The Circle Jerks were one of the original Southern California punk bands of the 1980s. Considered pioneers of a furious style called hardcore, they slogged it out in the punk underground for ten years before giving up the ghost in 1990. But in the mid-1990s two young punk outfits, Green Day and the Offspring, and their radio-friendly melody-intensive sound suddenly made punk rock an extremely lucrative commodity. “I was seeing bands that weren’t that talented gaining a lot of attention,” Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris told Entertainment Weekly’s Nisid Hajari, “and a lot of things we had done being done again.” So, in the summer of 1994, Keith Morris reunited with original Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson and longtime members Zander Schloss and Keith Clark, on bass and drums, respectively, and the reconstituted group signed their first major label deal.
When the Circle Jerks first formed in late 1979, Keith Morris was already one of the preeminent frontmen on the punk scene, having been the original singer for the legendary band Black Flag. Black Flag rehearsed in a church where Morris also lived. Hetson’s band, Redd Kross, used the same rehearsal space. Together he and Morris started their own outfit, finding then group’s name in a friend’s copy of the American Slang Dictionary— its meaning refers to a group sex act generally performed by adolescent boys. “We weren’t really punks. That was the whole thing,” Morris told Brian S. Gross in Hits. “We were all the guys and girls next door. It wasn’t like we wore spiked hair and leather or painted our faces…. We were just fed up with the music that was going on around us, except for what was happening in Hollywood. So we embraced them more than they embraced us. Then, once we did start playing … they finally came to the realization that we were a force to be reckoned with.”
As late as a 1986 interview with Musician’s John Leland, in fact, Morris insisted, “We’re not a punk band. That would be one of the last descriptions that I would want to use. My dad was a punk. [He] was in a motorcycle gang. When he was in high school, he and a couple of his friends would tie the principal to a chair and make him—at knife point—say certain things on the PA system. A lot of the lyrics I write are direct influences from my dad and his friends. But the kids nowadays are not like that. [They] have a bit more intelligence.”
The term “hardcore” is perhaps a better way to describe the Circle Jerks’ sound. “Hardcore could be heavy metal rehabilitated,” Melody Maker explained. “It becomes once again au fait [up to date] to be swept away
For the Record …
Members include Keith Clark (born c. 1960, in IL; joined band c. 1985), drums; Greg Hetson (born c. 1957, in Brooklyn, NY), guitar; Keith Morris (born c. 1955, in Los Angeles, CA), vocals; and Zander Schloss (born c. 1957, in MO; joined band c. 1985), bass. Former members include drummers Keith “Lucky” Leherer and Chuck Biscuits and bassists Roger Roger-son, Earl Liberty, and Jay Bentley.
Band formed in Hermosa Beach, CA, 1979. Debut album, Group Sex, released on Frontier Records, c. 1980; appeared in cult film Repo Man, 1983; disbanded, 1990; reformed and signed with Mercury Records, 1994; released Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities, 1995.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
by the speed and volume of rock guitar, lose yourself in abrasive noise…. Thus the Circle Jerks … all spit and nerves … a rock band whose glow nears the pristine rush of [metal band] Anthrax, awake to power and texture, a metal chilled out.”
Whether called punk or hardcore, the Circle Jerks’ music is unquestionably aggressive. Melody Maker’s Dave Thompson described it as “a cacaphonic blitzkrieg which demands your attention but offers nothing more than a splitting headache in return.” Still, one Melody Maker reviewer found the band “erudite, articulate, keen to examine the shock of obliterated noise they make, the leaps of energy they find live.”
The Circle Jerks’ first six albums were released on independent labels; they were a cult band with very little media presence. They did gain notice by a larger audience, however, when they made a cameo appearance in Alex Cox’s film Repo Man. The Jerks just happened to be one of Cox’s favorite bands, so they were awarded the role of a bad lounge act in the film. Both bassist Schloss and drummer Clark joined the group following the making of Repo Man, their addition marking roughly the tenth lineup change for the band.
The Circle Jerks’ first album with this lineup was called Wonderful. “What we’ve done,” Morris told Musician’s Leland of the new players, “is incorporate a couple of guys that have never played this type of music before. They’ve never seen what goes on at our shows.” Nonetheless, Leland did not find that the changes in personnel had changed the band’s approach. “Wonderful is less a departure than a rehashing of old formulas, like chunky guitar lines and mock-hedonistlyrics,” he opined. Creem’s Dave Segal referred to the Jerks as an “LA. punk relic [creeping] ever closer to the heavy metal sound…. Let’s just say that CJ music lacks nuance…. Lyrically, CJ pour on the sarcasm and broad humor. Sometimes it’s very effective…. Attempts at pathos are rare and unsuccessful. Blame it on the utterly unmyste-rious nature of their music and Keith Morris’s corrosive voice, which only seems capable of expressing outrage and disgust.”
