The Seeds of Black Flag were Planted at a Journey Concert
The iconic hardcore band’s original lead singer writes: there wasn’t a punk rock manual like there is today
By Keith Morris with Jim Ruland
The seeds of Black Flag were planted at a Journey concert. That’s right: the seminal American hardcore punk rock band got its start at an arena rock concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California.
Journey was playing with Thin Lizzy on their Jailbreak tour, and we drove up from Hermosa Beach in a bright red Chevy Impala my dad had given to me that I would later sell for only a few grams of cocaine. I hated driving (and still do) but we had to get to the show, and this was a concert I wasn’t going to miss. It was a Wednesday night in June in 1976. I was twenty years old and in addition to working at the bait shop, I’d picked up a few shifts at a record store on Pier Avenue in Hermosa Beach called Rubicon run by a guy named Michael Piper.
If you liked Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and Linda Ronstadt, Rubicon was the place for you. The record store was located right across from the mortuary, and the vibe at the Rubicon wasn’t all that different from what was going down across the street. It sometimes felt like Michael was trying to brainwash his customers and employees with Buckingham-Nicks. Michael’s idea of a wild time was playing the first three Bruce Springsteen records back-to-back-to-back. He played that combo so many times, I never wanted to hear the Boss again.
Michael was dating Erika Ginn, and sometimes she would come into the store with her older brother Greg Ginn. He was this really tall, dark-haired, skinny guy who was into electronics and liked to listen to the Grateful Dead and other kinds of weird music. I recognized Erika and Greg from Mira Costa High. He was a year older than me, so we were never classmates, but he was definitely hard to miss. Erika and Greg had two other siblings, and their dad was an air force veteran and an English professor who’d met their mom in Europe at the end of World War II.
Every time Michael left with Erika to grab some lunch or hang out on the pier, he’d leave me in charge of the record store, and the first thing I’d do is take off whatever crap was on the turntable and play some music I wanted to hear. I was into music that was heavier, like Deep Purple, Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, and Iggy and the Stooges — anything that would make my parents cringe.
In this process of hanging out and listening to music together at Rubicon, Greg and I got to know each other a little bit. We shared an interest in music that was outside the mainstream. He subscribed to the Village Voice, where he learned about the burgeoning punk rock scene in New York, and I was a faithful reader of the rock zine Back Door Man, the South Bay music bible, but we didn’t really become friends until we went with Michael to see Journey at the Santa Monica Civic.
Steve Perry, aka the Guy with No Testicles, hadn’t signed on yet, so Journey was still a prog rock band, which wasn’t really my thing. We were there to see Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy jamming “The Boys Are Back in Town.” I’m not going to lie: they didn’t blow me away or change my life. It wasn’t the best rock concert I’d ever seen — not even close. I’d seen some amazing shows, and this wouldn’t even rank in the top one hundred.
But something about the Thin Lizzy show took me outside my usual headspace and got me wondering whether there was a place for me in the rock and roll universe. Greg and I didn’t say anything to each other that night. There was no magical moment I can point to and say, “That was the night we knew we were going to make music history together.” But on the way back to Hermosa Beach the idea started to take shape: we wanted to get in a room together and bash on some equipment.
Greg told me he had some songs. I didn’t know what that meant. I’ve always been a pessimist — it’s my nature to stay on the cynical side of the street. So when Greg told me he’d written some stuff he wanted to play for me, I hoped for the best but expected the worst. I kept reminding myself that he was a Deadhead. I don’t hate the Grateful Dead, but they don’t do anything for me musically. I kept telling myself to be patient and see what happens.
The first time I heard Greg play I was absolutely floored. I didn’t expect what I heard blasting out of the speakers to be coming from him. The energy, the tempo, and, most of all, the anger were completely unexpected. He threw me for a loop. What Greg was doing with his guitar had this totally different kind of energy. It was exciting and aggressive. You couldn’t ignore it. Here was this tall, goofy-looking guy just wailing away on his guitar in a way I’d never seen before. It was extremely physical, and the way he went after it seemed personal. There weren’t any vocals. No bass line. No beat. Even though it was just Greg and his guitar, the songs were thrilling to listen to. It clearly meant something to him. My reaction was instantaneous: How in the world did he come up with this stuff?
