Killed Record Review
On August 26, 1984, Black Flag played its 97th show of the year at a San Francisco nightclub called The Stone; a couple months later, a recording of the show was released as the album Live '84. After that, a couple years passed, the band broke up, the Stone closed, Live '84 went out of print, and now it's fourteen years later. History.
History is one of the worst things that can happen to a band, of course, and also one of the best, and the recent reissue of Live '84 serves as a testament to that wishy-washy platitude. Which is simply to say, I've been listening to the CD for a week now, and almost every time I do there's a point where I pretty much stop paying attention even though I've vowed beforehand not to do that again, but it happens somehow, Henry Rollins' hoarse exhortations and Greg Ginn's noisy guitar experiments notwithstanding, and then after awhile the room is silent and I become aware of that silence and realize that I still can't describe the album's second half in much detail. The album's first song, an eight-minute instrumental called "The Process of Weeding Out" foreshadows this kind of response, except that "weeding out" is probably too active a phrase to describe the experience. It's more like nodding out.
But that doesn't mean Live '84, which contains 19 songs that go on for 75 minutes and 47 seconds, doesn't have its moments. There's that long opening song, for example, in which Kira, the group's bass player at the time of the recording, offers up a slow, hypnotic rhythm for Ginn to veer away from and come back to in lax, warehouse-rehearsal fashion. And then there's the fucked-up power-pop of "Nervous Breakdown" and "Six Pack," the corroded heavy metal of "Black Coffee," and the Gang of Fourish stops and starts of "I Won't Stick Any of You Unless And Until I Can Stick All of You," another instrumental. If you haven't listened to these songs in a while, or if you never listened to them, they're surprisingly revelatory: oh, you realize, that's where Nirvana came from.
Ultimately, however, Live '84 suffers from the expectations that accrue with the passage of time: you put it on hoping to experience a little bit of Black Flag's legendary live performance intensity and it doesn't quite deliver. This?, you think, when the guitar thrashing turns almost Spinal Tappish, and Rollins' unmodulated screaming begins to sound as unremarkable as some streetcorner malcontent's white noise ranting that no longer keeps you up at night but in fact kind of lulls you to sleep - this is what launched a thousand bands and a thousand record labels and a thousand zines and a million tattoos?
But, really, how could a record - even a live record - ever capture the full effect of a band that was as much about the moment as Black Flag was? Playing live was pretty much the reason for the band's existence, which is why Rollins entitled his memoirs of the Black Flag era Get in the Van rather than Get in the Recording Studio. Despite releasing 12 albums and a handful of EPs and singles in a little under ten years, the band always seemed far more interested in process rather than product; the product, after all, could only capture the music, and the music was only a part of the Black Flag experience, which also included the band's physical intensity, the audience's physical intensity, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of excitement that came from being part of something that was new and unpredictable.
At this moment, of course, all that's left of Black Flag is product, a fact that makes Live '84 somewhat more interesting than it was when it was initially released: now that the band no longer exists, the album resonates with everything it failed to capture. For more practical Black Flag listening experiences, albums like Damaged, Everything Went Black, or the Wasted Again compilation are better bets, but if you're in the mood to contemplate how even life's most extreme moments lose their edge over time, then Live '84 is the CD you want.
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