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The Classics 004

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Thursday, 30 September 2010

As inconvenient or unfashionable a truth as it might be, most bands do not simply appear as great, dynamic entities from nowhere. That isn't to say a listener wouldn't be able to recognize a group's promise or get a sense that they might be capable of making profound artistic and cultural waves eventually, but it's unreasonable to expect that a band would simply change out of the gate at the pinnacle of its' powers; for every Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, Dirt, Dookie or Dig Me Out, there needs to be a Bleach, Louder Then Love, Facelift, Kerplunk or Call The Doctor. It might sound bizarre, but it's easy to understand why such a progression needs to exist in any band's timeline – every group needs to know where it's standing before it moves. It is essential to human nature for an entity to get situated and established before it can begin to either grow, evolve or adapt to its' environment, or begin to alter that environment to suit its' own needs. The band in question also needs to get to know the terrain it's treading on and where the boundaries are before before it can start pushing off them or try to break the boundaries down completely. That's the point at which Black Flag was standing in late 1981 when the band began work on its' first full-length album; the group had already gone through a few changes in line-up and had already released three EPs (Nervous Breakdown in 1978, Jealous Again in 1980 and Six Pack earlier in 1981) to chart their progress and finally felt like it was standing on ground solid enough to try an album, so work began on Damaged. Even now, the album stands as a keystone release for both punk rock and hardcore and is cited by punk bands including Rise Against (who played Black Flag in the SoCal skate punk history-pic Lords Of Dogtown), Pennywise and Gallows to name only a few, as well as bands well outside the punk sphere like Sepultura, A Perfect Circle, Dirty Projectors and even Los Campesinos! as being a significant influence. The presence of the album can still be felt and heard in many corners of punk, hardcore, pop and metal and that's understandable enough, but the album's influence and continued standing in pop and punk culture means even more given that, according to Black Flag bassist Chuck Dukowski, while the sessions weren't incredibly traumatic, singer Henry Rollins blew his voice out early which meant a bit of worry, and the final result in Damaged was not actually the first time the band had tried to cut a full-length album with little success either so there was a bit of concern regarding how it would go.

“Black Flag went to record an album several times before Damaged as we know it was finally recorded,” remembers Dukowski of the process which eventually yielded Black Flag's first long-player. “Both the Jealous Again and Six Pack EPs were meant to be 'the album,' and both Keith Morris and Ron Reyes participated in those attempts. Some of those extra recordings eventually showed up on Everything Went Black, but what actually became Damaged was, obviously, very different.

"After we returned from tour with Henry, we were going to record a single with “Depression” and “Rise Above” as I remember,” continues the bassist. “We did a cover for it with the graveyard image and for reasons I don't remember we decided against the single and decided to try and do an album again. We then went looking for a studio deal and found the Unicorn studio where they offered a reasonable price and credit, so that's where we made the recording we now know if as Damaged.

“The recording process stretched out over several weeks as I remember,” remembers Dukowski of the sessions. “Spot and the band produced and there was a house engineer who helped out. The basic tracks were mostly done in one night – then we started with overdubs. I redid the bass on “TV Party” and we had a good time the night we cut all the gang vocals for that song, and Greg cut the leads and any other guitar overdubs on all tracks which took a couple of evenings total at most, but then there were the vocals. The vocals went down in a couple of days – Henry moved fast – but really blew out his voice fairly early in. We made a gargle that helped get just enough out of his thrashed voice to finish the session, and then tracking was done. Mixing took awhile because we did it in studio down time for the most part so it stretched out over a week or so.

“I don't know if we really knew what we were doing or what we were going to get in the end,” muses Dukowski on the enduring legacy that the album embodies now, decades later. “What we were trying to do was just make the next evolution of the music we really liked; I think we were all listening to a lot of Black Sabbath and The Stooges at the time – I know I was – so that had a little to do with it, but the Sabbath stuff would come out more on the albums we did after Damaged. I still think those were the ideas we were playing with at the time though, this album was just where it all started. I'm really flattered by the continued interest the album has gotten and that it still sells; we never really thought of that when we were making the album – we just wanted to make what we felt was the next evolution as I say – so that it has endured the way it has feels pretty good.”

As Dukowski says, Damaged was not born in a vacuum (in listening, one has to wonder if the opening of “Rise Above” doesn't owe at least a small debt to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by The Stooges) and was delivered with a bit of difficulty, but it would go on to be one of the greatest, genre-defining albums of the 1980s. Here, Black Flag exemplifies the sound of the burgeoning California hardcore scene, and does so in no uncertain terms.

After “Rise Above” sets the raucous and death-defying speed of the record (Damaged crams fifteen songs into thirty-four minutes – not quite as fast as The Ramones' early records, but close), the band doesn't ease up for anything. Songs like “Spray Paint” (all thirty-seven seconds of it), “What I See” and “Police Story” slash and burn eardrums with the combination of Greg Ginn and Dez Cadena's guitars, Dukowski's gritty bass and Roberto "ROBO" Valverde's metronomic drums. The effect on listeners (those both previously familiar and not) is astounding; the infectious rhythm will get hearts racing and fists pumping involuntarily and watching the songs overtake listeners is truly a sight to behold, but the element that seals the deal and can start riots, even now, is Henry Rollins' vocals. The timbre of Rollins' voice is quite unlike anything else in rock made before or since this release; not exactly a bark and not so methodical as a growl but no less potentially menacing than either, Rollins commands listeners to form up with more authority than any twenty-year-old should possess. The results are potent, compelling and as hypnotizing as they are anthemic; once a listeners falls in behind one of the songs on the first side of Damaged, there's no falling out.

