Build it Up to Tear it Down: Black Flag’s Transgressive Geographies

Curator's Note

Greil Marcus once wrote that the Sex Pistols were akin to the “sound of the city collapsing,” as they laid waste to the decency and refinement of English tradition. Around the same time, across the Atlantic Ocean in the USA, another group of punk rock musicians known as Black Flag, were also subverting the norm by deploying a transgressive geography.

Black Flag’s process of destruction actually entailed the initial building up of a place; defining and instilling it with certain ideological and political attributes, so that once clearly delineated, it could be torn down. In order to develop this process of construction and destruction, the band deployed a rhetorical strategy of negation.

Through a series of negations, Black Flag constructed an ideological place, which they referred to as the mainstream establishment. For Black Flag, the geographical grounding of the mainstream was Hollywood, with its accompanying celebrity culture.

Part of Black Flag’s spatial otherization process was to also locate the highly detested shiny and happy, valley pleasant mellow sounds of Top 40 radio (epitomized by the Eagles) within the borders of the Hollywood mainstream. Once Black Flag had defined the established mainstream as everything that they were not, as everything they did not stand for, they began to destroy their target.

Destruction was a vital component of Black Flag’s identity—the name of the band itself “has the connotation of anarchy, of negation.” Songwriter Greg Ginn captured the destructive tendencies of the band in his lyrics for "No Values":

Don’t you try pretendin’

Telling me its all right

I might start destroyin’

Everything in my sight!

By delineating the place of the established mainstream, along with its social norms and impositions of power, Black Flag were able to step out-of-place, removing themselves while they destroyed (with a healthy dose of vitriol), the political and ideological underpinnings of that locale.

Black Flag utilized this negating destruction as a subversive act that didn’t merely obliterate, but also erased as it generated, functioning as a kind of “provisional erasure.” The destruction of place was also an act of creation as it produced what Terence Martin refers to as a “genuine point of beginning – with its attendant hope and promise for the future.” Destroying the mainstream meant slipping out from under its landscape of expectations and impositions to emerge with a new sense of individual freedom.


I'm curious as to how the destruction of locale functions in either current iterations of the band, or with its prominent former frontman Henry Rollins being such a mainstay of popular culture. Rollins in particular interests me because he still seems to function in the same way you say the band did by positioning themselves within as well as outside of the political and ideological underpinnings of place (the U.S., celeb culture, L.A., etc.) but with the caveat that he is now also part of that celebrity place and culture. I mean, not many punk icons get book deals, TV shows on IFC, or movies made about them. Is Rollins somehow perpetuating the idea of anti-establishment by actually burrowing into the mainstream? Does this suggest a recuperative aspect to the impulse of destruction? Does Rollins (or indeed the current band's line-up) function as they did during their first few years and records? Curious as to your thoughts on this.

Good points all, Matt! As I see more and more of my punk idols cash in on reunion tours, I wonder how the anti-capitalistan/anti-consumerist original iterations of these bands would respond to the more financially-oriented present iterations? My guess is that the smartest of these groups would turn it all on its head, as if to say: now we're even "more punk" than ever because we're even destroying the earlier versions of ourselves, which, by the way, you've all been romanticizing way too much.

Matt and Nedda, Thanks for the great comments. Much of my claims about the use of spatial transgressions in the development of Black Flag's music and politics is focused on their place-based identity and proximity to Hollywood in the first years of their development -- which did not include Henry Rollins (who joined in 1981). It does seem that there is a great disparity between the radical politics and ethos of Black Flag and Rollins in their early formations and the brand of Rollins as it exists today. I think each of these individuals justifies this transformation in different ways. Perhaps they are enacting the very freedom to "do whatever we want" that they were seeking from the outset. Who knew that this might someday mean the manifestation of the band "Flag?"

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