Black Flag, the early days – a book extract
An extract from Spray Paint The Walls: The Black Flag Story, published by Omnibus Books
It would take the riots of 1992 ”â which followed the acquittal of four LAPD officers who had been videotaped beating black motorist Rodney King after flagging his vehicle down ”â for the wider world to learn of the strong-arm tactics employed by the Los Angeles cops throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. However, all those involved in Los Angeles’ underground youth cultures of the sixties, seventies and eighties were sickeningly familiar with the LAPD’s operations, and the reputation of their Chief of Police, Daryl Francis Gates.
Gates would later win infamy for theorising that black suspects were more likely to die from his officers’ restraining ”Ëchoke holds’, “because their arteries do not open as fast as on ”Ënormal’ people”Â, and for arguing that even casual drug users ought to be taken out and shot, fair targets in the War On Drugs. As part of his efforts in this latter conflict, Gates founded Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), an anti-drug program that saw police offers enter schools and lecture students on the evils of intoxicants, requiring the school-kids to sign pledges of abstinence, for which they would receive tee-shirts emblazoned with the DARE logo, and the slogan “To keep kids off drugs”Â. In 2001, the US Surgeon General declared that DARE’s methods simply did not work, while their distinctive tee-shirts have become ironic attire for the underground youth; Nick Oliveri sports one on the back sleeve of the debut album by Queens Of The Stoneage, whose infamous single ”ËFeelgood Hit Of The Summer’ quoted a list of their favourite illicit highs as its chorus.
Lifelong cop Gates had reached the rank of Inspector, when the Watts riots of 1965 swept through the mainly-black Southern Los Angeles district, after a squabble over a parking violation sparked off long-growing tensions within the working class community there. Six days of rampaging followed, resulting in nearly 4000 arrests, 34 deaths, and almost $40 million of property damage, an uprising quelled only by an influx of 3000 National Guardsmen into the battle scene.
The riots emboldened an authoritarian like Gates. In the aftermath, he was instrumental in the formation of the LAPD’s Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team, a crack squad of armed troops trained to counter riot situations with unequivocal displays of force. However, the kind of confrontation that would justify violent acts of suppression, and prove the SWAT team’s effectiveness to any who witnessed them, was in short supply. Instead, Gates directed his storm-troopers down to the Sunset Strip, where the first flowering of the Los Angeles underground rock scene was occurring, groups like the Buffalo Springfield drawing young and wild audiences to shows at former folk clubs like the Whisky-A-Go-Go and Gazzari’s.
“Growing traffic problems and the constant presence of thousands of teenagers drew complaints from merchants, and the Sunset Strip Chamber Of Commerce urged the police to intervene,”Â wrote Fred Goodman, in his excellent book The Mansion On The Hill. The LAPD and local sheriffs instituted 10pm curfews, and dealt with late-night teens with cold brutality, assaulting and handcuffing their detainees.
In response, the teens banded together on November 12th 1966, to protest the police harassment, as up to three thousand youths converged upon Sunset Boulevard, stopping traffic and winning the fistfighting ire of some spectating servicemen. Reporter Brian Carr wrote in the pages of the Los Angeles Free Press that the teenagers he interviewed argued that “their defiance of some social conventions does not mean that they are either imbeciles or criminals, that it takes intelligence on their part to make a choice that is different from that of the majority. And those under eighteen say: ”ËShortly we’ll be asked to fight in the dark jungles of Vietnam. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to visit the area of our choice in Los Angeles after 10pm?’”Â
As the face-off wore on, the clashes became more violent on both sides. “The shit hit the fan on Sunset Boulevard,”Â remembered musician Richard Davis to Jimmy McDonough in his superlative Neil Young biography, Shakey. “A bunch of teenagers flipped out at being rounded up at ten o’clock every night. They’d run down the street, burning cars, smashing windows, screaming and yelling, protesting their own mistreatment.”Â The police violence would inspire Stephen Stills’ haunting ”ËFor What It’s Worth’, Buffalo Springfield’s breakthrough 1967 single; the brooding folk-rock tune conflated the police harassment with the death occurring in Vietnam, and eulogised the Sunset Strip protests of the previous year.
The parallels between the sixties Sunset Strip scene, and the punk rock movement in LA, weren’t lost on former Black Flag frontman Keith Morris. “I think of us really as the second wave of LA punk rock bands. Because I firmly believe that the first generation of punk rock in LA ”â even though they were hippies from Laurel Canyon ”â were the bands playing the Whisky-a-Go-Go, who took part in the riot on Sunset Strip, when the cops showed up in full force, beating up on the hippies. That was absolutely the same exact thing as the police beating up the punk-rockers: ”ËWe don’t like you, we don’t like what you stand for, so here we are, we’re going to fuck with you’. It was the same thing, just a different time.
“Maybe the Hippie mentality was different from the Punk Rock mentality, the Hippie mentality wasn’t nearly as aggressive. You hear all these ”ËPunk-Rock’ sentiments of, like, ”ËKill the hippies!’. And that’s fine, when you’re angry and you’re energetic and you’re young and you’re pumped up, you got a hard-on and its rubbing against the front of your jeans, and your brain is on fire and you’ve splashed some alcohol on top of it ”Â¦ But the Hippies were opposed to the majority of the same things that we were opposed to, and they were getting their asses kicked just as much as we were.”Â
Black Flag’s shows throughout the Fall of 1980 would often provoke brutal police intervention. “The police were a terrible problem and generated a huge amount of the violence themselves,”Â remembers bassist Chuck Dukowski. “Many, many shows had no real problem until the police came and beat everyone up. They took their skills from the sixties riots and used them on us. It was child’s play for them; we were just a few hundred instead of thousands. We looked weird, public sympathy was not with us. At a certain point, we got to joking about it, the ridiculousness of it. We would just load our gear and wouldn’t be allowed to play. Over and over.”Â
Although he was aware of the crowds such publicity-attracting conflicts would draw, for Chuck the police attention was mostly a drag, and a distraction. “There’s a lot of talk about the violence at Flag shows,”Â he says, “and there was violence. But I think it’s important to remember that people also had a great time at our shows. That’s why we were popular ”â we were a formidable live band.”Â
This was a point the band would unequivocally prove throughout their Fall tour, which they provocatively titled ”ËThe Creepy Crawl’, in reference to the burglary and vandalism missions undertaken by members of the Manson Family, who, led by their psychotic figurehead Charles Manson, would break into the houses of monied Los Angelenos, stealing their property, daubing their rooms with animals blood, and urinating upon the floors. Charles Manson’s bloody tear through Hollywood society terrorized the rock cognoscenti of the day, and culminated in the bloody murder of actress Sharon Tate ”â pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s unborn child ”â and several of her party guests in the Polanski home.
Along with the growing bloodshed in Vietnam, and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous show at Altamont Speedway (where fan Meredith Hunter was murdered by Hell’s Angels the group had hired to police the free concert), Manson’s rise signaled the end of the hippie age. His mythos was appropriated by many punks, aware of both his grisly and compelling story, and his ability to provoke the hippie generation by even the merest invocation. “Charles Manson is one of America’s great poets,”Â argues legendary punk performer Lydia Lunch, “if you’ve ever heard any of his parole problems. He had a small problem with killing other people, but if he could have channelled his poetry, maybe there’d still be a few more Hollywood superstars around today. I’d say Manson had a big impact on everyone of my generation.”Â
Raymond Pettibon, Black Flag’s dark artistic genius, found much inspiration in the Manson mythos for his artwork, and for Black Flag’s gig posters and flyers. His illustration for Black Flag’s October 8th show at the Whisky A-Go-Go featured a blonde woman sidling up to a black-eyed Manson, with an ”Ëx’ carved into his forehead; ÃÂ the accompanying text read, “Charlie, you better be good. It wasn’t easy getting in here, you know.”Â At the bottom of the poster, Pettibon had scrawled, in blood-dripping text, “Creepy crawl the Whisky”Â. Black Flag understood the potency of invoking Manson to advertise their performance at the venerated hippie landmark, and gleefully drew a parallel between their punk audience invading the Whisky dancefloor, and the Manson family slipping into the homes of the wealthy hippies.
