Black Flag forged a unique sound early on that mixed the raw simplicity of the Ramones with atonal and microtonal guitar solos and frequent tempo shifts. Over this could be heard lyrics—mostly written by Ginn—about isolation, neurosis, poverty, and paranoia, themes which did not disappear when Henry Rollins took on the role of lead singer in 1981. Most of the band's material was released on Ginn's independent label, SST Records.
Black Flag was (and remains) well respected among their underground culture, with their influence primarily in their tireless promotion of a self-controlled DIY ethic and aesthetic. They are often regarded as pioneers in the movement of underground do-it-yourself record labels that flourished among the 1980s punk rock bands. Through seemingly constant touring throughout the United States and Canada, and occasionally Europe, Black Flag established an extremely dedicated fan base. Many other musicians would follow Black Flag's lead and book their own tours, utilizing a word-of-mouth network.
Over the course of the 1980s, Black Flag's sound, as well as their notoriety, evolved in ways that alienated much of their early punk audience. As well as being central to the creation of hardcore, they were part of the first wave of American West Coast punk rock and are considered a key influence on the punk subculture. Along with being among the earliest punk rock groups to incorporate elements and the influence of heavy metal melodies and rhythm (particularly in their later records), there were often overt freestyles, jazz (mainly free jazz), breakbeat and contemporary classical elements in their sound, especially in Ginn's guitar playing, and the band interspersed records and performances with instrumentals throughout their career. They also played longer, slower, and more complex songs at a time when many bands in their milieu stuck to a raw, fast, three-chord format. As a result, Black Flag's extensive discography is more varied than many of their punk-rock contemporaries.
Chuck Dukowski, bassist with Wurm, took a liking to Ginn's group, and eventually joined, forming a committed quartet with Ginn, Morris and drummer Brian Migdol. The band played their first performance in December 1977 in Redondo Beach, California. To avoid confusion with another band called Panic, they took on the name Black Flag in late 1978. They played their first show as 'Black Flag' on January 27, 1979, in Redondo Beach. This was the first time Dez Cadena saw the band.
The name was suggested by Ginn's brother, artist Raymond Pettibon, who also designed the band's logo: a stylized black flag represented as four black bars. Pettibon stated "If a white flag means surrender, a black flag represents anarchy." Their new name was reminiscent of the anarchist symbol, the insect spray of the same name, and of the British heavy metal group Black Sabbath, one of Ginn's favorite bands. Ginn suggested that he was "comfortable with all the implications of the name. The band spray painted the simple, striking logo all over Los Angeles, gaining attention from potential supporters, and thoroughly irritating police. Pettibon also created much of their cover artwork.
There were few opportunities for punk rock bands to perform in Southern California, (Los Angeles club The Masque was the center of the L.A. punk scene, but was also rather provincial, and didn't often admit bands from outside L.A. proper). Black Flag organized their own gigs, performing at picnics, house parties, schools, any place that was available. They called club owners themselves to arrange appearances, and plastered hundreds of flyers—usually Pettibon's severe, haunting comic strip style panels—on any available surface to publicize performances. Dukowski reported that the "minimum (number of flyers) that went out was 500 for a show.
Though Ginn was the band's leader, special note should be made of Dukowski's contributions to Black Flag. Ginn was tireless and profoundly disciplined, but he was also rather quiet. Dukowski's intelligent, fast-talking, high-energy persona attracted significant attention, and he was often Black Flag's spokesman to the press. Dukowski acted as the group's tour manager even after he no longer performed with them, and he was probably as important as Ginn in establishing the group's DIY aesthetic and demanding work ethic. Dukowski's bass guitar was a vital part of the early Black Flag sound; "TV Party", for instance, was one of many songs "driven more by Chuck Dukowski's percolating bass line than Ginn's stun-gun guitar.
Morris appeared as vocalist on Black Flag's earliest recordings, and his energized, manic stage presence helped the band earn a reputation in the Los Angeles area. Migdol was replaced by the enigmatic Columbian drummer Roberto Valverde (a.k.a. ROBO), whose numerous clicking metallic bracelets became part of his drum sound. The group played with a speed and ferocity that was all but unprecedented in rock music; critic Ira Robbins declared that "Black Flag was, for all intents and purposes, America's first hardcore band." Morris quit in 1979, citing, among other reasons, creative differences with Ginn, and his own "freaking out on cocaine and speed. Morris would subsequently form the Circle Jerks.
