First things first: I am an idiot, I suck, and I don’t know what I’m talking about. “TV Party” isn’t even on this list!
Now that we’ve cleared that up, it’s worth mentioning that compiling a list of the reunited Black Flag’s “top 10” songs has proved to be a hell of a lot more difficult than I originally imagined. The band included 17 different members (including four lead vocalists), and over time steadily metamorphosed from an originator of hardcore punk to a jazz-metal art project with a slew of instrumental tracks. Comparisons are difficult to make — the Nervous Breakdown EP and the In My Head full-length album share only the band name and Greg Ginn in common. Furthermore, we all have our favorite vocalist, and fans’ dedication to the one they prefer can make it a surprisingly touchy subject.
Still, it is possible to enjoy music from across the band’s canon. Each album has something to offer — even the two worst full-lengths, Loose Nut and Family Man, feature a solid title track and one of the band’s best instrumentals, respectively. Both were on the cusp of making this list, but like the aforementioned “TV Party” were cut in the end to make room for more deserving candidates.
This might not be a definitive list, but I’ve done my best here to present 10 highlights from the band’s entire collective output. Some of you Henry Rollins fans might be content to take 10 of your favorite tracks from Damaged and call it a day; others (i.e., rabid Rollins haters) would take just about anything off of The First Four Years compilation than some of the band’s later recordings. However, this list decidedly does not play favorites with respect to the vocalists.
So enjoy — and let us know what your favorites are.
10. “Drinking and Driving” (In My Head , 1985, with Henry Rollins)
While rage and mental anguish are primary themes in much of Black Flag’s lyrical output, the band could also employ brutal sarcasm to make a point. This trait was evident throughout Black Flag’s career (see: “Six Pack,” “Slip It In,” “Wasted,” and “TV Party”), but is nowhere else as strong as on this anti-drunk driving track that appeared on the band’s final full-length: “Make sure to tell yourself that this is cool/And make sure to tell yourself that you have no choice/And make sure to tell your friends that they drive you to it/And that you can quit anytime/That you want.”
9. “Louie Louie” (single, 1981, with Dez Cadena; Everything Went Black, 1982, with Dez Cadena)
Black Flag’s first recording with their third vocalist, Dez Cadena, was a rendition of the most recorded song in history, this classic by Richard Berry. While perhaps not the most famous version (that distinction lies with The Kingsmen), nor the heaviest (Motorhead), it is without question the most violent and volatile, and perhaps the most memorable.
8. “Six Pack” (Six Pack, 1981, with Dez Cadena; Damaged, 1981, with Henry Rollins)
Recorded at the height of Black Flag’s popularity, “Six Pack” is the furious companion to the rowdy, goofy “TV Party,” a pair of songs that lampoon the stereotypical beer-swilling, do-nothing couch potato. While Dez Cadena’s version (included on the Six Pack EP released about 10 months prior to Damaged) is great, it’s the one with Henry Rollins on vocals that includes the classic line, “I’ve got a six pack, and nothing to do!”
7. “My War” (My War, 1984, with Henry Rollins)
My War was only the second full-length album released by Black Flag; however, counting EPs and the compilation Everything Went Black, it was the band’s seventh release overall, and marks the beginning of their transition away from short, fast hardcore punk songs. While the A side of My War includes a handful of tracks similar to those on Damaged, the B side features three sludgy, slow-paced songs, each more than six minutes in length.
Tracks such as the nearly seven-minute long “Scream” are memorable in their own right (and proved to be highly influential on a number of doom metal and grunge bands), but it is the album’s title track that is its indisputable high point. Oddly, though the song was written entirely by the band’s bassist Chuck Dukowski, he had been fired by Greg Ginn prior to the recording of the album, and does not perform.
6. “Black Coffee” (Slip It In, 1984, with Henry Rollins)
Only three months after the release of the spoken word/instrumental album Family Man, Black Flag put out their third album of 1984, Slip It In. By this time, the band had fully immersed its fan base in a world of confusion, mashing musical styles into an experimental punk/jazz/metal hybrid accompanied by lyrics that were alternatingly macho, sarcastic, and self-reflective — and frequently cringe-worthy.
Despite the identity crisis and the growing pains, it all comes together perfectly on “Black Coffee,” the album’s second track. Though just shy of five minutes in length, the explosive song moves along at a brisk pace, and speaks to the jealous, caffeine-fueled maniac inside us all.