When you were in school you went to parties. You sat around accomplishing not too much and, when The Tune came on, everyone chimed in on the big sing-along chorus – noisily, fraternally, euphorically. You had one then, your kids have one now. You know, The Tune. Back when it was my turn, we’d come home from hunting dinosaurs, throw our flint spears in the corner and blast ‘TV Party’ by Black Flag. The whole number was a sing-along start to finish. There we were, arms linked, smiling idiotically, belting out: “We’ve got nothing better to do, than watch TV and have a couple of brews!” The fun would never end. Except it did, of course, and everyone went their separate ways and lost touch.
That’s pretty much what happened to Black Flag. The classic line-up that released ‘TV Party’ in 1982 split up and went on to do different things, musically and otherwise. Greg Ginn, who founded the band, wrote the song and released it on his own label, SST Records, went on to form Gone and played as a solo act and with a number of other groups. Singer Henry Rollins got 100 tattoos, formed his own band, did some acting and writing and presently hosts the radio show Harmony in My Head. The numerous other veterans of Black Flag formed or re-joined other SoCal punk outfits, notably the Circle Jerks and Descendents, and soldiered on flyin’ the flannel for the next generations.
And then, like all worthwhile acts that once Sang The Tune, some members of the band reformed and put a tour together. Without Ginn. And Ginn was not down with that, so he sued them for…trademark infringement! Whpshh!
Former BF members Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Dez Cadena, Bill Stevenson and Descendents’ guitarist Stephen Egerton have been touring as Flag. Ginn and SST sued them all, as well as Rollins, and sought an injunction precluding them from performing under that, er, banner. As it turns out, Ginn has been touring with his own Black Flag and intends to release new material under the band’s original name. Rollins isn’t part of either act, but he was named in the suit because he and Morris filed trademark applications last year for the band name and its iconic 4 bar logo (designed by noted artist Raymond Pettibon, Ginn’s brother). Ginn had claimed that he and SST had sole rights to use the Black Flag name and logo and that Flag’s performances would confuse fans and dilute the brand.
Couple of weeks ago, a California Central District Court Judge denied Ginn’s injunction on grounds that Ginn/SST had not shown any evidence that fans were misled by Flag, whose tour posters listed the participating band members. The Judge also opined that Black Flag’s iconic logo had succumbed to “generic use” and that Ginn hadn’t objected to the deluge of unofficial BF merch that’s been sold in the intervening years.
This sort of beef isn’t new – disputes over competing versions of groups using the same band name are legion. Bad vibrations led Mike Love, the baldest Beach Boy, to enjoin Al Jardine, the tiniest Beach Boy, from performing as “The Beach Boys Family & Friends.” Sometimes the kids just alter their moniker a bit to avoid a conflict with someone already using it. Like, say, The English Beat or the Charlatans UK, who were known simply as The Beat and The Charlatans in their native Britain. Dinosaur Jr. was originally just called Dinosaur until a Bay Area collective featuring members of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Country Joe & the Fish and other acid casualties began performing as The Dinosaurs. Why take on the psychedelic hordes when you can avoid an infringement suit by appending ‘Jr.’ to your name? Or, take it one step further like indie pop duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
One of the funniest examples has to be the prog rock supergroup Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe, LLP, who were unable to perform under the band name Yes because they didn’t include original bassist Chris Squire. They toured using their law firm-esque handle, playing “An Evening of Yes Music” and chasing ambulances around town until Squire got back on board.
Even your humble narrator found himself in a freezing basement conference room in Manchester one winter some years back, taking the deposition of one Barry Whitwam, original drummer and “only continuous member” of British Invasion pinups Herman’s Hermits. As a result of that action, Peter ‘Herman’ Noone tours as “Herman’s Hermits starring Peter Noone,” while Barry has to go by “Herman’s Hermits starring Barry Whitwam” when his lot tour the States.
So what’s gonna happen with Flag, Black Flag and the four bars of doom? Not much, I’m thinking. The suit isn’t over, but a finding that your logo has become “generic” pretty much erases your trademark rights. Better to get the act together and sing The Tune one more time, with feeling: