“What The…”, Indeed.
When Black Flag announced their reformation earlier this year, with the frontline of guitarist/founding member Greg Ginn and Jealous Again-era vocalist Ron Reyes (credited on all Black Flag releases from that period by the moniker Chavo Pederast), there was a lot of skepticism over the whole thing. After all, reunions of classic bands are always a risk. Some have been beyond successful: The Stooges and Mission of Burma have extended their legacies well and been consistent live draws. The New York Dolls were right behind them until they dropped their fifth and quite frankly, worst studio album Dancing Backwards In High Heels a few years ago (a rather ‘meh’ review of the album here at TGML led to Sylvain Sylvain deleting your humble writer from his Facebook page). The Sex Pistols’s reunion didn’t result in any new music, just some short, hard-hitting reunion tours.
And then there’s what happens when reunions go wrong: The Velvet Underground’s reunion tanked before it could hit Stateside shores thanks to unresolved tensions between Lou Reed and John Cale. Cream’s reunion several years ago was already doomed because Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker have hated each others guts since before Cream was even formed.
And then we have Black Flag, who have had a rather interesting first year back, to say the least. No sooner had the return of the Jealous Again-era Ginn/Reyes frontline (with longtime Ginn collaborator Gregory Moore behind the drum kit and, at least in a live setting, ex-Screeching Weasel bassist Dave Klein [Ginn played bass parts on the forthcoming Black Flag album What The… under his Dale Nixon alter-ego]) been announced, than former members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson and Dez Cadena had gotten together with Stevenson’s Descendents/ALL bandmate Stephen Egerton handling the lead guitar duties, under the moniker FLAG. To be fair, both formations were a long time in gestating and completely independent of each other. The seeds for Ginn and Reyes making music together again under the four-bars banner had been sown when Reyes invited Ginn to participate in a 50th birthday concert in Vancouver in 2010, while the FLAG lineup stemmed from when the members, minus Cadena, had done a semi-impromptu appearance at the Goldenvoice 30th anniversary show in Santa Monica where, after being introduced as Black Flag, they played the entire Nervous Breakdown EP from beginning to end.
Then things got really interesting. Black Flag dropped their first new single since 1986, “Down In The Dirt”, as a free download (coincidentally on the day Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman passed away). Keith Morris, having already cut a promo on Ginn in the OFF! song “I’ve Got News For You”, dismissed the Black Flag reunion as [paraphrasing] “Greg and hired hands playing along to a tape loop of Greg playing Chuck’s bass lines”. Ginn fired back, semi-anonymously, on the band’s website by accusing the FLAG party of “mailing in” their performances.
Thanks to social media, though, people started to make up their minds. If there were any bad reviews of the FLAG performances, I didn’t see any. Reviews of Black Flag’s performances were mixed, to say the least. There were good notices like that of an Austin performance where the reviewer was critical of the soundman having Ginn’s guitar sound too low and Ginn being a bit too fond of his Theremin (an instrument he’d already been using to good effect on his electronica project Greg Ginn And The Royal We, and for no reason other than he wanted to with his other rock band Good For You with former skater Mike Vallely on vocals) for some liking… and others where there had been reports of sloppy playing (some of the blame being lobbied at the Moore/Klein rhythm section, some at Ginn himself), too much Theremin, and dismayed fans walking out of shows.
And then the descent, in retrospect, seemed to have started. Ginn and his label, SST, sued not only the participants in FLAG, but former longtime vocalist and best known member Henry Rollins, for trademark infringement and related charges, including filing a trademark application for the Black Flag name and logo. Probably the most shocking thing about this lawsuit was the fact that Ginn had never bothered to trademark the band’s iconic four-bars logo, despite the fact that the band’s back catalog and merchandise had been steady sellers worldwide. Even more damaging to Ginn would be the fact that a judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order preventing FLAG from performing with any variation of the Black Flag logo whatsoever – the FLAG partnership had basically managed to cover their asses by openly emphasizing that the band consisted of classic members playing the songs of Black Flag; Ginn’s only “witness” in his case was one person who had naively asked Ginn at a Black Flag show if he’d be playing with the FLAG lineup later that year.
Probably not helping matters, at least in the eyes of people who wanted to shit on the Black Flag reformation just because they wanted to, was the release of the cover art to the long-awaited reformation album, What The… … which raised a lot of eyebrows for being the most unlikely bit of artwork to grace a Black Flag album, ever. Ron Reyes, who had done the artwork, ended up defending it on his Facebook page thusly:
“Well, I gotta admit that I was the one who designed this. I submitted several designs, all of which I liked much better. But this is the one that stuck. Originally it was black and white but then I was asked to add some color. I was aiming for something kinda fun and not serious like some early Descendents art. I fully expected that some folks would hate it. I guess I was right. Does that make me prophetic? Lol. Lighten up folks, geesh, it’s only rock ‘n roll.”
