"Minor Threat were like The Beatles. I saw Ian MacKaye write Straight Edge on his mother's piano": Henry Rollins on Black Flag, Minor Threat, The Stooges, Green Day, Beyoncé and the meaning of punk

Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins
(Image credit: Paul Morigi/WireImage)

On February 13, 2011, Henry Rollins turned 50. By this point, the Rollins Band had been inactive for five years, and in an interview published one month before that landmark birthday, the singer admitted, "I don’t think of myself in music at this point".

That said, as documented by his Fanatic book series, and as heard on his superb radio shows, Rollins is an intensely passionate fan of music. And in this previously unpublished interview conducted in 20111 with Louder's Simon Young, the singer's deep knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, punk rock as a living, breathing entity, is a reminder of the genre's inspirational impact on successive generations of rock fans.

Louder line break

What does punk mean to you?
"I think everybody should be allowed to have their own little version of it, and not have to make their version of it be the version for everybody else. It had so much impact on so many people that it can't possibly be a blanket statement. To me it really gave me the opportunity to question authority and to really say, I don't have to do that. I was raised in an environment where one was to be very conformist. I went to a school where everyone was taught to sit down and shut up: I had parents who were the same and it turned me into, by conditioning, someone who would sit down and shut up.

"But when I heard Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten, you know, these initial voices of outrage... anything aggressive previous to this was Ted Nugent, where just the guitars were loud, and they were singing about cars and girls, there wasn't any intellectual wallop behind it. Then, all of a sudden, you were hearing Anarchy in the UK or White Riot, and I just thought, Wow there's an anger I thought would never be possible. As Hubert Selby, the great writer said, I was an outlet looking for a scream, that was me. When I heard that music I was like, A-ha, this is it, my ship has come in! And I'm still on that ship.

"So, for me, punk rock was very liberating. It was like the prison doors swung open. And it was a prison, not my life, but now I could leave it. It's never been closed since. It gave me a lot of strength and much needed courage to hit back. And that's what punk rock means to me."

How did it speak directly to you?
"It was the sound of it, just the stripped-down utilitarian fury of it. Having been raised on FM radio and going to see arena rock, that was what was available. I'm sure the Ramones had come to town three times before I ever saw them because, i'll be the first to admit it, my ear was never anywhere near low to the ground.  But I remember sitting in this little house my mom and I lived in, playing the first Ramones album, and just staring at the speakers like: 'A band plays like this?" Before I'd heard things like ELO and all these huge, orchestral epic FM [radio] numbers, then all of a sudden I was hearing these stripped down quartets and trios... it must have been like big band going to be-bop in the 40's and 50's.

"What arrested me, primarily, was the sound and the velocity of it. It was a few days in that I really started to listen to the lyrics. Ramones struck me, poetically, in that, it's not like you're going to hear a Ramones song and take to the streets. But, what was obvious was the alienation that these guys went through. Listening to Dee Dee's lyrics I thought, This is truly an outsider, really nutty guy, writing from his corner. I'd just never heard lyrics like that before: "I don't want to go down to the basement", thats a song? Well, it works for me. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were UK concerns that I didn't always understand - "Another council tenancy"... What? I had to look that up - but I understood the outrage, and the 'We're done with this and that.'

"A few of those early punk rock books came drifting over the ocean, and we got to see pictures of these people. You'd look at these bony cheek-boned and ass-boned scrawny youth like Rotten and Strummer looking so charismatic and it was just so much cooler than the 'rock stars'. These guys were terrifying and enthralling and you wanted to be like them, you realised that actually this was something very real and very necessary. I didn't even really understand the political implications of it until later, but there's something about this music that was instinctively attractive. That whole freedom was the impact for me, the look and the sound of it and then the lyrics were the third thing, upon listen after listen.

"It took quite a while to actually get the copies of these records. You'd go to record stores and say, I want the first Clash album, and they would hand you Give 'em Enough Rope, the first one made domestically in America. "No, the first one is green and has a song called Janie Jones on it".

"Sorry sir, I can't help you... how about this Fleetwood Mac album instead."

"Change was coming and it took a while. It was kind of like a detective process: you'd read about some band in one of these punk rock books, then Ian [MacKaye] and I would journey out to Yesterday and Today Records on a Sunday and be like, "Aha, look we've found an Advert single!" Since I was the one with the job, Ian would buy one, and I'd buy three, and we'd slowly discover Buzzcocks and The Adverts, and X-Ray Spex, usually a seven inch single at a time."

Our set was nine and a half minutes long, and about four of those minutes were, 'Are you guys ready yet?'

Did it give you a sense of 'we can do this and everyone can get involved'?
"It gave Ian that. I was such a conformist. Ian was the one that said to me, 'I'm going to get an instrument'. He was already playing his mother's piano, where he wrote a lot of Minor Threats songs. I remember when he wrote Straight Edge on his mother's piano. I saw that. It's easy on piano. I also watched him write Stand Up on piano as well. It works for pianists if you think about it because you just follow the bass line.

Anyway, Ian said 'I'm gonna make a band', and Wilson High School, where he went, the public school, was like the breeding pool for like, half of the Dischord roster: Ian's class mates ended up being in bands like the Untouchables [fronted by Ian Mackaye's brother Alec], Rites of Spring, and Teen Idles... that whole band went to Wilson, they were all within a grade of each other. They all fell together in a group as they liked the same stuff and looked the same.

"Ian got right on it, me not so much. I was everyone's roadie, I was Ian's buddy so I'd carry the gear from everyone's cars to the venue. I'd be at the front at everyone's shows but I never had any ideas of being in a band or starting a label. That was Ian, a genius, I was just a follower. I went to as many of his gigs as I could, missed some of the most important ones, but saw a lot of them. Eventually Bad Brains' HR said one night, 'You're a singer, you're going to be in a band.' I said, No man, I'm just a fan! He said, 'No, tonight you sing with the Bad Brains', and dragged me up on stage and made me sing Red Bone in the City. It was other people that said, 'You should be in a band, you're quite a character.' I was happy to just pick up the amp and lug it."

But you started SOA (State Of Alert) in 1980. What were those early shows like?
"Well, our set was nine and a half minutes long, and about four of those minutes were 'are you guys ready yet?' We had nothing, we sucked, but had a lot of fun: high in spirit, low on talent. Not that the guys in the band weren't talented, we just couldn't all be talented at the same time during the same song. We weren't playing well enough for anyone to understand what we were playing. It was Mike Hampton {later to join Embrace, One Last Wish, Fake Names] the guitar player, that had all the talent.

"It was Minor Threat that had songs, they were like The Beatles. My band and the others were just a blurry mess. Minor Threat, I was at the first show, I forget which song they started with but I was standing 4 feet away when the first notes rang out. I mean, i'd been to their band practices and I knew what was coming but they played this, pretty much, perfect set. I mean those guys could really play. Jeff [Nelson], the drummer, was beating on the drums and it was so locked down and you could sing along with it. By their third show everyone in the audience kind of already knew the songs. When you were walking back to your car you'd be humming them thinking, 'Wow, I like that, make a record of it.' 

"By this point, Bad Brains had left town and abdicated: they became a DC band living in New York. So the main band you'd go see every show was Minor Threat: they were the reason the DC scene went from a house party, to the Wilson Centre, which was like, 800 to 1,100 people. The thing certainly bloomed and all of a sudden here comes the suburbs. It's like when The Clash or The Damned would play, all of a sudden all the New Wave people would come out with their skinny ties and funny glasses, jumping up and down. You'd think, Who are these people? They're not at the weekly local shows. All of a sudden with Minor Threat all these people would come from... who knows where, Delaware? You know, an hour and a half away, which is a big deal for a time when internet wasn't around. It's not like radio was playing these songs, it was completely word of mouth, phone to phone. It was Minor Threat that cracked it wide open.

