Wait, You’ve Never Heard: Black Flag – Damaged

on September 27, 2010, 3:15pm

What makes not listening to this album in its entirety until later in life all the more embarrassing is the fact that I was the “singer” in a Black Flag “cover band”, Las Banderas Negros, for three performances (four if you count the reunion). I use the quotes because we weren’t really a band. We played five songs: “Rise Above”, “Six Pack”, “T.V. Party”, “Police Story”, and “Slip It In” (extended the solo and doubled the song). Good times. How I sang five songs, four of which appear on Damaged, and didn’t realize it I would like to blame on the culture of compact discs and playlists: too many mix discs via playlists and compilations and not enough actual albums. That, and perhaps I just overlooked the album in favor of the songs.  For that, I offer this penance.

Damaged was released in December 1981. I was 11. At the time, I had no idea who Black Flag was. I had no real clue at the time what hardcore was, despite living in Southern California. I was still a pawn of the industry. Aside from listening to a lot of Iron Maiden, I listened to what radio and MTV played (it was 1982, so it’s all good), and Black Flag wasn’t it (except maybe on 91X, and I just didn’t know it). I wouldn’t come across a Black Flag album until 1983, and even then it was just looking at them in record stores.  I was drawn to the cartoon covers of albums like Slip It In and My War. I often wonder what would have happened had I bought one.

The cover to Damaged is anything but cartoonish. The image of Henry Rollins and his bloodied fist reflecting in a shattered mirror (all faked) has since become iconic; however, in 1981, it was pretty heavy. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this cover image is a pictograph summarizing the aggression, rebellion, angst, anger, and desperation in Greg Ginn’s lyrics.

Damaged was the first full length recording by Black Flag despite playing and recording for three years. By all accounts, it is their best album. It is also the first album to feature Henry Rollins on vocals, a role he maintained until Ginn dissolved the band in 1986. From the very first moments of the album, the band pulls you into the pit with its anthemic “Rise Above”, acting as a call of unification to the youth of America to gather up their strength and not succumb to the system. When Rollins joined Black Flag, he brought a seriousness to the band. Greg Ginn commented in an interview regarding Rollins, “We couldn’t do songs with a sense of humor anymore; he got into the serious way-out poet thing.” Regardless, there are some pretty funny moments on Damaged, the most obvious being “T.V. Party”.

If any song was Black Flag’s pop song, it is probably “T.V. Party”. I think it was even used in the closing credits of a Simpsons episode once. A song ridiculing (or maybe slightly praising) the hedonistic lifestyle of the homebody isolationist, the best part of the song has got to be when the band members scream out their favorite shows. This also grants a brief trip down memory lane, as I recall watching all those shows. Today when bands cover this particular song, the show shout-outs are a bit more contemporary.

Humor exists elsewhere on the album in songs like “Thirsty and Miserable” and “Six Pack”. In fact, the band screams almost as much about booze and alcohol as they do about the system. However, upon repeated listens, the humor in those songs is shed to show the seriousness of the issue at hand: Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life.

As with titular roar of “Rise Above” and anger in “Spray Paint” and “No More”, “Police Story” is another very anti-authoritarian song that has gone on to become a Black Flag classic. However, rebellion is not the only theme. If it were, this album would not have lasted nearly as long as it has; rebellion is only part of it. Songs like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” and “Depression” hint at far deeper issues, as do both versions of the title track “Damaged”, the original version of which closes the album. This album captures all the pain and anger associated with many people who feel they have no control over what is happening around them.  In today’s world, this is all the more important as there is a huge potential for a large part of this country’s youth to become disenfranchised and pissed at the system in much the same way that American punks did in the ’80s and UK punks did in the ’70s. If that does come to pass, let’s hope that they can produce music as definitive as Damaged.

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