Released 30 years ago in December 1981, we re-evealuate Black Flag’s key ‘Damaged’ album.
The artwork tells you the story before you even listen to the record.
A menacing looking skinhead photographed by Edward Colver stares into the void. A smashed mirror in front of him and blood on his hands. The young Henry Rollins looks psychotic and oozes the hate and frustration of his hyperactive mind whilst looking for somewhere to articulate its inner rage. It’s a photo that has had a resonance worldwide. Uncaged teenage energy allowed to run amok can cause great damage or great good, bottled up thirty years ago and allowed to run with the heaviest band of punk rock hipsters in history it was a perfect combination.
The other defining piece of artwork is the Black Flag logo- the four bars, the prison bars of the fluttering flag that gives so many differing messages in its brutal simplicity. It would end being the tattoo of choice for every alienated kid across the world. A powerful symbol of the smart and the disillusioned and the perfect logo for a band that were going to take a dark and brutal deviation from punk and still make music that would define the form for decades to come with an influence that far outweighed their sales.
Few bands went right into the Heart Of Darkness like Black Flag did on this release.
The band had been around in various forms for four years building up a big live audience with ferocious shows in LA with various lead singers till the line up shuffled yet again and a 20 year old fan from Washington DC stepped up to the mic.
Over the years there have been various arguments over the best frontman in Black Flag. Original vocalist Keith Morris is very good as proven in his recent work with his new band Off! But there was something about the intensity of forth vocalist Rollins that took Black Flag on a trip that would make this album so explosive.
The songs had already been written before Rollins joined the band and his only direct creative contribution were the ad libbed lyrics on ”Damaged 1′ but his singing on the album belies none of his rookie status. He sounds, powerful, carnal and dangerous and combined with the filthy sludge of the band creates an atmosphere that is dark and dangerous as Joy Division in the UK. Quickly Rollins would define Black Flag. With his imposing presence and inked skin he was a new kind of frontman, a Jim Morrison on a new kind of trip, a fierce straight edge warrior with a powerful barking voice that would set the template for a whole new breed of singer.
With this release Black Flag took punk by the scruff of its neck and created something far more intense which would become known as hardcore. With incessant touring they would then provide the backbone to the new American rock scene that would spawn bands like Nirvana in the next decade. The band’s shows are legendary- in your face sprawling affairs that were deliberately confrontational, playing slow to crowds who wanted fast, growing their hair to confound the punks or being so intense that they pinned people to the back wall. Somehow they made a connection and the packed halls and wild crowds you see in the old photos are testament to their effectiveness.
This album though, was the statement of intent. It’s a schizophrenic mixture between anthemic neo-punk anthems like the goofy ”Six Pack’, ”TV Party’ and the empowering ”Rise Above’ to the dark Apocalypse Now of the two ”Damaged’ songs- songs that pretty well invented the drone rock of Swans and Earth. Anything with a Chuck Dukowski credit on it is also dark and heavy like ”No More’ and the bass driven ”What I See’.
Dukowski’s bass is one of the great sounds, clanking and heavy and played with a Marine like intensity, every song he is in there battering away against Greg Ginn’s insanely brilliant guitar.
If there was one person who really defines Black Flag though, it’s not Dukowski and his free jazz bass violence, or even the tattooed danger of the in your face Rollins. It’s guitarist Greg Ginn- who is one of the most innovative rock guitar players ever. When he peals out a solo it makes virtually no sense atall- they seem to melt from his hands, the notes pound like they are going backwards or zig zagging in strange directions before melting back into the intense wall of sound sludge of his rhythm playing- it’s an amazing sound. This electric carnage is added to by the claustrophobic sound of the album that sounds like it was recorded in small padded room. The non production adds to the album’s brilliance- a big sound would have wrecked this, its that almost demo sound that just increases the sludge and the intensity, the creepy crawly power that makes this album stand the test of time.
Black Flag were intellectuals on the rampage, smart arses who were fired by punk but operating very much in their own space. This was the underside of LA, the graffiti walls and the grime of the other city that wasn’t Hollywood. They may not have been ghetto kids but they could feel the darkness that lurks in the heart of the city and they turned this back, reflected it the listener.
The album oozes a feral yet high IQ energy; the energy of insomnia and caffeine induced too much thinking, combined with a dark and goofy sense of humour and a mood swing into dark depression. The album hooks into eternal themes and changed American punk forever.