In many ways, Black Flag was the definitive Los Angeles hardcore punk band. Although their music flirted with heavy metal and experimental noise and jazz more than that of most hardcore bands, they defined the image and the aesthetic. Through their ceaseless touring, the band cultivated the American underground punk scene; every year, Black Flag played in every area of the U.S., influencing countless numbers of bands. Although their recording career was hampered by a draining lawsuit, which was followed by a seemingly endless stream of independently released records, the band was unquestionably one of the most influential American post-punk bands. A full decade and a half before the fusion of punk and metal became popular, Black Flag created a ferocious, edgy, and ironic amalgam of underground aesthetics and gut-pounding metal. Their lyrics alluded to social criticism and a political viewpoint, but it was all conveyed as seething, cynical angst, which was occasionally very funny. Furthermore, Black Flag demonstrated an affection for bohemia -- both in terms of musical experimentation and a fondness for poetry -- that reiterated the band's underground roots and prevented it from becoming nothing but a heavy metal group. And it didn't matter who was in the band -- throughout the years, the lineup changed numerous times -- because the Black Flag name and four-bar logo became punk institutions.
Black Flag was formed in 1977 by guitarist Greg Ginn, a graduate of UCLA. Ginn formed the band with bassist Chuck Dukowski; the pair soon added drummer Brian Migdol and vocalist Keith Morris. At the same time, Ginn and Dukowski formed an independent record label, SST, which released the band's first EP, Nervous Breakdown, in 1978. Morris and Migdol departed the following year -- Morris went on to form the Circle Jerks -- and they were respectively replaced with Chavo Pederast and Robo. By the release of 1980's Jealous Again, Black Flag had begun to tour the U.S. relentlessly, building up a small, but dedicated, following of fans. After the release of Jealous Again, Pederast left the group and was replaced by Dez Cadena. However, Cadena preferred to play guitar, and his transition to that instrument in 1981 gave the group a heavier sound; his replacement on vocals was Henry Rollins, a Washington, D.C., fan who jumped on-stage to sing with the band during a New York performance.
Early in 1981, Black Flag signed a record contract with Unicorn Records, a subsidiary of MCA. The band delivered their first full-length album, Damaged, to Unicorn; the label refused to release the record, citing the content of the music as too dangerous and vulgar. Undaunted, Ginn released the album on his own SST Records. Upon its release, the album received considerable critical acclaim. Soon after it appeared on the shelves, Unicorn sued Black Flag and SST over the release of Damaged. For the next two years, the band was prevented from using the name Black Flag or their logo on any records. During that time, the group continued to tour, and surreptitiously released Everything Went Black, a double-album retrospective that contained no mention of the band, although it listed the names of the members on the front cover. The dispute ended in 1983, when Unicorn went bankrupt and the rights to the Black Flag name and logo reverted back to the band (by this time, Cadena had left to form his own group).
As if to make up for lost time, Black Flag became impossibly prolific when it returned to recording in 1984. A new version of the group -- featuring Ginn on guitar and bass (the latter was credited to the pseudonym Dale Nixon), Rollins, and drummer Bill Stevenson -- recorded the albums My War and Family Man. After those two albums were recorded, the group added bassist Kira Roessler and cut Slip It In, its third official album of 1984. In addition to those three albums, Black Flag released the cassette-only Live '84 and the compilation The First Four Years in 1984, as well as reissuing Everything Went Black with all the proper credits restored. The group's touring and recording pace didn't slow in 1985; they released three records: Loose Nut, The Process of Weeding Out, and In My Head. By the end of the year, Anthony Martinez replaced Stevenson on drums.
After Black Flag released the live album Who's Got the 10½? in early 1986, Greg Ginn broke up the band. Ginn recorded two albums with the more experimental Gone, but he primarily concentrated on running SST Records, which had become one of the most important American independent labels of the era. By the time Black Flag broke up, SST had already released albums by such bands as Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Sonic Youth. For most of the late '80s, Ginn retired from performing, choosing to operate SST Records instead; during this time, the label released the first recordings from bands like Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., and Screaming Trees. Ginn returned to music in 1993, releasing a solo album on his new record label, Cruz.
Following Black Flag's breakup, Henry Rollins formed the Rollins Band. For the rest of the '80s, he released music recorded with the Rollins Band on a variety of independent labels, as well as solo spoken-word recordings. In the early '90s, Rollins became one of the most recognizable figures of alternative music.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine