After the release of the ‘Nervous Breakdown’ EP in 1978, Keith Morris, Black Flag’s vocalist, quit the band. Attempts at making a full-length LP were started and abandoned during the following couple of years and both Dez Cadena and Ron Reyes had a shot at being the band’s replacement vocalist. Things eventually fell into place after Henry Rollins got on board as full-time vocalist and larger-than-life frontman.
The first release featuring Rollins (and the band’s first full length), ‘Damaged’ was released in December 1981 on guitarist Greg Ginn’s own SST label. (The album was originally scheduled to be released on Unicorn Records with distribution from major label MCA, who’d already pressed the first run of the LP. However the label pulled out at the eleventh hour. Ginn decided to release the album himself on SST; this would lead to a long legal dispute which meant Black Flag did not release any new material until March 1984).
All of ‘Damaged’s music tracks had been recorded prior to Rollins joining. In fact, nine of the album’s fifteen tracks had been attempted during the aforementioned album sessions; in some cases – like ‘Police Story’ – some tracks had been recorded several times (for those who want to hear the earlier attempts of these cuts with Black Flag’s three previous vocalists, then the ‘Everything Went Black’ compilation should be required listening). From a hardcore punk perspective the album is musically very powerful, but it’s that power combined with the album’s unrelenting lyrical content which has made it a genre classic.
‘What I See’ presents the band at their most outwardly aggressive as Rollins, with a perfect delivery, rants over Chuck Dukowski’s distorted bassline. With his fantastic groove, Chuck forces the listener to pay attention as Rollins makes such stark claims as “Life’s cold / I want to feel it reach inside and turn my mind off / I don’t wanna live / I wish I was dead”. ‘Damaged I’ (a track which looks towards Black Flag’s later, slower material) is similarly oppressive as the band hammer out a seemingly never-ending grinding, monolithic riff as Rollins screams “I’m blind, I’m blind / I’m damaged!” in a tortured tone, befitting of the musical arrangement. His delivery is so convincing – the sound of anger at its purest form. Rollins sounds like man fit to explode.
Musically, the rest of the album concentrates on faster material. Lyrically, a lot of it is still pretty heavy stuff, for example: ‘Police Story’ recounts the city’s heavy handed police force and ‘Padded Cell’, as you’d expect, deals with feeling trapped (“Earth’s a padded cell, defanged and declawed / I’m living in hell, it’s a paradise fraud”). On the whole, ‘Damaged’ as an album, shows Black Flag in a far more uncompromising mood than suggested by their earlier recordings.
‘Six Pack’ and ‘TV Party’ present a far more lyrically lightweight band. ‘Six Pack’ celebrates the live-for-the-moment spirit of youth seen through an alcohol haze (“My girlfriend asked me which I liked better/I hope the answer don’t upset her”); ’TV Party’ is rather unsubtle swipe at the TV generation. With their three-chord, disposable arrangements, they revisit the basic punk roots of Black Flag’s earliest work. However, the guitars are still unmistakably the work of Greg Ginn, as he occasionally breaks into atonal guitar leads. The gang vocals on ‘TV Party’ represent the album’s most trashy element, possibly designed with live performance in mind. Despite feeling more fun on the surface, both songs possess a nihilistic spirit, in keeping with the rest of the material. The album’s only obvious positive vibe comes from ‘Rise Above’ which deals with finding strength and breaking free from society’s control.
Although the band would sound more confident and self-assured on the releases which followed, (even when the material wasn’t always great) ‘Damaged’ is the quintessential Black Flag album – a genuine hardcore punk classic. While most of it doesn’t sound anywhere near as threatening as it once did (many bands would take similar aggression to more extreme levels later), this album still retains an energy and DIY spirit which many punk bands aspire to. No self-respecting punk collection should be without one.