Black Flag’s 'Damaged' Is an Iconic Record, so Why Isn’t It More Influential?
Did the iconic band's 1981 debut album push hardcore forward or did its delayed release take a toll?
Ask any hardcore band what their influences are and Black Flag is bound to come up. After all, the band is instrumental to the evolution of hardcore, being the first act most people point to in explaining how punk went from the bubblegum pop of the Ramones to the destructive nihilism of hardcore. Their 1979 Nervous Breakdown EP took punk's snarling edge and ratched everything up. The songs were shorter, the production shittier, and the performances brasher. Where early punk records still sounded like music, Black Flag was a wall of noise.
But the lineup that produced Nervous Breakdown didn't last. Vocalist Keith Morris and drummer Brian Migdol left the band, with bassist Chuck Dukowski and guitarist/bandleader Greg Ginn soldiering on, finding new members to record with. But those new members would wash out just as quickly, establishing a pattern that would be repeated over and over again throughout Black Flag's history—even in the present day, with Ginn often asking strangers he meets at the grocery store to play bass.
By the time the band found itself on somewhat stable ground in the early 80s Black Flag's reputation had grown, for better and worse. Their shows in the southern California area often became full-on riots, making it hard for Black Flag to actually play music in a live setting. And though the group's first release established hardcore's ethos, it was the band's tireless commitment to touring that would establish the DIY touring network that so many young bands take for granted. Despite laying the groundwork for hardcore, and seemingly inventing an approach to touring that bands use to this day, Black Flag still had yet to put out a proper full-length album, even if the material was there. Long before their debut album, Damaged, was released, the band would be playing these songs across the country, giving new kids an idea of what was to come, but also the ability to build upon it.
Before we go any further, it's important to state that Damaged really is damn good. Even now, nearly 40 years on, the record remains a thrillride. From the anthemic "Rise Above," to the riotous, us-against-them anger of "Police Story," to the darkly introspective "Depression," all the way down to the untethered lunacy of the album's closer "Damaged I," each one of these moments captures something few records of that time did. And it still resonates. It's an introduction to late 70s, early 80s hardcore that's still exactly that for many people interested in the genre. But somehow, it feels as if it exists in a vacuum.
By the time of Damaged's release in December of 1981, the sound Black Flag created was not only gaining traction throughout North America, it was mutating in every regional outpost that took to it. Soon after singer Henry Rollins joined Black Flag and moved to California, the bands Rollins came up alongside began getting attention. Minor Threat's unbridled anger and anti-drug ethos would inform the straight edge and youth crew movements that would come into vogue over the next decade. Bad Brains' groovy, warp-speed attacks would introduce a new set of virtuosity and flow to a genre often seen as being full of slipshod compositions. In both San Pedro, California, and Austin, Texas, the Minutemen and Big Boys would begin incorporating a funk-laced swing to hardcore's primal stomp. In San Francisco, the Dead Kennedys would offer a sardonic bit of storytelling and sci-fi to lyrics that were often simplistic sloganeering. Canada's NoMeansNo would take the Dead Kennedy's lyrical approach and incorporate it into their jazz-leaning compositions. Descendents were bringing oodles of pop hooks to the table and singing about fast food and coffee. And in the Midwest, Hüsker Dü was cranking the reverb until their songs sounded like rattling speakers instead of discernible guitar riffs. Hardcore had changed, but Black Flag was still Black Flag.
All that touring and interpersonal instability meant that Black Flag had been touring on the songs found on Damaged for years, and instead of the songs feeling a part of the scenes that were revolutionizing the form, Black Flag felt, well, out of step with the world of hardcore. To kids craving a faster, louder, and harder version of the songs on Nervous Breakdown, Damaged sounded like the band getting lapped instead of setting the pace. By then, other bands began touring, and Black Flag went from being the only game in town to the band with a target on its back—after all, punks of that time didn't have a ton of interest in paying tribute to what came before it.
Much like Black Flag's reputation as a raucous live band hindered its ability to actually play shows in southern California, a failed distribution deal with Unicorn Records—a subsidiary of the major label MCA—would bungle Damaged's release, too. The record didn't hit shelves across the country in the way the band hoped, though it still gained plenty of attention on its own, but the fiasco forced the band to distribute it through Ginn's own SST Records—taking on a lawsuit from Unicorn in the process.
This legal battle would make it nearly impossible for Black Flag to release new music, instead forcing the band to release the odds-and-ends collection Everything Went Black and The First Four Years compilation as holdovers. At a time when hardcore was reaching a fever pitch, Black Flag's growth was stunted, forced to rely on its old material at a time when fans were demanding something new and forward-thinking.
By the time Black Flag would re-emerge in 1984 with a trio of full-lengths, the band's sound had shifted dramatically—and so too had the hardcore scene. Bands had hit a wall creatively, many of which had broken-up, and it allowed Black Flag to swoop back in with My War and reclaim the throne it had left vacant. The newly minted lineup of Rollins, Ginn, and Descendents drummer Bill Stevenson offered new direction in a way Damaged never could. My War was a mid-paced stomp, full of Ginn's stair-stepping, polyrhythmic riffs and Rollins' more refined vocal stylings. But it was the record's B-side, a three-song suite of lengthy, glacier-slow dirges that would—just like Nervous Breakdown before it—launch a thousand ships.
Few records have Facebook pages dedicated to their B-sides, let alone can be seen as the nexus point for genres as disparate as sludge metal and grunge—that is, if Kurt Cobain's opinion is counted. My War is the record that would allow bands like the Melvins to find a blueprint from which they could continually build upon, and it offered a different approach to the emerging crossover between hardcore and metal. If the songs that made up The First Four Years collection offered hardcore a set of standards—exactly three million covers of "Nervous Breakdown" have been performed to date —My War paved a path forward, even, if it lead to the band's destruction in 1986.
But what about Damaged, the iconic first record from hardcore's biggest name? Despite being a record that's basically flawless, it's hard to see what lasting influence it's had on the genre it is tied to. In a way, it became the gateway to hardcore for kids with a budding interest in hardcore, and it's often times the single hardcore record that non-hardcore fans have heard. The cover of Damaged—which, in a staged photo, sees Rollins breaking a mirror with his balled fist—is as iconic as Metallica's Master Of Puppets. Even if you don't know what Damaged sounds like, the cover tells you exactly what it sounds like. It's what has made it the perfect shorthand for teenage rebellion, exemplified by James Franco nodding along to it in an episode of Freaks And Geeks making perfect sense to fans of an NBC comedy.
Through the 90s and early 2000s, hardcore continued to evolve, with new sub-genres popping up and bands became less tethered to its history. Much like trends in rap today, hardcore moved incredibly fast back then, experimenting with new sounds and approaches, and having less interest in idol worship. Where the music found on The First Four Years offered bands a way to something new, Damaged felt tied to hardcore's gestational period instead of its invigorating present.
While none of this diminishes Damaged's place in history, it can't help but feel like an album whose imprint on the actual sound of hardcore got lost along the way. The two-year gap between Nervous Breakdown and Damaged isn't a long time, but it was enough to keep Black Flag from setting a true benchmark with its first album. Sure, every kid in a hardcore band says they like Black Flag, but how many of them are talking about the Black Flag found on Damaged?
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