Grunge? You can thank Black Flag for that

My War cover art
(Image credit: SST)

Many are familiar with Black Flag’s place in the context of heavy music. Less well known is just how much of an impact they had on one scene in particular. But when their second full length, My War, was released in 1984, it lit the touch paper for the generation-defining music scene of the 1990s.

My War changed the game in the hardcore world on its release. The focus of the music went from being about playing harder and faster than ever to a sludgier, darker sound which reflected a wider pool of influences than any hardcore record gone before. Ranging from the doom metal of bands like Saint Vitus, to more experimental hardcore of bands like Flipper and Fang, the inspiration for this style came from artists beyond just their contemporaries. Earlier bands such as Black Sabbath, the MC5 and the Stooges began to influence their songwriting, as the band made a conscious effort to veer away from the relentless pace that had become their hallmark. 

My War was released at a time when music had to spread physically in the underground. The only way for serious numbers to hear your music was to get out and give it to them. Black Flag did this, and pushed this idea to its limits. (Singer Henry Rollins’ book, Get In The Van is essential reading on this topic.) As a result, 1984 was the most prolific year of the band's career: they rehearsed, wrote and recorded three full length albums – My War (March), Family Man (September), Slip it in (December) – and performed in excess of 170 shows across the US and Europe. 

Play enough shows to enough people in enough places and eventually these ideas will spread. And that’s exactly what happened.

Early 80s Seattle was perfectly positioned for this new idea to come in and sweep through the entire community like nothing before. The scene there was highly localised. The fact that the city, positioned in the far North West of the US, was cut off from the big musical hubs of Los Angeles and New York City led to bands working closely with one another. They shared ideas and people played in each other’s projects. Seattle had a modest population of around 500,000 at the time – compared with New York's 7m and Los Angeles' 3m – and this too encouraged a rapid spread of ideas and styles among a tremendously tight-knit scene. Mark Arm (Green River, later Mudhoney) claimed that this isolation led to ‘this one corner of the map being really inbred and ripping off each other’s ideas’. A lovely summary.

The Seattle sound is, at its most basic level, a fusion of metal and punk music. Chris Cornell nailed it when he described his band Soundgarden as misfits: ‘too metal for the punk kids, too punk for the metal kids’. 

This fusion of styles evolved organically and gradually – meaning it’s tough to pin down the first band to do this sort of thing. General consensus though, is that it was probably the U-Men in 1984. They brought this kind of dirty, heavier post-punk sound to their debut EP in 1984. 10 Minute Warning were another early Seattle punk band to slow down in terms of the tempo of their music. They created a sludgier tone that paved the way for bands like Green River and the Melvins to really explore this sound further and spawn what we now know as grunge music.

Where does My War fit in all of this?

Many bands and artists of the Seattle scene credit Black Flag and My War as a major influence on their sound. This comes as little surprise when the two are sonically so similar in so many ways.

Reformed punk Dave Grohl has spoken about the influences that went into the loud/soft dynamic made famous by Nirvana: “From Kurt [Cobain], Krist [Novoselic] and I liking the Knack, Bay City Rollers, Beatles and Abba just as much as we liked Flipper and Black Flag… You listen to any Pixies record and it’s all over there. Or even Black Sabbath’s War Pigs it’s there: the power of the dynamic. We just sort of abused it with pop songs and got sick with it.”

Mudhoney’s Steve Turner talks about Black Flag slowing down on My War: “A lot of other people around the country hated the fact that Black Flag slowed down… but up here it was really great… we were like ‘Yay!’ They were weird and fucked-up sounding.”

Metal Hammer writer Stephen Hill: “The idea of grunge being pop hooks, with Black Sabbath riffs, played by punk rock bands. What have I just described? My War.”

Mapping Hill’s idea back to the Dave Grohl quote we can see just how well this fits. Grohl spoke of the Beatles and Abba — they supply the pop hooks; Black Sabbath — riffs; and Flipper and Black Flag provide the punk influences. Despite Black Flag and Nirvana belonging to two distinct worlds, the similarities between the two worlds in this context are obvious. 

And that’s before we get to Black Flag’s show in Seattle on September 25th, 1984.

Michael Azzerad’s book Come As You Are: The Story Of Nirvana makes particular reference to this show and the impact it had on so many protagonists of the Grunge scene.

"And then Buzz Osborne introduced Kurt Cobain to punk rock," he writes. "Osborne made a few compilation tapes, mostly Southern California bands such as Black Flag, Flipper and MDC (millions of dead cops). The first song on the tape was Black Flag’s Damaged II, an all-out attack of abrasive guitars and shambling but assaultive drums, brimming with buzzsaw rancour. 'Damaged by you, damaged by me/I’m confused, I’m confused/Don’t want to be confused' screamed singer Henry Rollins.

"Kurt was floored. 'It was like listening to something from a different planet', he says. 'It took me a few days to accept it.' By the end of the week, though, he was a certified, self-proclaimed punk rocker. 'I sensed', says Kurt, 'that it was speaking more clearly and more realistically than the average rock and roll lyric.'

"Soon after that, in August (sic, September) of 1984, Kurt (Cobain), (Matt) Lukin, (Buzz) Osborne, and others drove up to Seattle to see Black Flag play the Mountaineer Club. 'It was really great,' says Kurt of the show. 'I was instantly converted.'

“'Becoming a punk rocker fed into my low self-esteem because it helped me realize that I don’t need to become a rock star — I don’t want to become a rock star,' Kurt says. 'So I was fighting this thin line — I was always on the left or right side of not caring and not wanting to and not being able to, yet kind of wanting to at the same time. Still wanting to prove myself to people. It’s kind of confusing. I’m so glad that I got into punk rock at the time I did because it gave me these few years that I needed to grow up and put my values into perspective and realize what kind of person I am.

"'I’m just really glad I was able to find punk rock,' Kurt says. 'It was really a godsend.'"

Cobain’s feelings here echoed those of other young creatives in Seattle at the time. Seattle wasn’t short of young bands working hard and putting out some really great music at the time. There was a general sense of frustration, though, amongst the community at the time due to the fact that most of them were just not really getting anywhere with it. Being so cut off from the big city hubs was a significant detriment to the opportunities for many young and talented people. It was tough breaking out of your small city at that time.

"Then punk rock came along, infiltrating the ears, and later the lives of many members of Seattle’s young music scene. The darker sound of punk, in the shape of Black Flag especially, resonated with so many at the time and brought them together in support of a common aesthetic. The lyrical themes become relatable and impactful. The darker aspect of these lyrics especially. Themes of self-hatred, depression, violence are commonplace throughout My War. This was a significant divergence from the often humorous, and always fist-pumping choruses that pre My War hardcore was known for at the time.

It wasn’t only those mentioned in Azzerad's passage that were at that famous show. Green River were the local band who opened up for Black Flag that night. The Screaming Trees were also in attendance along with Chris Cornell and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. Dozens of the biggest names of the most impactful local music scene of the last 35 years were at this show. The rest, as they say, is history.

Wider impact of My War

All this only touches on the 'first wave' of influence My War had on emerging alternative music scenes, but that thread continues in some of today's best rock and metal output. Take the Melvins, for example. They’re cited by countless great bands as an influence. Mastodon are one such example, and they also happen to be one of the biggest and best metal bands of the 21st century. The impact of albums such as Leviathan and Crack The Skye on subsequent metal bands is sizeable. Where it all began? My War.

Black Flag are the stuff of legend. My War, though, while widely credited as an influential release, is criminally under-appreciated by the majority. Especially so when considering the great scene of Seattle that it sparked into life.

This is an edited version of an original article which appeared on Medium.