Black Flag became America's premier hardcore punk band in the early '80s. With its uncompromising DIY ethic, constant low-budget touring, and angry, driving songs, the group provided the blueprint for subsequent postpunk bands.
Guitarist Greg Ginn formed the group in 1977, two years after he graduated from UCLA with a degree in economics. He and bassist Chuck Dukowski cofounded SST Records so they could get the group's music into the hands of its small but rabid audience. With its roster of other critically acclaimed bands, including Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Meat Puppets, SST became the most respected American indie of the '80s.
Black Flag's early songs were marked by Ginn's scorching rhythm and tangled lead guitar work, Dukowski's guttural bass playing, and a succession of wailing vocalists. The band's first single, "Wasted," reflected the nihilistic angst of Black Flag's suburban, middle-class, "party-hearty" surroundings, with a theme that popped up repeatedly in later songs such as "TV Party" (from Damaged) and "Annihilate This Week" (Loose Nut).
When singer Keith Morris left to form the Circle Jerks, Black Flag went through several vocalists before locking in with Henry Rollins, a Washington, DC, punk who had jumped onstage with the band during a New York performance. MCA refused to release the group's first full-length album, Damaged, but after Ginn released it himself on SST —to overwhelmingly favorable critical response —a bitter legal dispute ensued with MCA-distributed Unicorn Records. For two years Black Flag was forbidden to use its name or logo. When Unicorn went bankrupt, Ginn came out of the struggle vowing never to deal with other labels, especially the majors.
In its most prolific period —1984 to 1986 —Black Flag released more than one LP per year, in addition to its continuous touring. In 1986 Ginn formed a side trio, Gone (which released three albums), and soon dissolved Black Flag. He has since focused on running SST, although he returned to music in 1993, releasing solo albums under his own name, the pseudonym Poindexter Stewart, and with a new version of Gone.
While it was Ginn who composed all of Black Flag's music and the majority of its lyrics, Rollins' career got the greatest boost from his former band's momentum. With the demise of Black Flag, Rollins immediately formed his own Rollins Band, taking Gone's Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain with him, while enlisting DC guitarist Chris Haskett. Soundman Theo Van Rock was credited as a full member. The Rollins Band recorded several albums and gained a wide following that intensified after its appearance on the 1991 Lollapalooza Tour and with the release of The End of Silence. Weight was even nominated for a Grammy, and in 1997, Come In and Burn reached #89 on the Billboard Top 200. By the release of 2000's Get Some, Go Again, the original Rollins Band had moved on, replaced by the members of Mother Superior, an L.A.-based trio, which provided a more straight-ahead hard-rock canvas for Rollins' shouted vocals. In 1998, Rollins collaborated with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Flesh-N-Bone, Flea, and Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine on a remake of the 1970 Edwin Starr hit "War" for the soundtrack to Small Soldiers.
Rollins remains equally busy as a spoken-word artist, releasing numerous spoken-word recordings and videos. He has written a number of books published by his own press, 2.13.61, which has released books by other authors, including Iggy Pop. Rollins is also a working actor, both narrating TV commercials (the Gap, Nike, GMC trucks) and winning roles in serious films alongside the likes of Al Pacino (Heat) or in lighter family fare (Jack Frost).
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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