Circle Jerks - Biography
The Circle Jerks formed in Los Angeles in 1979 when players from the hardcore punk scene—most notably raspy vocalist Keith Morris, who co-founded the seminal punk band Black Flag, and guitarist Greg Hetson from Redd Kross—joined frenetic energies. The other members, bassist Roger Rogerson and drummer Lucky Lehrer, rounded out the original roster. Morris and guitarist Greg Ginn had discovered the sheer joy of fast, loud and extremely short songs while with Black Flag, as captured on the iconic EP, Nervous Breakdown (1978 Sst). Using that aesthetic, The Circle Jerks made an immediate impact in Southern California that same year with their ballsy minute-long detonations.
The band’s maniacal pace soon gained them a reputation for wild and violent shows among the aggressive surfer and skater types that dotted their gigs, something they ironically never encouraged nor desired. Morris, in fact, constantly admonished the rowdy throngs to slam dance responsibly—though he also referred to himself as a dog that had been let out of a cage.
The Circle Jerks’ first album, Group Sex (1980 Frontier Records) was met with enthusiasm amongst its hardcore audience for its bombastic approach. With no song exceeding a minute-and-a-half—the shortest, “Deny Everything” clocking in at 27 seconds—the album is rampant with anger, disgust, snark and humor, and in direct contrast to what was going on in mainstream radio. Titles like “Live Fast Die Young” and “World Up My Ass” carried the gist of what would become a classic, raw-to-the-core album.
That same year, The Circle Jerks appeared in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which only fueled their underground legacy. While receiving less attention than some of the more established acts under Spheeris’ lens, they gained fans from coast-to-coast when people laid eyes on their fiery, high-intensity of their live show.
Their follow-up release, Wild in the Streets (1982 Epitaph), varied little stylistically from Group Sex, which was fine with Circle Jerks’ fans. On the title track, they took Garland Jeffreys’ song and amped it up almost beyond recognition. The result—“Wild In The Streets” became the band’s signature song, and the track is featured on the Tony Hawk’s video game, “American Wasteland.” The sophomore record is also notable in that Morris began to write lyrics with an increasing political hostility, such as “Letter Bomb” and “Stars and Stripes,” which encouraged, in a nutshell, autonomous thinking.
As heavy metal began to pick up steam in the mid-1980s, discordant punk with scatological lyrics and scathing political viewpoints began to suffer, even within its own subculture. The Circle Jerks response to this dilemma was to name their next release Golden Shower of Hits (1983 Rhino). By this point the band had jumped to Jerry Goldstein’s Far Out Productions, and the album was definitely something of a change of direction. The title track is a ragged medley of mawkish hits by artists like Tammy Wynette, Burt Bacharach and The Carpenters fused together—more or less—to tell the tale of a doomed romance. That track was one of the most sarcastic and snide songs to come out of the movement, as Morris exuded disdain with every syllable.
One of the tracks from Golden Shower of Hits, “Coup D’Etat,” was used in the Alex Cox film, Repo Man. The Circle Jerks appear performing a cheesy, lounge version of another track from the record, “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” as well.
In 1983 Rogerson and Lehrer left the band and were replaced by Zander Schloss and Keith Clark. The Circle Jerks also changed labels once again, this time to Combat Records, a sub-division of Relativity Records. After all the flux, and still within the cynical punk rock ethos, there was a new artistic energy on Wonderful (1985 Combat) that made the album one of the band’s best. The tone is set with the smiling quartet in tuxedos on the beach, all beaming with ironic smiles. Morris mocks empty, feel-good phrases on the title track, while Hetson hurls his guitar bits with his trademark frantic energy. On “Killing For Jesus,” Morris thoughtfully examines the paradox of killing for Jesus. While some hardcore fans thought Wonderful transcended any sort of pigeonholing, others thought it clumsy and cobbled together and one of their weaker efforts.
Their next album, 1987’s VI (Combat) further strayed from the classic hardcore underpinnings of brevity, raunch and spit. Morris’s harsh voice is still prominent, but the tensions are greater, and there is something like “subtlety”—as blasphemous as it appeared—in the balance of “Beat Me Senseless” and “Casualty Vampire.” The track “Love Kills” was featured in the Alex Cox film, Sid and Nancy.
The Circle Jerks broke up in 1989; Hetson left for Bad Religion, gaining a bit of heretofore commercial fame as punk’s popularity swelled again in the 1990s; Morris, long an addict to drugs and alcohol, worked odd jobs and kicked his habits.
In 1994 the Circle Jerks reunited, using the same line-up as featured on the Wonderful album. Their last studio album to date, Oddities, Abnormalities, and Curiosities (1995 Mercury) had hard rock leanings and considerably longer songs than the earlier hardcore works. Always up for dichotomous good times, the album features bubble-gum pop singer Debbie Gibson on The Soft Boys’ cover, “I Wanna Destroy You.” Though Wonderful garnered some critical intrigue, the band imploded three weeks into its tour in support of the album and broke up again.
They would reunite again in 1997, and continue playing intermittently through the rest of that decade.
In 2000, Morris was diagnosed with adult onset diabetes, which prompted several benefits by friends and punk rock bands to help raise medical funds. Once he had recovered enough from that and stomach and back issues, they resumed gigging.
Many successful bands have cited The Circle Jerks as an influence to their music over the years, most notably The Offspring, Pennywise and Anti-Flag. The Jerks put out a live concert DVD in connection with Kung-Fu Records live DVD series entitled, The Show Must Go Off! The DVD features amongst others them doing covers of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” and The Weirdo’s “Solitary Confinement.”
Some of the ex-members of The Circle Jerks journeyed far away from the hardcore mantra. Keith Clark formed his own tax return service and Lucky Lehrer became a lawyer. Bassist Roger Rogerson died of a drug overdose in 1996.