Black Flag Albums and EPs Ranked Worst To Best
"Punk is musical freedom. It's saying, doing and playing what you want," Kurt Cobain once famously said, and few bands embodied this sentiment more than one of Cobain's biggest influences, Black Flag. So many punk bands have historically been averse to musical evolution. Punk may be musical freedom, but it's also had a pretty strict definition over the years. Branch out from the typical formula, and you risk being seen as no longer punk and betraying the community that first supported you. But Black Flag were never afraid to take the risk. They faced their detractors at the time, but their constantly-evolving music has held up well over time and gone on to influence tons of artists across punk, metal, indie rock, and more. They helped draw the blueprint for hardcore as we know it in the late '70s, and after perfecting it, they started to branch out into other territory, exploring slower, more off-kilter rhythms and more experimental, dissonant guitar work. 1984's My War helped pioneer grunge and sludge metal and it's been cited as a cornerstone of those genres by Cobain and his peers like Melvins and Mudhoney. On subsequent albums, Black Flag experimented with avant-garde jazz, psychedelia, spoken word, and other very non-punk sounds, all while staying punk as fuck. Guitarist Greg Ginn's label SST -- who signed Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets, Saint Vitus, Husker Du, Minutemen, and tons of others -- helped influence the entire art of being DIY in the music industry. Their iconic bar logo and striking album covers (usually designed by Ginn's brother Raymond Pettibon, who went on to design art for Sonic Youth, Foo Fighters, and more) helped establish what punk artwork would look like for so many bands. They've impacted not just other bands who sound like them but artists all across the board, from Ryan Adams to Beastie Boys to Dirty Projectors to Anderson .Paak, and beyond.
The legacy of their initial 1976-1986 run is nearly flawless, a perfect snapshot of how a punk band can grow and forge their own path and help cultivate a world entirely of their own (despite lineup changes, egomania, violence, and band drama that isn't resolved to this day). Taking their discography as a whole, you get some of the finest punk music ever recorded alongside more disparate styles of music than you'd expect from the average band in any genre -- let alone punk -- and it's all worth hearing at least once. To celebrate this band's rich output, we've chosen to dig into each of their albums and rank them from worst to best.
Black Flag have put out so many releases over the years outside of proper studio albums, so to keep this a little more under control, I've opted to exclude live albums and compilation albums, but I did include the band's studio EPs. As was often the case with punk and hardcore, some of Black Flag's most essential releases were EPs, especially the ones that came out before they ever released a full-length album. Those early EPs (along with 1982's Everything Went Black compilation) are the go-to records to hear them fronted by Keith Morris (who went on to form Circle Jerks and OFF!), Ron Reyes (who also sang on their 2013 reunion album What The...), and Dez Cadena (who moved to rhythm guitar for their debut album), before Henry Rollins became their longtime vocalist.
There’s not really a “classic lineup” of Black Flag; it changed so many times with Greg Ginn as the only constant member, and multiple Black Flag lineups are responsible for some of the band’s most essential material. Henry Rollins (who sang on every full-length album during their initial run) became the most widely recognized face of Black Flag, but they also recorded some of their best songs before he joined. They went through a few bassists including Chuck Dukowski (who wrote some of the band’s best songs early on) and Kira Roessler (who helped bring a newfound complexity to the mid-‘80s albums), and a few drummers including Robo (who played on debut album Damaged and two of the early EPs) and Descendents’ Bill Stevenson (who played on all of the mid-’80s albums).
Today, there are two competing versions of Black Flag. Greg Ginn, who owns the rights to the band name and the logo, performs as Black Flag with pro skater Mike Vallely on vocals (they recently announced their first show in five years). Keith Morris, Chuck Dukwoski, Dez Cadena, Bill Stevenson, and Bill's Stevenson's Descendents bandmate Stephen Egerton perform the music of Black Flag as FLAG (and currently have one 2019 show announced: Punk Rock Bowling). Henry Rollins has expressed disinterest in being involved in a Black Flag reunion and stays busy with his spoken word, writing and acting careers.
