BLACK FLAG: DAMAGED (1981)
1) Rise Above; 2) Spray Paint; 3) Six Pack; 4) What I See; 5) TV Party; 6) Thirsty And Miserable; 7) Police Story; 8) Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie; 9) Depression; 10) Room 13; 11) Damaged II; 12) No More; 13) Padded Cell; 14) Life Of Pain; 15) Damaged I.
Black Flag's first album with Henry Rollins as lead throatist has acquired a reputation that even a thoroughly negative review would not be able to smear in the least, so I won't even try. This is one of those «classic» hardcore pieces, made ever so more classic by the fact that, having gotten it out of their systems, Ginn and Rollins immediately started moving away from that sound and style, so it is one of a kind. Never repeated... never could be repeated without sounding like an inferior copy for boring lovers of sequels, for that matter.
That said, I suspect that the original impact of Damaged has been seriously diluted by the tidal wave of hardcore acts that followed in its wake (or competed with it originally, since most of the individual hardcore idioms had already been fully construed in L. A. clubs circa 1979). In the very early 1980s, playing an album like this against the dance-pop, New Wave, and even «classic» punk records of the day could give an electric jolt like nothing else — next to Damaged, an album like London Calling would feel like a tame kitty, and even properly hardcore acts like the Adolescents or the Dead Kennedys sounded positively melodic and «poppy» in comparison. But as time went by and more and more acts started speaking the same language as Black Flag, Damaged had little choice other than to go through an identity crisis.
The best way to enjoy Damaged is not to allow yourself to stop and think about it. Just as you hear that tsunami wave of distortion and speed ʽRise Aboveʼ, your best bet is to catch it and ride it all the way through to the end, where it leaves you ʽDamagedʼ, spluttering and coughing up muck on the shore. Taken that way, it's one hell of a joyride, as you get carried through layers of pissed-off protest, vicious sarcasm, maniacal despair, and revolutionary exuberance, sometimes condensed into one-breath thirty-second blasts (ʽSpray Paintʼ) and never once feeling phoney or straightforwardly dumb.
Once you do stop and take an analytical perspective at what you've just been through, a certain vibe of disappointment may settle in. For one thing, Henry Rollins is a serious screamer, but that is pretty much the only thing that happens here. The screaming may sound meaningful, believable, infectious, stunning, etc. — yet there is really nothing extraordinary about it, and at this time, the album does not really do much justice to the overall breadth of Mr. Rollins' talents; in fact, his only visible advantage over Dez Cadena is that he is tougher, and can handle all that visceral stuff without being left all «damaged».
For another thing, Ginn's riffage, as opposed to his lead playing, still mostly relies on stock phrasing, borrowed from the repository of Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and the Ramones, lightly shaken about, sped up, and toughened with extra thick distortion. The lead playing is a different matter — whenever Greg goes into solo mode or just throws in a flash-in-the-pan countermelody, he offers us one of his offbeat atonal experiments, cleverly disguised as stereotypically punkish «inability to play». But, let's admit it, it would be a really strange thing to call Damaged, above and beyond everything else, a classic example of adventurous lead guitar playing.
Finally, from a purely ideological point of view, the album does not offer much insight that we were not already aware of. While I do share the common point of view that ʽTV Partyʼ is lyrically funny, I am certainly past the point where the very fact of making fun of generic TV audiences glued to their generic TV shows could automatically make me predisposed towards a song like that. What really saves the song is not its lyrics, but rather the band's decision to arrange it as a hardcore musical parody on a happy pop tune: take away the distorted guitars, change the lyrics, and that "we've got nothing better to do / than watch TV and have a couple of brews" chorus could be easily modified into a football fan anthem or a Sesame Street singalong. That's kind of funny, not the simple fact of making fun of the average (non-)working Joe.
But let us stop here: this is too much criticism for a record that places all its faith and focus in something completely different. Like The Clash four years earlier, Damaged is not a collection of carefully crafted songs, but a laser blast to the conscience, where form takes precedence over essence, or, more precisely, essence is dissolved in form. Damaged may have been worshipped and imitated many times over, but this is where it all started, and you can still hear the echo of these guys' excitement at what they are doing — sacrificing all known musical conventions in order to make way for the ultimate experience in exorcising their own demons. Make no mistake, though: Damaged is not a «dark», «vicious», «scary» record — like most of its predecessors in the «classic punk» style, it is more of an optimistic call-to-arms, and even when Rollins is impersonating a raving lunatic on ʽDamaged Iʼ or ʽDepressionʼ, his screams sound more like some symbolic constatation of the problem than the product of a real sick person. Black Flag have a bone to pick with the system, and it is the system that they are accusing of driving people crazy — whereas a band like The Birthday Party, for instance, was reveling in madness that went way beyond the evil activity of the powers-that-be, probing into the darkest corners of human nature as such, and that was scary as heck.
It is sort of symbolic that the famous album cover for Damaged was all set up — naturally, Henry Rollins never put his fist through no mirror, which, instead, was diligently smashed with a hammer as Henry's hand was being accurately covered in red ink. It would not be difficult to say that the entire album is as «fake» as its sleeve photo, but then, the entire punk movement, in all its forms, is «fake» to a certain degree: after all, you wouldn't expect Henry Rollins to go rolling on the streets, screaming "AAAARGGH! I can't see nothin', I'm blind! DAMAGED! DAMAGED!" at the top of the lungs, on a casual basis. It's all just a matter of art. For its historical importance, artistic significance, sheer focus and energy, I eagerly give the album a thumbs up — despite not managing to hold even a single separate song as an autonomous entity anywhere in my head.
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