In summer 1986, Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins received a phone call from the band's guitarist Greg Ginn.
“He told me he was quitting the band,” Rollins recalled in his acclaimed 1994 memoir, Get In The Van. “I thought that was strange considering it was his band and all. So in one short phone call, it was all over.”
Rather than return to his previous job as an assistant manager at the Georgetown, Washington DC branch of Häagen-Dazs, the bull-necked vocalist quickly formed a new band with guitarist and DC native Chris Haskett, releasing one album (Hot Animal Machine) and an EP (Drive By Shooting, as Henrietta Collins And The Wifebeating Childhaters) before forming the Rollins Band proper in 1987.
Free of Ginn’s totalitarian chokehold in Black Flag, Rollins’ found himself fronting a gifted band willing to embrace everything from hardcore and punk rock, to blues, jazz and funk, which they did over the course of seven studio albums. Here are those albums in ascending order of greatness.
7. Nice (2001)
Nice – the one with the ironic cover artwork featuring a naked woman writhing around in a blizzard of dollar bills – was produced by Rollins himself, and is cut from a slightly different cloth to the aggro blues rock of its predecessor, 2000's Get Some Go Again.
Following raging opener One Shot, it dips its toe into James Brown territory with the strutting Up For It. Later, Your Number Is One shuffles with a metallic funk bent, while What's the Matter Man boasts a howling riff and a driving chorus perfectly suited to an extreme sports face-plant compilation; fitting then, that it appeared on the soundtrack to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3.
Nice was to be the final Rollins Band studio album, in name and line-up. After touring in support of Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three – a charity album featuring the Mother Superior line-up plus a host of guest vocalists - Rollins reunited with Haskett, Gibbs and Cain for a North American tour with X, before calling time on his music career.
“One day I woke up in my bed and I went, ‘I'm done with music. I just have no more lyrics. There's no more toothpaste in the tube’,” he revealed on Rick Rubin’s Broken Record podcast in 2021. Nice is the sound of a band taking a hammer to the tube.
6. Get Some Go Again (2000)
Following the tour in support of Come In And Burn, Rollins parted ways with Haskett, Gibbs and Cain, and recruited Los Angeles hard rock trio Mother Superior to form a new-look Rollins Band. The four-piece would rehearse in Black Flag’s old practice space and emerged with the muscular material that would form Get Some Go Again.
While previous Rollins Band releases pulsed with eclectic influences – jazz, funk, prog – this 2000 album is stuck in fifth gear, like a revving monster truck. But to their credit, the backing band are solid enough, harnessing the power of The Stooges, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, particularly on the sinewy title track and the boisterous Thinking Cap.
“It's a blues-based alley-rock thing,” Rollins told The AV Club in 1998. “We go into it with such lack of pretence, it's alarming. We get it done.”
After the deep introspection of Come In And Burn, Get Some... is the sound of a rejuvenated Henry Rollins having fun, particularly on a spirited cover of Thin Lizzy’s Are You Ready?, aided and abetted by Lizzy's own Scott Gorham.
5. Hard Volume (1989)
Rollins Band’s second full-length was preceded by Do It, a compilation of covers featuring Pink Fairies’ titular track, Velvet Underground’s Move Right In and a selection of live recordings taken from shows in Holland in 1987.
A hand-to-mouth existence informs the frustrated, animalistic nature of Hard Volume, while Haskett, Weiss and Cain's performances take on a corrosive jazz-blues inflection which would be explored further on The End of Silence. Album closer Joy Riding with Frank – a nod to Blue Velvet’s maniac Frank Booth – takes their fandom of Velvet Underground even further, by incorporating Move Right In to an intense half-hour improvised jam, recorded in Austria.
4. Come In And Burn (1997)
The band’s debut for major label Dreamworks was stalled by a legal dispute with their former label Imago. Given extra time to work on their follow-up to Weight, guitarist Chris Haskett told this writer that the results were overthought by the time they joined Steve Thompson at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York (where the producer helped mix Metallica’s divisive 1988 set …And Justice For All).
“I think it’s the best sounding record we’d made, but I think some of the songs are overwritten,” said Haskett. “I’m not saying they’re bad, but every T is crossed and every I is dotted. We couldn’t put any more parts into those songs.”
