As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we’re looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Dusty Henry looks back at the title track Black Flag’s 1979 debut ‘Nervous Breakdown’ and the timeless feeling of rage. Read or listen to the piece below.
1979 was a huge year for punk rock. The Clash released their instant classic, politicking London Calling. The Buzzcocks created the template for “pop-punk” with their album Singles Going Steady. And Joy Division totally flipped the genre in its head with their landmark album Unknown Pleasures. They’d usher in an entire movement of “post-punk.”
But over in Los Angeles, a new iteration of hardcore punk was growing and festering in the heat of the city. There’s something different about the breed of punk that emerged from the city of angels. It was dirtier. Messier. If the punk bands in London and New York were living on the edge, LA punk was holding on to a splintering branch on the side of the cliff. It was a direct contrast to the glossy image of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. In 1979, one 5-minute long EP would birth three major institutions that would change punk forever. SST Records, Keith Morris, and Black Flag.
Black Flag had existed as a live act a few years before recording their debut Nervous Breakdown EP. That band famously would have daily, grueling full-day rehearsals. An insane work ethic for a bad whose music seemed so against the capitalist status quo. But Black Flag is a band driven by sweat and guitarist Greg Ginn’s uncompromising vision. It’s a recipe that’s caused a lot of drama and turnover in the band over the years. But it’s also their strength. Even the release of the album saw the band taking matters into their own hands. When they felt Bomp! Records was taking too long to release their records, Ginn converted his electronics equipment business into SST Records and self-released the album. SST would go on to be one of the most important punk labels, launching the careers of Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, and numerous others.
Tension is key to Black Flag. Their internal beef. Their personal struggles. The stifling world around them. All that comes out in the music. Nervous Breakdown isn’t just their debut – it’s a mission statement.
You can almost feel the room shaking listening to this EP. Ginn’s driving guitar moves with fury against Brian Migdol’s drums and Chuck Dukowski’s bass. But it’s Keith Morris who steals the show on the record. At this point in time, we’ve heard punk singers sneer, scream, and shout. But Morris is something out. He feels unhinged, almost inhuman. But at the same time, he is tapping into one of the most primal of human emotions – rage. And you feel it right away on the opening title track, “Nervous Breakdown.”
Morris doesn’t just scream. His words twist and distort until he’s almost garbling nonsense, foaming at the mouth. When he says “I’m crazy and I’m hurt,” it’s not symbolic. You really feel like he’s losing his mind. It’s one of the most visceral vocal performances I can think of in any genre. A true descent into madness caught on tape.
Everything on the song and across the record feels like it could fall apart at any moment. And in a way, it does. Morris would exit the band shortly after citing creative differences and too much cocaine. He’d later go on to form another legendary group, Circle Jerks, and still performs with the same wild energy today with the group Off!. Morris would have numerous worthy replacements over the years, including Henry Rollins, Ron Reyes, and Dez Cadena. Ginn would be the only member on that record to continue on with Black Flag. He’s still the only consistent member some 40 years on.
It’s unnerving how much “Nervous Breakdown” still resonates today. Punk rock has evolved, but the world has not. The same things that pissed off the band and set off Morris’ mania still exist. We’re women’s rights being gutted by the Supreme Court, repeated gun and police violence, and pandemics being treated like footnotes. How can you not feel like you’re losing your goddamn mind?
In that way, the spirit of Black Flag’s work is timeless. While there are artists who do wonderful jobs showing us the beauty of the world, bands like Black Flag show the rot beneath the service. Maybe somewhat ironically, but to me “Nervous Breakdown” is a reminder that I’m not just going crazy. Others out there feel like their head is going to explode sometimes too. Black Flag’s music is a magnifying glass to the worst parts of society, refracting the sun into a destructive heat beam.
As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Emily Fox looks back on White Town's "Your Woman…
As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Albina Cabrera looks back at the experimental dr…
As KEXP celebrates its 50th anniversary, we're looking back at the last half-century of music. Each week in 2022, KEXP pays homage to a different year and our writers are commemorating with one song from that year that resonates with them. This week, Jasmine Albertson looks back at the beautiful bl…