Through all this, both bands continued to play, with FLAG capping off their 2013 tour in late September (Dez Cadena was already slated to return to his main gig with the Misfits after that), and Black Flag playing their first ever shows in Puerto Rico (a visit that had to have some personal significance to Ron Reyes, who is of Puerto Rican heritage) and in Australia. The whole time Black Flag were touring, Ginn’s other band Good For You were the openers. The only actual difference between Black Flag and Good For You were the vocalists, and Ginn’s performing history is rife with instances where he would play multiple sets with different acts in the same evening, going back at least to the time when he would play bass with Tom Trocolli’s Dog at the start of a show and then play guitar with Black Flag to close things off.
So far in Black Flag’s history since their reformation, the only publicly visible bump in the road (not counting fan criticisms) was that of the release date for What The… originally being set for early November digitally, only for the release to be pushed back to next Tuesday, December 5th, to coincide with the physical release. Then a few rumblings started to manifest after the closing date of the Australian tour on November 24th.
Ron Reyes would take to his Facebook account to explain everything:
On November 24th, 2013, the last night of the Australian Hits and Pits tour, with two songs left in the set, Mike V comes on stage, stares me down, takes my mic and says “You’re done, party’s over, get off, it’s over…” He said something else to me but it was a lie so I won’t repeat it here. So with a sense of great relief that it was finally over I left the stage and walked to the hotel room. They finished the set with Mike V on vocals.
There is much more that can and perhaps should be said. But for now, I will spare you the gory details. The writing was on the wall since before we played our first show. So many things went wrong from the start. I was into things like having a good drummer, rehearsing and spending time on things like beginnings and endings of songs, being a little less distracted with tour life, and a little more on the ball. You know, things that would make our efforts worthy of the name Black Flag… Yes, it is my opinion that we fell very short indeed, and the diminishing ticket sales and crowds are a testament to that. However, it was made clear to me that raising these issues was tantamount to a blasphemous stab in the back to Greg. How could I question him, his efforts and hard work? How could I dare be a fan of OFF! and/or be friends and a fan of FLAG? I was told that I had to choose sides. But I refuse to treat someone like an infallible Pope figure. No guitarist deserves such unquestioning blind devotion. And so, I have been excommunicated in a very strange fashion.
I truly feel sorry for anyone who had to witness the infantile behaviour and the relentless provocation I was subjected to both on and off the stage. I regret that under such fierce provocation and taunting I sometimes responded in manners bellow my standard. I am grateful for the opportunities Greg gave me. There were some magical moments at first. I was naive enough to believe in the promise of potential. But in the end, the good was no match for the overwhelming bad. It am proud of my contributions including the new album and it’s cover. Come on, folks, it’s only rock n roll.
I would not be surprised if Mike V becomes the new singer for Black Flag. It is my opinion that they have been planning this for some time. I wish them well. Mike is a true disciple of Greg and so they have a good working relationship, and ironically the tension over the last weeks has brought out some of Greg’s best playing. So, it could be interesting. I will miss playing with Dave Klein. He is a great kid and truly an outstanding bass player. Dave was an anchor that kept me from losing my place on a nightly basis. Trust me, that was no easy task for either of us.
I truly apologize for being in or more accurately “appearing” to be in competition with FLAG. They know my heart on this matter. From the beginning, I was happy for them and fully supported and understood why they would want to rock those songs and have a good time with friends and family. Yes, I questioned their use of the name and logo but in no way questioned their motivation or right to do their thing. I envy them for they have succeeded in ways that were never possible with Black Flag. And once again, for the record, I agreed to do Black Flag before I knew there was a Flag. I mean no malice towards Greg or Mike although they will most likely see things very differently. I wish them luck and prosperity. I have learned many valuable lessons this year. And these lessons will enrich my personal and musical endeavours.
In a way, some of this is business as usual for Black Flag. This will not be the first time a lineup change occurred right before the release of a record featuring a previous lineup. Bill Stevenson had quit Black Flag in 1985 right before Loose Nut came out, and Kira Roessler would be similarly parted company with at the end of that year’s touring, even though an entire album’s worth of material with the Stevenson/Kira rhythm section, tracked at the same time as Loose Nut but not completed until later, was in the can. (The album in question, In My head, came out later in 1985.)
Does the split between Ron and Black Flag color my perspective on the album coming out next week? Well, I’ve been awaiting the album since the reformation was announced, and given Black Flag’s history it doesn’t matter. I’ll still give the album its due. Whether there will still be a Black Flag in 2014 is up for grabs – if Ginn puts Mike V in the Black Flag vocalist spot after doing two albums worth of material with him under the Good For You moniker, it’s guaranteed that the move will alienate fans.
Not like Ginn has ever given a shit – he’s always recorded the music he’s wanted to make, whether or not it fit his Black Flag image.
Ron Reyes will go back to his family and his own main band, Piggy (who already have a fine 12″ EP out). Ginn will still make music whether it has that four-bars logo on it. And the world will still turn.