Read on for our ranking of Black Flag's studio albums and EPs. As with any band's discography, your ranking is probably different than this one, so let us know how you agree or disagree in the comments...
12. Six Pack EP (1981)
After Ron Reyes' departure, Black Flag brought in vocalist Dez Cadena and made their third EP, the three-song "Six Pack." Dez quickly moved to rhythm guitar and was replaced on vocals by Henry Rollins, whose version of "Six Pack" on the Damaged album is the better and more popular version, but this EP still remains an interesting look into early Black Flag. The other two songs, "I've Heard It Before" and "American Waste," are both total rippers, and the Six Pack EP shows Black Flag branching away from the zippy punk of their first two EPs towards the tougher hardcore of Damaged. Dez isn't as distinctive of a frontman as Henry Rollins and he made more interesting contributions to the band as a guitarist on Damaged, but his shout had a nice edge to it on this short-but-sweet EP.
11. What The... (2013)
Black Flag fans didn't even want this album to exist. Why ruin a near-perfect legacy with an album decades after the band's story was already written? Why do it without Henry Rollins, who had become inseparable from Black Flag's image and sound by the end of their career? Why do it when Keith Morris, Chuck Dukwoski, Dez Cadena, and Bill Stevenson were all estranged from Greg Ginn and playing in their own version of Black Flag? Why give it horrible artwork not designed by Raymond Pettibon, and an album title that captured every Black Flag fan's disgusted kneejerk reaction to the whole thing? It had a lot of factors working against it, and not many working for it, but Greg Ginn went ahead and made it anyway. As everyone guessed, you'd probably never actively choose to play What The... over any Black Flag album from the '80s, but... I'd also argue it's not as bad as it seemed at the time. Ginn played both guitar and bass himself like he did on My War, and it's kind of respectable that he stuck to the off-kilter metal/punk riffs of late-period Black Flag rather than writing a bunch of songs that sound like "Rise Above" and "Six Pack" to try to make Black Flag popular again. And it's a bummer to think there'd even be a new Black Flag album without either of Black Flag's best and most-loved vocalists, Henry Rollins or Keith Morris, both of whom stayed much more relevant than Greg Ginn did in the years since Black Flag's breakup. But it's actually kind of interesting to hear Jealous Again vocalist Ron Reyes (1979–80, 2013) sing over the types of guitar parts that Greg Ginn didn't write until long after Reyes' initial departure from the band. We've all heard Henry Rollins sing songs that were written when Ron Reyes was in the band, so why not, just for fun, hear an album of Ron Reyes singing over Rollins-era-style riffs? Even if you think it's a total trainwreck, it's at least an unpredictable, intriguing one. And yes, for the purposes of this list, more intriguing than Dez Cadena's version of "Six Pack."
10. Loose Nut (1985)
Loose Nut followed 1984's Slip It In, was recorded with the same Henry Rollins/Greg Ginn/Kira Roessler/Bill Stevenson lineup, and like that album, it's among Black Flag's cleanest work. Also like that album, it contains a song that dated back to the storied pre-My War 1982 demos, the Chuck Dukowski-penned "Modern Man." You can see why "Modern Man" didn't make the more classic My War -- it has the same doom metal and punk influences of that album but it doesn't fuse them together as brilliantly as the songs that did make it on My War -- but it's still a fine example of mid-'80s Black Flag. The metal influence is strong all over Loose Nut, with some of the band's heaviest riffs showing up on "Annihilate This Week," "I'm the One," "Sinking," and "Now She's Black." It explores the avant-garde punk style Greg Ginn was increasingly interested in during this era on "This Is Good," and Loose Nut's title track is among the band's most addictively poppy songs. (The Offspring's whole first album kinda sounds like 11 different versions of "Loose Nut.") Loose Nut goes down easier than some of Black Flag's more experimental mid-'80s releases, but it's also less memorable than most of them. They'd shake things up again a few months later on their last pre-breakup album In My Head, but Loose Nut is the sound of a great band on autopilot.