After Morris's departure, Black Flag recruited fan Ron Reyes as singer. With Reyes, Black Flag recorded the Jealous Again 12-inch EP and appeared Decline Of Western Civilization movie. This was also the lineup that toured up and down the West Coast for the first time, the version most fans outside of LA first saw.
In 1980, Reyes quit Black Flag mid-performance at the Redondo Beach venue "The Fleetwood" because of escalating violence. For the remainder of that gig, the group played an extended version of "Louie Louie" and invited audience members to take turns singing. In retaliation for his quitting mid-gig, the band credited Reyes as "Chavo Pederast," implying he was sexually attracted to younger boys.
The more reliable Dez Cadena - another fan - then joined as singer. With Cadena onboard, Black Flag began national touring in earnest, and arguably saw two peaks: first as a commercial draw (they sold out the 3,500-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, a feat they were never able to manage again); and second, perhaps seeing the peak of attention from police in the Los Angeles area, due to the violence associated with Black Flag and punk rock in general. The band members have often insisted, however, that the police instigated far more problems than they solved.
By the summer of 1981, however, Cadena's voice was worn. He had no formal training or previous experience as a singer, and had severely strained his voice during Black Flag's seemingly nonstop touring, and he wanted to play guitar rather than sing.
Rollins was Black Flag's longest-lasting singer, and has remained active in music to the present. When he joined Black Flag, he brought a different attitude and perspective than previous singers. Some earlier songs, such as "Six Pack" (a song written about ex-singer Keith Morris) blended a nearly goofy sense of satirical criticism (of apathy and alcoholism, respectively) with driving punk rock. He was a dynamic live performer and powerful singer, who usually appeared onstage wearing only shorts. Ginn once stated that after Rollins joined, "We couldn't do songs with a sense of humor anymore; he got into the serious way-out poet thing.
With Rollins on board, Black Flag began work on their first full length album. The sessions for the record (chronicled in Michael Azerrad's book Our Band Could Be Your Life) were a source of conflict between the band and engineer/producer Spot, who had worked with the band and the SST label since their early years. Spot had already recorded many of the Damaged tracks with Dez Cadena on vocals (as well as Keith Morris and Ron Reyes) and felt that the band's sound was ruined with the two guitar line-up (these versions can be heard on the albums Everything Went Black and The First Four Years). Whereas the earlier four-piece versions are more focused and much cleaner sounding, the Damaged recordings are more akin to a live recording, with little stereo separation of guitars, and somewhat muddy. When asked about the lo-fidelity production, SPOT has said "They wanted it to sound that way." However, the artistic content and expression on the album showed the band pushing punk or hardcore music to a new level, with deeply personal and intensely emotional lyrics. As such, Damaged is generally regarded as Black Flag's most focused recording. One critic has written that Damaged was "perhaps the best album to emerge from the quagmire that was early-'80s California punk ... the visceral, intensely physical presence of Damaged has yet to be equaled, although many bands have tried. Damaged was released in the fall of 1981, and the group began an extensive tour in support of it, forging an independent network for touring independent music acts that would form a cornerstone of the independent music scene for the decade to come.
The previous year 1980 saw the US punk rock movement hitting a peak in popularity. With Damaged and their growing reputation as an impressive live band, Black Flag seemed poised on the cusp of a commercial breakthrough. The record was to be distributed by now-defunct Unicorn Records, a subsidiary of MCA. Trouble began when MCA refused to handle Damaged after MCA executive Al Bergamo determined the album was an "Anti-Parent" record. However, according to longtime SST employee Joe Carducci the "Anti-Parent" statement was not the real reason for MCA's refusing to distribute Damaged; Carducci reported that Unicorn Records was so poorly managed and so deeply in debt that MCA stood to lose money by distributing the record, regardless of its content. This was the beginning of a legal dispute that would, for a period a few years later, disallow Black Flag from using their own name on any record when Black Flag released Damaged on SST Records and placed a copy of the "Anti-Parent" statement on the record's cover.
With their new singer, Black Flag and The Minutemen made their first tour of Europe in the Winter of 1981. During that tour, the band met punk icon Richard Hell and opened a concert for him. Rollins later published his diaries from that tour in his book Get In The Van. As the front man, Rollins was a frequent target of violent audience members, and became known for fist-fights with audience members. Rollins developed a distinct showmanship on stage, where he could entertain an audience just by talking to them.