When Segal asked Morris if punk hadn’t turned into the same kind of cartoon ritual that heavy metal was becoming at the time, and whether it hadn’t become just as conformist, Morris replied, “Punk started as anti-establishment, anti-fashion—but you’re right, it has become a fashion. As you can see, we’re not a part of that. We have a lot of heavy metal people that come to our shows, a lot of straight…, intellectual-type people. That’s what we want.” Concerns about punk’s allegiance to its roots didn’t matter to some reviewers, however, including one who wrote in Guitar Player, “Spewing the energy of a hyper-charged AC/DC on punk, the Jerks shake to the relentless right-hand rhythms of guitarist Greg Hetson. With nary a ballad in sight, this music calls for crunch distortion, slim, knife-blade solos, and an occasional punch in the face.”
Like most of their contemporaries, the Circle Jerks “toured a lot, sold very little, and eventually faded out with the era,” as Los Angles Times writer Chris Riemen-schneider put it. According to drummer Clark in Billboard, drug problems and side projects led to the band’s temporary split around 1990. But when the mainstreaming of grunge rockers like Nirvana opened the floodgates to the new punk era of G reen Day and the Offspring in 1994, life as a band once again seemed attractive to members of the Circle Jerks. “I came to realize,” Morris said in the Los Angeles Times, “that we could put the band back together and the worst-case scenario was we could do it and have at least the same popularity we had before. And we could have more.” By this time Schloss had kicked a heroin addiction and Morris, a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict, had been clean and sober for ten years.
A chance encounter at a rehearsal studio gave Morris the opportunity to pass a demo tape to a Mercury Records talent scout. With all the money suddenly to be had in punk rock, these forefathers of the genre were quickly signed. Of his motivation in arranging the deal, Morris told Entertainment Weekly’s Hajari, “For years, we played every hole-in-the-wall to 20 people, so I would like there to be a reward.”
The Circle Jerks released Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities, their seventh album and major label debut, in 1995, 15 years after they first formed. Adrianne Stone reported in Huh, “Keith Morris’ vocals still have that [Sex] Pistols-esque English brat accent, as he sings antisocial ditties that are more fun than nihilistic. But time has molded this band into a more upbeat and melodic version of its earliest version—a great improvement in my book.” Los Angeles Times contributor Sandy Masuo remarked that the record was not “terribly innovative,” but she added the disclaimer “which isn’t really the point anyway,” conceding, “they do capture the spirit and drive of punk rock—old and new.” The disc was also notable in that one cut, a cover version of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You,” featured backup vocals from former pop teen queen Debbie Gibson.
Before and during the Circle Jerks’ reunion, the band-members engaged in a variety of other artistic pursuits. Hetson had been playing with the ascendant Bad Religion; Schloss appeared on former Minuteman Mike Watt’s solo album, played with The Magnificent Bastards (a side project of Stone Temple Pilots frontman Weiland) and the Sweet ’n Low Orchestra, scored several soundtracks, and did some acting. By late 1995 it looked as if these independent endeavors would be key to the bandmembers’ creative careers: BAM magazine revealed in November that the Circle Jerks had once again broken up. Morris was reportedly hoping to a do a solo album for Mercury.
Group Sex, Frontier, c. 1980.
Wild in the Streets, I.R.S., c. 1981.
Golden Shower of Hits, Allegiance, 1983.
Wonderful, Relativity, 1985.
VI, Relativity, 1988.
Gig, Relativity, c. 1990.
Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities, Mercury, 1995.
BAM, November 3, 1995.
Billboard, July 8, 1995.
Creem, October 1982; September 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, November 18, 1994; February 17, 1995.
Guitar Player, April 1988.
Hits, July 24, 1995.
Huh, July 1995.
Los Angles Times, July 25, 1995.
Melody Maker, June 19, 1982; December 14, 1985; December 19, 1987; November 21, 1987.
Musician, April 1986.
Village Voice, April 27, 1982.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Mercury Records publicity materials, 1995, and an interview with Keith Morris, September 1995.
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