U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Kristoffer Smemo on Black Flag’s Electric Church, or, How Working Men Rock

To delve deeper into Black Flag’s anti-systemic working-class conservatism there is likely no better next step than to spend some time with Black Flag’s chief theoretician Joe Carducci. Most famous as author of the 1991 book Rock and the Pop Narcotic (subtitled with all appropriate grandiosity: A Testament to the Electric Church), Carducci made a powerful claim for the cultural value of white working-class producerism and masculinity in an age of deindustrialization.

Born in the working-class Chicago suburb of Naperville, the young Carducci migrated out West in the 1970s. There he learned the nuts and bolts of what remained of the mom-and-pop music business at an independent record distribution company in the Bay Area. He also immersed himself into the burgeoning San Francisco punk scene before decamping to the skuzzier side Hollywood and linking up with Black Flag. He quickly put his talents to use as a co-owner of Ginn’s SST Records label. After nearly a decade of toil producing, pressing, and publicizing Black Flag and SST’s unparalleled roster of ‘80s underground luminaries (the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, Saint Vitus, etc.), Carducci resigned to focus on his writing.

R&PN

His first post-SST product, Rock and the Pop Narcotic appeared in 1991––“the year punk broke” according to the documentary produced that year by another Flag associate, filmmaker and drummer Dave Markey. Carducci’s argument, though, appeared uninterested in positioning the by now defunct Black Flag as the vanguard in punk’s long march across the American cultural landscape. Rather, Carducci set out to place Black Flag within the long and unheralded history of twentieth century working-class musics.

Carducci theorizes rock as “rock and roll music made conscious of itself as a small band music.” With few exceptions, rock is almost solely the interplay between “the players of a guitar, a bass, and a drum kit” and this strictly enforced simplicity yields a purity of artistic expression.[1] But Carducci’s definition of rock is also intentionally capacious and obscure, recovering artists otherwise ignored by the canon of Rolling Stone and FM radio. In this formulation, the greasy boogie of early ZZ Top, French prog-rock giant Magma’s symphonic sci-fi, the Stax-Volt soul of Sam and Dave, and Black Flag all qualify as exemplars of rock.

“Pop” in contrast represents not only the commercial pabulum foisted on the masses, but the aesthetic alternative that every musician must inevitably confront. Unlike the yeomen of rock, pop is designed and assembled by an army of professional technicians. As a result, pop is the height of corporate capitalist cultural production. But at the same time it cannot emerge whole from within the bowels of some Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building. There must first be rock, or some pure form of popularly produced music to be corrupted by the addictive, “narcotic” promise of commercial success. This poses a cultural dialectic: either a band continues to rock in obscurity (a la Black Flag who finally burned out in 1986), or they sell out and provide the raw material for a culture industry ripped from the pages of Adorno’s early writings on the popular arts.

But Carducci does not make a self-righteous stand against traitorous “sell outs” because he appreciates the class dynamics of modern cultural production. Working people toil to make this music—as they toil to make anything else—and if they get a shot at enjoying the material rewards and decadent excesses that come with making pop, then so be it. Besides, as Carducci contends, working people themselves are cultural agents in their own right; they’re the ones continuously taking apart and reconfiguring the pop detritus that came before to build something unique and new.

The very denial of working class cultural agency is central to Carducci assault on what he derides as the “liberalism” promoted by music critics and publishers, namely those clustered around Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone. Carducci savages what he depicts as the limousine liberalism of the so-called rock press for advocating such out of touch, haute bourgeois causes as saving the whales and singing the praises of painfully bland, painfully self-serious pop artists from Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the Eagles to Sting and Bono—all while dismissing out of handthe gnarly, proletarian stomp Black Sabbath and MC5. For Carducci, these critics and publishers perpetuated an elitism endemic to modern liberalism, one that denied the very validity of working-class expression.

Carducci does present a quite radical critique of popular music that puts a class analysis of cultural work at its center. Though rock might be might be most easily identified within the electric church’s triumvirate of guitar, bass, and drums, Carducci leaves open the possibility that rock as an aesthetic from cannot be reduced to the basic elements of its composition. Though pop usually wins in a capitalist mode of cultural production, those who succumb nevertheless still provide the grist necessary for future generations to remake rock. Just because the once rockin’ ZZ Top of “La Grange” became pop when they added synthesizers and made cheesy videos to promote Eliminator on MTV, this by no means precluded the dudes in Black Flag from playing that tape to death in the van.

