The 10 best Black Flag songs according to Pennywise's Fletcher Dragge

Black Flag in 1983
Black Flag in 1983 (Image credit: Erica Echenberg\/Redferns)

Growing up, I was a fan of music in general, but I wasn’t really into anything particular. I liked certain bands when I was young, but nothing really connected to me, and then I started listening to Devo, which was the first thing I heard where I was like “Wow, this is really cool.” The B-52s and the Flying Lizards were some of the first – they weren’t called punk bands, you’d call them new wave bands back in those days, and that transitioned pretty quickly into searching out different styles of music. Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys were right there – someone had given my friend a Sex Pistols cassette and that was how we found out punk rock. We went to the record store and found a Dead Kennedys single and a Black Flag single, bought them, took them home and just went ‘Holy shit!’ It made me feel something and it made me physically feel something, too. So I was almost an instant Black Flag fan and that really opened my door into punk rock.

10. NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (Nervous Breakdown, 1979)
I think is pretty iconic. To me, it’s probably the most iconic Black Flag song of them all, off the first single of the same name. It was recorded down here in Hermosa Beach, which is my hometown, a couple blocks down the street from my house. They used to practice in an old abandoned church and I think the rent was 16 bucks a month, and there were a couple of other bands practicing there as well. I guess in those days I was probably about 12 or 13 when that was going on. Keith Morris was the first singer of Black Flag, and this song just grabbed me as a kid when I heard it. It’s “I’m about to have a nervous breakdown / I’m going to go berserk” and everyone’s had those days when you’re losing your shit for whatever reason it might be. It’s just a really, really raw record and a really raw song, and Pennywise have been covering that song for about 20 years just kind of as a tribute to those guys.

9. FIX ME (Nervous Breakdown, 1979)
This is also off that same single. It’s another angst-filled song – one of the lines is “Turn up the volume and shut you out” and it’s basically just someone’s driving him crazy and he’s trying to get them out of his head. Coming off of hearing bands like Foreigner or whatever was in my parents’ record collection, hearing Black Flag sing songs like this with really raw lyrics that weren’t about anything except reality …you know, as a 14 year-old kid you’re not that angry with the world yet, but I came from a pretty crazy home life situation where my parents were drinkers and stuff and it was a pretty gnarly scene at my house, so this kind of music instantly resonated with me.

8. NO VALUES (Jealous Again, 1980)
This is off the first record that Chavo sang on. Keith had left the band and now Chavo, aka Ron Reyes, which is his real name, started singing. It’s just a song that says “Hey, I’m fucked” and it’s just full-blown rebellion. There weren’t a lot of bands doing this and, and the sound on this album was more refined, but at the same time more edgy. The first record was completely raw and is the only record I’ve ever hears that sounds like that – it’s insane – but for this they got some real mics and real guitars, but it’s like the guitars are just chainsaw-driven. He’s one of the most iconic early singers – I mean, they all were eventually. He was kind of short-lived and Keith was kind of short-lived, but they played a lot of shows with Ron in the early days when all the Black Flag riots were happening and punk rock was really starting to take off in the underground and the cops were hating on it. So this is just a fill-blown song about rebellion – basically just “Fuck you”, which is how I was feeling about some situations in my life so I connected to it pretty easily.

7. SIX PACK (Damaged, 1981)
This was when good old Henry Rollins came into the mix and the forefront of Black Flag, which was a crazy change-up. He was completely different to anyone else. We all grew up on the beach and we’re all skaters and surfers and shit, and it’s crazy how some dude with a shaved head came into the picture looking really aggressive and gnarly. Six Pack’s bassline and guitar intro make it one of the best known Black Flag songs of all time. It’s super iconic – I mean, it’s Black Flag and they just kept getting gnarlier and heavier as they went along. That was his debut and if you’re standing in the audience listening to that bassline that Chuck [Dukowski] lays down and then that guitar kicks in, when that song hits it just explodes and the audience explodes. I actually saw the band’s first show with Henry. I can’t remember which one it was. It was either this kitchen party or the Cuckoo’s Nest, but they were back to back shows and I went to both of them and it was absolutely insane. I was a little kid frying on mushrooms and drunk and he was a pretty intimidating guy up there. He definitely commanded some respect and brought a whole different vibe to Black Flag – he just made it even gnarlier than it already was. He wasn’t somebody that looked like you wanted to fuck with, so it was pretty good shit.

6. JEALOUS AGAIN (Jealous Again, 1980)
This is another song with Ron singing. When a band’s writing songs that you can relate to, when it’s raw and real, it hits you harder and all the more relevant. When someone’s singing about doing cocaine and getting laid and fast cars in the world of rock’n’roll, it seems pretty cheesy when you put it up against a song like this, which is straight from the heart. This song is a full-blown attack about the emotion jealousy, so delivered by those guys at this time it had a lot impact. This was when punk rock was really popping off in California, mainly in LA, and Black Flag was the band at the top of the list as far as local punk rock heroes. They were notorious. The cops were after them. They couldn’t play two songs before shows were getting shut down. It was complete mayhem and craziness. If you watch The Decline Of Western Civilization that’ll give you an idea of that time period. It’s really cool.

5. GIMMIE GIMMIE GIMMIE (Everything Went Black, 1982)
Keith Morris sings on this version. I guess the title explains it, but once again you have lyrics and a sound and an attitude that’s aggressive by a band who I’d compare to NWA in a strange way. When NWA came out, everybody instantly related to it. Whether you were white, black, Mexican, you were feeling Fuck Tha Police – it’s an instant hit, but it’s not an instant hit with radio and the powers that be and the cops. And before NWA ever set foot on the stage or in a studio, you had Black Flag doing the same shit. It was such a charged time period where people were looking for an outlet and there had never been anything like this or the Sex Pistols or the Dead Kennedys where kids were like “I can relate to this. This is right.” I might not have even thought this way as a kid, but when I’m hearing it, it makes sense. You’re going to school and you’re learning from books, but at the end of the day, raw emotion and real lyrics won over all the punkers. It transcended normal. These guys were really willing to go out of the box. It wasn’t engulfed by the masses like Elvis was with his rule-breaking – this was full breaking of the rules and full “Fuck you!”, literally saying “Fuck you” in songs. And obviously Fuck Tha Police was also a complete out of the box statement to society. It was popular, it wasn’t cool and if you were into it you were shunned by your classmates, the police, your parents. You were considered a freak, and that’s what made it all that much better, because if you threw on a Black Flag shirt and walked down the street, people knew you were basically just saying “Fuck society. Fuck your way. I’m on this path of doing things how I want to do them and I’m not going to listen to you anymore.” It was complete chaos, mayhem and destruction.

4. MY WAR (bootleg demo with Dez Cadena on vocals, c1982)
There’s a couple different versions of all these songs because different singers sang them. Dez Cadena was one of the coolest singers of Black Flag – I mean, they were all cool in their own right, but his voice is just insane. He was doing a lot of singing and playing a lot of shows for Black Flag compared to Ron and Keith, because Keith was short-lived and Ron was out pretty fast. Dez actually tried to re-form with Greg Ginn recently, which was a travesty in my opinion. Gregg Ginn is one of my favourite guitar players of all time and I’m obviously influenced by him, but his actions as a label owner and not paying his band members and then trying to sue Keith and those guys for putting together Flag was ridiculous. And then him putting together Black Flag with Chavo singing – obviously that would be a great thing – but if you ask all the other band members of Black Flag they feel kind of ripped off by Gregg Ginn, so it’s kind of funny that Chavo jumped on board with Ginn when he knew that Ginn was kind of the bad guy, but he didn’t really have a choice because the other guys, who are all solid human beings, had their thing going. If I was Chavo, I’d have just gone over to them and said “Let me do half the set or a few songs a night – let me be part of your unit” and turn his back on Ginn because of his business practices and his thievery, which has pretty much been proven. I’m not bagging on Chavo, but Ginn, definitely, from what I’ve heard, is not a stand-up guy. He’s come out on stage and played Nervous Breakdown with us before and he was a cool dude and everything, but from what I’ve heard now, behind the scenes it’s not very cool. But Dez was a huge part of Flag and is one of the nicest guys on the planet and has one of the coolest voices of all time.

3. REVENGE (Jealous Again, 1980)
This is another Chavo, aka Ron Reyes, song and it’s just…wow! I don’t even know how to describe this. It starts off with “It’s not my imagination / I’ve got a gun on my back” and it just explodes. It’s just one of those songs that you can’t help but have a seizure when you hear it. Black Flag playing that kitchen party for the first or second show with Rollins, and he actually attacked me. You can imagine Black Flag playing with The Descendents and The Subhumans – it was a pretty tight squeeze! There were 50 or 60 people crammed in that room, maybe 100, and a couple of my buddies were moshing – well, slamming, I don’t call it moshing – pretty hard and pushed Henry over. He fell backwards, took out the bass amp, hit his head on the wall and put a hole in the wall, got up and for some reason thought that I did it, that I was the pusher. So on the next song, he grabbed the mic and said “It’s not my imagination / I’ve got a gun on my back”, screamed that right in my face and then attacked me with the microphone. I was frying on mushrooms and drunk, so it was pretty crazy having this bald maniac guy that never smiled and looked like a fucking pitbull just go ballistic on me, but I’ll never forget it. It was pretty fucking rad. All in all, it’s a bad good memory.

2. AMERICAN WASTE (Six Pack, 1981)
This is Dez singing again. His voice is just so raspy, so radical. You’d never guess in a million years how cool and mild-mannered he is. He’s a super sweet dude and then he gets up there and sings this song – his voice sounds like it’s got a fucking distortion box on it. It’s another great Black Flag song that’s just so heavy and gnarly and so true to the point lyrically. I’m so stoked he’s with these guys doing some of the songs live.

1. WASTED (Nervous Breakdown, 1979)
“I was a surfer / I had a skateboard / I was so heavy, man / I lived on the strand” – it’s about getting fucked up and I think Keith had a little bit of angst towards all the surfers and skaters, because most the surfers and skaters weren’t punkers. They were just hippies smoking weed and getting drunk and high and chilling on the beach with their long hair and shit, and Flag kind of lashed out at those guys a little bit, at that whole surf culture. I mean, I grew up surfing and skating, but I had Black Flag bars spray painted on the bottom of my board, so it was a little bit different. But this song is just so iconic. It’s a perfect example of living at the beach and being pissed off at all the things you see going in around you - you didn’t want to be in the football team, you weren’t a jock, the cops were hassling you for drinking beer, you’re trying to play punk rock and there’s all these hippies… I think the same ideals are behind both movements, but just the peace, love, bellbottoms and flowers and shit started getting to people and it spawned punk rock, where it was like “No, we’re not going to have love-ins, we’re going to get drunk and break shit and we’re going to fucking scream at the top of our lungs and play 200 miles an hour and beat the shit out of each other in front of the band and get our aggression out.” There was so much pent-up aggression at that time in world that we needed an outlet, and although it wasn’t a popular thing there were enough people to keep it moving and here we are 36 years later still doing it and it’s still relevant. I think there’s more to be pissed off about in the world now than there ever has been, what with the state of politics and corruption. America’s a joke. It’s so undemocratic it’s unbelievable. We’re just getting fed the Kardashians and Beverly Hills Housewives and cheeseburgers and no-ones paying attention. I’m still pissed off as fuck and mad at this shit. I watched Michael Moore’s new movie, Where To Invade Next, last night and I can’t believe how far behind the times America has become. But screaming and yelling about shit worked and created a huge movement and opened a lot of people’s eyes and Black Flag was at the forefront of it all.

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