We knew about punk rock. We knew about the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls and the Ramones. We’d both attended the same Ramones show at the Roxy before we got to know each other, and we’d later go see the Sex Pistols final show together in San Francisco. Punk may have already had its moment in New York and was bottoming out in London, but in Southern California it was this strange new thing that was alive with possibility.
We were an odd couple — Greg stands six-foot-two; I’m five-foot-five on a good day — but my relationship with Greg consisted of hanging out and listening to records and going to see live music. We really didn’t have much else in common. Greg had a college degree from UCLA and ran his own mail-order business selling electronics equipment. I worked for my dad in his bait shop. Greg was bright, intelligent, and extremely well read, and I… worked for my dad in his bait shop.
Our friendship was based on our passion for music. Lots of people liked music, but we were just a bit more intense about it, and we brought that intensity to the performances and to the practice space. Later Greg would become business minded about the band in a lockstep kind of way, but in the beginning it was very organic. Nothing we did was calculated. There wasn’t a map for the territory we were about to explore.
Today there’s a blueprint: first you form a band, then you lay down some tracks, then you get the word out on social media. There was none of that back then. There wasn’t a punk rock manual like there is today. There wasn’t a reason for us to be together doing what we were doing except that we loved doing it. We didn’t talk about it and we didn’t overthink it, but it felt like everything was laid out for us to be in a band together, like it was the thing we were supposed to do.
It had never been like that for me before. I was always picked last in PE class. I was the guy at the party who didn’t know how to mingle with the popular people. I surfed and skated because that was part of the culture I grew up in, but I no longer hung out with surfers and skaters. I was an outsider. I wasn’t the kind of person you wanted to spend time with on a Friday or Saturday night.
When Greg and I took the next step in forming the band, somehow it was decided that I was going to be the drummer. Greg played guitar, and he needed someone to hold down the beat. I didn’t know how to play drums, but that didn’t matter — we weren’t going to let our lack of experience slow us down. Just like Greg had taught himself how to play guitar, I’d teach myself how to bang on some drums. How hard could it be?
My dad was a jazz fanatic who liked to fool around on the drums. Sometimes he’d sit in with bands at the Lighthouse, a legendary jazz club right across the street from my dad’s shop on Pier Avenue. He got to play with Elvin Jones, one of the top jazz drummers of all time. If you were into jazz in the fifties and sixties, the Lighthouse was the place to be with guys like Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and many others playing and recording there.
But this was the seventies, and what we were doing sure as hell wasn’t jazz. I needed some drums. I knew a guy who had a kit he wasn’t using. I called him up and told him he should sell his drums to me. He said he’d give me the drum kit for two hundred bucks, and I told him he had a deal. It turned out the kit didn’t belong to him; it belonged to this other friend of ours. So I narrowly avoided getting my ass kicked from one end of Hermosa to the other for purchasing a set of hot drums.
One day I was hanging out with Greg and a few other people at the workspace for his mail-order business, which was called Solid State Transmitters. Greg modified attenuators and shipped them off to ham radio operators around the country, and he hired me to help out. We did all the soldering and distribution in a rented room inside a community art space on Manhattan Avenue that used to be a church, so that’s what everyone called it: the Church.
It was a weekend afternoon, and as usual, I’d spent my morning consuming some chilled adult beverages. I was ready to go wander down to the beach and sleep it off under the pier when Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” came blasting out of the radio. I started to pogo around, jumping up on Greg’s desk and springing into the air, screaming the lyrics to the song. I totally lost it and did what felt like a triple-flip in the air and bounced onto the sofa. I wasn’t done yet. I jumped off the arm of the sofa and did a swan dive across the floor, which I’d timed perfectly to the end of the song, crash-landing on my face. I didn’t care what happened to me. All I cared about was the song and putting on a show for my friends.
After the music stopped and I picked myself off the floor, Greg looked at me in disbelief and said, “You’re not playing drums in the band!”
“What?” I thought he was going to kick me out of the shop for being a total spaz. I thought he was booting me out of the band.
“You’re the vocalist!” Greg said.
And with that, out of a friendship between a tall guitar player and a short vocalist, the seeds for Black Flag were sown.