The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!
Live ‘84, Black Flag (1984, SST)
What happens when punk get old? An anecdotal survey of four decades’ worth of punk history seems to suggest that the menu of long-term career paths available to Oi! Oi! Oi! oldsters may be slimmer than those available to a more garden-variety classic rocker. And I’m not even talking about punk ideology or punk aesthetics, both of which have their own built-in pitfalls that make growing old without shameful compromise difficult. I’m talking about sonically. How does a punk band push their sound forward within a genre defined by its limitations?
Again, based on anecdotal evidence there seem to be just a few options: 1) write new music that just sounds like your old music 2) become some sort of grizzled Outlaw Country folkie, or 3) transition into a role as a label owner who will eventually be sued by your biggest acts for shady business dealings.
The ignoble latter-day career of SST founder, rescue cat advocate, problematic marijuana abuser, and Texas-twang hack Gregg Ginn definitely squares with all three of these categories to varying degrees. But in the mid-‘80s, just as Ginn’s iconic Hermosa Beach hardcore combo Black Flag started to peter out, the punk auteur was in the process of carving out a fourth option: that of garage-stoner-metal’s answer to Frank Zappa—a move that was punk, but not always “Punk.”
Live ’84 was recorded at San Francisco’s Stone Nightclub during one of the groups endless Our Band Could Be Your Life touring jags, capturing the Flag’s prime late-period lineup of Ginn (on clear-Lucite Dan Armstrong guitar—so cool looking!), future Oscar winner Kira Roessler (bass), Descendants co-founder Bill Stevenson (drums), and totally yoked rage-machine Henry Rollins (vocals).
Famously, Rollins was the band’s forth lead vocalist—but absolutely its most iconic, charismatic, and best. And as the band’s center of gravity shifted from Ginn to the loquacious Rollins, Black Flag would eventually fall apart. But Live ‘84 captures Black Flag at its Rollins-era peak: a dexterous and surprisingly experimental musical combo that could be dutifully blunt when delivering old hardcore favorites, but also dive into noise rock, free jazz, and shaggy math rock.
Live ’84 challenges it’s listeners right from the very first track: a dissonant “The Process of Weeding Out”—the eight-minute title track off the band’s excellent 1985 instrumental EP of the same name, most likely written by Ginn for the sole purpose of keeping Rollins off-stage for as long as possible. For two whole minutes the song just sounds like a bad afternoon shift on the floor at Guitar Center, with each player doing that free-jazz thing of noodling around on parts that seem to have very little to do with one another. Eventually the song pulls itself together into a bouncy little jam, one that wouldn’t be impossible to imagine being played by a very drunk Grateful Dead.
Rollins makes his first appearance on the next song, the bruising early-BF track “Nervous Breakdown,” originally sung by future Circle Jerk Keith Morris. The recording quality here isn’t great, but it fits the project’s gritty DIY aesthetic. My only real issue is that Rollins is mixed too low (which the conspiracy theorist in me wants to blame on Ginn) and that Bill Stevenson’s kick feels weirdly airless in that way that poorly-recorded 1980s hardcore drums often do.
But ironically, the overall recording quality on Flag’s renditions of its then-current My War and Slip it In-era material actually sounds a lot better here than it does compared to those song’s studio versions. My War in particular sounds like dog shit, and it’s nice to see some the album’s best songs—“Can’t Decide,” “I Love You,” “Swinging Man”—reproduced here with a little more oomf.
Even though he’s gotten his fair share of accolades, I still think Ginn is underrated as a guitar player. In fact, one of my favorite guitar tracks ever is Black Flag’s lyrically-dubious-but-sonically-baller shred-a-thon “Slip it In,” which synthesizes Ginn’s angular riffing and kamikaze lead playing into six minutes of pulse-pounding action sports; the track is well-represented on Live ’84.
Another personal favorite is the comically dirge-like one-two punch of the Side Two My War tracks “Three Nights” and “Nothing Left Inside”—both Henry Rollins co-writes, which together total nearly 13 minutes of molasses-slow, hypnotic thudding with over-the-top self-excoriations by a theatrically self-hating, throat-shredding Rollins. A lot of Flaggots (an affectionate term for Black Flag fans coined by me, just now) hate these two songs because of their histrionic pomposity. Not me. I love them because of their histrionic pomposity.
The remainder of the album’s 75-minute run time features a well curated mix of pre-Rollins material made fresh by the eventual alternative-media gadfly’s muscular (pun intended) delivery—“Six Pack,” “Fix Me,” “Jealous Again”—and newer, more metal-leaning material—“Rat’s Eyes,” “Black Coffee”—that casts Black Flag as the best proto-stoner/doom band that never was.
Black Flag was never easy, not to be in and not always to listen to. But despite the limitations of their punk trappings, there’s true artistry and consideration of craft pouring out of every inch of Ginn’s ADD-rattled fingertips and supported by a fantastic lineup of musicians who would all continue to distinguish themselves both inside the music industry and outside of it.
Ever screamed at the wall? You’ll feel better.
-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)