Rise Above

Black Flag Live

“Rise Above” by Black Flag is punk rock self-help music, an inspirational rallying cry for punk rockers fed up not only with hippies and cops but with everything and everyone that stands in their way. I first heard this song when I was nineteen years old, and it felt like a wake-up call to burst through all of the problems that were weighing me down and break through into a better, stronger life. It still feels that way today, twenty years after I first heard it.


The other thing about this particular clip is that it shows rare, live footage of Black Flag in performance with a very young Henry Rollins on vocals. Grainy and shaky as the video is, it does capture at least a little bit of what made the Black Flag live show such a legendary experience.

The crazed energy of Greg Ginn on guitar, the violent exuberance of Rollins' performance, the supercharged aggression of the audience- all these things must have been a hundred times more powerful to those few who were lucky enough to be there in person. They say- of Black Flag and a handful of other bands who were more influential than they were successful- that only about a thousand people ever saw them perform, but every one of those people started a band of their own.


Black Flag had to overcome a lot of things to even exist- opposition and sometimes outright oppression from self-serving record companies, self-righteous politicians and brutal police. Here they are in action, rising above it all.



Los Angeles By X

"She Had To Leave..."

“Los Angeles” by X has always been a controversial song because of its opening lines, which are explicitly racist and homophobic. What a lot of people don't realize is that singer Exene Cervenka isn't identifying personally with the racist woman in the song. She's just describing a type of person she met sometimes in Los Angeles.

I've met this type of person myself in big cities like New York and elsewhere. Even some of my own friends could fit into this type to some extent. You grow up in a smaller city somewhere and you think of yourself as anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-LGBT etc. Then you go to the big city and it's much more tribal than you ever realized, with clear dividing lines between different groups and a general attitude of distrust and mild hostility. You aren't sure if you can feel safe or comfortable in any group other than the one you happen to be a member of. You aren't sure if there are neighborhoods where you wouldn't be welcome to go at all.


The culture around you is one in which a lot of people take stereotypes for granted. It might shock you at first, but little by little you start to participate in it. You start to tell jokes that would have shocked you back home. You start to see things in terms of “us vs them.”


And then, before you know it, you've morphed into a bigot. You might not even see it, but when you visit friends from back home, they see it right away. They want to know why you seem to have changed, and you ask yourself what happened.


The story of X's “Los Angeles” has a lot more clarity if you just take the first eleven words in isolation from the rest of the song, because they describe something that really happens to some people:


“She had to leave Los Angeles. She had started to hate...”



Black Flag

Nervous Breakdown

Before the term “punk hardcore” was invented to describe the music of Black Flag and other LA bands, Black Flag was just seen as another punk band. “Nervous Breakdown,” their first release, sounds much more like old school punk rock rather than punk hardcore per se.


Black Flag went through a number of different singers before settling on Henry Rollins, and this track is from well before Rollins' time with the band. The singer is actually Keith Morris, later of the Circle Jerks. After he left and started his own band, Black Flag continued under the leadership of guitarist Greg Ginn. Since Ginn was the band's primary songwriter, it wasn't too difficult for them to just hire a new singer whenever they needed to.

In fact, Black Flag fans were so devoted to their favorite band that the band was even able to tour without a singer when it needed to, relying on random fans pulled out from the audience to sing their songs. That's how Rollins eventually got the job, by stepping up to sing for the band when they were playing in the DC area. They were impressed enough to give him an official audition, and then the job of being their new singer.


Rollins sang in a completely different style from Keith Morris, who sounds more like a New York or London punk vocalist of that time period. Both Rollins and his immediate predecessor Dez Cadena sang in a full-throated growl that contributed to the distinct “punk hardcore” sound.


Empty Faces - 'Sink in my Head'

No matter how many decades it weathers, that particular breed of out-of-tune power-chord garage punk never seems to age. Young and brash as the rest of them, here's Empty Faces with a track off their self-titled debut cassette.


Circle Jerks

Backed Up Against a Wall

There's an old proverb that says “even a cornered mouse will bite the cat.” I can hardly think of a more appropriate saying for either this song or the current political and economic reality.


The song is “Backed Up Against a Wall” by the Circle Jerks, as sung by Keith Morris (the original singer for Black Flag, way before Henry Rollins joined the band). The video is from the documentary “Decline of Western Civilization.” Even though the words of the song tell punk rockers that they're not going to get anywhere trying to fight the police, the feeling of the song is one of desperate defiance.

You might know perfectly well that you're not going to be able to resist the overwhelming power and capacity for violence of a modern government and its law enforcement services, with their ready access to tear gas, rubber bullets, bean-bag projectiles and batons, and live ammunition waiting to be used if they deem it necessary. Yet even though you know there's no hope of actually beating them, you find yourself standing up anyway, refusing to just let them impose their will on you- and in doing so you claim a measure of dignity you may never have had before. Even if you lose in the end, there is something you win, and it's something they'll never be able to take away.


When the cat has it backed into a corner and there's nowhere left to run, even a mouse will bite. What does it still have to lose?

Angelic Upstarts

"The Murder of Liddle Towers"

One of the all-time great protest songs, “The Murder of Liddle Towers” by the Angelic Upstarts. Liddle Towers died in a holding cell, possibly due to police brutality, and yet no one was ever charged. This Oi! Punk classic was the only justice ever meted out.


The song seems particularly appropriate this week, as Marine veteran Scott Olsen lies in the hospital with a fractured skull after being shot in the face with a tear-gas canister after the police broke up Occupy Oakland. The unintentional result of a chaotic situation? Hardly. As you can see in the following video, riot police deliberately waited until other occupiers gathered to help Olsen where he lay bleeding on the street, and then tossed a flash-bang grenade into their midst:


Deliberate, callous, criminal violence- which in all likelihood will never result in charges against anyone. In the face of oppression and brutality, what weapon do we have except the truth? In the words of the Angelic Upstarts:

He was beaten black, he was beaten blue
But don't be alarmed, it was the right thing to do
The police have the power, Police have the right
To kill a man, to take away his life...


Police have the answers
But they haven't got the right,

To kill a man
To take away his life.
Perhaps I'm not too clever, perhaps I'm not too bright
But I think your verdict was just a lie!”

Good luck, Scott Olsen. Stay with us and bear witness.

What a Wonderful World


The music of the Ramones always makes me feel happy and joyful and filled with life, from their early classics like “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” up to later stuff like “Warthog” and “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” and even covers like “Needles and Pins” or bizarre parodies like “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” They all seem to give me this happy feeling, and the Ramones is the band I go to when I want to cheer myself up. Joey Ramone's version of “What a Wonderful World” is the perfect example, even if he didn't do this one with the rest of the band.

It's not really a punked-up cover the way a lot of bands would do it. It has that Joey Ramone sound and electric energy, but otherwise it's actually a pretty straightforward interpretation. There's no cynicism, no irony or anger to take away from the lyrics. Obviously those things have their place in punk rock music, but not this time. In this song, Joey Ramone tells me it's a wonderful world, and I believe him, at least for the few minutes that the song lasts.


The music video for this one tells a little story, where two young lovers get together to play the DVD of Joey singing this song. It's a charming and innocent little story, not much like the mood of a lot of punk- but it works in the context of this particular song. Recorded, as the song was, so near the end of his life, it makes me happy to think that this Joey Ramone's final commentary on the life he lived.  

Green Day Voted Best Punk Band of All Time

Rolling Stone readers could use a history lesson


You can't trust the internet to know anything about anything (says the lady writing about it on the internet). Rolling Stone readers have named Green Day as the best punk band of all time on an online poll. 

Yes, of all time. It's not like the choices were among the likes of Green Day, Blink 182, and Sum-41. Also making the top 10--and losing to Green Day--were The Clash, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and the Stooges. As in, pretty much all the important bands of the genre. All lost to a trio of '90s upstarts most famous for their syrupy acoustic song "Good Riddance". 

I mean, this is the internet, and it seems that a bunch of Green Day fan sites rallied together to make this happen. Maybe Rolling Stone shouldn't place so much importance on what a bunch of 13 to 18-year-olds have to say about the history of punk music. They're a major music publication capable of covering any artist they want. They don't have to rely on the opinions of children to make their stories happen. 

I'll admit to digging a few Green Day songs back in the day. Remember Dookie? From 1994? Yeah, I owned the crap out of that record. It was like owning any other Green Day record, because up until American Idiot they only had about three songs that they shuffled around a bit to fill records. It could be argued that even American Idiot was a reshuffle of the old material with more pretentious lyrics. I never had too much against the guys--their simple three-chord pop punk was sunny and bland and fun, like much that happened during the '90s. It was watered down to all hell, but never particularly terrible. It filled the radio like so many vague expressions of musical tomfoolery at the time. 

But then they got "political". A lot of bands went this route during the Bush route, but few took it quite so seriously as Green Day. Their happy era of origin had been crushed to bits by an incompetent government and they were not pleased. So they wrote the same songs over again, only with some tighter production values, longer running times, and lyrics that vaguely conveyed frustration. Even the nine-minute epic "Jesus of Suburbia" holds little content beyond its indignant rallying cry, "I don't care if you don't care!" While punk's never been much for poetry (see Against Me!'s first album for a brilliant exception to this rule), there's a reason most artists keep their songs to three minutes or less. Punk songs are outbursts, inarticulate cries that echo against a generation's rage. Our generation picks Green Day for our punk because we're complacent, confident that three dudes in tight pants and eyeliner can effectively communicate our discontent. Green Day may be just another Warner Music Group product, but kids are too busy scoffing at all those other American idiots to notice. 

I think I'll go curl up with my Black Flag and my Misfits and try to drown out the sound of a genre forgetting itself.