Make no mistake about it: For the most part, the '90s just sucked. There was a lot of cool shit going on in the underground. Bands like The Murder City Devils, The Supersuckers, Dropdead and Despise You are lifelong favorites of mine. But as far as stuff that got any mainstream traction, forget about it. This was the decade of Pearl Jam, the Beastie Boys renaissance, Green Day and every other Lollapaloozan monstrosity. Blech.
But one band that did get mainstream traction, and whose music holds up really well, is Rollins Band.
It’s not terribly cool to like Rollins Band. In fact, I wish I had a dime for every time someone uttered some variant of “Rollins ruined Black Flag.” But not only did Rollins give Black Flag exactly what they were looking for, but with Rollins Band, Old Man Hank showed that he wasn’t just in the right place at the right time. He had a genuine talent that Greg Ginn was shrewd enough to recognize.
I understand that Rollins Band can be a bit of an acquired taste for some. The band’s jazz-inflected noodling is certainly not the most accessible thing in the world. But it's the logical progression of what Black Flag was doing at the end. Rollins Band weren’t the world’s greatest songwriters, but they were a group of truly impressive musicians. If anything, the group is less about the Rollins and more about the Band.
To wit: Chris Haskett, Rollins Band guitarist from 1986 to 1997, has also played with David Bowie. Bassist Andrew Weiss, who played with the Band from '87 to '92, is a Grammy-winning producer with credits including Akron/Family and Helios Creed. Both he and drummer Sim Cain played in the original version of Ween’s expanded live band, as well as Greg Ginn’s Gone, an instrumental, post-Flag project. The J. Geils Band recruited Cain for their 1999 reunion tour. Second bassist Melvin Gibbs has played with everyone from John Zorn to Femi Kuti.
OK, so they’ve got some top-notch players. How’s the music?
It’s killer. Somehow Rollins Band manages to weld avant-jazz noodling to post-hardcore and make it work. Heavy grooves form a backbone that the noodling can hang off of. They end up as sort of the opposite of Living Colour, who were basically four soloists constantly trying to out-wank each other. There’s a rock-solid cycle of heavy riffing that gives everyone something to come back to.
Rollins might be the weakest link, but that’s only because he’s surrounded by titans. He probably wouldn’t be anything without them, but it’s near impossible to imagine listening to the backing tracks by themselves. From “Low Self Opinion” to “Just Like You,” The End of Silence was just what the doctor ordered for my anguished, 13-year-old soul.
The next album, Weight, shows Rollins at the peak of his mid-'90s powers. The video for “Disconnect” is a minor masterpiece of direction and a killer song to boot. “Liar” would be iconic if we lived in a world where people who think they know a lot about music actually did.
Live? They were great. I had occasion to see them when Hank was playing Black Flag songs to raise money for the West Memphis Three. Even just playing some punk rock songs, they operated with next-level precision. I wasn’t at Woodstock '94, but I did watch it on TV and I did catch Rollins Band. Henry Rollins isn’t just a singer, or a frontman — he’s a bandleader who keeps the lumbering machine well-oiled and moving.
They’re on Spotify. Give them a listen. And then another. And another. And so forth until you get it. Because there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like Rollins Band and those who are wrong.