Black Flag and Total Chaos Live at The Waterfront Norwich 9th October

It is rare that when you attend you are the youngest person there. Almost every legacy band you care to mention, be it Maiden, Metallica, Sabbath, hell even bloody Saxon, will see an audience spanning at least three generations of fans. Tonight’s show at the dingy-despite-refurbishment Waterfront in Norwich however is populated exclusively with fans of original UK punk. There’s the odd Rage Against the Machine shirt in sight, and the very occasional Agnostic Front Logo, but tonight’s audience is solely devoted to the first wave of punk bands – if we ignore Patti Smith and The Ramones of course – and will not move from their staunch position. It goes some way to explaining the line up of this evening’s proceedings.

Opening the night were unknown stalwarts, Total Chaos. Despite the promise from their namesake of reckless abandon and anarchy – not in the political sense of course – they are a curiously reserved band. After an alleged “30 years in the scene” it’s fair to expect an ounce of restraint through weariness from the band, but what’s punk about reigning it in? Admittedly this is an unfair question as the band clearly have no understanding of what punk is: With their awkwardly mohicaned hair – you really should stop when the hairline is receding – and clothes pin accessorised jackets, this band clearly see punk as a fashion statement rather than an ideological movement. Punk is more than just a haircut; it is a way of life inspired by the writings of anarchist philosophers such as William Godwin, Mikhail Bakunin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon or Emma Goldman. This is clearly something that Total Chaos know nothing about, and while punk should not be exclusive to the intelligentsia, there is need for more than a modicum of understanding of the tenets of a genre you enter in to. Songs like Punk Will Never Die speak to a band stuck in their heyday and a lack of willingness to change with the times. The one bright spark of the set comes in the form of new material, namely War Is A Rocket from their upcoming EP. This song speaks to an evolution of their sound and implies that they are not solely stuck in the past. That being said, the majority of their set trades on “glory” years rather than forward thinking so take from that what you will. [2]

To break from convention momentarily, this review will become personal: I have a Black Flag tattoo across my heart. It is not only for my sincere love of the band, but what that symbol represents. Taken from piracy from the mid 16th/17th century, the ‘black flag’ represents a countercultural and rescinding attitude towards governance and the rule of monarchy. It is the universal symbol of the anarchist movement, a movement I am readily willing to support as long as I shall live – though typing this on my laptop seems somewhat counterintuitive to that point. Essentially what I am trying to say is that Black Flag mean an awful lot to me, not just as a band but as an idea. A manifestation of the works of Proudhon, Bakunin, Godwin, Goldman et al. put to music. So it is with a desperately heavy heart that I declare the evening to be the biggest disappointment of my admittedly short life so far.

The set starts with Depression from the highly influential album, Damaged. Things look bright as the band play with a cool verve and ‘fuck you’ attitude. The hired hands helping out sole original member, Greg Ginn, are adept in their instrumentation and perform the songs with a rambunctious aplomb. Very quickly things head south. While current vocalist Mike Vallely has a jot of his own personality in songs like Black Coffee, he tries so resignedly to imitate Henry Rollins – the classic Black Flag frontman – during songs from the band’s debut that the performance feels like an amateur showcase of acting rather than sincere punk rock energy. In fact, the whole band are static and it leads to a lack of spontaneity and questioning ‘what next?’ of the gig.

They trundle through the classic material ploddingly and dispassionately, churning out the now classic tracks without reverence. The most profoundly depressing piece of the puzzle is Greg Ginn: He can barely keep up with the lyrics while providing backing vocals. The mic was presumably turned off during Depression as the feedback was unbearable; Ginn is inaudible for the entirety of the set. This is perhaps for the best as watching his mouth gradually catch up with Vallely’s delivery is a heartbreaking sight. All credit goes out to the man as performing these songs at sixty five must be a strain both physically and mentally, but you can’t help but feel it’s time to call it a day.

The reasons for this tour – the first on English soil for thirty five years – are unclear, but a quick visit to the merch table to purchase the forty – yes forty! – pound longsleeve confirms the most ulterior of motives: The route of all evil: Money. If Black Flag were still in the game for the love of anti-authoritarian art, they would release a new album – the last being 2013’s What The… – but the extortionate rates of limited merch – one t-shirt of poor printed quality, one longsleeve and a skateboard deck – imply the lack of commitment to a cause that you see in so many other legacy bands. There isn’t an ounce of sincerity left; what they do is only to line the coffers. Total Chaos claimed that Punk Will Never Die. They couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, Johnny Rotten has done butter adverts in the past, but today is the day that old school punk died for me. The most disappointing evening ever. [3]

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