As the band was about to return home from the European tour, UK customs detained Colombian drummer Robo due to visa problems, and he was not allowed back into the country. This would be the end of his tenure with the band (he eventually was able to get back into the United States and in 1983 would join The Misfits as their drummer). The loss of Robo temporarily put an end to extensive touring for a while. Emil Johnson of the Twisted Roots filled in for one tour, but it was clear he was only temporary.
While on that tour in Vancouver, the band found out that drummer Chuck Biscuits was leaving D.O.A.. He was quickly drafted onboard, traveling with the band for the rest of the tour (cut short because of Henry Rollins' twisted knee) to learn the songs. This lineup recorded the later-bootlegged cassette 1982 Demos, showing the direction the band would go in for the My War LP.
However, due to personality conflicts -- In Get In The Van,, Rollins described Biscuits as a "fuck up" -- and the Unicorn court injunction-forced inactivity of Black Flag, Biscuits left to join their rivals The Circle Jerks. (Later, Biscuits joined ex-Misfits singer Glenn Danzig's solo project Danzig). Black Flag eventually got Bill Stevenson of The Descendents to join permanently (he had filled in from time-to-time before). While the Unicorn Records court injunction prevented the group from releasing a new studio album, they nonetheless continued to work on new material, and embarked on a period which would mark a pronounced change in the group's direction (and that of underground music in general).
Perhaps the violence of the previous tour had an effect on the band's direction. The group had also become increasingly interested in music other than punk rock, such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and some of the members (particularly Ginn) used cannabis. (However, various members had been fans of such music long before Black Flag, with Ginn being an avid Grateful Dead fan, and Cadena a fan of Hawkwind.) Newer material (which can be heard on The 1982 Demos bootleg) was slower and less like typical punk music, with classic rock and blues influences seeping in. Cadena left to form his own band DC3. He would take some of the new songs he had written for Black Flag with him and record them for DC3's first album.
Additionally, by late 1983, Dukowski had retired from performing with Black Flag (some accounts report he was "edged out" by Ginn); Azerrad reports that Ginn was dissatisfied with Dukowski's failure to progress as an instrumentalist, and made things difficult for Dukowski in an attempt to make him quit, but in the end, Rollins took it on himself to fire Dukowski. However, a few of Dukowski's songs were featured on later records, and he continued acting in his capacity as tour manager.
1983 found Black Flag with fresh songs and a new direction, but without a bass player, and embroiled in a legal dispute over distribution due to SST's issuing Damaged (Ginn argued that since MCA was no longer involved the Unicorn deal wasn't legally binding, while Unicorn disagreed and sued SST and Black Flag). Until the matter was sorted out, the band were prevented by a court injunction from using the name "Black Flag" on any recordings. They released a compilation record, Everything Went Black, which was credited to the individual musicians, not "Black Flag". In fact, wherever the original album artwork had the words "Black Flag", they had been covered up with small slips of paper, thus adhering to the letter of the law.
After Unicorn Records declared bankruptcy, Black Flag were released from the injunction, and returned with a vengeance, starting with the release of My War. This record was both a continuation of Damaged, and a vast leap forward. While the general mood and lyrics continue in the confrontational and emotional tone of Damaged, many songs are slowed down, mixing in influences such as Black Sabbath with hardcore. The results were powerful, and the record would prove influential to grunge music as the decade progressed. Lacking a bass player, Ginn played bass guitar, using the pseudonym Dale Nixon. On the May 1, 2007 episode of his radio program Harmony In My Head, Rollins reported that one of Ginn's favorite albums during this era was Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire (1973), and opined that John McLaughlin's guitar work influenced Ginn.
Freed legally to release albums, Black Flag was re-energized and ready to continue full steam ahead. The group recruited bassist Kira Roessler (sister of punk keyboardinst Paul Roessler, of 45 Grave fame) to replace Dukowski, and began its most prolific period. With Roessler, Black Flag had arguably found their best bassist. Dukowski was a powerful player, but Roessler brought a level of sophistication and finesse to match Ginn's increasingly ambitious music, without sacrificing any of the visceral impact required for punk rock.
1984 saw Black Flag (and the SST label) at their most ambitious. This year they would release four full-length albums, and toured nearly constantly, with Rollins noting 178 performances for the year, and about that many for 1985. With Dukowski gone, Ginn ceded much of the spotlight to Rollins, who has expressed some discomfort over being the group's de facto spokesman, while Ginn was the recognized leader (Ginn wrote the majority of the group's songs and lyrics).
