Punk provocateurs in Black Flag remain committed to founder’s vision
In 1984, as a 14-year-old kid growing up in New Jersey, Mike Vallely made two discoveries that would change the course of his life.
After borrowing a skateboard from a friend, he received one himself as a Christmas gift that year and proceeded to turn a teenage hobby into a professional career. Three years later, he went pro, and today he owns his own skateboard company, Street Plant. The second discovery was punk rock, which led him to a live performance of the West Coast hardcore band Black Flag.
That show in Trenton, New Jersey, was Vallely’s first introduction to Black Flag founder and guitarist Greg Ginn, who would ask Vallely to take over as vocalist three decades later.
“That first time, we said hello to the band, and we were all jazzed,” Vallely told The Daily Times this week. “The second time I met him was also as a band: My band, Mike V. and The Rats, had been booked to do a series of shows opening up for him in 2003. We played our set first, and shortly after we started, Greg was in the audience watching us, and he seemed to be having such a great time.
“After the show, he went to buy one of our T-shirts, and I tried to stop him, but he said, ‘No, man — if you like a band, you support them.’ So he bought one, and we got to talking. He said he loved what I was doing on the vocals with my band, and that if he ever did another rock band, he would love to work with me.”
Most people might chalk Ginn’s praise up to hollow praise proffered to shut down a conversation — but that’s never been Ginn’s style. He and original Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris were inspired by the Ramones 1976 Los Angeles show, and that same year, the pair established the first iteration of the band in Hermosa Beach, California. The group went through two other vocalists before settling into the “classic” lineup that included visceral frontman Henry Rollins, with whom Black Flag released “Damaged,” “My War,” “Family Man,” “Slip It In,” “Loose Nut” and “In My Head.” By the end of the Rollins era, Ginn was drawing from a much deeper well than just punk, and many bands that gained popularity in the 1990s as grunge, stoner metal and sludge metal acts would credit Black Flag for its inspiration.
In 2003, Ginn reunited several key members of the band for a series of reunion benefits, and he called Vallely to contribute vocals for the “My War” material. Ever since, the two have maintained a friendship and on-again, off-again working relationship that led to Ginn asking him to come on board permanently in 2014 for the next iteration of Black Flag. After a period of inactivity, Ginn and Vallely resurrected the band once again last year, and now the band has shows booked through February 2021, Vallely said — including a Sunday night gig at The Concourse in Knoxville.
“I’m getting just the most unbelievably positive feedback from audiences every single night,” Vallely said. “I can’t say that I’ve made every single one of these songs my own, because that’s a pretty tall order. But I definitely try, and every night as we perform them, I’m finding new ways to add what is essentially my own sound to each song. Every song is totally free for me to sing however I want to sing it.
“I don’t want to get too hung up on who previously sang it and how they sang it, but I recognize that’s what people are used to hearing. For me, the older Keith Morris material is probably the toughest to approach, vocally. The Henry era is a much easier, natural fit.”
Some diehard fans, he acknowledges, refuse to recognize any version of Black Flag beyond the 1980s as legitimate. Online vitriol can be brutal, which is why he and Ginn mostly avoid it. Besides, fans paying money to attend a Black Flag show tend to recognize and respect the band for what it is: Ginn’s brainchild.
“It’s all people there who love the music, who want to hear the songs and who want to see Greg play,” he said. “Most of them say this is the band that changed their lives. This music is so substantive to them and so meaningful, and I get it, because it’s how I felt. I think the music is just reflective of who Greg Ginn is and what he put into all of this. His songwriting, his lyrics, they’re timeless, and these songs, as I sing and perform them, I feel them. I relate to them.
“There have been so many different band members over the years, but Greg has always been the guy. For me, I just want to get inside these songs. That raw emotion, that intensity: It’s not faked. I feel that with every performance and every song is really coming from a celebratory place, even if it’s heavy material.”
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Steve Wildsmith was an editor and writer for The Daily Times for nearly 17 years; a recovering addict, he now works in media and marketing for Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Blount County. Contact him at wildsmit