5. “What Can You Believe” (demo, 1982, with Henry Rollins)
For five months in 1982, Black Flag’s lineup included drummer Chuck Biscuits, who provided the beats for a lineup consisting of Rollins, Dukowski, and the duel guitars of Ginn and Cadena. Many who saw the band perform would say that this was the most potent Black Flag lineup ever.
Unfortunately, the only studio material Black Flag recorded with Biscuits is the widely bootlegged 1982 My War demos — and the band never re-recorded the catchy “What Can You Believe,” which is easily their most straightforward rock ‘n roll tune.
However, the song was given a second life. Cadena left Black Flag in 1983 and formed his new band, DC3. “What Can You Believe” appears on their 1985 debut album, This Is The Dream, as the song “I Believe It.” Another discarded Black Flag demo song, “Yes I Know,” also appears on the DC3 album as “Ain’t No Time Here Now.” Both songs are on YouTube.
4. “Rise Above” (Damaged, 1981, with Henry Rollins)
For a number of years, SST Records — and by association, Black Flag — were mercilessly harassed by the southern California police. With “Rise Above,” Greg Ginn penned a blistering, defiant shout-along anthem that is a lyrical spit in the face of the pigs that tormented the band, as well as a declaration of an entire subculture’s resilience.
In 2002, Rollins Band released an album entitled Rise Above, consisting entirely of Black Flag songs (with many guest vocalists) as a benefit for The West Memphis Three. On this album, Rollins performs “Rise Above” with Public Enemy vocalist Chuck D.
3. “Nervous Breakdown” (Nervous Breakdown, 1978, with Keith Morris)
“Nervous Breakdown” is the first song on the first-ever release by Black Flag. Listening to the brief EP, as well as the first nine tracks on Everything Went Black, offers a glimpse of what Black Flag might have become had original vocalist Keith Morris not been given the boot. And love him or not, it’s undeniable that he wouldn’t have been a good fit given the direction the band was headed. Can you imagine “Rise Above” or “My War” sung by Morris?
To be fair, nobody could deliver snotty songs such as “Nervous Breakdown” and “Wasted” like Keith Morris — Rollins’s live renditions of the tracks on Live ’84 and Who’s Got the 10 1/2? are documented proof.
2. “Jealous Again” (Jealous Again, 1981, with Ron Reyes; Everything Went Black, 1982, with Dez Cadena)
If you have been slighted by your significant other and are wallowing in bitterness, this song is your theme. If you can’t pick a favorite rendition, simply start with Reyes’s version, and then switch to Cadena’s. Then repeat. Black Flag was at its best when it provided a cathartic outlet for those suffering in the dregs of their darkest moments.
1. “Depression” (Damaged, 1981, with Henry Rollins; Everything Went Black, 1982, with Keith Morris, Ron Reyes, and Dez Cadena)
For better or for worse, vocalist Henry Rollins took a decidedly bleak approach to much of his lyric-writing — but it was Ginn who wrote band’s darkest tune. From the title to its dismal lyrics, the song leaves no room for misinterpretation. There is no poetry to be found here; no symbolism or attempts to be clever — only pure frustration, disappointment, and loneliness set to a frenzied tune.
Like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” “Depression” was recorded by all four of the band’s vocalists. The versions by Keith, Ron, and Dez are worth a listen, but it is Rollins who truly makes you believe that he is in the throes of mental agony. He might not have written the lyrics, but he belts them out from his gut as if making a desperate attempt to exorcise himself of all his misery. The song’s urgency is unmatched by any other track in the band’s canon, making it a perfect introduction to Black Flag’s music for any new listener. If you can’t get behind “Depression,” Black Flag is not a band for you.
What else would you include in your “best of” list?