9. Jealous Again EP (1980)
Jealous Again was Black Flag's second EP and first with Ron Reyes on vocals, following the Keith Morris-fronted Nervous Breakdown. While Nervous Breakdown was all punchy power chords, Jealous Again started to slightly break from that formula, with Greg Ginn bringing in some of the atonal leads he'd further experiment with on later Black Flag albums. He does it on just the two opening tracks ("Jealous Again" and "Revenge"), and it's a small but satisfying taste of what was to come, and proof of how rapidly Black Flag were progressing. Also included are "White Minority" and "No Values," which were written in the Keith Morris era, and while Ron Reyes is an ideal punk frontman in his own right, his versions of those songs feel less satisfying once you've heard the more maniacal Keith Morris versions (which are on the Everything Went Black compilation). (Though if Keith Morris was singing it, then Ginn couldn’t have argued that "the fact that we had a Puerto Rican singing [‘White Minority’] was what made the sarcasm of it obvious to me.") Perhaps the EP's most iconic (or least most infamous) song, though, is closer "You Bet We've Got Something Against You!" It's the band's first foray into the jokey material that they'd perfect by their debut album Damaged, and as a very non-subtle diss track aimed at Keith Morris, it's a key part of the drama-ridden Black Flag saga. It's petty, but it's funny, and at this point even Keith Morris would probably agree. The Morris-led FLAG plays that song live (with Chuck Dukowski singing).
8. TV Party EP (1982)
Hard to really say if this counts as an EP or a promotional single, but it does come up listed as an EP in a lot of places and it's also a nice taste of the early Rollins era. The title track is a slightly different re-recording of the Damaged track of the same name, and you may as well just listen to Damaged if you want to hear it, but b-sides "I've Got to Run" and "My Rules" are worthy deep cuts. They were both recorded with Descendents' Bill Stevenson on drums, before he became Black Flag's official drummer, and they're nice, Ginn-penned, fast punk songs that are perfect for Rollins' delivery. They're a bit harder than the songs on Damaged and starting to hint at the heavier sound Black Flag would explore on their later albums, but they're still short, fast, minute-and-change punk songs.
7. The Process of Weeding Out EP (1985)
Never was a Black Flag release more perfectly named than The Process of Weeding Out. If Greg Ginn wanted to weed out the people who didn't respect Black Flag's change in sound, this EP was gonna do it. (And, as Ginn's screed on the back cover implies, the EP was also some kind of "fuck you" to censorship.) Like side B of 1984's Family Man, it's instrumental and it sees Ginn exploring his most avant-garde, jazz-influenced, and psychedelic tendencies. Two of the songs are nearly 10 minutes long, and they're among the band's most atonal, dissonant work -- they're closer to classic Sonic Youth than classic Black Flag but even out-there for Sonic Youth's standards. As with Family Man, this EP isn’t as fun to listen to as most of Black Flag’s material, but it’s awe-inspiring to hear them pulling off such difficult music. And I say props to them for doing it. It’s one of the least punk sounding thing they’ve ever done, but one of the most punk spirited.
6. Family Man (1984)
After being forced to go over two years without releasing new music, Black Flag released three full-length albums in 1984, all of them essential. Following the more more metallic direction on the game-changing My War, new bassist Kira Roessler joined and Black Flag made by far their most experimental album yet, Family Man. Greg Ginn wrote the majority of Black Flag's material early on, but Henry Rollins -- who at this point was established as the face of Black Flag and was becoming as known for his stage banter as his singing -- started writing more on My War and by Family Man he was fully ready to embrace his inner poet. These days, he's busier with spoken word than he is with music, but Family Man was the first time he introduced that side of him to the world. The first half of the album is just Rollins doing spoken word/slam poetry, with no music at all. And even then, he was convincing. Family Man's title track is as memorable and quotable as many of Black Flag's fan-fave songs.
