Tramshed, Cardiff, Sat 12 Oct
Total Chaos come across as a bit of a cartoonish parody, a vision of what the headliners might have become had their growth stunted around the time of Damaged. The members have spiked their hair and surrendered their surnames for punk substitutes; the letter “A” in “Chaos” on the backdrop banner is an anarchy symbol; the songs rail against cops, the lust for war and the US, branded “the most repressive dictatorship in the world” (Amnesty International might be inclined to disagree). The showmanship and shredding guitar solos help to give Total Chaos’ hardcore its distinctly LA flavour, even if the chaos is for the most part carefully controlled – nevertheless, the boots they repeatedly aim at your face rarely miss the intended target, and they deserve credit for sticking to their guns for three decades.
Black Flag are the subjects of the first chapter of Michael Azerrad’s exceptional book Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991, with good reason. Having initially established themselves as a ferocious hardcore act, they quickly grew bored of the genre’s paradoxical championing of freedom within a form that demanded adherence to musical and aesthetic rules. The second half of 1984’s My War was their Dylan-goes-electric moment, its slowed-down sludge inspiring a whole generation – including Melvins, The Jesus Lizard, Kurt Cobain and Mudhoney’s Mark Arm – to explore the fertile ground between metal/hard rock and punk. Guitarist Greg Ginn’s label SST released records by everyone from Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Meat Puppets to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr, while his brother Raymond Pettibon designed the band’s now-iconic logo.
Anticipation for Black Flag’s first UK tour in 35 years, even in the absence of any new material, is high. Ginn may be the only original member, but that’s been the case since the early 80s – and from the moment the current lineup (vocalist Mike Vallely, bassist Tyler Smith and drummer Isaias Gill) rip into Depression without a word of introduction, it’s clear he’s in very good company. Vallely in particular has huge shoes to fill, given that his predecessors include Henry Rollins and Keith Morris, but he does vein-popping intensity with aplomb, especially on Black Coffee.
Ginn, though, is the focal point – an idiot savant guitar genius whose love of both three-chord punk and freeform jazz come through in his unique, uninhibited style. His bandmates regularly converge in a huddle around the drum riser to allow him to stand centre stage, wobbling his head from side to side before pausing to towel his face down and take a restorative sip from the teacup atop the amp. Times may have changed – the sarcastic satire of Slip It In, for instance, feels dangerously open to misinterpretation – but Gimme Gimme Gimme and Six Pack stir up the moshpit much as they did in the band’s youth.
Total Chaos emerge to lend vocal support to a raucous Nervous Breakdown, but the night isn’t quite over. A meandering cover of Louie Louie, performed while the crowd thins and hardcore purists grumble about the songs omitted from the set, simply peters out after about 20 minutes when Ginn decides he’s had enough: the perfect punk gesture from the band who ripped up the rulebook.
words BEN WOOLHEAD photos HANNAH TOTTLE