Thursday, March 12, 2009

(Don't) Revisit: Black Flag - Damaged

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look. Go see more at

Few classic albums have aged as poorly as Black Flag's Damaged. Now over 25 years since its release, the album's impact on future generations of musicians has far surpassed the staying power of its actual content, giving the album a revered and slavishly worshiped status it might no longer deserve. While its balls-ahead musical arrangements and lyrical sentiments that covered everything from teenage alienation, angst, boredom and frustration to, well, that's about it, marked the high point of the band's career and perhaps hardcore itself, time has not been kind to the album. Though the emotions it expresses are certainly universal - especially in the world of music, where everyone from The Smiths to Bush have tackled these subjects - it now sounds hopelessly anchored to a specific era and genre.

By now Damaged's history can be recited chapter and verse by music's more deranged fringes, but a quick recap is in order:

1. Henry Rollins jumped on stage at one of the band's shows in New York and later fell ass-backwards into becoming the lead vocalist (think Mark Wahlberg in Rock Star).
2. Rollins, with coaching from primary lyricist and SST Records founder Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, recorded his vocals on top of the band's backing tracks.
3. After Unicorn Records refused to issue the album on grounds that it would really, really upset your parents, Ginn released the album on his SST label. Critics went wild with praise, the youth of America got their inner graffiti artist on and spray painted four parallel bars on everything from school notebooks to freeway underpasses, and the authorities and parentals went on red alert and braced for the downfall of Western civilization.
4. In keeping with the true hardcore and anarchic ethos, the band was for a time prevented from using the name "Black Flag" or their logo due to an unseemly legal squabble.
5. The album would later be credited with influencing bands like Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer. Thanks a lot guys.

This isn't to say that Damaged is a bad album; songs like "Rise Above," "Thirsty and Miserable" and "Life of Pain" still stand as some of the clearest and most concise examples of classic Los Angeles hardcore, with Rollins' vocals barked and yelped on top of the band's incessant and pounding sludge. "T.V. Party" even managed to inject some humor into all the misery and rage that coursed through the album's half hour. But that's exactly the problem; as hardcore's defining moment, the album now clearly reveals both the musical and thematic limitations of the genre that persist to this day in smelly garages and dingy concert cellars across the country. Perhaps even more so than early British punk, the West coast brand of hardcore espoused on Damaged by and large emphasized a singular musical and lyrical approach over innovation and variation.

And the album has that in spades, with most songs featuring Rollins' strained and muddy vocals against musical arrangements that, while full of adrenaline and righteous fury, are overly repetitive. In 2009, the album sounds like an artifact of a specific time preserved under glass, not an evolving classic that takes on new meanings or interpretations to later generations of listeners. The album's flaws are also largely early 1980s Los Angeles hardcore's flaws: an overly disciplined and dogmatic adherence to music played loud, fast, hard and severely pissed off, with little room for deviation or improvisation; it's telling that bands that went through their growing pains under the auspices of hardcore - most notably Husker Du, Meat Puppets and the Minutemen - did their best work once they moved past these confines.

Occasionally the fury and outrage beaten into the listener's skull in songs like "Police Story" and "Padded Story" are less than convincing and sound far less threatening to modern listeners; the anxiety the album caused to the powers that be in 1981 seems almost quaint now. This is an inevitable risk for any band that focuses on overt political and social disillusion and hypocrisy; it's the same reason the Clash couldn't convincingly perform "Career Opportunities" after the money rolled in and that Bruce Springsteen's "Mansion on the Hill" now rings hollow. It's a posture that's largely impossible to maintain over the years; regardless of how sincere most of Ginn's lyrics or Rollins' delivery are, such sentiments tend to be viewed with increased skepticism as the album gets dustier. Sometimes Damaged gives off an air of anger rather than actual genuine anger; it's worth mentioning that the album cover is itself an illusion, with the cracked mirror caused by a hammer and Rollins' bloody wrist little more than a combination of coffee and red ink.

That the five-man combination of Ginn/Rollins/Dukowski/Cadena/ROBO conjured up a genre-defining work with Damaged isn't in question. As the West coast hardcore's most recognizable example, it's a reflection of both that movement's best traits - a sense of musical and lyrical urgency mixed with social and political dissatisfaction - and its worst excesses, especially a tendency for sounding excessively dated and repetitive. Like Nirvana's Nevermind, its reputation, influence and long list of disciples have masked its shortcomings. As a key document of music history it's indispensable. As an album that still sounds relevant today, it's greatly flawed.

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