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Why you should trust Henry Rollins’ taste in music

Singer and spoken-word artist Rollins' weekly show for KCRW is truly a gem

Henry Rollins performing in Los Angeles in December 2019.
Henry Rollins performing in Los Angeles in December 2019. (Getty Images)

Henry Rollins has had a versatile career. Hard-core punk singer in the early to mid-1980s; spoken-word artist; radio jockey; actor; presenter; stand-up comedian; even a muscle-bound powerlifter. A workaholic who always seems to be bursting with energy, Rollins, now 60, is best known for his years with California’s Black Flag, pioneers of hard-core punk, one of the most aggressive forms of punk rock, which evolved in the late 1970s.

The (not quite apocryphal) story of how Rollins, then not yet 20, became Black Flag’s singer provides some insight into his spontaneous, impulse-driven character. In his teens, Rollins sang with various local hard-core bands in his home town, Washington, DC, and when the Flag came to town on a tour, Rollins, who was in the audience, jumped on to the stage and started singing with his idols. The band hired him soon after. He was an intense singer whose stage performance was impressive—he would often appear shirtless, in shorts, his powerful physique on display.

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Rollins was with Black Flag till 1986. He then went on to form his own metal ensemble, the Rollins Band, and embarked on a solo career involving spoken-word performances. Spoken-word performances are high-adrenaline affairs with fast-paced wit, covering an eclectic range of subjects. They drip with energy and often last more than three hours—and he has toured the world with them. To sample them, check out his show at the Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany in 2013 (it’s on YouTube).

But it is Rollins as a radio jockey that you really want to check out. Although Rollins began hosting a radio show on an indie channel in Los Angeles, US, in 2004, it was only in 2009 that he began a weekly show for KCRW, a National Public Radio member channel that is broadcast from the Santa Monica College in California. It’s a two-hour broadcast (streamed) every weekend, with Rollins as the jockey playing great music. Sometimes they are bands that you might have heard of but more often than not, they are ones you might have missed completely if he hadn’t played them. True to his nature, Rollins is an obsessive collector of music and his discoveries almost always come as a pleasant surprise.

On 5 June, KCRW streamed Rollins’ 636th broadcast. It was an aural smorgasbord of songs by bands I had never heard. Such as the Ooga Boogas, a four-piece from Melbourne, Australia, that plays instantly infectious indie garage. Rollins played The Studio Of My Mind from their 2012 self-titled album. On the same show, the intrepid DJ introduced me to another Melbourne band, Spiritual Mafia, which plays alternative rock. Their debut album, Alfresco, is out this year and Rollins played the first track, Lunch. The band’s staple alt-rock instruments (guitars and drums) are complemented with spacey synths and turntable scratching and though their sound is nowhere near what you would likely call spiritual, it can be strangely calming.

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Next, he spun a track by yet another band unknown to me: Sweeping Promises—a Boston punk band fronted by bassist and vocalist Lira Mondal, a second-generation Bangladeshi-American who grew up on a musical diet of Lata Mangeshkar and ABBA, which her immigrant parents were fond of, before being influenced by acts such as Mazzy Star and Portishead. Mondal and her band record in a concrete underground “lab” and their sound has a uniqueness because it is usually recorded with just one microphone.

While new bands are the big bonus of Rollins’ shows (with his pithy but highly useful descriptions adding spice), he frequently peppers the shows with older music. In the 5 June show, he played Real World from the English punk band Buzzcocks’ second album, Love Bites, which was first released in 1978.

If you think punk or alternative rock is Rollins’ only thing, it isn’t. A few tracks after Buzzcocks, Rollins played Heaven, Hell Or Houston. Followers of the blues rock band ZZ Top will know it’s from their 1981 album, El Loco. Earlier this year, when alternative rock stars Dinosaur Jr released their new album, Rollins played them too on his show.

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What makes Rollins’ show a true weekly gem is that it can help you discover new music. A few weeks ago, he played an Israeli singer and guitarist named Tamar Aphek. She is a trained classical musician from Tel Aviv but was besotted by rock music after listening to post-hard-core bands such as Fugazi and The Jesus Lizard. Aphek crossed over to rock and her debut album, released this year, is titled All Bets Are Off. She calls her genre of music “jazz & roll” and her album is a curious rendezvous of bop and heavy rock.

Rollins is a man of many parts. In addition to his solo projects, he has collaborated with musicians such as Iggy Pop, The Flaming Lips, and William Shatner. Last year, during the early months of the lockdown, he even did two marathon episodes of another show for KCRW, titled The Cool Quarantine, featuring long-form, digital-only music along with his personal stories, deep cuts, rarities, bootlegs, full albums and EPs. But in his regular weekly show, he does the heavy lifting, searching for and bringing us music we might not have discovered without his help.

The Lounge list: Five tracks to bookend your week

1. The Studio Of My Mind by Ooga Boogas from Ooga Boogas

2. Atelier by Sweeping Promises from Hunger For A Way Out

3. Excuse Generator by Lithics from Mating Surfaces

4. Crossbow by Tamar Aphek from All Bets Are Off

5. Lunch by Spiritual Mafia from Alfresco

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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