(This post kicks off a multipart series by guest poster Kristoffer Smemo on the question of how one might historicize the aesthetic, affective, and political work of the Southern California hardcore punk band Black Flag. We are delighted to welcome Smemo, who is a PhD candidate in US History at UC Santa Barbara, and writing a dissertation on liberal Republicans and twentieth century labor politics).
My Rules, My War: Black Flag and American Working-Class Thought in the 1980s
In its early-1980s heyday, Los Angeles’ Black Flag seemed to be making the most anti-authoritarian music in America. Gripped by suburban boredom, kids from the idyllic beach communities lining LA’s southern coast made punk “hardcore”: drill sergeant barks, speed, noise. The surfers and skaters who packed Black Flag’s early, sweaty shows at rented Elks’ Lodges earned the enmity of vicious LA cops eager to stifle the same teen energies that once propelled the “riots” on the 1960s-era Hollywood Strip.
Under intense police harassment, the band lit out on long, grueling tours of the country they called “creepy crawls,” after the Manson Family’s brand of home invasion. Their music scored (as per the title of Penelope Spheeris’ scene documentary) “the decline of Western Civilization.” When the inevitable moral panic regarding “punk rock violence” gripped nightly newscasts and cautionary episodes of CHiPs and Quincy, Black Flag stood at the center of it all.
This is the familiar narrative of the ascent of Black Flag––and of American punk in general––popularized by journalist Michael Azerrad’s 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life. But such accounts fail to locate the ideological coordinates of bands like Black Flag—proponents of what I call anti-systemic working-class conservatism. Describing Black Flag’s aesthetic in these terms reveals much about how Black Flag’s sound and imagery stretched well beyond any standard description of “punk.”
On a day-to-day basis in the early 1980s, Black Flag engaged in what world systems theorists call “anti-systemic protest” against the ever-widening gyre of capitalist prerogatives by staging their own shows, squatting in abandoned property, tagging their iconic black bars everywhere, and otherwise disrupting the grinding gears of post-industrial capital.
But these acts of protest belied a much more conservative worldview. The band dug deep into the spectacle and sexual politics of ‘70s stadium hard rock, Charles Manson’s proletarian subversion of bourgeois hippie values, and a “do-it-yourself” ethos reminiscent of Jefferson’s idealized yeoman farmer. They complied this disparate assemblage to forge a politics of manly self-sufficiency at once repulsed by the plutocratic excesses of the Reagan era as much as the classed and raced contradictions that finally ate away the foundations of New Deal liberalism.
Plumbing Black Flag’s distinctly Southern California roots reveals much about the cultural decline of postwar liberalism—with its provisions for economic security and relative affluence for white workers—beyond the familiar confines of the Rust Belt. As a generation working people in the 1970s lost their foothold in LA beach communities amid the onslaughts of gentrification and privatization we now call neoliberalism, their children revolted. But Black Flag’s alternative effectively looked backward to the insular, self-sufficient communities of Tocqueville’s America, rebuilt on the rubble of a Keynesian mass production, mass consumption society.
Punk culture, as Greil Marcus insisted in his seminal book Lipstick Traces, was in love with ugliness. Its music, however, was often surprisingly catchy and tuneful—as in the bubble gum-flavored output of the Ramones. While the Ramones provided the template on which the teenage founders of Black Flag began to build their aesthetic project in 1976, the fledgling band was soon drawn to the exploration of more palpably ugly sonic textures.
Black Flag’s leader Greg Ginn (a UCLA economics major) wanted to play squalling guitar freakouts inspired by the Texas-born but longtime California resident free jazz giant Ornette Coleman. He wanted to wed that dissonance to the glossy stadium metal of Ronnie James Dio’s Black Sabbath and Ted Nugent. And, as was common in the new culture of capitalist/anti-authoritarian/countercultural entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, Ginn was obsessed with the Grateful Dead.
The political economy of postwar Hermosa Beach, Black Flag’s hometown, made this peculiar mélange possible.
