Black Flag (band)

From Academic Kids

Black Flag was an anarchist punk rock group formed in 1976 in southern California, largely as the brainchild of Greg Ginn, guitarist, primary songwriter and sole continuous member through multiple personnel changes.

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 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.

While Black Flag were--and remain--very respected among their underground culture, their music has not been the stylistic model one might expect, in spite of their formidable reputation. Rather, their influence was seen primarily in their tireless promotion of a self-controlled DIY aesthetic. They're often regarded as pioneers in the movement of underground do-it-yourself record labels that flourished among the 1980s' punk rock bands.

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. They were part of the first wave of American West Coast punk rock, and are considered a foundational punk band, but later forged a sound closer to proto-heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath, mixed with a loose instrumental aesthetic reminiscent of the Grateful Dead.

Black Flag's music defied categories: Along with being among the earliest punk rock groups to incorporate elements of heavy metal, there were often overt jazz and modern classical elements in their sound, especially in Ginn's guitar playing. Black Flag recorded an instrumental rock e.p. that earned favorable comparisons to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Ornette Coleman; their records and performances were interspersed 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 (extremely large) discography is more varied than many of their punk-rock contemporaries.

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, grass-roots network.



Early History

Formed in 1976 and initially called Panic, Ginn insisted that the band rehearse several hours a day. This work ethic proved too challenging for some early members; Ginn and singer Keith Morris had an especially hard time finding a reliable bass guitarist, and often rehearsed without a bassist, a factor that contributed to the development of Ginn's distinctive, low-frequency-heavy guitar sound. Ginn's brother Raymond Pettibon and then-future producer Spot filled in sometimes at rehearsals

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. To avoid confusion with another band called Panic, they took on the name Black Flag in 1978.

The name 'Black Flag' denoted both from the flag of Anarchism, and the insect spray of the same name. The name was suggested by Ginn's brother, Raymond Pettibon, who also designed the band's logo: A stylized black flag represented as four black bars. The band used their work ethic to spray paint the simple, striking logo all over Los Angeles, gaining attention from potential supporters and 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." [1] (

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." [2] (

Morris appeared on Black Flag's earliest recordings, and his energized, manic stage presence helped the band earn a reputation in the Los Angeles area. Morris quit in 1979, citing, among other reasons, creative differences with Ginn, and his own "freaking out on cocaine and speed." [3] ( Morris would subsequently form the Circle Jerks.

Black Flag recruited fan Chavo Pederast A.K.A. Ron Reyes, who was in the band only briefly before quitting mid-performance. 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 Auditoriam, a feat they were never able to manage again); and second, perhaps seeing the peak of attention from police and from the mainstream press, due to the violence associated with Black Flag and punk rock in general.

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 Joins

Fan Henry Rollins—then living in Washington D.C.—had corresponded with the band, and met them when they performed on the U.S. east coast. They were seeking a new singer and asked Rollins to audition before inviting him to join the band. He accepted, and acted as roadie for the remainder of the tour while learning Black Flag's songs during sound checks and encores while Cadena crafted guitar parts that meshed with Ginn's. Rollins also impressed Black Flag with his broad musical interests during an era when punk rock music and fans were increasingly factionalized; he introduced Black Flag to Washington DC's go go, a distinctive take on funk music.

Rollins was to become 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 "TV Party" or "Six Pack" blended a nearly goofy sense of satirical criticism (of apathy and alcoholism, respectively) with driving punk rock. The muscular, tattooed Rollins became the focus of considerable attention. He was a dynamic live performer and powerful singer, who usually appeared on-stage wearing only short pants. 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." [4] ( Rollins also became known for his frequent fistfights with audience members. These became so common that the instrumentalists would generally keep playing while Rollins dashed offstage to duke it out for a few minutes. When the fight was over, Rollins would rejoin the group, and they'd pick up right where they left off.

