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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Black Flag, "Damaged"

Black Flag
SST (1981)

1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Punk was far removed from today's relative popularity during the '80s, and arguments involving which band was best is usually narrowed down to about four: Bad Brains, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat (if I'm missing any, it's probably because you didn't put enough of their patches on your backpack). In strict terms of influence, Black Flag wins.

Punk has spread in roughly a million directions since the early '80s, but the most prototypical style that is still played by high school bands in garages can be traced back to Black Flag. Bands like Brains and the Kennedys didn't stick to the simple three-chord structure that was laid down by the Ramones. Time signatures were juggled and solos were encouraged, not frowned upon. To be straight, guitarist Greg Ginn of Black Flag was a perfectly capable guitarist who tore off on frequent solos, but Flag's riffs tended toward the Ramones' style, if more aggressive. The rough and fast riffs almost command the listener to mosh, and the band quickly emerged at the forefront of the hardcore scene it was a creator of.

Vocalist Henry Rollins was another major influence on scores of bands to follow. Rollins, arguably the most revered punk artist today, was an angry 20-year old when "Damaged" was recorded, and he sounds like it too. Although Ginn wrote most of the lyrics, Rollins scowling mug was the face of the band's social-pariah message. His raw, smoker's roar became the standard for punk vocals, especially evident in artists like Rancid/Operation Ivy frontman Tim Armstrong among others.

The lyrics were rarely intelligent (see the especially blunt "Damaged I" and "Damaged II") but the attitude was clear. Rarely did the band get too political (aside from "Police Story" and "Rise Above"), preferring to stick to issues of angst and alienation, but the group's notoriously violent shows and influence (its famous four-bar logo began appearing all over Los Angeles) earned them the title of "social terrorists" from the LAPD. That sort of reputation is the stuff of punk legend. The Dead Kennedys were undeniably more open in its distaste for government, but Black Flag was the poster child for the anarchist subculture.

Despite its long-lasting influence, Black Flag did not stay this punk for too long. Ginn was hesitant to dwell on any given style, and the band's follow-up album "My War" would end up being an influence on the grunge movement later during the decade. It's not hard to understand how; Ginn's scratchy solos sound like what Jerry Cantrell and Kim Thayil would play for Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, respectively, and when Ginn slows it down, like the intro to "Life of Pain," the sludgy sound is undeniably grungy. However, nothing would reach the renown of "Damaged," hence its inclusion in both of my books, and its countless imitations from hundreds of bands.

INTERESTING FACT: Rollins didn't have a formal tryout for the band. He simply jumped on stage at one of its shows and began singing. Ginn soon invited him to join full time. The moral: If you want something, take it.

Thirsty and Miserable by Black Flag on Grooveshark

1 comment:

  1. Hey man, great blog! I love Moon's book (after browsing 1001 Recordings I had some serious doubts so I haven't picked that one up) and have discovered some great music through it. You seem really knowledgeable about this stuff, which makes it fun to read. Also, I see you're from Ohio like me, so bonus points there. Anyways, I'm going through Moon's book at my site if you want to check it out. Keep up the writing and I look forward to reading more