Ginn and the early members of the group all hailed from the suburban communities of southern California that first boomed as the terminus for wartime labor migrants, and continued thereafter to pull transplants into the far western corner of the Sunbelt. This world stretched southwards to the docks and naval facilities of San Pedro up into Long Beach. While Chester Himes (and later, Walter Mosley) had once mapped these territories as sites of black migration in the 1930s and 1940s, a process set in motion by the explosion of defense industry jobs, by the 1970s, as a result of processes of state-sponsored manipulation of the real estate market, the automation of the ports, the deindustrialization of South Central LA, and a racially discriminatory process that subjected many people of color to the agonies of “last hired, first fired,” these spaces had become predominantly “white working-class” in character.
They were also suburban spaces, connected to the rest of the sprawling metropolis by the dense of latticework of Eisenhower’s superhighways. By the mid-‘70s, Hermosa Beach kids could get to Hollywood to see some of the first West Coast punk acts, but also to the imposing Inglewood Forum to revel before Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. Along with the surf and sun that had inspired Brian Wilson in nearby Hawthorne, Hermosa Beach had once attracted nomadic Beats to its thriving jazz scene headquartered at the Lighthouse club.
As the Age of Reagan approached, the white working-class bohemia of Hermosa strained under the combined weight of deindustrialization and gentrification. Though never as reactionary as nearby Orange County—the navel of the John Birch Society—Hermosa maintained its own moderate conservatism that always looked askance at the postwar New Deal legacy (indeed Ginn’s parents, who many described as eccentric artists in their own right, identified as resolutely anticommunist Eisenhower Republicans). Here the enterprising spirit of small business went hand in hand with self-expression. As a young man Greg Ginn built his own thriving mail order company selling repurposed World War Two electronics surplus to HAM radio enthusiasts.
The avant-garde commitments cultivated by Ginn and Flag in Hermosa Beach, rested on an almost Toquevillean notion of independence and self-reliance. Mass culture provided a wealth of material from which to draw from and distort, but it also signified the crushing conformity and exploitation of a mass society, governed by an expansive set of interlocking corporations and government agencies. Black Flag looked backward, to an era of small producers hewing and building what they needed for themselves and their tight knit communities. Thus, Black Flag booked its own shows and created its own record label, SST, pioneering the “DIY” ethos so central to punk’s bona fides as a true counterculture.
In this sense Black Flag could relate to the hippies’ desire for authentic communitarianism and even the participatory democracy of the Students for a Democratic Society. But Black Flag’s alternative to corporate and neoliberal marginalization found expression not in a New Left revolutionary posture, but in a decidedly petit-bourgeois entrepreneurship. Black Flag’s work ethic became legendary. Incessant touring, marathon rehearsals, and ‘round-the-clock sweat and black coffee kept the SST label afloat—and burned out one band member after another.
Indeed, that image of relentless toil in virtual obscurity and amid grinding poverty and police harassment gave Black Flag’s sweated labor an aura of virtuousness. Ginn and those who followed him (and they followed or found themselves expelled) on one grueling tour by van after another earned their meager compensation, and earned it justly. Black Flag came to fetishize their lyrics’ themes of misery, paranoia, and isolation in their own lifestyle, one that thoroughly blurred any distinctions between work and self. By the mid-‘80s, increasingly augmented with marijuana and acid (used pragmatically to keep the driver of the van awake en route to the next gig), Black Flag’s music and image became laced with a darkly psychedelic rendering of Calvinism. The unmitigated virtue of work became a hallmark of the band’s conservatism, distinguishing sharply between them and us.
(We’ll take up the contours of Black Flag’s working-class conservatism further in next week’s installment by parsing out the vicious pen and ink artwork supplied by Ginn’s brother Raymond (whose illustrations of Charles Manson and the Weather Underground bore the nom du guerre Pettibon), and Flag associate Joe Carducci’s magnum opus on class in popular music, Rock and the Pop Narcotic.)