And not one to let Rollins be the only self-indulgent one on this album, Ginn takes the second half for instrumental songs that showed off his increasing interest in avant-garde jazz and jammy psychedelia. "My favorite band was always and still is the Grateful Dead," Ginn told Invisible Oranges in 2013 (and has said many times over the years). So many punks hated them and wrote music in direct opposition to the hippie ideals of bands like the Dead, but Greg Ginn was no average punk and their influence on him really started to show around this time (along with the influence of Black Sabbath and other metal). Longtime bassist Chuck Dukowski, who left the band before My War, was a crucial band member and an excellent songwriter, but Kira Roessler's chops blew Dukowski's away and she was able to complement Greg Ginn's increasingly complex playing with complexities of her own, which really showed on this album. Right in the middle of the Rollins half and the Ginn half is "Armageddon Man," a nine-minute journey through weirdness that had the two artists combining their interests, with Rollins doing his slam poetry-like delivery over Ginn's odd instrumentals. The album would be easier to listen to if it had more songs with Ginn and Rollins together like this and less with them apart, but Family Man remains a curio for diehard fans and an essential document of what they were getting into at the time. Even if it's not the kind of thing to throw on all the time, it's exciting to hear Rollins begin his dive into spoken word and hear Ginn start fulfilling his jammy, avant-garde dreams.
5. In My Head (1985) + I Can See You EP (1989)
Black Flag's demise was sloppy and abrupt, especially by today's standards (no "farewell tour" or anything). Drummer Bill Stevenson quit and bassist Kira Roessler was forced out, ending the lineup of the prolific 1984/1985 era. A couple new people joined, and as legend has it, Greg Ginn called Henry Rollins one day, told him he was quitting Black Flag, and that was it. Four leftover songs from the Stevenson/Roessler era came out posthumously as the I Can See You EP in 1989 (and three of them were added to In My Head on CD, cassette, and digital releases, hence including these two releases together), and we never heard from Black Flag again until their controversial 2013 reunion. What Greg Ginn, Henry Rollins, Kira Roessler, and Bill Stevenson left behind before parting ways, though, was among their finest work. Ginn was really all-in on the avant-garde guitar stuff at the time of the In My Head sessions, and Rollins had fully figured out how to deliver his crazy-eyed poetry over Ginn's off-kilter arrangements. Nothing on In My Head is even close to as accessible as the songs on My War and Slip It In, but they're also not as self-indulgent as the stuff on Family Man and The Process of Weeding Out. And there's some truly brilliant music on here. The title track is one of the best Black Flag songs, with weird carnival music guitars from Ginn and a fist-raising chorus from Rollins. "I Can See You" is even creepier and more carnival-like, yet somehow so addictive. "The Crazy Girl" strikes a nice balance between the avant-garde stuff and the driving punk stuff, and when it really picks up, it sounds like something that could've fit on My War. Early Black Flag releases like Nervous Breakdown, Damaged, and My War spawned tons of imitators, and there's no way to overstate how influential they are, but In My Head has something else going for it. Over three decades later, you rarely hear other music that sounds like this.
4. Slip It In (1984)
After the highly experimental Family Man, Black Flag concluded their prolific 1984 with one of the most accessible albums of their career, Slip It In. They took the proto-sludge metal they developed on side B of My War earlier that year (including two songs that dated back to the same 1982 demos as most of My War), and made a punchier record with cleaner production and a sharper rhythm section -- thanks in part to new bassist Kira Roessler. It's hard to defend the misogynistic undertones of Slip It In's album artwork or the date-rape theme of the title track ("If this is how you feel about women, then why would you want a girl in the group?" Kira said in the book Spray Paint the Walls: The Story of Black Flag), but the songs -- including that one -- were among the band's catchiest. The title track featured guest vocals from a then-mostly-unknown Suzi Gardner (who later became famous as a guitarist/vocalist of L7), and her voice combined with Henry Rollins' added a whole new level to Black Flag's sound. (She and Rollins also make mock sex sounds towards the end, which, given the nature of their lyrics, is not always comfortable to listen to. Not that Black Flag ever prided themselves on making people feel comfortable.) And that's not the only song on here like it. "Black Coffee," "Rat's Eyes" and "The Bars" are cut from that same metal/punk cloth and they're just as punchy as the title track.