With Roessler on board, Black Flag began earnest experimentation, sometimes to critical and audience disdain: One critic writes that Slip It In "blurs the line between moronic punk and moronic metal"; another writes My War is "a pretentious mess of a record with a totally worthless second side. Rollins reports that Black Flag's set-lists in this era rarely included older crowd favorites like "Six Pack" or "Nervous Breakdown", and that audiences were often irritated by the new, slower Black Flag. Violence against the band (and especially Rollins) was ever-present, although the vocalist was now an avid weight lifter, and more than able to defend himself. Furthermore, to Rollins' chagrin, Ginn's interest in marijuana steadily increased; as Rollins put it, "By '86 it was 'Cannot separate the man from his Anvil case with a big-ass stash.' Despite the initial resistance to the new music and quasi-psychedelic direction, My War would later be cited as a formative influence on grunge music. The group would continue to evolve toward a more heavy metal sound, with 1985's Loose Nut featuring more polished production.
By 1986, Black Flag's members had grown tired of the tensions of their relentless touring schedule, infighting, and of living in near-poverty. The band had been together almost a decade, and true commercial success and stability had eluded them. The group's erratic artistic changes were a barrier to their retaining an audience - Ginn was so creatively restless that Black Flag's records were often very dissimilar. At one point, Rollins apparently said, "Why don't we make a record that was like the last one so people won't always be trying to catch up with what we're doing? Ginn was stunned by the suggestion; it was one of the few times Rollins had ever openly offered an opinion contrary to Ginn's. Perhaps this was why Ginn mixed Rollins' vocals low on the group's next studio album, In My Head. However, the record, with its powerful bluesy proto-grunge-cum-metal, did seem to finally be a cohesive followup to a previous album (Loose Nut) - but it would be their last.
Black Flag played their last concert on June 27, 1986, in Detroit, Michigan; this show has been widely available through online music trading services and is of surprisingly good sound quality. By this point the band had become increasingly talented at performing improvised "jams", with Rollins screaming out lyrics quite literally as they came to him (as is evident on this recording), turning some songs like "Louie, Louie" into frenetic, almost unrecognizable blasts of intensity.
In Get In The Van, Rollins wrote that Ginn telephoned him in August 1986: "He told me he was quitting the band. I thought that was strange considering it was his band and all. So in one short phone call, it was all over." Many sources claim the band did not "officially" break up until 1987, but this appears to be false.
In September 2003, Black Flag played three reunion shows, two at the Hollywood Palladium and one at Alex's Bar in Long Beach, to benefit cat rescue organizations (a current passion of Ginn's). The line-up for the shows was Dez Cadena on vocals, Greg Ginn on guitar, ROBO on drums, and C'el Revuelta on bass. Professional skateboarder and singer Mike Vallely also sang all the songs from My War at these shows.
SST Records, an independent American record label that was initially founded to release Black Flag’s debut single, released recordings by influential groups such as Bad Brains, the Minutemen, The Descendents, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü. As well, SST released some albums by Negativland, Soundgarden, and, for a short period, Sonic Youth. Black Flag were involved in legal battles when they attempted more mainstream distribution for their records.
Black Flag's career is chronicled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a study of several important American underground rock groups. Many members of the grunge scene cited Black Flag's My War album as being influential in their departure from the standard punk model. Steve Turner of Mudhoney stated in an interview, "A lot of other people around the country hated the fact that Black Flag slowed down ... but up here it was really great — we were like 'Yay!' They were weird and fucked-up sounding.".
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea has a Black Flag decal on one of his signature Modulus bass guitars, and guitarist John Frusciante has cited Greg Ginn as one of his early influences as a guitar player.
Punk band Rise Against portrayed Black Flag in the 2005 Lords of Dogtown film, and their cover of "Nervous Breakdown" is on the Lords of Dogtown soundtrack. Rise Against also does a cover of the Black Flag song "Fix Me" in the video game Tony Hawk's American Wasteland. The Black Flag song "Rise Above" also appears on the popular skateboarding video game Tony Hawk's American Wasteland as well as in an episode of Freaks and Geeks. The Black Flag song "TV Party" appears on a Futurama episode Bender Should Not Be Allowed on TV. "TV Party" also appears in the 1984 film Repo Man. An Episode of the Fox Network's Millennium entitled "Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me" features a scene in which a CGI dancing baby dressed as a devil slam dances to "My War."
