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Music

Henry Rollins' favourite songs of the underground

Henry Lawrence Garfield, more commonly recognised as the uncompromising Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, is an artist that comes with a certain cult pedigree. He’s a true polymath, a musician, vocalist, presenter, comedian and activist. Whilst he is a divisive figure in punk, often accused of “selling-out”, his work as vocalist of seminal hardcore punks Black Flag from 1981 to 1986 remains iconic.

After Black Flag’s dissolution in 1986, Rollins established the record label and publishing company 2.13.16 as a platform for his spoken word albums. Subsequently, he formed the Rollins band in 1987, which toured extensively until their hiatus in 2003 and again in 2006.

In his Black Flag days, Rollins gained a reputation as a hardman and someone not to be messed with. This was due to his muscular, tattooed appearance and aggressive attitude — the infamous interview from the ’80s where Rollins bullies the young interviewer is a testament to that. An opinionated, but highly educated orator, Rollins has sent damaging criticism in the direction of U2, Californian cops, and American conservative Ann Coulter.

Given that Rollins is walking, talking mass of muscular opinion, he’s one of the most captivating musicians we’ve ever known, and to many, the confirmation of his retirement from music in 2021, would’ve been a source of much sorrow. However, he hasn’t actually gone anywhere. Musically, his iconic persona lives on through his work with Black Flag and Rollins Band. It’s just that Rollins has moved into other areas over the past 15 years, and one of these is assuming the position as one of music’s most eminent historians.

A revered voice on everything alternative, in 2014, he revealed to Esquire what he believes are the top ten songs of the underground. He explained: “This list could be totally different depending on who you asked to make it. Also, I had to find songs that, if you find yourself interested, you’d be able to locate with relative ease. There is no use in lending praise to a song you’ll have difficulty locating.”

“So this list is not authoritative,” Rollins appended. “I’m just a music fan tossing his two cents. With all this in consideration, let’s go.”

It’s safe to say that any fan of the underground would be satisfied with the list that Rollins compiled. Kicking things off, it was only fitting that Rollins doffed his cap to the most gilded lineup of proto-punks ever assembled. This was Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, comprised of Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of The MC5, Scott Morgan of The Rationals, Gary Rasmussen of The Up and Scott Asheton of The Stooges. Choosing the supergroup’s most famous song ‘City Slang’, Rollins labelled the group one of the “most undermentioned” American rock bands of the 20th century. 

Rollins explained the 1978 track: “In a little over 5 minutes, the band delivers some of the most thrilling, blowout, burn-up rock and roll. Smith’s tone and attack is without peer, Asheton’s solid drive is the epitome of rock drumming. The band is a cohesive thing of perfection. I was introduced to this song in the early ’80s and have never recovered.”

Further down the list, Rollins picked a cut by one of the most influential cult bands of all time, The Cramps. Led by Lux Interior and Posion Ivy, these psychobilly pioneers inspired everyone from Fugazi to Primal Scream. Rollins was right in choosing ‘Human Fly’ in terms of their classic tracks. The 1978 single, which was also the opener of their 1983 compilation …Off the Bone, it is The Cramps at their finest. Sinister and pulsating, it’s one of the rawest cuts that they ever released. 

Rollins said: “One of the greatest rock bands of all time was from Ohio. They were called the Cramps. This is not up for debate. Ask the countless thousands who were lucky enough to bear witness to the band’s life-altering live shows and they will tell you that without a doubt, the band’s vocalist, Lux Interior, was one of the greatest frontmen of all time.”

Another incredibly influential underground staple that Rollins selected was ‘Politicians in My Eyes’ by Detroit proto-punks, Death. Something of Arthur Lee’s Love, just more visceral, Death are one of those bands who were truly ahead of their time, who were lost in a period of obscurity before being rediscovered by the mainstream in the past two decades. However, they were never forgotten by the original kids of the underground, such as Rollins. Listening to ‘Politicians in My Eyes’, you’ll be blown away that it was released in 1975. Everything about the song is pioneering, and you quickly realise why they were so coveted.

Rollins explained: “Three brothers, David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, recorded and in 1976 released a two-song single with ‘Politicians in My Eyes’ and ‘Keep on Knockin’.’ Decades later, after the release of an album’s worth of material and a critically acclaimed documentary (A Band Called Death), ‘Politicians in My Eyes,’ thankfully, isn’t a hard song to find. It used to be. The original pressing of the single is said to be only 500. I have seen only one.”

A who’s who of underground music, Rollins‘ list wastes no time in showing you the essential sights of the genre. Elsewhere in his list, he picked cuts by Pere Ubu, Roky Erickson, Suicide and Bad Brains. A stellar and varied list, we hope that Rollins provides more of these in the near future. 

Henry Rollins’ ultimate underground songs:

  • Sonic’s Rendezvous Band – ‘City Slang’
  • Pere Ubu – ‘Final Solution’
  • The Cramps- ‘Human Fly’
  • Devo – ‘Jocko Homo’
  • Suicide – ‘Ghost Rider’
  • Roky Erickson – ‘Click Your Fingers Applauding the Play’
  • Death – ‘Politicians in My Eyes’
  • Flipper – ‘Ha Ha Ha’
  • Bad Brains – ‘Pay to Cum’
  • The Four Plugs – ‘The Wrong Treatment’