Rollins was the singer for the Washington, D.C. punk rock band State of Alert from October 1980 to July 1981. Afterwards, he sang with California punk rock band Black Flag from August 1981 to August 1986. Black Flag earned little mainstream attention, but through a demanding touring schedule, came to be regarded as one of the most important punk rock bands of the 1980s.
Less than a year after Black Flag broke up, Rollins returned to music with guitarist Chris Haskett (a friend from Rollins' teen years in Washington D.C.), bass guitarist Bernie Wandel, and drummer Mick Green.
This line-up released two records: Hot Animal Machine (credited as a Rollins solo record and featuring cover art drawings by Devo leader Mark Mothersbaugh) and Drive by Shooting (credited to "Henrietta Collins and the Wifebeating Childhaters"). The music was similar to Black Flag's, though it flirted more with heavy metal and funk.
First edition (1987–1994)
Soon after, Rollins formed Rollins Band with Haskett, bassist Andrew Weiss, and drummer Sim Cain (Weiss and Cain had previously played with Gone, an instrumental rock group led by guitarist and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn). Live sound engineer Theo Van Rock was usually credited as a band member.
Critics Ira Robbins and Regina Joskow described this line-up as a "brilliant, strong ensemble ... the band doesn't play punk (more a jazzy, thrashy, swing take on the many moods of Jimi Hendrix), but what they do together has the strengths of both. The group's loud guitar rock with a strong, inventive rhythmic clock borrows only the better attributes of metal, ensuring that noise is never a substitute for purpose."
Second edition (1994–1997)
Gibbs in a July 19, 1980 performance in Paris, France
Rollins's tour diaries from this era (published as See A Grown Man Cry and "Now Watch Him Die") details the personal and creative tensions that led to Weiss being fired following the End of Silence tour.
The band's new bassist was jazz and funk veteran Melvin Gibbs, who'd been highly recommended by guitarist Vernon Reid of Living Colour, a friend of the Rollins Band since the first Lollapalooza tour. Cain and Gibbs had also both played in different versions of guitarist Marc Ribot's band (with Gibbs performing on Ribot's album Rootless Cosmopolitans and Cain on Requiem for What's-His-Name).
The first video from 1994's Weight, "Liar", was a huge hit on MTV, with Rollins sporting numerous costumes (including a cop and a nun). The band appeared at Woodstock '94, and Rollins was a guest-host for several MTV programs, including 120 Minutes.
This version of Rollins Band had some of the most overt jazz leanings of the band's history: Gibbs had begun his career with Reid in the 1980s jazz fusion group of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, and worked with Sonny Sharrock on albums like 1987's
Seize The Rainbow. These influences, along with Rollins' obsession with the late '60s/early '70s electric/fusion era of iconic trumpeter Miles Davis, shaped this version of the band's music. During the sessions for Weight, Rollins Band recorded with free jazz saxophonist Charles Gayle, though these sessions remained unreleased for ten years at Gayle's request to avoid conflicts with his contractual obligations. The Gayle sessions were released in 2003 as Weighting.
In 1996, there was a legal battle with the band's former label Imago Records. Rollins claimed "fraud, deceit, undue
influence and economic coercion" on the labels' part. They signed with the then new major label DreamWorks Records, who released 1997's Come In And Burn. The album had a minor hit with the single "Starve" and the band appeared on Saturday Night Live to promote the album (season 22, episode 18). However, Come In and Burn was not as successful as Weight and, after touring for Burn, Rollins dissolved the group, citing creative stagnation.
Third edition (1999–2003)
Rollins replaced the Haskett-Gibbs-Cain lineup with the Los Angeles rock band Mother Superior, retaining the name Rollins Band, and released Get Some Go Again (2000) and Nice (2001). They also released a two-disc live album,
The Only Way to Know for Sure. This line-up was a more straightforward hard rock group: their first album featured "Are You Ready?" a cover of a Thin Lizzy song, featuring Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham; Rollins has often expressed fondness for Thin Lizzy and its founder, Phil Lynott.
Fourth edition (2006)
In between other commitments (his radio show Harmony In My Head, his cable/satellite TV show The Henry Rollins Show, and his spoken word tours), Rollins also reunited the Haskett-Gibbs-Cain lineup.
In a blog entry on henryrollins.com, Rollins admitted, "Actually we have been practicing on and off for months now, slowly getting it together ... It's been really cool being back in the practice room with these guys after all these years."
The band opened some concerts for X, and played on the first-season finale of The Henry Rollins Show on August 12, 2006.
Indefinite hiatus (2007–present)
Rollins told Alan Sculley of The Daily Herald that this reunion with Haskett, Gibbs and Cain would not become long-term unless the group decided to write new songs: "Let's put it this way. I don't want to go out and hit America again without a new record, or at least a new album's worth of material. Otherwise the thing will lack legitimacy ... Miles Davis would never do that. And I'm not into a greatest-hits thing. I think a band, if you're going to be around, you should be moving forward and putting in the time and working for it, getting after the art. Otherwise you're just playing retreads. ... Imagine a tree that grows canned peaches. It's nothing I want to do."
In 2014, Rollins admitted a disdain for rehashing old music for the sake of it – "I don’t want to play old music. To me, it is fighting battles that are already over and calling yourself a warrior. For me, I see no courage or adventure in doing the old thing over again. If others want to, that’s for them. For myself, I have to move on. Life is too short to live in the past. There is a lot to be done."
Former member Jason Mackenroth died on January 3, 2016, in Nevada from prostate cancer.