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Reassessing

Black Flag: Family Man & The Process of Weeding Out

By Published: February 1, 2006
Black Flag
Family Man
SST
1984
&
Black Flag
The Process of Weeding Out
SST
1985

It is hard to convince many jazz fans that the most influential hardcore punk band of all time created some of the most interesting jazz of the '80s. But Los Angeles' Black Flag—along with its sister band Gone—played some of the most challenging free and avant-garde jazz during a period when many of jazz's unsung heroes withered into a musical and spiritual malaise.

Punk is no stranger to jazz. In fact, many people who came to jazz in the last thirty years had done time in the arena of punk or post-punk music, and they saw a similar philosophy working inside the world of free jazz musicians. Players working in this medium were willing to push music to new lengths while expanding sonic landscapes. Jazz has always been a form of protest and rebellion, just the way punk was to the kids of the '70s and '80s. Aside from the philosophical and social characteristics, jazz's sound would seep into punk music through a series of '90s punk-free jazz collaborations between Henry Rollins, Sonic Youth, and other groups. No, you are not going to hear Albert Ayler on a Damned single, but three bands who helped lay the cornerstone of punk sought free jazz as one of their creative signposts.

In the late '60s, Detroit's MC5 built an intense angry socio-political sound that claimed Pharoah Sanders as one of its main influences. Avant-garde trailblazer Captain Beefheart's bizarre and compelling masterpiece, Trout Mask Replica, is filled with free jazz rants and chops. But the essential link to get from jazz to Black Flag comes in the visage of Lou Reed and John Cale, whose band The Velvet Underground did more on the band's first two records than any other American group of the '60s to change the face of experimental music. Their eclectic blend of atonal noise, subtle pop and garage punk was fueled equally by R&B, John Cage, LaMonte Young and the solos of Ornette Coleman.

From here a young guitar wizard named Tom Miller, later known as Tom Verlaine, formed a band called the Neon Boys. The Neon Boys morphed into the double guitar attack of Television. Their debut record, Marquee Moon, is one of the greatest albums in the history of rock. Genius songwriting from Verlaine rounded out by the blazing improv soloing of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Unfortunately the band only made one more record in the late '70s, called Adventure, which, although good, was an overall disappointment. But live bootlegs and semi-legit releases from the era show the band working through long jams that sound possibly what Coltrane would have if he chose the guitar over the saxophone, redolent of rich textures filled out with great skill and technique that would impress any jazzophile.

This brings us the West Coast punk scene. LA had an ideology that which differed greatly from the New York scene. NY bands were eclectic enough to produce (aside from Television) Patti Smith, The Ramones, Blondie and The Misfits. LA had its own innovators, such as X, The Germs, Circle Jerks, The Dils and of course Black Flag. Black Flag always had a certain discontentment of paranoia and anger that was fueled by its primary songwriter, lyricist and guitarist, Greg Ginn. The band was always in a manner of flux, constantly changing singers and musicians. After releasing some great singles, the band found singer Henry Rollins and released the hardcore masterpiece Damaged. Due to legal problems with their distributing label, Unicorn, the band could not release any records as Black Flag until 1984.

With what is now considered the best Flag lineup (Ginn on guitar, Rollins on vocals, Bill Stevenson on drums and the great Kira Roessler on bass) they released Family Man, which is a bit an enigma, to say the least. It opens three points of interest: Rollins as the Beat Poet—sort of—the stoned dirge influence of Black Sabbath, and the instrumental jazz driven metal/punk that Ginn would utilize after dissolving Black Flag. The first side is comprised primarily of Rollins' juvenile attempts at poetry, which sound more like stoned ramblings. It ends with the riff-driven thrash piece "Armageddon Man," loaded with Rollins' bitter and pissed off lyrics and running almost nine minutes. Side two is of great interest to jazz fans. After wallowing in the insipid foolishness of "Salt on a Slug," Ginn, Roessler and Stevenson work some amazing improv jams. Along with the second half of Family Man is the EP The Process of Weeding Out.

Both works should have been released as a combined effort, since they feature the same trio and explore similar directions. Led either by Roessler's pulsating bass—which would later flesh out Dos with one-time husband and Minutemen/fIREHOSE bassist Mike Watt—or Ginn's guitar, the music sounded unlike anything else before, then or since. Using a loose time signature, the pieces build around Ginn's speedy playing and atonal rants, which sculpt sound into a body of free ear-splitting work. Ginn's playing has been compared to Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, not only by Rollins, but also by critics. Certainly no jazz critic would make the same assumption. Ginn is a master of free improv and these releases show his prowess as a would-be jazz player, but there is no way in hell that his sound or technique could even come close to Coleman or Dolphy. Ginn is not working in the same medium, nor is he trying to assume the same soul or spiritual heights that either of the aforementioned players aimed for.

Still the music is visionary and married jazz to a more primal medium, while Kenny G was boring jazz to new lows in the pop world. The distorted guitars and atonal feedback of players like Sonny Sharrock and James Blood Ulmer reign supreme in a sludgy Black Sabbath riff. In fact, if Ginn could be compared to anyone, it would be these two players. Though his style and technique isn't as advanced as theirs, his speed-driven playing and noisy rants on the guitar were certainly something they shared in common.

When Ginn broke up Black Flag, he devoted a band to this sound, known as Gone, and released a companion piece to these two records, Let's Get Real, Real Gone For A Change. Henry Rollins would not only prolifically write more "poetry," he formed the great Rollins Band, adding jazz/funk bassist Melvin Gibbs and free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle at one point—check out 2004's Weighting, a collection of previously unreleased and rare work from 1994's Weight, to hear Gayle cutting loose.

Black Flag was not the only band that was exploring jazz at this time. NY no-waver James Chance was putting put out some exciting and innovative material as well. Another personal favorite who would also explore jazz through punk was a group known as The Minutemen. Their 44-song opus Double Nickels on the Dime (released on Ginn's SST label) features Mike Watts' brilliant jazz-influenced bass, along with odd time signatures, not to mention a cover of Steely Dan's "Doctor Wu." This is an absolute must for fans of punk, alternative music and experimental jazz.

Though not for all tastes, walking into the world of punk-fused jazz can be scary. Some bands, like Television, are more laid-back, lacking distortion and favoring pop hooks, while others, like Black Flag, rage with atonal fury. But for those who seek a real adventure and think that Last Exit was perhaps too extreme, Black Flag's Family Man and The Process of Weeding Out are choice lost gems.

Suggested Spins:
Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity, ESP 1964
Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica, Reprise 1969
Gone, Lets Get Real, Real Gone For A Change, SST 1986
Mothers of Invention, We're Only in it For The Money, Verve 1968
Naked City, Naked City, Elektra/Nonesuch 1989
The Minutemen, Double Nickels on the Dime, SST 1984
The Rollins Band, Weighting, 2.13.61 2004
Sonny Sharrock, Ask The Ages, Axiom 1991
Television, Marquee Moon, Elektra 1977
James Blood Ulmer, The Tales of Captain Black, DIW 1978
The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Verve 1967
Tom Verlaine, Tom Verlaine, Elektra 1979



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