By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Gary Leonard|
By midsummer 1981, when the then-unknown, now-notorious Henry Rollins joined Black Flag as its fourth singer, the South Bay–based punk band had already tasted some extremely hard-earned success. Despite a set of severe hurdles — from an initial difficulty in getting local club gigs and a record deal to sensational “punk violence!” coverage by the news media and constant harassment of both the band and its fans by police — Black Flag had managed to self-release three EPs, tour North America several times, and grow from playing to a couple of dozen people at a San Fernando Valley coffeehouse to headlining shows at the Santa Monica Civic and Olympic Auditorium.
Black Flag accomplished this by developing a do-it-yourself work and business ethic which, although common in jazz, rhythm & blues and folk circles for decades, was almost unique for American rock bands at the time. It was an ethic that was hugely effective, and one that would prove hugely influential over the next two decades.
But what’s ironic about the band’s current historical status as one of American punk rock’s original DIY pioneers — “They may well be the band that made the biggest difference,” says no less an authority than Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye — is that Black Flag’s original aspirations had nothing to do with building an alternate model to the existing music industry.
“The beginning and end of it was always working on the music,” says Black Flag founder, guitarist and chief songwriter Greg Ginn today. “The other stuff was very much at the periphery.”
As they tell it now, Ginn & Co. would have been quite content to let someone else handle the mundane trivialities of being recording artists and performers: the nuts and bolts of producing and releasing records, doing publicity and marketing, booking tours, handling legal matters, lugging equipment, etc. Black Flag would play while others would work. But the music industry, broadly speaking, wasn’t interested in Black Flag — so Black Flag had to figure out, almost on their own, how to get their music heard. This is how they did it, in their own words:
1. PRACTICE HARD, ALL THE TIME.
Greg Ginn: “For us, it was all about practice, and always playing. A lot of times we didn’t have a place to live, but we always paid for a place to practice hours every day, through the whole Black Flag history. If we were living in vans, living in the practice place or staying with people or whatever, we always had a place to practice.”
Keith Morris (first Black Flag vocalist): “We got totally fed up with our original rhythm section. It got to the point where they were so flaky that we weren’t even rehearsing. We’d started to get our work ethic going, but it didn’t hit fifth gear until we got Robo and Chuck the Duke [Dukowski] in the band. And then it was like we rehearsed every night, sometimes for six hours. Sometimes I wouldn’t be getting home until, like, 4 in the morning.”
Ginn: “I thought that if you’re gonna call yourself a band and claim to play music, it’s not too much to ask that you practice a couple hours, five nights a week. But a lot of people thought, ‘Well, we’d rather party or hang out or this or that.’ And punk rock, there was a lot of that mentality — ‘Why do you need to practice so much?’ It was supposed to be ‘Everything’s zero, and life’s not worth anything, so why would you bother practicing?’ I’m not saying that my attitude is right. Other bands were different. Like the Germs — they didn’t practice, and I loved to go see them play. I wouldn’t have tried to change them! I was just, ‘Okay, that’s them. We’re not the Germs. We’re doing something different.’”
2. HAVE EXPERIENCE RUNNING A SMALL BUSINESS.
Ginn, who graduated from UCLA with an economics degree, started his first business — SST Electronics — when he was in junior high school, and continued to run it through college and into his 20s. SST provided friends with work — Morris, Dukowski and Mike Watt (among others) all made antenna tuners or other ham-radio accessories at some point — and generated the seed money Ginn used to fund Black Flag’s early activities.
Morris: “Greg was basically our financier — he was our industrial capitalist.”
While he was at UC Santa Barbara, Chuck Dukowski ran a production company that put on shows and movies. He’d also “toured” the U.S. in a van twice, playing rock gigs with a high school friend in a band that eventually became WÃ¼rm.
Dukowski(bass): “We had a single 12-inch speaker, we’d both plug into it, and we’d go and jam everywhere. After college, we rented a bunch of different storefronts and commercial spaces that we’d live in and practice in, and try to get the ball rolling with our band. Eventually, we ended up in a deserted bathhouse and restaurant in Hermosa Beach. We bought and sold musical equipment to make money. WÃ¼rm couldn’t get gigs, so we played to 20 to 30 people a night, pretty much seven days a week, at our pad. We had it all organized — how to stay underground and avoid getting into trouble. We even had a secret knock.”