Released in 1981 on SST
- the title tells you everything really - was the infamous debut album by Black Flag
, hardcore punk
's most hardcore band of all. Along with other early '80s records including the Descendents
' Milo Goes to College
, the Minutemen
's Double Nickels on the Dime
and the Replacements
' Let It Be
, it is among the defining American post-punk
albums. Indeed it still sounds nasty even in today's context of nu-metal
; if ever there was a record not to play to your grandparents, it was this one.
Black Flag weren't a terribly cheerful bunch of guys, all things considered - Greg Ginn was an introverted, glasses-wearing UCLA geek for whom atonal guitar abuse was a logical extension of the blues, while the band had just taken on board vocalist Henry Rollins, a manic, snarling tearaway from Washington, D.C. After Black Flag had released, in Nervous Breakdown, hardcore's foundational text, Damaged was to be the genre's defining document - short, fast, loud snippets of uncompromising punk, stripped down to the most basic elements and twisted beyond recognition by a ferociously angry teenager howling out the bleakest lyrics imaginable. Throw in a couple of hilarious, sardonic parodies of braindead modern culture and you have the ultimate statement of misspent adolescence.
Damaged was in fact so uncompromising and confrontational that MCA records, with whom the band had originally signed, refused to release it, officially on the grounds that it was "immoral" and "lacking redeeming social value". In reality though, Black Flag were not that much worse than some other bands around, and it has been suggested that MCA's real motive was an excuse to sever ties with Unicorn, the subsidiary that was to have released the record. Perhaps MCA just saw that you couldn't get a more straightfoward representation of the adolescent mind than a shaven-headed misfit howling "Depression's got a hold of me, depression's gonna kill me" over a wall of guitar noise. Whatever the reason, the band were forced to release Damaged on Ginn's own SST label; in retrospect not such a bad thing, as SST was to become home to some of the best guitar bands of the 1980s, including the Descendents, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü, before initiating its own messy downfall at the end of the '80s through an unmanageably large roster and rumours that many of their artists were not getting paid.
The album opens with "Rise Above", considered by many to be the Black Flag anthem. Henry Rollins starts his vocal tenure with the screamed lyrics (all his lyrics were screamed) of "Jealous cowards try to control / (Rise above, we're gonna rise above) / They distort what we say / (Rise above, we're gonna rise above...) He then spits out the ominous (but surprisingly catchy) chorus, "We are tired of your abuse / Try to stop us, it's no use," and this is about as positive as the album gets.
This statement of relative optimism soon gives way to "Spray Paint", a thirty-second blast of stunningly ferocious noise over which Rollins screams "It feels good to say what I want / It feels good to knock things down...", and that's pretty much the way the album goes.
Ginn's lyrics cover the full range of adolescent disquiet - hatred of authority ("Police Story"), mindless aggression ("Padded Cell"), alcoholism ("Thirsty and Miserable"), disillusionment ("What I See"), helplessness ("Room 13"), depression ("Depression"), and leading a life of pain ("Life of Pain"). Rollins' voice is about as far from "singing" as you can get - an intense, ragged howl which actually manages to make the band's early songs, such as "Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie", even less melodious than they had been in recordings with previous vocalists. The rhythm section, such as it is, provided by guitarist Dez Cadena, bassist Charles Dukowski (real name Gary McDaniel) and drummer "Robo" (Roberto Valverde), is suitably basic, leaving ample room for Ginn's block-chord guitar noise.
Although they had never exactly been a folksy acoustic hippie band, Black Flag, on Damaged, managed to thoroughly outdo themselves in terms of volume and general vileness. Previous songs had shown a clear influence by British three chord singalong punk, as well as, more unexpectedly, Greg Ginn's passion for the blues. The band had been getting louder and more vicious ever since they started, and when Henry Rollins came aboard, the music took another step toward Hades. Ginn turned up the distortion on his guitar even further to match Rollins' patently amelodic vocal style, and the quasi-melody of "I've Had It" and "Jealous Again" became the sludge of "What I See" and "Thirsty and Miserable".
The two more light-hearted songs on the album are "Six Pack" and "TV Party". Both are parodies of modern culture - the former is about a mindless alcoholic ("I was born with a bottle in my mouth / Now I got six so I'll never run out"), while the latter is a not-so-sober analysis of TV culture - "We've got nothing better to do / Than watch TV and have a couple of brews".
Light-hearted is not an accurate description, however, of the closing track, "Damaged I". The earlier, Cadena-sung version was bleak enough, but in a spirit of healthy competition, Henry Rollins "sings" a version of the song which is downright disturbing. "My name is Henry, and you're dealing with me now" he growls, and then proceeds to lay down one of the most anguished and psychotic vocals you're ever likely to hear, finishing with the cheerful sign-off, "It's my mind, where it's all dark, and no one comes in... nobody comes in... damage, my damage... no one comes in, STAY OUT!"
The album is not at any point gentle, subtle or generally very musical, but that is pretty much the point. Ginn's lyrics combine with Rollins' voice to produce the ultimate expression of despairing adolescent fury, and Damaged is an essential document of the history of hardcore punk. A case could be made for calling it the most hardcore record of all time, although whether you'd find much concurrence among today's hordes of nu-metallers - who may be louder than Black Flag, but with a fraction of the talent - is debatable.
Tracklisting (total run-time 35 minutes, give or take a few seconds):
- Rise Above (2:26)
- Spray Paint (0:33)
- Six Pack (2:20)
- What I See (1:55)
- TV Party (3:31)
- Thirsty and Miserable (2:05)
- Police Story (1:32)
- Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie (1:47)
- Depression (2:29)
- Damaged II (3:23)
- Room 13 (2:04)
- No More (2:26)
- Padded Cell (1:47)
- Life of Pain (2:50)
- Damaged I (3:50)