Looking back on the album that changed American hardcore forevermore
Perhaps no record epitomizes punk’s transition into hardcore better than Black Flag’s Damaged.
For most of the nation, Black Flag rose from L.A.’s storied punk scene and probably seemed like the next best thing in a scene that had already given the world bands like X, The Germs, and The Go-Go’s. But for many in the scene, Black Flag were the black sheep, bringing a jock attitude, violence, and the unwanted attention of the L.A.P.D. on what at the time seemed like a rapidly disintegrating scene. Many of the old school punks fled for the more peaceful climes of rockabilly while a few stuck it out, trying to understand this influx of nihilistic youth.
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Hailing from Hermosa Beach, Black Flag founder Greg Ginn and those he recruited for his band felt a million miles away from L.A.’s scene, from the clubs like The Masque and Madam Wong’s. Black Flag was just different. Up until Flag, the L.A. punk scene seemed fashion conscious. While full of outsiders, a certain aesthetic was still at play. The music was aggressive compared to what came before, but as described in John Doe and Tom DeSavia’s book Under the Black Sun, most of the early punk musicians just wanted to bring back real Rock and Roll. Group’s like X, The Weirdos, and The Dil’s were just rebelling against the soft rock of artists like The Eagles and Linda Ronstadt. But compared to their predecessors, Black Flag were a nuclear bomb exploding across the city limits.
Black Flag released the Nervous Breakdown and Jealous Again EPs before Damaged came out. Recording for the full-length suffered through many aborted starts as the band ran through various vocalists. It wasn’t until they brought in vocalist Henry Garfield onboard mid-tour that the final piece fell into place. Better known as Henry Rollins, it seems Damaged would not have been possible with his catalyzing influence.
Rollins in many ways has been a divisive figure in punk, probably at least somewhat due to his later work in Hollywood, or maybe it’s his somewhat macho, bigger-than-life personality. But no matter what punk purists may try to say, his performance on Damaged is masterful. There exists a visceral desperation to his voice throughout the record, something more than the one-dimensional anger that often characterizes many hardcore vocalists. For instance, Rollins displays a palpable and debilitating desire on “Thirsty and Miserable” despite being straight-edge himself. The same goes for the anthemic “Six Pack,” where he sounds like the ringleader of an alcohol binge that can only end in regret.
Black Flag was certainly more than just Rollins though. Instrumentally, the band stood head and shoulders above most hardcore bands, with the only exception being the mighty Bad Brains. Flag’s music seemed simple on the surface but possessed an ambition and tightness few bands could hope to achieve. Greg Ginn was infamous for his relentless band rehearsals. More than a few musicians that passed through Flag’s ranks complained about the demands, not the least of which included Keith Morris who would go onto front the legendary Circle Jerks. Band practice occurred daily with endless repetitions of the songs over and over again, at times playing them at different tempos to increase their competency at all speeds. It isn’t until Damaged that the hard work began to reveal itself.
Album opener “Rise Above” sounds like a fairly straightforward punk tune on the surface, but a closer listening uncovers any number of hairpin turns and riff changes, many of them happening before the vocal even begins. Perhaps even more impressive is “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie”. The song starts with just Rollins and drummer Robo, but then the drums drop out and Rollins counts off for Ginn and bassist Chuck Dukowski to enter. The tempo here is just a bit slower, a purposeful slur that makes the tune that much more feral. Anyone who’s ever played in a band knows how such a slight tempo shift is difficult to pull off. This kind of band cohesion and rapid-fire changes characterize Black Flag throughout the entire record.
Perhaps though, their ambition is most realized on the two-part title track. Counter-intuitively, “Damaged II” is the first to arrive on the record, following up the emotionally-harrowing “Room 13”. The first few seconds of “Damaged II” sounds like some sort of Zeppelin or The Who riff, but this moment collapses into a staccato pounding of drums and guitar with Rollins chanting along. From here, the structure ricochetswith Ginn throwing off random bursts of guitar squall in between the actual riffs. The song is relentlessly fast and noisy, the vocal performance caught in a war of attrition with the relentless nature of the tune.
“Damaged I” closes the album, the whirlwind of riffs on the rest of the album replaced with a slow crawl through Henry Rollins’ vitriolic vocal breakdown. Like “Damaged II,” Ginn’s guitar work is almost atonal, the chords misshapen and damn near out-of-tune. Meanwhile, Rollins’ entirely improvised lyrics possess a rawness rarely heard in damn near any musical context. The song feels voyeuristic, like watching someone having a mental breakdown alone in the bedroom. But this fly-on-the-wall feeling paradoxically gives the song its hook as well, the pain being expressed being something that everyone feels at some point. And when feeling that way, who doesn’t feel completely alone?
VIDEO: Black Flag “TV Party”
Damaged proved instrumental in solidifying the naked aggression of hardcore. If punk scared the masses, hardcore proved to be even more threatening. The music felt frenzied despite its masterful execution. And lyrically, the album gave insight to a nihilism that seems like it’s pervaded the periphery of our culture ever since. But if Damaged constructed a blueprint for hardcore for decades to come, it also pointed the way towards the genre’s more experimental boundaries. Greg Ginn’s guitar work was completely unhinged, yet also technically adept. He displayed bursts of improvised mayhem as well. These instincts would eventually manifest in other experimental punk acts as well, such as Saccharine Trust and The Universal Congress Of. Black Flag would eventually produce its own bit of improvised punk/Fusion with 1985’s The Process of Weeding Out. Finally, “Damaged I” also pointed the way to Flag’s future. Over time, they began to slow down more and employ more metallic textures, perhaps epitomized on the group’s next record My War.
Black Flag’s legacy is undeniable, despite their continued ability to cause punks to argue about any number of aspects of the band. And despite the quality of the group’s early seven-inches, Damaged is where it all truly began. The album’s desperate and violent sound is every bit as powerful as it was 1981.
The group continued to be divisive and unpredictable for the rest of their incarnation, but one thing which they didn’t need to prove was their relevance. They did that already with Damaged.