Ironically, the problem with much of Carducci’s nominally populist argument is its highly exclusionary taxonomy of who historically rocks. Carducci’s class of analysis is initially exciting, but it rests on a highly essentialist set of definitions. The “working class” is tightly restricted to its shopworn New Deal coalition cliché given that the patron saints of the electric church are working-class men who rock—and presumably only straight men given that Carducci’s prose is littered with one “fag” after another. Furthermore, aside from really far out jazz players, such as late period John Coltrane or Sun Ra, or the grittier side of ‘60s soul and R&B, working-class rock is also a pretty much lily-white affair. The absence of any new black artists after the ‘70s means no hip-hop.

Taking apart Carducci’s notion of who and what rocks in conjunction with his take down of rock critic liberalism reveals another story about white masculinity and nostalgia. The consequences of deindustrialization and neoliberalism stoked in Carducci and Ginn’s Black Flag a visceral and basically conservative reaction against the collapse of a political order structured around white proletarian security.

Historically, it is clear that Carducci’s vision of rock emerges from a particular time and place. “What is forgotten,” Carducci writes, “is everything that happened beneath the surface between 1958 and 1964, and that’s the Wailers and Link Wray—blue collar, small town bands.”[2] This largely lost legacy of pre-British Invasion Yankee garage rock epitomized the ideal moment when working people once possessed the resources to not only produce, but also capitalize on own their cultural innovations.

The New Deal inadvertently made possible thriving, typically regionally-based circuits of working class cultural production. And these circuits laid the basis for rock to flourish on terms dictated by working people with just enough capital to become petit bourgeoisie cultural producers themselves: pressing plants dedicated to manufacturing singles by bands such as the Kingsmen of “Louie, Louie” fame; federally regulated media markets that encouraged local radio to play local bands; and massive public infrastructural development built the highways and a variety of venues for those bands to play shows.

By the time this world decayed in the ‘70s, Black Flag and Carducci responded with an aesthetic politics that celebrated white male producerism as a righteous alternative to a decrepit and elitist “post-material” liberalism.

Rather than pine for a “lost opportunity” of postwar social democracy, Carducci’s history implied something akin to the fiction of nineteenth century Republican “free labor ideology.” The promise of postwar affluence suggested a way out for the working class, especially in terms of financing an independent working-class culture made for and by working people.

The crumbling of the New Deal political economy left a mountain of debris that blocked this path for wage earners to become the small shopkeepers, independent artisans, and freeholders vital to sustaining independent circuits of working-class cultural production. Black Flag’s producerism, in Carducci’s estimation, represented an important link to this past and suggested the possibility of rebuilding the postwar craft economy of cultural production.

But as deindustrialization devastated the material basis of an independently produced working-class culture, it also undermined its masculine self-confidence.

Therefore Black Flag’s rock did important ideological work by embodying and reproducing all the machismo traditionally wrapped up in celebrations of hard labor.

This extended directly into the challenging, jagged, and dissonant music they made out of the pop detritus of commercial stadium metal. But they also gleefully imbibed that music’s notorious groupie hound sexuality, especially in their more explicitly metal-derived records such as Slip It In and Loose Nut. Adopting this hyper-macho rocker pose also served to reinforce Black Flag’s labor-based claims to artistic authority.

Thus, according to Carducci’s sense of postwar history, the hardcore punk of Greg Ginn’s SST Records sought to reclaim the same spirit petit bourgeois entrepreneurship that drove the rock and roll of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in ‘50s Memphis.

Next week we’ll continue charting Black Flag’s critique of liberalism through Charles Manson and the Weather Underground in Raymond Pettibon’s iconic early artwork and self-produced films.

[1] Joe Carducci, Rock and the Pop Narcotic: Testament for the Electric Church (Los Angeles: 2-13-61 Press, 1994), 15.

[2] Ibid., 54.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is another well done post in this series. I was particularly intrigued by the section talking about African American musicians in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. I began to wonder where they (especially hip hop folks) would fit into this, and I’m glad you addressed it.

    In some sense this all seems to be part of the larger problem of post-New Deal questions of who was–and wasn’t–part of the working class in the late 20th century. Great stuff.

  2. Thanks, Robert! That’s a good question. I think hip-hop actually fits quite well in Carducci’s framework. Much more so than white rock, hip hop repurposes all sorts of pop culture artifacts into something radically different. And of course hip hop is also just as susceptible to the pop narcotic.

    The fact Carducci doesn’t include hip-hop speaks volumes about the larger political struggle of who in fact constitutes the “working class.” To that end, I’ve certainly had Paul Frymer’s Black and Blue in the back of my head while putting this together. I think that Black Flag’s social and political position can be traced back to the consequences of New Deal policy making institutionally separating labor issues as white while relegating civil rights to a separate patchwork of ad hoc agencies.