Initial Records released a Black Flag cover album in 2002 (re-released with additional tracks in 2006 by ReIgnition Recordings), Black on Black: A Tribute to Black Flag. The compilation features 15 hardcore and metalcore bands,— including Most Precious Blood, Converge, The Dillinger Escape Plan, Drowningman, and Coalesce.
Black Flag influenced post-metal band Neurosis, who on their album Souls at Zero pursued a slower, sludgy direction similar to the My War album. Singer Scott Kelly said of the band: "Black Flag is one of my deepest influences in life, and especially their brutally honest message of no message at all. Their music was always just talking about where they were, right at that moment.
English hardcore band Gallows featured a cover of Black Flag song "Nervous Breakdown" on the 2007 re-issue of their debut album Orchestra Of Wolves and regularly perform the song at live shows
Pettibon's artwork for the band's albums and flyers was equally stark and confrontational. He typically worked in one panel using only pen and ink, so the message conveyed had to be direct and powerful due to lack of space and color. According to Michael Azerrad in Our Band Could Be Your Life, the artwork "was a perfect visual analogue to the music it promoted – gritty, stark, violent, smart, provocative, and utterly American." It also provided a cerebral aspect to the band's image: as the mainstream media caricatured Black Flag as a mindlessly aggressive act, the pairing of their music with high-concept artwork hinted at a greater intelligence at work that was unknown to outsiders. Henry Rollins, in his journal collection Get in the Van, notes that Pettibon's artwork became synonymous with Black Flag and that before Rollins joined the band he would collect photocopies of their fliers that had circulated from California to Washington, DC. The album cover for Nervous Breakdown had a particularly strong impact on Rollins: "The record's cover art said it all. A man with his back to the wall baring his fists. In front of him another man fending him off with a chair. I felt like the guy with his fists up every day of my life. Another image which drew considerable attention was the artwork created for the "Police Story" single, showing a police officer being held with a gun in his mouth while the speech blurb "Make me come, faggot!" The image was plastered on flyers all around Los Angeles and added to the police pressure on the band. Pettibon later remarked that "my values are relativistic, and I’ll give a cop the benefit of the doubt. If that’s me with my gat – my gat’s larger than the one depicted – we can have a discussion, and he can answer me just as well with my .357 barrel in his mouth, or on his cheek, or on his adenoids, or down his throat. I’ll listen to his whimpering cries." After joining the band Rollins would sometimes watch Pettibon draw, admiring his work ethic and the fact that he did not make telephone calls or sit for interviews. The drawings themselves rarely bore a direct connection to the music or its lyrical themes. Pettibon himself recalls that "These drawings just represented what I was thinking. Except for a few instances, the flyers weren't done as commercial art or advertising. You could have stuck anything on a photocopy machine and put the band name and made an advertising flyer, but these weren't done like that. I was vehement about that as much as my personality allowed." Pettibon also sold pamphlet books of his work through SST, with titles such as Tripping Corpse, New Wave of Violence, and The Bible, the Bottle, and the Bomb, and did artwork for other SST acts such as the Minutemen.
In order to adapt Pettibon's artwork to meet the layout requirements of their albums and flyers, the members of Black Flag would alter it by cutting and pasting and adding their name, logo, and gig details to it. They would then make photocopies and put up dozens of flyers to promote their shows. Rollins recalls going out on a flyering mission with roadie Mugger in 1981 in which the pair would put a layer of paste onto a telephone pole, stick up the flyer, and then cover it with an additional coat of paste so that it would last for up to a year. The band members and their crew would do this for miles around, using dozens of flyers to promote a single performance. Pettibon, however, did not always appreciate the band's treatment of his art, which he provided to them largely for free. "To me my work was the equivalent of a band like Black Flag or any other band who was righteously self-protective of recordings. I would give them original art and it would come back to me scrawled upon and taped over or whited out, and I'd always ask nicely, 'Could you please make a copy of this first and then do that?' Their master tapes were deemed sacrosanct, while my work was seen as completely disposable, but I'm not venting or complaining, just stating fact." Pettibon also felt pigeonholed by his association with the band, and had a falling out with them in 1985 over artwork used on the cover of the Loose Nut album, which had been used for a flyer several years earlier. Ginn resurrected it without telling his brother and turned it over to drummer Bill Stevenson to do the layout, who cut it into pieces and used them as elements for the cover and lyric sheet. Pettibon became irate and he and Ginn stopped speaking for some time, though his artwork continued to be used for the remainder of the band's career.