1981 saw the release of Damaged, 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." [5] (

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 Damaged was an "Anti-Parent" record. [6] ( (Longtime SST employee Joe Carducci reported, however, that the "Anti-Parent" statement was not the real reason for MCA's refusing to distribute Damanged. Rather, Carducci reports, Unicorn Records was so poorly managed and so deeply in debt that MCA stood to lose money in 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 records.

Black Flag released Damaged on SST Records, and placed a copy of the "Anti-Parent" statement on the record's cover.

Cadena left Black Flag after Damaged, and formed DC3.

By late 1983, Dukowski had retired from performing with Black Flag (some accounts report he was "edged out" by Ginn [7] (; Ginn has also stated that while he liked Dukowski personally, his bass playing was not progressing) though a few of his songs were featured on later records, and he continued acting in his capacity as tour manager. Ginn played bass guitar on some Black Flag recordings as "Dale Nixon" before Kira Roessler joined to replace Dukowski. 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.

1983 found Black Flag embroiled in a legal dispute over distribution. They were prevented 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: Black Flag released four full-length albums in 1984, 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.

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" [8] (; another writes My War is "a pretentious mess of a record with a totally worthless second side." [9] ( 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. Some years later, however, My War would be cited as a formative influence on grunge music.

Ultimately, Ginn and Rollins decided to eject Roessler from Black Flag, citing erratic behavior. It's also been suggested that Ginn's accommodating Roessler's college schedule created tension in the group. Her absence, and the lack of a steady drummer, contributed to the comparatively weaker reputation of the last few Black Flag tours.

Black Flag members grew tired of the tensions of their relentless touring schedule, infighting, and of living in near-poverty. Ginn was so creatively restless that Black Flag's records were often very dissimilar; shortly before the group disbanded, Rollins suggested to Ginn that perhaps Black Flag should release two similar records consecutively so that the group's fans wouldn't always feel lost. Ginn was stunned by the suggestion; it was one of the few times Rollins had ever offered an opinion contrary to Ginn's.

In Get In The Van, Rollins writes 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."

Since Black Flag's break-up, Rollins has had the most visible public profile as a musician, writer, and actor. Most Black Flag members have also remained active in music, especially Ginn.


Throughout their ten-year career as a band, Black Flag's experiences became legendary, especially in the southern California area. Much of the band's history is chronicled in Henry Rollins' own published tour diary Get In The Van.

Black Flag were reportedly blacklisted by the LAPD and Hollywood rock clubs because of the destructiveness of their fans, though Rollins has reported that police caused far more problems than they solved. Black Flag were involved in legal battles once they attempted more mainstream distribution for their records.

In fact, SST Records, initially founded to release Black Flag's debut single, was during the 1980's one of the most vital independent American record labels, releasing works by such influential groups as Bad Brains, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Hüsker Dü, and released some albums by Negativland, Soundgarden, and, for a while, Sonic Youth.

Black Flag's career is chronicled in Our Band Could Be Your Life, a study of several important American underground rock groups.

A Perfect Circle covered Black Flag's "Gimme Gimme Gimme" on their 2004 release eMOTIVe.


Lead Guitar: Greg Ginn
Rhythm guitar (Damaged): Dez Cadena
Bass: Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, C'el Revuelta
Drums: Brian Migdol, ROBO, Emil Johnson, Chuck Biscuits, Bill Stevenson, Anthony Martinez
Singer: Keith Morris, Chavo Pederast A.K.A. Ron Reyes, Dez Cadena, Henry Rollins



Singles & EPs


  • Live SO 36 18.2.-86 (live)
  • 7-11 (live)
  • No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service (live)
  • The Complete 1982 Demos Plus More (demos + radio show)
  • Annihilation (cover claims to be 'Live at Palladium Aug 31, 1985', but is actually a rough mix of Who's Got The 10 1/2? with a few alternate, unreleased tracks)

Live Pain (Live At The Electric Banana July 4 1981 and excerpt of Live in Monterey California July 15, 1984)


External links

de:Black Flag es:Black Flag


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