the album) says of the band. "Whenever my mom used to yell at me or tell me to go to my room, I'd just put on Black Flag and freak out."

Named after an anarchy symbol, Black Flag initially consisted of Ginn, Dukowski, Morris and drummer Brian Migdol. Morris left in 1978 to form the equally seminal Circle Jerks, and by 1981, when Rollins joined, the group had gone through two more singers.

Ginn's spastic, time-warped guitar style was the band's hallmark, and it remains unique, a sonic expression of his own internal cadences. Other than that and the four-bar band logo created by his brother, artist Raymond Pettibon (who parlayed his vivid work on Black Flag covers and posters into a thriving career as an artist), Black Flag deliberately avoided creating an image.

The players' inattention to fashion and refusal to identify with any single group put a distance between them and the Hollywood punk scene. They did play gigs in L.A., but they also held countless shows everywhere from garages to concert halls around the South Bay.

By taking their music away from the metropolis, Black Flag helped expand punk's range into the suburbs. All that touring put them in the ranks of such hard-core Johnny Appleseeds as Canada's D.O.A., who eventually made punk accessible to just about everyone, anywhere, who cared.

Yet for an act that had such an effect on one genre, its members certainly didn't identify with it.

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