The Veterans in FLAG Keep Punk’s Primal Spirit Alive

click to enlarge The Veterans in FLAG Keep Punk’s Primal Spirit Alive
Dimitri Coats
Shortly after singer Keith Morris began playing with Black Flag in the late ’70s, California quickly started teeming with punk and hardcore bands that often couldn't even get legitimate gigs because their fans were reputed to be so rowdy.

Morris contributed to the very first recordings, most notably the acerbic debut EP, Nervous Breakdown. Four songs of utter vitriol, it's generally considered to be the one of the first hardcore albums.

“We were just excited to be able to record,” says Morris via phone from his Los Angeles area home. He brings FLAG, a band featuring members from the band’s original lineup, to the Grog Shop on June 22. “We had never been in a recording studio before. All the different things happening to us culminated when we were in that studio. We recorded above a bar on one of the busiest corners in Hermosa Beach. On a Friday or Saturday night, it’s totally ridiculous and turns into Spring Break in Miami Beach West.”

A live band performed at the bar downstairs as the group tried to record.

“We had to stomp out that bleed through,” says Morris. “Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’ wasn’t something we were about. I’m not dissing them. They’re one of my favorite bands. For about four albums, you won’t rock out any harder than that. We were playing as loud as we could. We kept playing and playing and playing. The guy who owned the studio was wigging out. He said he had never heard anything that loud or bad before. We could have included it as a scene in Spinal Tap.”

After the EP came out, Morris quit the group.

“I wasn’t having any fun,” he says. “We spent three years trying to sort things out. We had no clue. There was no big name rock manager saying, ‘You need to do this because if you do this, these people will like it and it will be an easy transition from point A to point B to point C. We didn’t have any of that. Our thing was a comedy. We were living it out. We should have been writing a screenplay about what was going on with us.”

Morris says he didn’t mind the regimentation that occurred when Chuck Dukowski became the bassist. He wouldn’t join until the band agreed to rehearse for three or four hours a night.

“I went along with that,” says Morris. “I loved the songs and I loved playing and being in a room where it was so loud that you couldn’t even hear yourself think. I was down with that for a while, but there was nothing going on with the band. We played a party. We played a basement. We’d play in somebody’s backyard. We played the Standard Oil Refinery workers’ playhouse which was a rumpus room with a pool table and a bar. The room held maybe 75 to 80 people. We found out very quickly that the majority of people where we lived weren’t happy with us. They never heard anything like us. They thought we were from a far away planet. Consequently, there were people in our community who wanted to just kill us. If they were gun owners, maybe they could have done it mafia style so our moms and dads and relatives couldn’t identify us.”

Though Morris never rejoined the group, the band subsequently went through various incarnations. At one point, actor/writer/singer Henry Rollins fronted the group, which still exists today.

“They replaced me immediately,” says Morris. “I think they played their first show two weeks after I left. I was scratching my head, going ‘Why didn’t you tell me you had all these shows coming up.’ I might have learned more songs if they had told me. [Singer] Ron only lasted six months. I don’t know his story, but I know that he brought a glam drama/Queen kind of vibe to the band. He was into the New York Dolls. I was into Iggy and the Stooges.”

In 2012, Gary Tovar, the man behind the independent SoCal concert promoter Goldenvoice, asked original Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski to make a speech at a 30th anniversary concert he was throwing. Dukowski had no interest in making any kind of speech, but since he knew the Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson and guitarist Stephen Egerton would be at the event, he thought he could put a version of his old punk rock band back together and perform rather than give an oration. He started trying to recruit the many musicians who had played in Black Flag over the years.

“All that would be missing would the slot machines and the glittering signs,” says Morris. “It would have been a band that would have opened for Wayne Newton in Las Vegas. Luckily, some of the guys said they couldn’t do it. The Descendents took it upon themselves to put their foot down and would only play so many Black Flag songs.”

Dukowski recruited original Black Flag singer Keith Morris to complete the line-up. The band didn’t have time to rehearse; it used soundcheck to blast through a few songs. The audience responded to their set enthusiastically, and when the guys got through playing they realized that they had a great time and should maybe do something together down the road. After the footage from the gig showed up on YouTube and Facebook, interest in a reunion tour started to grow and the band then nabbed another former Black Flag singer, Dez Cadena, to join the group, which it christened FLAG.

“We thought we would be stupid to not want to go out there and do it some more,” says Morris.

Even though Morris has kept active with the punk outfit Off!, revisiting Nervous Breakdown and early Black Flag tunes has become a real challenge for him.

“I have a difficult time,” says Morris, 61, who admits he’s urinating as he talks to us. “We were just in Las Vegas for Punk Rock Bowling. The weather is really hot and dry. You’re either out there baking or in a room that’s like a frozen meat locker with the air conditioning. It’s one of the worst things for a vocalist. You’re not even breathing real air. You’re breathing this air pumped in with Freon. I don’t want to come off as a whiney complaining five foot five asshole. I do what I can do. I try to be as energetic as possible.”

In 2013, the band played a high-energy secret show at the Moose Lodge in Redondo Beach, the site of the very first Black Flag concert. Footage from that concert suggests the way in which the band makes its live shows into festive events.

Ironically, guitarist Greg Ginn reconvened his own version Black Flag at about the time that FLAG came together, so now there are two versions of the group. Morris says he doesn’t have fond memories of the days when FLAG was on Ginn’s label SST Records.

“We try not to talk about [Ginn] because all of our friends throughout the years who were part of the SST roster that all got treated the same way the guys in Flag got treated,” he says. “Some of us got financially compensated on certain levels; some of us were snubbed. You have record labels that owe you money. It’s like the IRS. Everyone always owes the IRS money. Occasionally, the IRS owes you money. The IRS is not coming to knock on your door to give you a check for $300 or $700. You have to go to them.”

So is FLAG ultimately a better band than the original Black Flag ever was?

"Given everybody’s health issues, we’re extremely lucky to be here and to do what we’re doing,” says Morris. “I don’t think we’re better. We’re friends, and we have the opportunity to go out there and play. We’re often playing with younger bands that are supposed to be stepping up and fucking hitting home runs and running up and down the court and slam dunking the ball. A lot of them don’t do that. A lot of them are bunting to get on first. A lot of them are driving to the basket and missing the hoop and hoping to get fouled. We wholeheartedly back what we’re doing. We can’t say we’re doing it better now than when we were younger. There was so much anger and chaos and frustration and jealousy and depression getting stirred up in the pot then."

He says the band was "very volatile" in the early days and that contributed to the music's intensity.

"It was as if we had something to prove," he says. "We still do, but we have to take a couple of steps back. We have what Iggy Pop would call a 'lust for life,' and we’re excited to do this and we’re happy we’re still alive and able to go out and do what we do.”

FLAG, War on Women, The Dirty Nil, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. Tickets: $28 ADV, $32 DOS,

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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