I've been an obsessed hard rock & heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
A Double Dose of Punk Rock Punishment!
Damaged - SST Records, 1981 / 15 tracks, 34:58
The First Four Years - SST Records, 1983 / 16 tracks, 24:40
I recently added a double dose of punk rock classics to my CD collection: Black Flag's Damaged and The First Four Years. I was pleasantly surprised to find those two gems in a box full of random, generic '90s rock CDs at a dusty used-record store in upstate New York, and I decided that it was time to re-acquaint myself with this legendary Los Angeles band.
Prior to this purchase, it had been quite a few years since I'd last heard Black Flag. I never owned any of their albums during their '80s heyday, but several of my friends were fans, so I had at least a casual working knowledge of their material.
As it turned out, these two particular CDs combine to form a decent "starter pack" for relative newcomers such as myself. The 1981 full-length debut, Damaged, was their first with then-new lead vocalist Henry Rollins and is arguably BF's best album. The First Four Years is a compilation of tracks from various pre-Rollins, pre-Damaged EPs and singles. Together the two CDs provide just under an hour's worth of primo, pissed-off vintage punk that's the perfect soundtrack for kicking someone's ass. Let's press "play" and get in the pit!
Damaged contains three of Black Flag's most well-known songs: the bruising opening anthem "Rise Above," the hilarious ode to slacker-dom "TV Party" (the closest thing BF ever had to a mainstream "hit," thanks to its inclusion in Alex Cox's cult classic film, Repo Man) and "Six Pack" (re-recorded from an earlier EP). I laughed out loud at "TV Party's" shout-outs to such forgotten shows as "That's Incredible," "The Jeffersons," and "Fridays," and felt the burn in "Six Pack" when Rollins snarls his preference for beer over his girl ("I got a six-pack and I don't need you!").
Other choice cuts include the fist-to-the-face "Thirsty and Miserable" and "Gimme Gimme Gimme," the full-on hardcore throwdowns of "Police Story" and "Padded Cell," and the epic-length (by Black Flag standards, anyway) four-minute sludge fest "Damaged I," which feels like a free jazz piece meshed with the crawling doom of Black Sabbath, as Rollins spits out lyrics about pain and isolation over a backdrop of droning, sludgy musical grind.
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Final Analysis: Damaged is still an absolute beast of an album that's just as capable of kicking your ass now as when it was first released 40 (!) years ago.
"The First Four Years"
The First Four Years is another fascinating listen, charting Black Flag's growth from a basic, three-chord punk band ala the Ramones or Sex Pistols into the leaner, meaner, more experimental band heard on Damaged. The disc kicks off with the four-track Nervous Breakdown EP from 1979, which featured future Circle Jerk Keith Morris on vocals (he sounds quite a bit like Johnny Rotten here).
"Nervous Breakdown" and the chugging "I've Had It" ("I'm....going...to... explode! I'VE HAD IT!") are my favorite tracks from this batch, then we move on to the Ron Reyes vocal era via the four-track Jealous Again EP, featuring the corrosive title track and the raging "White Minority." Dez Cadena (who would later join the Misfits, along with drummer Robo) takes over the mic on the three songs from the Six Pack EP ("American Waste" being my favorite of these) before the disc comes to a close with a pair of tracks from the "Louie, Louie" single - a cover of the rock 'n' roll standard by the Kingsmen and an early version of "Damaged" which would later be revisited on the album of the same name.
Like many influential bands, Black Flag burned bright but was not destined to burn for long. A lengthy legal squabble with Unicorn Records over the botched release of Damaged kept them from putting out any material under the Black Flag name for more than three years. Once the lawsuit was settled, they made up for lost time, releasing three studio albums (!) in 1984 and two more in 1985, touring relentlessly all the while, until internal tensions caused them to split in 1986.
Periodic attempts at Black Flag reunions over the years led to a court battle over the rights to the band's name. In 2013, founding guitarist Greg Ginn and Jealous Again-era vocalist Ron Reyes released a new Black Flag studio album (What The...) backed by an all-new lineup.
Meanwhile, former vocalist Keith Morris fronts another band made up of Black Flag alumni simply known as "Flag," performing their classic material.
Since Henry Rollins' tenure with Black Flag ended, he has proven to be quite the Renaissance man, branching out into a successful career as a solo artist, a self-published author, spoken-word performer and lecturer, and occasional TV host and film actor.
© 2021 Keith Abt