“That was compelling, very potent iconography Raymond pulled
out,”Â remembered Chuck, to Mojo’s Jay Babcock, “and really, pretty revolutionary at the time. It’s like, okay, you wanna get confrontational with that generation? Step up with something like that and people freak out. And even though Manson’s got long hair, the punk audience accepted the images and their power.”Â That Daryl Gates had been in charge of the LAPD as they struggled to capture Manson and his minions in the sixties, just made the gesture all the more provocative.
“The virile sensuality of the hippie-gone-psycho was immediately powerful, and I enjoyed the newness and culturally local aspects of it in the Black Flag context,”Â says Chuck, now. “Ray tapped the imagery and the emotional well was deep in the culture. Immediately it caused a surge of interest. That said, I was not an admirer of Charlie.”Â
An early Creepy Crawl occurred at the Hideaway club in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo, on Friday September 19th, advertised with a Raymond Pettibon illustration with a pair of hands murderously brandishing a pair of gardening shears. $4 bought you admission to a bill that included performances by The Descendents, The Stains, Circle Jerks, Geza X and The Mommy Men, and Black Flag. However, thanks to the LAPD’s intervention, the Flag hardly got to play a note. “Outside in the streets were hundreds, hundreds of police, closing off entire blocks of the city, “ remembers photographer Glen E. Friedman. “Black Flag had just got onstage, when the police got there, and it was an insane mob scene, just totally unbelievable.”Â
A couple of weeks later, on Saturday October 4th, the Flag played at North Park Lions Club in San Diego, a show that was recorded by a bootlegger, on primitive equipment. The cheap tape recorder captured a combustive show; as the group lean into the set’s fourth song, ”ËI’ve Heard It Before’, Greg Ginn’s guitar swarms and swirls like a police siren. Frontman Dez Cadena leans into the microphone and barks to the audience, “I think the cops are outside”Â¦”Â
Four nights later, Black Flag were set to play their two prestigious, high-profile sets at the Whisky, in the company of Canadian friends DOA, a show which also ended in a riot, as the police cordoned off the Sunset Strip, and the LA County Sheriffs prevented the groups from playing their second sets of the night. “The first show came off pretty much without a hitch,”Â remembers Friedman, “but by the time of the second show, Sunset Boulevard was all closed off. We watched the riot as it happened, from upstairs, and it was just total insanity: police really worried that kids were getting out of control, they were afraid of punk-rock. Like Chuck says, it was a new thing challenging their authority.
“Cops were beating the fuck out of kids, putting their faces into the ground, handcuffing them to newspaper vending machines on the sidewalk. I have to tell you, we were in awe”Â¦ And then, of course, you’d have one drunk punk who’d throw a glass bottle at a cop car going by, because it was an easy target. Like, why not? There’s more of us than there are of them now, let’s have some fun here, we can run away, get away.
“During the show, I was onstage, behind the drum-kit, when the whole band had already left, except for the roadies tearing down the equipment. They’d only gotten to play a couple of songs, and they’d pushed everyone out of the whole through one back exit. I explained I was taking pictures for this group. and they just dragged me by my camera, threw me to the ground, and said, get the fuck out of here. That same night, a friend of mine got her leg broken by police, because they were just trampling on people. They would hit people with their billy clubs, to scare people away. They were saying, ”ËNever come back here, don’t go to these shows.’”Â
For Friedman, the police harassment wasn’t enough to discourage him from taking his camera to every Black Flag show he could. “I was just completely floored by them, the sound of Greg’s guitar,”Â he says. “I can’t tell you how inspired and excited I was by this sound that was perfectly matching the angst I had in my own head, you know? Just to release it. Even when I was photographing a show, very often I used to just kneel down right next to Greg’s amp, so I had his guitar blasting into my ears, at full volume, for most of the show, and then occasionally I would take pictures. Or I would just sit there down the front, not taking pictures.”Â
Black Flag’s next big show was at BACE’s Hall, on Friday 24th October; anticipating more of the same police harassment at this show, and tiring of the predictability of the gig’s early closure, they invited a camera crew from respected NBC news magazine show Tomorrow down to film the concert, for a proposed show focusing on the punk scene, thinking this might discourage the police from attacking the audience, or at least that their violent behaviour might be exposed to mainstream audiences.
“Sure enough,”Â Chuck told Mojo’s Jay Babcock, “when we showed up for soundcheck, the cops already had their command post set up across the street. They had helicopters already circling the whole time we were loading in and setting it up. They were just looking for any excuse to jump on that shit. Nothing rough was going on inside in terms of malicious violence, but BOOM there they are, the police. They came in and they copied their strategies from the Romans and busted with the phalanx. I didn’t stop playing. Why? You know they’re gonna turn the damn shit off anyway. I said, Fuck this. We didn’t stop. And I don’t think we should have stopped.”Â
In the audience that night was Los Angeles punk promoter Brendan Mullen, who’d begun booking shows at BACE’s himself, with an eye to developing the venue into the third incarnation of his legendary Masque club. “It happened all the time,”Â he sighs. “I’d find a new venue, try to get it going, until some other totally inexperienced wankin’ wannabe punk promoter would book the same venue on other nights, and fuck it up with cops and building management so they’d ban all live shows for good, including my professional punk promoter’s ass.”Â Also on the bill were UXA, and a thrashy HB band called the Skrewz, whose following, says Mullen, consisted of “skinhead gnarlers strutted the place with boners to start shit”Â
Of the “shit”Â, which eventually and inevitably and decidedly splattered the fan that evening, Mullen says Black Flag “provoked it. I was hovering around the lobby when a battalion of helmeted riot cops pulled up. I recognized Head Cop right away; we’d had previous discussions during shows I’d promoted at this venue. I’d made handshake deals that he’d leave me alone if I got security to halt teens from openly brown-baggin’ booze on the sidewalk and throwing up in the parking lot. Another contractual restriction was cutting the shows by 12 with all bands and production staff out of the building by 1am.
“”ËTonight has absolutely nothing to do with me,’ I said, noticing half the security people hadn’t shown up, and those who did were useless to stop hordes of HB kids from sprawling all over the sidewalk and parking lot, conspicuously chug-a-lugging away from open containers and smashing their empties against the wall. Kids had also been ripping out booths and other fixtures when building management panicked and called cops in. They’d lived through Fear and the DK’s, whose shit-faced audiences left a right mess, but that was easily cleaned up next day for an extra 50 bucks, plus the never returnable damage deposit, but at least no one got hurt. Tonight was different. Some of these HB fuckers were up for it. And Black Flag knew it before they went on.”Â
Among the various tribes rubbing nervy shoulders at BACE’s that night was a group of Orange County skateboarders, including Jay Adams, Tony Alva, and Steve Alba. The group broke into the venue via a side-window and, wrote Alba, “almost immediately, we get into a fight with a whole bunch of skinheads who were just getting into the scene.”Â
“The head cop said, ”Ëyou better say something, do something fast,’”Â says Mullen, “”Ëcause we’re goin’ in there”Â¦’ I tried to reason with him, saying it was a newbie inexperienced promoter. ”ËLook,’ ÃÂ I said, ”Ëthey’re almost over”Â¦ only a couple of songs left on their set. As soon as they’re done, these kids are going to vamoose back to the ”Ëburbs. Go in there now, and it’s gonna be a total riot, and someone might get killed.’ It worked; the cop said, ”ËOK, we’ll be back in 20 minutes. But if they don’t cut it by then, we’re goin’ in with baseball bats’”Â
Acting at stage manager for the group that night was their producer/engineer friend, Spot. “Outside the hall was a state of near pandemonium,”Â he wrote, “with hundreds of punks milling about, dozens of cops wanting to shut the place down, photographers, reporters, and TV cameras waiting for the inevitable riot. Inside the hall existed a state of real pandemonium, which I was trying to hold together. At one point I was given the thankless job of announcing that ”ËThe LAPD riot squad is outside and we have to shut it down! Black Flag will not be able to play!’ To which I was showered with angry ”ËFuck You!’s, beer cans and bottles with or without their contents, and hundreds of warm slimy globules of spit. I then thought, maybe I can talk the cops out of stopping the show. I pushed through the thick sweaty crowd and under the icy, quivering light of the circling helicopter I somehow managed to convince the officer in command to let Black Flag play a short set. Which they did. The cops then came inside and joined the party.”Â
“The Flag finished up their set five or ten minutes later,”Â remembers Brendan, “and then launched into an insanely long version of ”ËLouie Louie’. The band was finishing up this encore when cops returned. ”ËBrendan, you told me this was all over in 20 minutes”Â¦?’ I said, ”ËWell, this is the last song. They’re done…’ ”ËWell, they don’t look very much like they’re done to me.’