Greg Ginn's riffs sound big on these songs, and Slip It In is the album where Rollins really starts coming into his own as a metal vocalist (which he'd explore more in Rollins Band). He sounds truly evil on some of these songs. As sort of a streamlined version of My War, this album is more of a refinement than a monumental turning point, but it's fun as hell to listen to. It's Black Flag at their most accessible and most crisp. Slip It In also saves two of the best for last. "My Ghetto" is the most face-paced hardcore song they'd done since the early days, but way weirder than anything they did back then, and album closer "You're Not Evil" is one of the most true metal songs of their career. Sounding something like a cross between Black Sabbath and Diamond Head, it could've come off as a pretty straightforward metal song by a lesser band, but hearing it all Black Flagged up with Ginn's unmistakable guitar style and Rollins' unmistakable bark, it's a classic.
3. Damaged (1981)
After three EPs with three different lead vocalists, Dez Cadena moved from lead vocals to rhythm guitar, Black Flag recruited Henry Rollins from the short-lived DC/Dischord band S.O.A., and they finally made their debut album. And, armed with two guitarists and a vocalist who wasn't going anywhere for the first time in their career, Black Flag recorded one of the most definitive hardcore albums of all time.
Most of these songs dated back to the pre-Rollins era (and you can hear versions of most of them by previous singers on the Everything Went Black compilation), but Rollins breathed new life into them. Much more so than Ron Reyes and Dez Cadena, Rollins had real charisma and he had a way of making a song his own even when he didn't write it. The Rollins-sung versions of classics like "Six Pack," "Police Story," "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie," and "Depression" are the most iconic versions for a reason. His lean, mean bark totally reinvented these songs, and helped establish the way hardcore would sound for decades to come. While Keith Morris' nasally shout-singing inspired more melodic punk bands, Rollins became more responsible for helping establish the sound of finger-pointing, sloganeering hardcore. It's also on Damaged where Black Flag perfect the gang vocal shouts that you still hear in hardcore today. It's right there on the forever-classic opening track "Rise Above." Even more important than what Rollins says in the verses are the gang vocal shouts that punctuate them. Where would hardcore be without "RISE ABOVE, WE'RE GONNA RISE ABOVE"? In the same song, Greg Ginn comes up with one of his best combinations of off-kilter leads and driving power chords, while drummer Robo helps Black Flag branch away from the straightforward punk beats of the first couple EPs. The gang vocal thing happens again and again: "SPRAY! PAINT! THE! WALLS!," "SIX! PACK!," "TV PARTY TONIGHT!," etc etc. They're among the most memorable and influential parts of Black Flag's whole career, and they're all right here on Damaged.
As far as full-lengths go, Damaged is Black Flag's only pure hardcore album. It's a rush of short, mile-a-minute songs that have become embedded in punk's DNA and are just as essential today as the day they were released. These songs are so influential and covered so frequently and remain so popular that it's impossible to imagine a world without them. The tough-sounding "Rise Above" and "Spray Paint" are as effective as the dark "Depression" and "Life of Pain," which are as effective as the humorous "TV Party" and "Six Pack." Black Flag quickly realized that Rollins was more suited for the darker, heavier stuff than the jokey stuff, and it's a good thing they did, but that doesn't stop "TV Party" and "Six Pack" from remaining essential songs both within and without the context of Damaged.
The album deserves all the praise it continues to get, and it's completely void of filler, but it's also only the tip of the iceberg of what Black Flag would accomplish with Henry Rollins on board. He did a killer job with the songs that were presented to him when he joined Black Flag, but it's not until the last two songs on the album that Rollins-era Black Flag start to find their sweet spot. The album ends with "Life of Pain" and a new version of "Damaged I" (which existed in noticeably different form with vocals by Dez Cadena as the B-side to Black Flag's "Louie Louie" cover), and those songs are much more indicative of the direction Black Flag would go in on Damaged's followup My War. They show Black Flag beginning to experiment with doomier, more metallic guitar parts, and they show Rollins taking on the darker, more serious tone that he would maintain for most of Black Flag's career. They're outliers on Damaged but they foreshadowed the brilliant and fruitful Ginn/Rollins relationship to come.
2. My War (1984)
With punk, it's so common that the instant-classic debut album towers over the rest of the band's discography until the end of time, probably because of how common it is for punk bands to perfect their sound early on and then stay in the same lane until they break up. And while Black Flag did have an instant-classic debut, the kind that you'll always see near the top of "Best Punk Albums of All Time" lists, Black Flag themselves topped Damaged three years later on their followup, My War. The album wasn't supposed to take as long it did; if it seemed from afar that Black Flag took the long gap between albums in order to come up with such a drastic progression of their sound, that wasn't the case at all. Most of these songs were demoed in 1982 (and later bootlegged) when Chuck Dukowski and Dez Cadena were still in the band, and the seeds were already being sewn on Damaged's "Life of Pain" and "Damaged I," but legal issues with MCA subsidiary Unicorn Records prevented the band from releasing a new album. (Compilations of pre-Rollins material came in the form of 1982's Everything Went Black and 1983's The First Four Years while the legal issues were sorted out.) Finally, Unicorn went under, Black Flag banged out My War, and their career -- and eventually popular music -- was changed forever.
If Black Flag sounded like an entirely different band by the time My War finally did come out, well, they sort of were. Everyone from the Damaged-era lineup was gone except Rollins and Ginn. Plus, so many of the Damaged songs were written before Rollins even joined the band. For My War, the songs were all written with him in mind, and Rollins himself began increasing his own role as a songwriter. It's really the true beginning of the Rollins/Ginn sound that would come to define Black Flag until the end of their initial run as a band. With no bassist in the band at the time, Ginn recorded all the bass parts himself, and they brought in Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson as a full time member. Stevenson would remain with the band on every subsequent Rollins-era album, and his airtight, slightly more complex style put a hop in My War's step that the 1982 demos didn't have. (The demos were recorded with drummer Chuck Biscuits, previously of D.O.A. and later of Circle Jerks, Danzig, and more.)
Though Dukowski was forced out of the band by Ginn before My War was recorded, his songwriting contributions to the album were crucial. He penned the title track, which may very well be the best straight-up, finger-pointing hardcore song of the Rollins era, better than anything on Damaged. The way Rollins barks "you're one of them!" is about as classic as it gets. Dukowski's also responsible for the deceptively-sentimental, actually-dark "I Love You," which presumably influenced some of Rollins' own lyrics on albums to come. The rest of the album was written by Ginn and Rollins, and these were their finest collaborations. Ginn practically creates Kurt Cobain's lead guitar style with the chorus of "Can't Decide," and the song's introverted, depressing themes can be heard resonating throughout the entire grunge era. "Beat My Head Against the Wall" basically put it in writing that Black Flag would be avoiding major labels for life, and "The Swinging Man" was one of the earliest examples of Ginn's fascination with the avant-garde, and one you could still mosh to.
As near-perfect as side A is, the three 6+ minute songs on side B are what cemented My War as one of the most crucial underground rock albums of all time. Side A hints at a more metal influence, but side B slows it down to a doomy, Black Sabbathian pace and more or less invents sludge metal in the process. At its most basic definition, sludge metal is doom metal riffs with hardcore punk vocals and attitude, and that's literally what Black Flag were on side B of My War: a hardcore punk band incorporating doom metal riffs. It was revolutionary, and the amount of bands those three songs influenced is countless. It's hard to imagine Melvins, Neurosis, or any sludge metal band sounding the way they did without My War, and by extension, the grunge era may have never even happened. And if the "Can't Decide" lyrics weren't depressing and introverted enough for the teenage angst of '90s alternative rock, the "Nothing Left Inside" lyrics definitely were. Black Flag's lyrics dealt with darkness and mental illness from day one, but they were never as bleak as they were on "Nothing Left Inside."
