Black Flag Damaged

Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’ and the Hardcore Hope of “Rise Above”

Black Flag’s Damaged is a valuable document of the past as well as a prophetic testimony to the values of present and future hardcore punk music.

Black Flag
5 December 1981

Black Flag‘s Damaged is a punk rock milestone. Today’s listeners may not appreciate how powerful and hard this album sounded upon release in 1981, and it has held up over time, one reason being its stunning lead-off track, “Rise Above”. With a fury of voices and angular guitar over an assaulting rhythmic pulse, its mix of raw power and message makes it a savage opener. Yet while the rest of Damaged provides a power akin to this opening track, the record subtly shifts towards a direction that Black Flag’s music will continue to embrace in the future. “Rise Above”, an anthem of the hardcore community, is actually an anomaly in Black Flag’s work; the song’s vision proved to be beyond what the band could ultimately deliver.

But what an opener! A fast, steady high hat and snare combine with snarling guitar feedback to announce the entrance into the song, foregrounding an antagonism to the polish and sheen of 1980s commercial rock. This is punk rock, but not the usual barre chords hinting at a scowling melody to follow. Instead, we get a rapid descending line on guitar that repeats nowhere else after this punk rock prelude, a submersion repeated four times before the first introduction of the future melody, the “rise above” riff. This is followed by a jarring rhythmic jerk, barely keeping time until, finally, a three-note climb brings us into the song’s first verse. These opening moments create a sonic narrative, revealing the song’s central theme, and we, the listening audience, are included in it; we have all been down, but now we rise together.

The lyrics now develop the theme, establishing a hardcore “us” versus “them” and their mainstream values. “They” are “jealous cowards” who are the “arms of control” and want to “try to stop us”; “we” have “what they lack,” including the ability to think for ourselves. Lyrically, “Rise Above” invites its listeners to share in its message of hardcore values, envisioning the rise of a new countercultural community. 

This sense of community is supported further by the song’s vocal structure and use of “call and response” as a central technique. A vocal style that has been used for generations, especially in the music of the African diaspora, “call and response” serves to build, create, and maintain culture and community. In “Rise Above”, a chorus of voices repeats the song’s title in response to each line given by the lead singer. In this way, the chorus voice represents our voice, the community of listeners working together to imagine an alternative future to what is offered to us by “them” – the striving of the sole individual, the fencing off of our private worlds, the unending competition and quest for wealth. The song presents its non-commercial, non-conformist message using a communal vocal structure embedded within the fiercely defiant musical form of hardcore punk.

Instrumentally, throughout each verse, the guitar line sounds like an alarm or a siren underneath each “call”, barre chords supporting each “rise above” response. The guitar is now another voice, adding its speech to the human voices. Here Black Flag create their most unified statement; the singer’s voice and the choral voices that imply our voices combine with the guitar voice, which now speaks for us as well, the alarm/siren that announces the nascent but rising hardcore community that we can now better envision, a new non-commercial, oppositional, authentic musical culture that aspires to be more than either mere distraction or the further embrace of mainstream values. “Rise Above” is an anthem toward a new way of seeing ourselves, our community, and our possibilities.

However, the sonic message contained in the rest of Damaged never develops the vision of its first track. When call and response is used elsewhere, it is used humorously or satirically, “All Right!” in “TV Party” or “Six Pack!” These are the album’s other “we” songs, but the collective voice is used more for laughs. Instead, the album primarily relies on the voice of a single individual and what he faces amidst a world that only creates conflict and inner turmoil. These songs, including “What I See” and “Damaged I”, are profoundly effective. Still, they reflect an individualistic struggle, a more conventional “me against the world” ideology in opposition to the album’s first track’s more liberating communal social values.

The social rage, to which the call to the community could become a response, turns instead into visions of internal strife as social tension becomes personal trauma. Additionally, it becomes clear that all the voices on the album are male; the community voice here is solely an exclusive male community. The album dilutes and threatens its initial call to unity as the voices on the album, in theme and structure, veer into ideologies more compatible with the individualistic, male-dominant, status quo society, a society defined as oppositional to punk.

Similar issues play out within the guitar work of Greg Ginn. In general, as a reaction to the false values of mainstream rock music, punk music created structures in opposition. Musical structures warped in myriad ways, one of which is the abandonment of the extended “guitar solo”, a standard requirement of the rock genre. Punk solos, if they happen at all, are generally quick. Ginn’s solo on “Rise Above” provides an exceptional example. It starts with a four-bar riff so conventional that it could be from Chuck Berry or Billy Zoom; Ginn chooses his licks here as if he is connecting this punk moment to all of rock music’s history. He shifts into his hectic speed-picking technique for the next two bars, a dominant trademark in Ginn’s future soloing. 

The final two bars, however, can barely contain Ginn’s perfectly thrown-off honks and random flying notes that sound different, new, and unexpected compared to the preceding six bars. As something beyond conventional riffing or rapid staccato picking, we are given the possibility of a unique guitar voice, a smear of sound that is offhand, dissonant, and uncommercial. Within eight feverishly rapid bars, Ginn has traveled the past, has come to the present, and presents the possibility of a future direction within a single punk rock guitar solo, echoing the song’s call for a renewed musical vision.

Hints of this new guitar sound appear in short, chaotic bursts within “Six Pack” and “Damaged II” as well as in the intense dirge of “Damaged I”. This experimental guitar work is part of what makes Damaged so memorable. However, other solos, such as in “Thirsty and Miserable”, adhere more closely to the rapid staccato style that becomes Ginn’s primary solo voice in future recordings. Ginn will eventually abandon noise color soloing for the most part, adopting a guitar voice more akin to the conventional guitar solo styles rejected by punk initially. His future guitar work will continue to amaze audiences, but it will not be genuinely new.

Ultimately, Black Flag cannot fulfill the promise of their first album’s lead-off track. Instead of seeking true community, the band would become more hyper-masculine through the increasingly confrontational Henry Rollins, despite including bassist Kira Roessler in the future group. The vocal message will become more self-centered as it continues to focus on individual male internal struggles, such as in “My War”. (“Slip It In” will feature a woman’s voice but only within a male sexual fantasy.) Greg Ginn’s guitar voice, fiery throughout, will become more predictable in its use of verse/chorus/lead break song structures. As Ginn’s music becomes more conventional, Rollins takes on more of the focus, becoming the raging “frontman” of Black Flag.

Black Flag adopted more aspects of mainstream rock and became more successful. Undoubtedly, myriad pressures led them in this direction, including those buried within the lyrics of Damaged. These pressures and social forces brought many of us to seek answers in punk rock in the first place. In the end, within the music of Black Flag, there lies a paradox: their music aims to combat the entrapments of late capitalist alienation even while the band succumbs to the pressures at which they rage.

Damaged remains powerful, with a pulverizing anthem of hardcore hope as its lead-off track. Thankfully, the promise of hardcore and its ability to build authentic community does not end with Black Flag’s “Rise Above”. Instead, this hope would become one of the overarching values of the genre, one that continues in the hardcore music of today and in the music to come. This makes Black Flag’s Damaged a valuable document of the past and a prophetic testimony to the values of present and future hardcore punk music.