Former Black Flag members guitarist Dez Cadena, left, vocalist Keith Morris… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
No band from the nascent Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1970s and '80s has meant more to subsequent hard-core generations than Black Flag. Few could have expected as much at the time.
"I'm totally surprised because we didn't know what we were doing," recalls Keith Morris, the band's founding singer, who quit in 1979 to form his own early hard-core act, the Circle Jerks. "This is who we are, this is what we do: get in the room, turn the amps on and let it blast."
Since the band's breakup in 1986, fans and the curious have had to be content with all the "loudfastrules" recordings left behind, but this summer brings a strange new chapter: two competing versions of the band on tour.
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One is an official Black Flag reconvening with leader-guitarist Greg Ginn and singer Ron Reyes; the other a gathering of former group members simply called Flag, with Morris, bassist Chuck Dukowksi, guitarist-singer Dez Cadena and drummer Bill Stevenson.
It amounts to a lot of sudden activity for a punk brand mostly dormant for more than 25 years. That the factions were moved to form their own versions of the band in 2013 rather than join forces is a powerful sign of lingering estrangement between Ginn and certain key members from the band's history.
"As genius of a guitar player as he is or was or is going to be — and Greg Ginn wrote some amazing songs — the amazing songs are only as amazing as the people that participate on the songs," says Morris, 57, in T-shirt and jeans, dreadlocks past his shoulders.
The singer is in a Chinatown restaurant with Dukowski and Cadena, having a late lunch just steps away from the old Hong Kong Café site, an essential early L.A. punk rock venue. Black Flag performed several shows there at its beginnings, with Morris raging through "Wasted," an early anthem of disaffected youth: "I was so-o-o-o wasted! I was a hippie, I was a burnout, I was a dropout, I was out of my head …"
Today, they're discussing an unexpected future bringing that legacy back to the stage, performing material that helped define the SoCal hard-core sound. It was all about speed and confrontation then, an assault of noise and tales of madness, sex and death from the underside of American suburbia. Drawings of violence and dementia by the artist Raymond Pettibon (Ginn's brother) on band record covers also set a bleak tone.
"We're going to play the material the way it's supposed to be played," says Dukowski, 59, bearded and graying. "It's going to be awesome."
They acknowledge the strangeness of two versions of the same band hitting the road this year. Flag's announced dates begin April 26 at the Monster Bash Festival in Munich, Germany, and include the Punk Rock Bowling and Music Festival in Las Vegas on May 27. Ginn's Black Flag begins its tour May 15 in Luxembourg and arrives at the Observatory in Santa Ana July 12-13 and at Vex Arts in Los Angeles on July 14.
"Part of me wants to be angry, but it's just not worth getting angry over," says Morris, looking and sounding as energetic as always, despite a recent diabetic coma that caused the cancellation of tour dates with his other band, acclaimed modern hard-core act Off! "Ron's my friend. I'm happy for him. As for Greg Ginn, that whole thing is a giant question mark."
Neither Ginn nor Reyes would speak to The Times about their reconvening of Black Flag. According to the band's publicist, Ginn "is retired from doing press" and has designated singer-pro skateboarder Mike Vallely as band spokesman. Vallely (a.k.a. Mike V.) is now the band's co-manager and singer with another Ginn project, Good for You, which is opening for Black Flag on tour this summer.
"The band was always evolving; there was always people coming and going. The one constant member was always Greg," insists Vallely, who compared any attempt to perform Black Flag material without the guitarist to "karaoke" and "Beatlemania." "The people that left, a lot of times they left because of Greg."
Ginn's reunion with Reyes began at a 2010 celebration of the singer's 50th birthday in Vancouver, Canada. Ginn joined him onstage, where they performed three songs together, and soon began talking about making new music. Aside from the 2013 tour, Ginn recently took his new lineup of Black Flag into the studio to record its first album of new material since 1985's "In My Head."
"He has a high level of activity," says Vallely. "He's constantly touring, constantly playing, constantly producing, writing and recording music."
Among those curious to hear the new album is Joe Carducci, a former co-owner with Ginn of SST Records and author of "Rock and the Pop Narcotic," a critical history of rock. "Greg has been doing instrumental music for all this time – decades," says Carducci. "I just hope for his sake he's got really good songs for Ron to sing, because he really can erase all of this too."