BLACK FLAG: THE FIRST FOUR YEARS (1978-1981; 1983)
1) Nervous Breakdown; 2) Fix Me; 3) I've Had It; 4) Wasted; 5) Jealous Again; 6) Revenge; 7) White Minority; 8) No Values; 9) You Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You!; 10) Clocked In; 11) Six Pack; 12) I've Heard It Before; 13) American Waste; 14) Machine; 15) Louie Louie; 16) Damaged I.
I suppose that putting out three EPs with three different singers in four years is some sort of record, but what really makes it a unique record is that each following singer was worse than his predecessor. Keith Morris, handling the lead vocals on 1978's Nervous Breakdown, still sings more or less in the «first wave punk» tradition, with a snappy, sneering attitude and relatively understandable enunciation of the words. Sometimes he can even hit different notes and hold them, a fairly anathemous thing to do for America's quintessential hardcore band. His successor, Ron Reyes, also lovingly called «Chavo Pederast» by his fellow band members, already comes across as a professional hardcore screamer on 1980's Jealous Again, but he still shows some understanding of pitch, may function in one of several emotional states, and knows what sarcasm is (ʽWhite Minorityʼ). Finally, Dez Chavena, active on the Six Pack EP and also featured on several additional outtakes, just seems like a plain old simple street guy with an unreliable throat (it is said that he couldn't handle proper live shows, and eventually pleaded to be relegated to second guitar, once Rollins came along).
What binds all these short stages together is the music, credited mainly to the band leader and main guitarist, Greg Ginn, and occasionally, to the bass player Chuck Dukowski. Although, due to Greg's insistence, the band positioned itself as «professional» from the very beginning, spending lots of time in rehearsal, these early songs do not yet disclose the full scope of Ginn's talents or interests. For the most part, the early EPs are more like «the Ramones taken to eleven» — ʽWhite Minorityʼ, for instance, begins like ʽBlitzkrieg Bopʼ and then, just a few bars later, slips into ʽBeat On The Bratʼ — but the songs are notably shorter (one to one-and-a-half minute running length is common), and, most importantly, notably meaner. Black Flag has its own sense of humor, of course, but it's mostly dark, bitter humor, full of aggressive sarcasm; and most of the time, they just sound like they want to put their fist in your face, rather than party around.
Quality-wise, I suppose this whole disc does not really get any better than its opening track — ʽNervous Breakdownʼ tells you everything you ever wanted to know about early Black Flag, and, in fact, about early hardcore in general. Poor production; Ginn's guitar as the only properly audible instrument, sounding like a cross between the chainsaw buzz of Johnny Ramone and the underworld rumble of Tony Iommi (Ginn is a lifelong Black Sabbath fan, and it always shows); and a singer gradually going from pissed-off snarl to frenetic roar, as his promise of being about to have a nervous breakdown is swiftly realized over the course of the song's two minutes. The next three songs basically repeat the same message — ʽWastedʼ being a particular highlight, as it packs the required angst and anguish into a single-breath fifty seconds. It does beg the question, though: why the past tense? "I was so wasted" — is that supposed to mean that things are all right now? Everything else on the EP is in present tense, you know.
For Jealous Again, Ginn already implements a few stylistic changes: most importantly, the guitar playing becomes more melodic, as he adds screechy bluesy leads to the title track and ʽRevengeʼ. More questionable is the decision to address the band's own problems: ʽYou Bet We've Got Something Personal Against You!ʼ slams down the freshly departed Keith Morris, who allegedly stole the band's material for his new band, The Circle Jerks. Then again, maybe venting one's frustration against concrete people for concrete problems might be considered a more honest and authentic way to go than just spewing out another predictable anti-authority rant in general.
The first signs of «classic» Black Flag, however, only begin to appear closer to the Dez Cadena period, as the songs become more interesting from the compositional and arrangement-based points of view. The guitar solos on ʽClocked Inʼ become exceedingly maniacal, with elements of atonality; ʽSix Packʼ opens with thirty seconds of suspenseful bass/drum interplay and features several tempo changes and completely crazyass lead lines along the way; and ʽI've Heard It Beforeʼ features Ginn in full swing, as his guitar imitates a fire alarm siren gone off its rocker. These are no longer examples of an «angrified Ramones» approach; this is something different.
Most divergent of the lot are the last three songs: ʽMachineʼ is a bass-solo-gone-noise-rock experiment over which Cadena screams that he is not a machine (so you could as well call it an anti-Kraftwerk protest song); the cover of ʽLouie Louieʼ, with a new set of lyrics, arguably features the most atonal guitar solo ever suggested for that song; and the original version of ʽDamagedʼ, with a relentless four-minute industrial punch to it, as Ginn suddenly finds himself getting closer to the aesthetics of Einstürzende Neubauten, is one of the most aurally brutal things they ever came up with (much heavier and uglier than what it became later with Rollins).
«Liking» or «loving» a collection like this is almost out of the question, I think, since it is so diverse in functionality — I mean, if the early songs are your average teenage hormonal stuff, and should primarily fall in line with the average 17-year old as he gets his first serious whupping from Life, the later songs are already more suitable for the ear of the avantgarde lover. So this whole process is interesting, even thrilling perhaps, from an «evolutionary» point of view, but the individual parts all have their flaws — the early stuff is too derivative and formulaic, and the later stuff, weird as it is, feels a bit underdeveloped, and also suffers from Cadena's lack of personality, as the man is essentially a one-note, one-vibe character. Naturally, on the whole the collection still gets a thumbs up, but in general curve terms, it is hard for me not to perceive it as just a gradual build-up — a four-year training camp — for the true success still to come.
Check "The First Four Years" (CD) on Amazon
Check "The First Four Years" (MP3) on Amazon