  3. Awesome essay, Kit, but of course, I am biased.

    Following Robert, I wonder how Carducci treats disco–and specifically the re-orientation of pop around dancing, collective joy, DJs, female singers in the diva/chanteuse mode… and how you would situate Black Flag vis-a-vis the rise of the disco, DJ, and drum machine. Here we have an intertwined technological revolution and the efflorescence of an urban African American/Latino/a/queer subculture, hypostatized as THE medium of blue-collar resistance in Saturday Night Fever. Followed, in the popular imagination, by rock’s faithful industrial proletarians cheering as bulldozers destroy disco records at bizarre public festivals.

    Recent work on disco has recognized that disco’s response to deindustrialization and the shredding of social contracts was structurally identical to the impulses undergirding punk. (Additionally, many disco classics built on the same sources as those beloved by punks, like the garage rock classic “Apache,” to say nothing of early hip-hop’s fondness for dumb rock like Billy Squier as a source of beats, or the dance/punk hybridity audible in everything from The Screamers to Gang of Four).

    So, I suppose what I am asking is–where does disco fit in, within a class/race/gender/sexuality matrix, in relation to Black Flag’s conditions of emergence?

  4. Thanks for the great prompt, Kurt. It builds very nicely on Robert’s point, too. I think you’re absolutely right that disco and punk do emerge from the same crises, and indeed the sounds cross pollinate throughout the 1980s with everyone from Ministry to Rick James (I read somewhere that Ginn’s eclectic tastes included disco, too).

    But there remained a sharp political difference between the two that turned on interpretations questions of history. Punk, especially hardcore, strives aesthetically to be ahistorical–intentionally blurring the imprint of Chuck Berry through speed, growls, and distortion. Disco’s futurism conversely expresses a real appreciation for the past in its collage of familiar, obscure, or discarded sounds. It was disco’s historical vision–refined, expanded, and push to dizzying new heights through hip hop–that ultimately won out in the ’80s. That said, Black Flag never adopted the uniformity of so much hardcore. Flag’s increasingly metal sound, influenced tremendously by jazz, did build consciously on the past, but in ways that conjured a lost era rather than suggesting a new one. This can be witnessed in the truly cringeworthy lyrics for Slip It In or when Henry Rollins (however ironically) invoked the good ol’ boy swagger of Jim Dandy Mangrum in his stage patter in the mid-’80s. All this linked Flag’s more adventurous sounds to many of the same spirits mobilized in those weird anti-disco Nuremberg rallies.

    (Full disclosure: I do like slow and sludgy Flag the best).

  5. Kit,

    I’m really glad that people are finally starting to think about punk and hardcore in a more traditionally academic sense. As someone who grew up with hardcore, and now studying intellectual history, it’s really a pleasure to see such a thoughtful analysis of Black Flag and the larger historical significance of punk and hardcore. With that said, though, I have a few thoughts and reservations…

    First, I think that while Black Flag offers an interesting window into the reactionary politics of deindustrialization, and while its machismo seems to fit strangely nicely with the rise of the silent majority and the reaction to the cultural excesses of the 1960s, it seems to me that they can’t be treated as a synecdoche of the broader phenomenon. THat is, where I think your argument runs into some trouble is in considering the multi-valenced nature of post-industrial music. I’m thinking more specifically about No-Wave music. Its politics were far from nostalgic paeans to working class producerism, and its aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) directly confronted the inherently male, self-certain dynamics on which both rock and punk rested (and still do). I think of artists like Lydia Lunch and James Chance, as well as bands like Suicide, Mars, DNA, and Teenage Jesus as doing a lot to challenge the gender norms that structured rock music, which in my mind was directly bound up in an acceptance of industrial collapse as an opportunity to re-think the aesthetics, politics, and morals that attended the liberal, progressive ideology of post-war America. I think a similar, although perhaps not as compelling, case can be made for techno music and disco.

    Secondly, I’m wondering if you could say more about how you would justify Black Flag and, by implication in your last post, punk rock generally, as being bound up in a nostalgia for producerism. I think your criticism of the machismo and patriarchy of punk is right on ( it’s still alive and well today). But it seems to me somewhat of a stretch to equate 19th century populism of the likes of William Jennings Bryan to Greg Ginn and SST simply because the latter embraced a DIY ethic and maintained relentless tour schedules. While both were in fact expressions of anti-capitalism, the latter’s embrace of travel and and wayfaring, of an anti-bourgeois ideology (thinking here of the opening of “Family Man”), and of a generally unrestrained, at times hedonistic aesthetic, seems very much at odds with the stability, restraint, and self-assurance that the populists represented.

    I’m also wondering how much of a working class phenomenon punk really was and is. It seems that it did in fact start out that way, but as it gained in popularity increasingly became a largely middle class affair. I wonder if you have thoughts about that?

    Anyway, thanks again for these really insightful and smart essays. I look forward to reading more of them!

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