"I remember Ian getting letters from other labels, like, 'Hey we're Touch and Go, my name is Corey [Rusk], I have a band called The Necrosand then Black Flag came to town, and all the dots slowly started to connect. One day Ian got the number for SST and called them up. I saw him one day and he said, 'I've just spoken to Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag.' I was just like, 'Huh? You did what?.' To us these people were like Robert Plant at the time, you just couldn't talk to them. He said, 'Yeah, I'm gonna send them a copy of the Minor Threat record and they're gonna to town and stay at my mom's place'. He just hooked all that up and all of a sudden Black Flag is alive in Ian's mom's living room. We all ran over there and were like, Oh my god, there they are, let's poke them!

"All of a sudden, things started to network through our 800 flyers whacked into an envelope with a single stamp on it. You'd throw them into the mail and The Necros would send you issues of Touch and Go Magazine, all of which I still have. You started to realise, something was going on. It was when all the local scenes started realising, we can make records, that was the most liberating thing. Skip Groff at Yesterday and Today Records told Ian and Jeff [Nelson], 'You can walk into a studio, book time, the nice man will put microphones in front of your gear, and you just start playing, it's as simple as that.' As soon as that was unleashed, every band in town had a single out in six months. All of sudden you were off to the races. Punk rock, the freedom of it, and the deregulation of it, meant we didn't need Virgin or Warner Brothers, you just need two weeks pay and voila, you were a recording artist."

It seemed like Black Flag had an almost terrifyingly work ethic...
"It was either that or complete failure. You work like a possessed manic or there's nothing to do the next day because it'll all be over. There wasn't a safety net."

Black Flag, 1982

(Image credit: Frank Mullen/WireImage)

At some point you've got to be like, You know what, fuck all of y'all

You were living hand to mouth in vans and on floors: what kept you going at 110 per cent, was it just that fear of failure?
"Well, not to sound too high on ourselves, we knew it was a good band, and we knew SST was a good label. You have to believe in yourself and think, You know what, I can be in here, otherwise what do you do, go home and cry? We had enough people - cops, government people, newspapers - saying, You suck, you're bad, you're anti-American,' and on and on, but at some point you've got to be like, You know what, fuck all of y'all. Now, we're gonna come two times, five times as hard. With Black Flag we kept cranking it up, when they told us to turn it down, and we won our way. That band was very successful, not in record sales, well later, but, as far as what we set out to do, we achieved it, in our own small way. We kicked some doors down, as did Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Dead Kennedy's, DOA etc... There's no single band that did it. Now and then when someone says, 'Black Flag did it', I say, Nah, we were one of many bands that turned that doorknob, but we were certainly one of them."

I first saw you do spoken word at the Tyneside Theatre in Newcastle in '93, and one story that I remember was about how your eyes were opened by moving from DC to LA. You left DC with the mentality that the police were alright people and then found it was a different story on the other side of America.
Yeah, I had no idea. The Black Flag guys warned me, but I kinda didn't believe it, until it happened to me, until I first got laid into by LA cops, in the summer of '81. It's terrifying when a cop calls you 'motherfucker': with that lack of civility, all bets are off. No cop would ever call you that in DC. But out here in California, the Black Flag vs Cops experience was a very constant, nerve-wracking personal thing: they knew who we were, they knew where we lived, they recognised us. It took up quite a bit of calories, dealing with the cops. They really wanted this thing that Black Flag was a part of over, they wanted everything to go back to normal. There were 900 of you outside the Whisky, don't do that, don't be in numbers that size, it's a threat to our assumption of authority, to our perception of ourselves. The punks would be looking at the cops and going, 'Fuck you,' and the cops would remember, 'Oh, that's why we have these billy clubs', and then they'd start breaking heads."

The term 'punk' is bandied about a lot now, but for newer bands it doesn't necessarily mean a great deal...
"[Black Flag bassist] Chuck Dukowski is a real intellectual and he was like my older brother in those days. I kinda sat at his knee and listened, and he said, Here's what's gonna happen with punk rock: it'll lose its teeth and its claws and will just become absorbed into popular culture.' Anything that stands still eventually is. I was like 20 when he said that, I understood what he meant, and then I watched it happen.

"Punk rock is now a multi-platinum thing that Warner Brothers makes a lot of money from. Green Day, who, I have no problem with, they come to Los Angeles and sell out The Staples Centre which seats 21,000 people, and that's cool, I don't begrudge anyone's success, that's fantastic. But, when you hear the music it just sounds like well crafted pop music to me. I know the guys are politically cool' and I met them, many years ago, they seemed like ok guys, I'm not putting them down.

"The masses have gone for Nickelback and Beyoncé – more power to them, they’re working hard. Nickelback aren't doing anything illegal. You don’t have to go to their gigs, and the fact that millions do, well, they’re having a good time. I’m not standing in the way. I’m not going, but I’m not standing in the way. I dont wanna see Beyoncé - I'm not putting her down, I think she's wonderful - but, really, there's nothing in it for me. I'd rather listen to Patsy Cline.

"But I'm always optimistic about the state of music. Some people will say, 'Oh, music sucks now', and I say, Not at my house man, not on my radio show."

Would bands who think they're punk these days shit their pants if they had to do it the Black Flag way?
I think it might send a few of them home. 'Why am i going to Kinko's with money I stole to crank out 400 flyers which i now have to walk around the town and manually slap up? Why can't i just go to my Facebook page, put up a song clip, and have 30,000 people listen to it in the next seven seconds?' A lot of bands these days will look at what we went through and say, 'Not worth it'. A lot of little labels and bands would baulk at what we had to do, but I also bet you a lot of them would say, 'Yeah, ok, we're in, lets do this.' No-one has a monopoly on enthusiasm. And there are punk bands now coming out of South America or Israel or Australia now that can tear your clothes off they're so intense."

Iggy could tell you stories about what The Stooges went through that would peel the paint off your car

But, undeniably, Black Flag did pave the way for punk bands today...
“Yeah, but then Iggy could tell you stories about what The Stooges went through, just being The Stooges, that would peel the paint off your car. They'd go into clubs and big Lynyrd Skynyrd-lookalike rednecks would be there to beat them up, or they'd have to hide in the dressing room for fear of off duty cops wanting to take Iggy and break his shoulders. Those guys really went to the wall so all your other bands could go to the wall.

"Then you go further back, to be-bop jazz, where there would literally be lines painted on the floor of clubs where a black man could not step because that's where the white people sat. Miles Davis used to have to look at that line every time he played. Imagine Miles Davis not being able to sit where he wanted, then imagine Miles Davis having to travel 20 miles after a gig in order to sleep because there were no 'Black hotels' near the fancy ballroom he just played for white people. Every genre and every generation paves way for another one. What I'm trying to say is that now we're getting older and rounder and everyone calls us the originators I just say, No. I will always acknowledge Black Flag and my minor achievements as a massive tapestry of people who worked very hard with a great deal of talent. I was in a good band, I didn't start a good band. There are none of my lyrics on the first album except for some improv on the song Damaged. I contributed nothing. It's people like Ian and Chuck Dukowski, they're the real big starters. You want to hear Black Flag, go to the Keith Morris era, that's the shit. And Black Flag certainly wasn't the first band out there, look at the Dead Kennedys catalogue, that's blazing music.

"Punk rock was like the Ho Chi Minh Trail where you had all these people involved: the fanzines, the people making the flyers, the moms that cooked, the nice guy that put you up on their floor. So when someone tries to take a bow and say, 'It was me', I say, You better sit down and shut up because that's impossible. Even the major bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains were part of a much bigger thing. I'll take a bow, sure, but it's always very brief and never very deep."

Simon Young

Born in 1976 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Simon Young has been a music journalist for over twenty years. His fanzine, Hit A Guy With Glasses, enjoyed a one-issue run before he secured a job at Kerrang! in 1999. His writing has also appeared in Classic RockMetal HammerProg, and Planet Rock. His first book, So Much For The 30 Year Plan: Therapy? — The Authorised Biography is available via Jawbone Press.