“Just as they finished up, the promoter mentioned to the band that cops were outside. One of ”Ëem got on the mic, hollering shit like, ”ËThe fuckin’ pigs are outside, man, trying to shut us down”Â¦ Are we gonna take it? What are we gonna do ”Ëbout it?’ I contend Black Flag knew exactly what the consequence would be when they launched into some of the same songs they’d already played. And so, head cop pushed me out of the way, and his mob dived in to the hall. Once they chased all the kids out with billy clubs (I didn’t see ”Ëem hit anyone), there was a seething mass of angry, riled-up kids all over the parking lot and the sidewalk. Hell broke loose after a few of them began lobbing bottles at cops when told to disperse.”Â
“Tension was building as the police went on tactical alert,”Â wrote Alba. “The punks were ”ËSieg Heil’-saluting the LAPD, trying to goad the cops into attacking. The police commander blew the whistle to clear the area. All hell broke loose, like the riot scene in the movie Quadrophenia, cops beating down everybody in sight with billy clubs, shotguns, mace, water-hoses, you name it. Some girl next to me got a club to the head and blood spurted out like a geyser. I went down to help her and WHACK! I got struck across the back with a baton.
“I started running and throwing shopping carts behind me to evade my police captors. In the fog of war, broken bottles were flying everywhere. Car windows were being smashed-in with bricks and bandana-wrapped engineer boots. People were fighting and scuffling around. It was like a war with no bullets. Instead, it was punches, kicks, bites, tears, knives, rocks, batons, sticks, shopping carts, trash & debris, egg cartons, mirrors broken off cars, antennas snapped off Mercedes”Â¦ you name it! It was all around you. But you know what… It was fun!”Â
Flipside magazine had sent a reporter to cover the show, and his review focused on the riot, and the police’s heavy-handed tactics. “Everyone was getting pissed off because the three rent-a-cops at the front door were spraying mace into their eyes,”Â he wrote. “We walked in and the place was already half way trashed. Black Flag had a sound check and began to play, they were sounding great but it was already midnight, and the cops were getting restless. The newsmen were outside and the poseurs were too, posing for the camera as always. Black Flag was playing one of their best songs ”ËPolice Story’, appropriate for the occasion. The cops came in and were pushing everybody out, busting some heads while doing it and it was crazy. Anyway, the cops chased everyone away, and we left. You’ve seen one riot, you’ve seen ”Ëem all!”Â
Soon after the show, Brendan Mullen invited Greg Ginn as a guest on a radio show he hosted on Los Angeles station, KPFK. “I thought we would discuss the BACE’s show, and its implications,”Â remembers Brendan. “Greg surprised the hell out of me by insisting the kids should have thrown bottles at cops, that the cops deserved it. ”ËBut Greg, you’d already done your show”Â¦ And you can’t say those kids weren’t totally trashing the place”Â¦ And there was no security to stop ”Ëem! What the fuck were these aging Bulgarians supposed to do, stand there and let the Skrewz’ crowd trash their social club? And you take total advantage of that by winding these HB boneheads up even more than they already were”Â¦?’ Greg got really angry and unflinchingly dogmatic. I guess it was a classic situation, of a moderate trying to talk to an extremist.”Â
ÃÂ© Stevie Chick, 2011