In many ways, Black Flag was the definitive Los Angeles hardcore punk band. Although their music flirted with heavy metal and experimental noise and jazz more than that of most hardcore bands, they defined the image and the aesthetic. Through their ceaseless touring, the band cultivated the American underground punk scene; every year, Black Flag played in every area of the U.S., influencing countless numbers of bands. Although their recording career was hampered by a draining lawsuit, which was followed by a seemingly endless stream of independently released records, Black Flag was unquestionably one of the most influential American post-punk bands. A full decade and a half before the fusion of punk and metal became popular, Black Flag created a ferocious, edgy, and ironic amalgam of underground aesthetics and gut-pounding metal. Their lyrics alluded to social criticism and a political viewpoint, but it was all conveyed as seething, cynical angst, which was occasionally very funny. Furthermore, Black Flag demonstrated an affection for bohemia — both in terms of musical experimentation and a fondness for poetry — that reiterated the band's underground roots and prevented it from becoming nothing but a heavy metal group. And it didn't matter who was in the band — throughout the years, the lineup changed numerous times — because the Black Flag name and four-bar logo became punk institutions.
Black Flag was formed in 1977 by guitarist Greg Ginn, a graduate of UCLA. Ginn formed the band with bassist Chuck Dukowski; the pair soon added drummer Brian Migdol and vocalist Keith Morris. At the same time, Ginn and Dukowski formed an independent record label, SST, which released the band's first EP, Nervous Breakdown, in 1978. Morris and Migdol departed the following year — Morris went on to form the Circle Jerks — and they were respectively replaced with Chavo Pederast and Robo. By the release of 1980's Jealous Again, Black Flag had begun to tour the U.S. relentlessly, building up a small, but dedicated, following of fans. After the release of Jealous Again, Pederast left the group and was replaced by Dez Cadena. However, Cadena preferred to play guitar, and his transition to that instrument in 1981 gave the group a heavier sound; his replacement on vocals was Henry Rollins, a Washington, D.C., fan who jumped on-stage to sing with the band during a New York performance.
Early in 1981, Black Flag signed a record contract with Unicorn Records, a subsidiary of MCA. The band delivered their first full-length album, Damaged, to Unicorn; the label refused to release the record, citing the content of the music as too dangerous and vulgar. Undaunted, Ginn released the album on his own SST Records. Upon its release, the album received considerable critical acclaim. Soon after it appeared on the shelves, Unicorn sued Black Flag and SST over the release of Damaged. For the next two years, the band was prevented from using the name Black Flag or their logo on any records. During that time, the group continued to tour, and surreptitiously released Everything Went Black, a double-album retrospective that contained no mention of the band, although it listed the names of the members on the front cover. The dispute ended in 1983, when Unicorn went bankrupt and the rights to the Black Flag name and logo reverted back to the band (by this time, Cadena had left to form his own group).
In the fall of 1986, Ginn broke up the band. He recorded two albums with the more experimental Gone, but he primarily concentrated on running SST Records, which had become one of the most important American independent labels of the era. By the time Black Flag broke up, SST had already released albums by such bands as Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and Sonic Youth. For most of the late '80s, Ginn retired from performing, choosing to operate SST instead; during this time, the label released the first recordings from bands like Soundgarden, Dinosaur Jr., and Screaming Trees. Ginn returned to music in 1993, releasing a solo album on his new record label, Cruz, and over the next 20 years he would release dozens of albums, some under his own name and others with such groups as Confront James, Hor, Jambang, El Bad, and the Taylor Texas Corrugators.
Following Black Flag's breakup, Henry Rollins formed the Rollins Band. For the rest of the '80s, he released music recorded with the Rollins Band on a variety of labels, as well as solo spoken word recordings, becoming one of the most recognizable figures of alternative music. In 1994, Rollins published Get in the Van, a memoir of his years in Black Flag, and the book's success helped spark greater interest in the band's legacy. While both Ginn and Rollins refused to perform Black Flag's music for many years, Rollins made an exception for a 2002 benefit album, Rise Above, a collection of Black Flag covers with guest vocalists which raised money for the legal defense of the West Memphis Three, three young men wrongly accused of murder. Rollins Band supported the release with a benefit tour, with Rollins and Keith Morris singing Black Flag's best-known songs. In 2003, Ginn briefly revived the band for three shows to benefit cat rescue organizations, though many fans were disappointed that only Robo, Cadena, and Revuelta appeared from previous lineups.
In late 2011, as part of a 30th Anniversary celebration for the California concert promotion firm Goldenvoice, Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, and Bill Stevenson joined with Stephen Egerton, guitarist with the Descendents, to play a short set of early Black Flag tunes. Response to the impromptu performance was so strong that the foursome set up a concert tour in 2013, with Dez Cadena joining the group now known as FLAG. Around the same time FLAG announced their tour, Greg Ginn revealed he was re-forming Black Flag for a series of shows and a new album, with Ron Reyes returning as vocalist and Gregory Moore (aka Gregory Amoore), who had worked on Ginn's solo projects, on drums. The re-formed Black Flag released What The ... in late 2013, roughly two months after a judge ruled against Ginn in a trademark-infringement lawsuit he'd filed against the members of FLAG. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine