Back In Black (Flag)

This week's feature and Inventory got me thinking about comebacks. The cyclical nature of pop culture–as wobbly as it is–has been proven time and time again, but that doesn't make it any less weird when a fresh wave of, say, Ned's Atomic Dustbin-inspired bands pop up and take the world by storm. (Sorry, that's just 19-year-old me dreaming.) It also happens to be autumn, when a music critic's fancy turns to year-end best-of lists and all the synchronicities they reveal. Thinking back on 2007, one thing has been overwhelmingly clear: All bands with the word "disco" in their names–Panic! At The Disco, Shitdisco, Simian Mobile Disco–must cease. Now. Please. Digging through the sonic flotsam of '07 has also revealed this random fact: For an underground band that broke up over 20 years ago, Black Flag sure has been on a lot of lips this year.

Of course, Black Flag never really went away. Frontman Henry Rollins remains a strident and visible figure, even though the band's guitar-strangling mastermind Greg Ginn–not counting the occasional, Rollins-free reunion–has mostly kept to himself in recent years. And to this day, a stroll through any skatepark in American will grant at least one glimpse of Black Flag's iconic logo on a deck, a hoodie, or (in the case of the old-timers) a shitty tattoo. But in 2007, Black Flag has made its posthumous presence felt via two wholly different vessels: Punk bands that copy Black Flag and indie bands that cover Black Flag.

The punk category–made up of groups like Sub Pop's Pissed Jeans, Jade Tree's Cloak/Dagger, and Relapse's Coliseum, all of which released killer full-lengths this year–isn't too surprising. While none of the above are blatant Black Flag clones, punk's perpetual slide into the mainstream has prompted more and more bands to revisit the violence, ire, and purity of hardcore's granddaddy. Still, Coliseum has been barfing up sludge for a while now, and every few months brings a new batch of bands that channel Black Flag to some degree–although Cloak/Dagger and Pissed Jeans do so in their own fractured, trashed, adrenaline-soaked ways.

As for indie-rock bands that covered Black Flag in '07, one is a gratingly adorable Welsh ensemble called Los Campesinos! (exclamation theirs). The group's new single is called "The International Tweexcore Underground," and one of the B-side tracks is a lollipop-sweet rendition of Black Flag's acidic, shit-smeared "Police Story." To fully understand the context of this cover, however, let's refer to the single's A-side. In "Tweexcore," one of them cute li'l Campesinos sings–in an echo of Eddie Argos' anti-Velvet Underground rant in Art Brut's "Bang Bang Rock & Roll"–this shocking line: "I never cared about Henry Rollins."

Admittedly, many Black Flag fans never cared about Henry Rollins that much, either. It's tough, though, to tell exactly where Los Campesinos! is coming from. "Tweexcore" appears to present an at least semi-fictional argument between a young hipster couple whose clashing tastes in music have led to much shouting and pouting. (For the record: The male singer digs twee pop like Heavenly, while the female singer rocks old punk like Black Flag.) Just to be cheeky, they throw Black Flag and Heavenly covers on the B-side. Get past the toothache and it's a pretty fun single–and the version of "Police Story" is one that Black Flag (whose rendition of "Louie Louie" was equally as sarcastic and deconstructive) might have even tolerated.

Still, Los Campesinos! sounds like a pack of ravenous werewolves compared to Dirty Projectors. Last month, the group's fey, artsy songsmith David Longstreth released Rise Above, a bizarre re-imagining of Black Flag's 1981 masterpiece Damaged. In a nutshell: Longstreth, who hadn't listened to Black Flag since he was a teen, dug up a copy of Damaged while packing up his parents' house. Inspired, he decided to cover the whole album–without actually going back and listening to the original. Relying on memory, nostalgia, and the intention of weirdly misinterpreting the source material, Longstreth rebuilt Damaged from the ground up using noodly Xiu Xiu/Joan Of Arc-type guitars and plush vocal arrangements. Somehow, it worked–even though Black Flag kinda got lost in the mix somewhere.

When I interviewed Longstreth recently for the Denver/Boulder edition of The A.V. Club, I was hoping I'd figure out if he was joking or not. (Or both.) This is what I got out of him:

Me: You've been quoted as saying that you want Rise Above to be your own "theft of the punk-rock spirit" and "not muscular at all, purposely useless." What did you mean exactly?

Him: That comes from a letter I wrote to Greg Ginn. I was trying to get in touch with him about the album. After recording Rise Above and kind of inhabiting this music he wrote, I felt–and I still do–that I wanted to talk to him. I had all this stuff to say, so I wrote him this letter. I talked about that classic domesticating of the punk-rock spirit that happened in 1991 with grunge. It's happened so many times: turning this raw, fiery energy, this rebel art form, into commerce or something capable of broad dissemination. That was a goal with Rise Above, but not forcefully so. It's kind of like Kelly Clarkson, basically. I'm obsessed with this idea that in 1991, Paula Abdul's "Rush, Rush" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" were both on the Billboard charts at the same time. Then 15 years later, Kelly Clarkson hits the charts with "Since U Been Gone," which in this really clean way seems to synthesize both. Those two different things seemed so antagonistic to each other in 1991, and yet they're being twined so effortlessly in Kelly Clarkson, and I admire it so much. Rise Above might feel really cobbled together, but I wanted it to kind of do the same thing. [Laughs.]

Me: You wrote all this to Greg Ginn?

Him: Yeah.

As this exchange clearly shows, Longstreth is insane. But he's a genius, so he gets a pass. Rise Above is brilliant in an alien kind of way, and the irony is all but ironed out: You don't need to know Black Flag to love the record, and knowing Black Flag isn't grounds enough to hate it. Sure, there's plenty of conceptual tension at play, but I believe Longstreth's assertion–rather, I believe he believes it–that Black Flag, Paula Abdul, Nirvana, and Kelly Clarkson can, in the right hands, be collectively reduced to raw pulp for the sculpting.

As for why Black Flag in particular has become an admittedly minor indie touchstone circa 2007, I got nothin'. In fact, it's probably just a fluke–although the thought of 50 million Shins fans scrambling to procure the SST back catalog is a heartwarming one indeed. Still, one solid conclusion can be drawn: When it comes to Black Flag covers–hell, when it comes to jangly, geeky, ambiguously ironic rock music as an entire goddamn Weltanschauung or whatever–one band wastes 'em all:

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