That said, Starve – a song about Rollins’ spartan lifestyle – is taut, while On My Way To The Cage is propelled by Gibbs’ satisfying low-end rumble. The End of Something is a slow-burning companion to Liar; hypnotic, lounge music with bursts of metal, Rollins – with all the homicidal calm of a failed Hallmark greeting card writer – quietly intoning: “I don't step on roaches when they crawl across my floor, and if I saw your body burning in the street, I’d put you out with gasoline.”
Saying Goodbye Again is a particular highlight, with Rollins meditating on the loss of a friend over a Sabbath-y riff: “Here it is, on the news, someone I know is now someone I knew, I can't believe it happened again.”
Haskett may have a point about Come In And Burn being overworked, but it packs a sonic punch and has possesses some genuine standout moments.
3. Life Time (1987)
Following the dissolution of Black Flag, the vocalist returned almost immediately with two releases: the album Hot Animal Machine (as Henry Rollins) and the Drive by Shooting EP (as Henrietta Collins and The Wifebeating Childhaters). This full-length release, however, was the first to bear the name Rollins Band and features guitarist Chris Haskett, bassist Andrew Weiss and drummer Sim Cain.
Produced by Rollins’ childhood friend, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, Life Time is coarse and led by a vitriolic vocal delivery. Burned Beyond Recognition is raw and unstrained, Gun In Mouth Blues is slow and unsettling, while the funk-flavoured Turned Out bristles with indignation, and offers a hint of the shape of Rollins Band to come.
2. The End of Silence (1992)
The End of Silence was recorded with Andy Wallace after the band’s appearance on the first-ever Lollapalooza tour. It was a shrewd appointment, as the producer had just mixed Nirvana’s Nevermind, which was mere weeks old as the Rollins Band entered Showplace Studios in New Jersey. With the quartet road-honed and armed with their strongest material yet, Wallace’s production channels the raw materials into a genre-defining album.
Singles Low Self Opinion and Tearing are immediate and focused, while the caustic Obscene showcases Cain’s percussive chops. Closer Just Like You is flecked with bile, as Rollins rails against his abusive father Paul Garfield, a man he severed ties with when he turned 18 years old. “From the wreckage of humiliation, I got my self respect, I pulled myself together – what the hell did you expect?” he rages during the doom-laden, discordant 10-minute masterpiece.
Between completing the album and its release in February 1992, Rollins’ life changed forever when his best friend Joe Cole was shot dead in an attempted armed robbery at their shared Venice Beach apartment. He was just 30.
1. Weight (1994)
After Andrew Weiss’ dismissal from the group, the addition of jazz bassist Melvin Gibbs proved to be a perfect foil for Haskett and Cain. As a result, Weight – produced by the band’s long-serving sound man Theo Van Rock – is a dynamic affair with depth and space, fuelled by their frontman’s rage.
The album's lead single, Liar – a sarcastic, novelty love song – transformed the band’s profile and earned them a Grammy. Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn’s tastefully-shot video, for which Rollins painted himself red, and dressed like Superman, a police officer and a nun, caught the eye of the alternative culture critics of the day, Beavis and Butt-Head, and became something of a permanent fixture on MTV.
Opening track and lead single Disconnect is a torch song for isolationists, a plan to remove oneself from the pointless chatter of everyday life, well over a decade before Twitter’s insidious appearance. “I wanna disconnect myself, pull my brain stem out and unplug myself” Rollins sings over what Haskett describes as a “perfect blend of groove and angle.”
“Disconnect was one of the best vehicles for the way Rollins’ voice was at that moment and one of the most fun songs to play,” he told this writer. “A lot of our riffs were very angular in a King Crimson way.”
Volume 4, however, is the album’s heaviest moment, dedicated to the memory of Rollins’ best friend, Joe Cole. Named after the pair's favourite Black Sabbath album, it finds Rollins raging over Haskett and Gibbs’ dense, unrelenting riffs: “I've seen the sidewalk bleed and I watched the mother cry, I used to have a mind, I used to wonder why, but now I go from day to day and wait around to die like he did.”
Simply put, Weight is a band at the peak of their creative powers.