Black Flag's metal/punk hybrid continued on every subsequent Rollins-era album, and they continued to toy with it in new and interesting ways each time. But even with the rest of those albums, even with the thousands of bands who built careers inspired by My War, nothing's ever sounded like it, especially side B. All these decades later, even with its influence so widespread, My War still sounds like a revelation. Its raw production is as timeless as the songwriting, and while it's obvious in 2019 that My War isn't modern, it certainly isn't at all dated. It's blown so many kids' minds and inspired so many people to start bands over the years, and it's the kind of album that can and probably will continue to do that for generations to come.
1. Nervous Breakdown EP (1979)
It feels weird to pick a #1 that doesn't have Black Flag's best-known and longest-running singer, and even weirder to pick one that's five minutes and 15 seconds long, but not one of those seconds is wasted (no pun). Nervous Breakdown is the band's most perfect, most flawless release, and the one I always find myself coming back to the most, no matter what mood I'm in. It was written and recorded in 1978 and came out in January 1979 (happy 40th!), just as the first wave of punk -- as defined by bands like the Ramones, Sex Pistols, Dead Boys, etc -- was coming to an end. Punk was splitting in two, as bands were getting poppier and new wave and post-punk were taking over, while other bands took the Ramones' formula to an even shorter, faster, and louder conclusion: hardcore. Nervous Breakdown, which sounds like the first Ramones album on steroids, was one of the very first true hardcore records and it remains one of the best. Darker and more minor key than the Ramones, more pissed-off than the Dead Boys, Nervous Breakdown became the new standard for short, simple, three or four chord punk. The Ramones changed the way thousands of bands played guitar, but while they were taking their cues from '60s pop, Black Flag's meaner and less melodic sound helped usher in the generation of downer rockers that hit it big in the '90s, and that's clear from the first few notes of this EP.
It opens with its title track, which, at two minutes, is the longest song on the EP and the only song on side A, and as soon as you hear that first four-power-chord guitar riff, you're transported off this earth into some kind of punk rock heaven (or, more accurately, hell), and it happens every single time you hear it. It's up there with "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "Search and Destroy" as one of the most iconic, ass-kicking power chord riffs in history. It's so simple, but there's somehow nothing else like it, and it never gets old. And then Keith Morris comes in shouting his head off, and with all due respect to Henry Rollins, this song alone is enough to call Keith Morris my favorite Black Flag singer. You can only open the first song on your band's first EP with the line "I'm about to have a nervous breakdown" if you sound really convincing, and holy shit he does. The way he yells "going bersERRRRRRRRRRk" is like he's truly possessed, and by the end of the song, he's totally lost it. "I just wanna... DIEEEEEEEEEEEEEAHHHHHHHIIIEUH," he shrieks, basically cementing what we now think of as the hardcore scream.
And it's not just that he sounds like a literal maniac. He's also got the kind of youthful, snot-dosed delivery that would define punk for decades to come, and a subtle knack for melody always stirring beneath the yelled surface. And if "Nervous Breakdown" is a 10/10 punk song, the three that follow are like 9.5s. They all come with their own iconic power chord riffs from Greg Ginn, their own demonic hooks from Keith Morris, and they zip by at a relentless pace. Morris and Ginn clearly didn't take long to have a falling out, but they had some truly unique chemistry. As good as Black Flag's subsequent releases are, they never had this type of magic, and as good as Circle Jerks and OFF! are, Keith Morris never sounded as at home as he does over Greg Ginn's guitar riffs. I wish the EP was four times as long, but you can just play it four times in a row and still wanna hear it again. Nervous Breakdown is one of the records where I can remember exactly how it knocked me off my feet the first time I heard it, and every listen since then has felt like it's the first one all over again.
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FOR FURTHER LISTENING
* Keith Morris' bands Circle Jerks and OFF!
* Henry Rollins' bands S.O.A. and Rollins Band, and his solo and spoken word work
* Greg Ginn's solo career and his other bands including Gone, Confront James, Mojack, and more
* Chuck Dukowski's bands Würm and SWA
* Dez Cadena's band DC3
* SST supergroup October Faction with Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, and more