We've all had this happen to us. We've heard a record or a song that really hits home. At the time we may not have known why or how or what it meant to us. We only knew that it marked the time. This column is dedicated to those moments and the analysis of those recordings.
As a fresh-faced youth, I happened to encounter Black Flag for the first time when I blindly bought the Let Them Eat Jelly Beans compilation (Alternative Tentacles Virus 4 1981). My life hasn't been the same since. I identified with Black Flag's looks and attitudes, and felt a sense of connection with the song "Police Story" (also appearing on Damaged, which I ran out and bought immediately). Thus began my headlong plunge in to punk rock and all the madness that came with it.
My enthusiasm for this "new" band slowly turned to dismay, however, as time dragged on and Black Flag issued no further releases. I began to assume that they had ceased to exist, as so many good punk bands burned out early and were prone to sudden disappearances. But then one fine afternoon I walked in to a record store and was greeted by a blue record cover with a Pettibone drawing of what appeared to be Hitler behind a boxing glove, knife in-hand. It was My War, and my long wait for another shot of Black Flag had finally ended, after two terrible, twitching years. I rushed home, prize in hand, and as the needle hit the groove (CD's were just barely available at that time) I was rewarded with a single, heavy, ominous Greg Ginn chord accompanied by the rapid high hat of Billy Stevenson's drums. That lone, obtuse, painfully sustained note entranced me and set the stage for the first of many bone-chilling Rollins screams to later grace this record.
You're one of them!
You said that you're my friend but you're one of them!..."
This spoke volumes to me. Being "punk" in Indiana equalled instant alienation then — probably still does — and so to have a band from Los Angeles speak my language, to the very heart of me, meant that I wasn't as alone as I felt. All the hate, disgust and pain within me was apparently felt by at least a few others, and somehow that proved to be strong salve to harsh stings. There were others! We were one! Such dark salvation, but salvation, nonetheless.
My War did not contain the thrash music that Black Flag had become known for, but I was far from disappointed with this deviation from "the norm"! It was mid-tempo punk rock, with the more lambent dirges cleverly hidden on side two. "Three Nights" (second track, side two) opens with the slow thud thud of a single kick drum, a la Black Sabbath. But even "Iron Man" had never been as sludgy or delightfully heavy as these side two pieces were, and so it quickly became a part of my daily diet (especially during finals week when I needed to achieve the proper "seek and destroy" head space for those tests on psychology, calculus, underwater basketweaving, whatever). It was a three song journey which spiraled the listener further and further down, Henry screaming the way from "Nothing Left Inside" to "Three Night" and finally through (appropriately) "Scream". And I loved every bloody moment of it!
"Someone handed me a ladder And for the longest time
I've been climbing to the bottom of it.
Someone reached out and gave me their
hand and for the lonest time I've been trying to dislodge my teeth from it."
Greg's guitar was mid-rangy and full, mixed way up front, leaving just enough room for Henry's vocals to burst through the cracks. His playing style sent a chill down my spine, and his leads disregarded all chord structure and rules, true to the genre and generation which claimed Black Flag as their own. I had found a musical home.
Oddly, the only obscured instrument was the bass — it didn't have its own voice, not in the least. As Ginn played it, himself, perhaps the band felt that the bass' only importance was to fill out the total sound, a clotting factor in its own rights.
As a professional audio engineer, I still wonder what made that record so powerful. It was recorded by Spot at "Total Access" in Redondo Beach, CA. I am unfamiliar with "Total Access", but if it was like any other punk rock studio of the day it probably wasn't well endowed, which means that the music had to speak for itself without the benefit of artificial enhancements. What a feat — greatness via sticks and stones (when compared with today's audio/recording technology)! And this-My War-may well be the record in which Black Flag "found their sound". Sure, they were a thrash band in 1981, but this mid- to slow-tempo, pain, angst and agony sound became the meat of Black Flag, what the Flagship was all about.
I had the honor of speaking with Greg and Henry during the My War period, and they told me that the record sounded dull and heavy because the practice space they inhabited (and I do mean "inhabit") was coated-walls, ceiling and floor-with old shag carpeting. This, of course, sucked the high end out of everything, but they got used to it and came to think of the sound within those fuzzy walls as theirs. Hence, "the sound"-mid-rangy, claustrophobic, airless...
Further analysis of this record reveals an erratic approach to mixing. At times the guitar was slightly left, second guitar full left and bass off of center, but then it would all switch. It's hard to tell, but I believe that there are at least two guitar tracks, maybe three, on several songs.
Henry backs up his own vocals with double and triple tracks on the choruses, and sometimes he even uses an ambient animal vocal track (my favorites!).
If you have ever had the privilege of seeing Black Flag live, you know the caged-animal that Henry can become. Every day was a fight for survival, and this was vividly captured on the record. At the end of My War, Henry is dead-center of the mic but then fades off, a wild man within the confines of a padded cell. At times it's as if he were crouched in a corner, ripe for attack. These images may not have been orchestrated or even calculated, yet the resultant effects are powerful. Henry once told me that the vocals in the background of "Three Nights" were recorded in a "Total Access" hallway with Henry perched upon an old couch. Listen closely and you will will hear the couch springs squeak as he rocks back and forth, madly — whispering the demented command to "stick me... stick me... stick me...", then a soda machine goes off next to him.
Ohhh, the critics hated My War with a passion! Fans of the band were admittedly split over it, but I loved it with a zeal I'd not known before. Black Flag was the only band I've ever seen whose live shows were attended by those who loved them and hated them in equal proportions, and this only added to the thrust of their energy. My War started it all, the unique sound and messages (real or imagined by the listener) of Black Flag, and holds up to this day as an important part of their enigmatic history, the direction of punk rock music, and my own, person- al journey. My War changed my life — forever — and I am so grateful!