Flag is still flying

The "godfathers of hardcore punk" play at SLO Brew next week

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comAugust 15, 2013 

Hardcore punk band Flag includes, from left, Dez Cadena, Stephen Egerton, Bill Stevenson, Chuck Dukowski and Keith Morris.


It’s not like Keith Morris knew what Black Flag would become.

When he left the band in 1979, Black Flag hadn’t toured, hadn’t released a full-length album and certainly hadn’t earned their label of the godfathers of hardcore punk.

“When I left Black Flag, we weren’t playing shows,” he said. “All we were doing was practicing — we were rehearsing. It was like that was all we had going on.”

Still, during his short tenure with the band, he sang groundbreaking songs like “Wasted” and “Nervous Breakdown,” taking the punk pioneered by acts like The Ramones and attaching a disenchanted, teetering-on-the-edge attitude that would announce a new subgenre’s arrival with a scream and a fist.

“For us, it was no premeditated thing,” said Morris, the band’s original singer. “It wasn’t like we sat down in a room and said, ‘Guys, this is what were gonna do.’ Because we didn’t know what we were doing. We just had a bunch of songs to play. That was how we felt, and we didn’t know any better.”

Today Morris and other early Black Flag bandmates, including bassist Chuck Dukowski, guitarist Dez Cadena and drummer Bill Stevenson, are members of Flag, which stops at SLO Brew on Aug. 22. Meanwhile, another version — going by Black Flag — is touring, featuring founding member Greg Ginn and early member Ron Reyes.

Earlier this month, Ginn sued Flag for using a variation of the Black Flag name and its famous four-bar logo.

“We braced ourselves for something like that,” Morris said. “When we put this band together, it’s all the guys who have dealt with Greg Ginn in the past on certain levels, and we know what type of person he is.”

It’s easy to have competing versions of Black Flag, though, because the lineup has changed considerably through the years. Its most famous incarnation included singer Henry Rollins. But Morris was there at the outset, when a gig at the Redondo Beach Moose Lodge 1873 represented a milestone.

“That was one of our first real shows,” said Morris, whose band returned to the lodge for a private gig in spring. “We had played a party at a garage. We’d played in a basement. We’d played in a living room. Now we get to play in a room that actually resembles a place that holds 300 to 400 people, and you bring in a real PA, and it’s got a real stage.”

Sprung from the suburbs of L.A., hardcore punk mirrored the evolution of surfing, which saw the mellow longboard style morph into a more aggressive shortboard approach.

“A lot of us grew up at the beach,” Morris said. “We saw all that progression.”

In the late ’70s, disco was winding down, and arena rock was still in full stride. In that musical milieu, hardcore punk gave the Southern California music scene a bloody lip that even fellow punkers weren’t comfortable with.

In the book “We Got the Neutron Bomb,” X’s Billy Zoom was quoted as saying, “I thought the suburban beach hardcore thing ruined a good scene that we had all worked so hard to create.”

“I’ve got the utmost respect for Billy Zoom — he is one of the senior members of the situation that we’re part of,” said Morris, an X fan. “The original punk scene was kind of a clique up in Hollywood, and it leaned more toward a fashion thing. If you listen to X — they’re not a punk band. Billy Zoom is rockabilly. Billy Zoom is very much like Chuck Berry. Billy Zoom is very much like Eddie Cochran. That’s what’s so brilliant about X.”

Eventually, Black Flag — and Morris’s next group, the Circle Jerks — began to draw heavily from the skateboarding crowd, particularly the group known as the Z-Boys, which included Tony Alva, Jay Adams and current Cayucos resident Stacy Peralta.

“You’ve got all these people, and they started showing up to these shows because that was the music that they were skating to,” Morris said. “That was the music that they wanted played when they were in competition. That was the music they wanted played when they were in a downhill or they were doing slalom or they were skating empty pools.”

It was the skaters, he said, who began slam dancing and stage diving — two frenzied moves that would originate in the dingy venues that hosted hardcore punk.

“If you look at the motion of the slam dance, it’s basically the motion of a kid on a skateboard,” Morris said.

Morris would see more slam dancing as a member of the Circle Jerks after he left Black Flag.

“Much later down the road, when I’m hanging out with Chuck Dukowski, he said, ‘Keith, we had shows lined up.’ But nobody ever told me. I’m the lead vocalist — I’m always the last guy to find out about something.”

Morris blames the band’s rehearsal schedule, but cocaine also played a role. As his drug use escalated, Morris spun out of control, once urinating on a record executive’s legs as Ginn spoke to him.

“I was later told that I was going to get kicked out of the band anyway,” Morris said.

While he was with Black Flag at the outset, Morris would have a greater impact with the Circle Jerks, primarily because he was with that band longer.

The Jerks split in 2010. That same year, Morris formed Off! — a punk supergroup that is planning a new album — and earlier this year, he got together with Flag.

Now in their 50s or very close to it, Flag members still play to rowdy crowds who slam dance and stage dive.

“We feed off the energy,” Morris said. “But we’ve seen it so many times, it’s sort of passé.”

And that’s OK, too, he said — so long as it’s not forced.

“Some of them look at it as expected behavior — like you have to behave this way otherwise you’re not part of it,” he said. “You behave how you want to behave, short of setting things on fire and blowing things up and fighting with people.”


SLO Brew, 1119 Garden St., San Luis Obispo
8 p.m. Aug. 22
543-1843 or www.slobrewingco.com

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.

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