Such a remarkable powerhouse as the one represented by Damaged would (and did) get any authority figure a bit worried, but the funny thing about the album is that there's nothing particularly dangerous about the songs on Damaged's first side – in fact the fare is quite light. Songs like “TV Party” and “Six Pack” are fantastic “teenage kicks” anthems which cover the same thematic ground that every punk band – hell, every rock n' roll band for that matter – has taken out for a spin (likewise, “Police Story” takes aim at the most obvious authority figures, and “What I See” is actually a fairly impotent rant against feeling helpless and unable to affect change) but, here, the songs are powerful on the same level as a force of nature due to the method by which they're delivered. Each of these songs is incredibly abrasive and aggressive and that is the off-putting part about them, but they have to be; Rollins feeds off the energy of the band and they feed off of him. In effect, the volume is what made this record the beast it is; the band feeding off of Rollins was what got them to play harder, and that they're playing harder and louder is what pushes the singer to the brink -just to keep from being drowned out. It's a case of mutual provocation that builds consistently, but the first side of the album is still contained and (if you can believe it) reasonably poppy; the second side is where things begin to get darker and meaner.

There's no mistaking the second side of Damaged for being the work of anything other than a punk band (call it hardcore if you like) but, more than that, the second side features many of the paradigms and principles that bands running under the “punk,” “hardcore,” “melodic hardcore” and “emo” banners have adopted and refined since. Songs like “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie” and “TV Party” on side one really only function as a precursor or opening act to the raw emotional outpouring contained on the second side of Damaged. From the first bloodcurdling salvo of “Depression,” listeners will be totally taken aback by Henry Rollins' sudden, much more grave and flat-out angry tone as he nearly shrieks:

"Right here, all by myself
I ain't got no one else

The situation is bleeding me
There's no relief for a person like me.”

The aggression and accusatory tone of the singer's voice begs for action because the open wound the words represent will infuriate anyone who has ever felt alone or isolated. It's an almost universal chord that Black Flag strikes here, and when the band follows that with “Room 13” and its' opening lines of, “I’m confused. Confused/Don’t wanna be confused/Stupid attempts, no conclusions/I’m confused. Confused. Don’t wanna be confused/Put the gun to my head, and I don't pull.” everyone listening knows they're going to get a very different experience from the comparatively very light stuff on Damaged's Side One. Here, there is no question of the anger in Henry Rollins as he rasps out songs with self-explanatory titles including “No More,” “Life Of Pain” and “Padded Cell” and spills every ounce of himself out on the pavement for listeners to examine. As if to follow suit, the rest of Black Flag changes gears too; through the record's second side, there are moments when the music behind the singer resembles twisted metal shards (check out the squalid lead line in the verses of “Room 13” against which Rollins rails, “Keep me alive – I don't know if I can do it,” or the distorted and disjointed guitar line that opens “Life Of Pain”) but, even beyond that, it's impossible to ignore the pathos that each song on the second side of Damaged generates. Here, on the flipside, Black Flag draws a hard differentiation between itself, its' music, and anything called “punk” that came before it – here, it's personal and there's no way to miss that or ignore it as Rollins and the band all just seem to sink and disintegrate in “Damaged I” at the end of the side.

For all those aforementioned reasons on top of the obvious inspiration and influence that the album has exerted upon both punk and hardcore, Damaged should rightly be regarded as a Classic Album but, even for fans, the album could be said to have had a profound impact. In this writer's case, it would be difficult to say Damaged changed my life because I hadn't been around long enough for hearing it to change much. The first time I heard Damaged was in 1987; before I heard The Beatles, before I heard the Stones, before I heard much of anything really, other than a lot of the country music my parents and grandparents owned, and whatever AM radio was playing at the time. My cousin played it for me, along with Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables by The Dead Kennedys, Big Lizard In My Backyard by The Dead Milkmen, Diesel And Dust by Midnight Oil, Licensed To Ill by The Beastie Boys and Highway To Hell by AC/DC, all in the span of a couple of hours while I was marveling at his Commodore 64. I was eight years old, and I was hooked on Damaged – find me a problem child who doesn't dig “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie.” As stated, while it's unlikely that the album changed my life upon hearing it, Damaged was certainly a formative album for me; I was fascinated by the rawness of it and I liked it a lot. Shortly thereafter, I started listening to more punk rock (in addition to the Top 40 of the day), eventually started a punk rock band in high school and joined the music press in university – all because of my love of punk rock that started with Black Flag's Damaged; the album that formed my first personal listening taste and what eventually got me on the path that led to you, dear reader, scanning this long-overdue review now.

Album:

Damaged
remains in print both on CD and 12” LP. Buy it directly from the SST superstore here , or from here from Amazon .

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