Singer Keith Morris, who left Black Flag after appearing on its debut single, formed the Circle Jerks with ex-Redd Kross guitarist Greg Hetson in Los Angeles in 1980. Fast, loud and loose, the Jerks became one of the region’s most popular and durable slam bands. Immortalized on celluloid in The Decline of Western Civilization punk documentary, the Circle Jerks found vinyl success (via the film soundtrack and their own releases) later. Typically crude and undisciplined, despite occasional offbeat choices of material (Wild in the Streets contains a hyper remake of Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”), these Jerks managed to become a live success; their shows generate some of the most intense slam-dancing and stage-diving anywhere. (In 1988, Frontier remixed and reissued Wild in the Streets, appending Group Sex to the CD.)
With a joyously tasteless urinal cover photo, Golden Shower of Hits offers a new batch of tuneless kinetic guitar rock, built around the funnier-in-concept-than- execution “Jerks on 45” medley, which dismembers a number of well-known wimp classics, including “Along Comes Mary,” “Afternoon Delight,” “Having My Baby” and “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Joined by a new rhythm section, Morris and Hetson cut Wönderful, a tepid self-produced imitation of a punk record by a band that, while bearing a passing resemblance to the Dictators, sounds old, tired and bored. Amazingly, the identical lineup is also responsible for VI, a far better high-burn collection (which really sounds like the Dictators) that gets off to a great start with “Beat Me Senseless” and continues from there, going so far as to strip down and speed up Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” for a fun cover. After eight years, the self-aware Circle Jerks have a sharp focus; the charged-up enthusiasm is tempered by a sense of musical responsibility. Some of the songs suck but, in general, VI is cogent, powerful and thoughtful — punk the old-fashioned way.
The quartet — which, by Wönderful, had come to include Zander Schloss on bass and Keith Clark on drums — ran out of gas in the late ’80s, however, and its members moved onto other enterprises. Morris passed along what he knew to the Hangmen (whom he managed) and worked behind the scenes with other bands as well. Hetson joined Bad Religion. Schloss collaborated with Joe Strummer on a number of projects, joined Thelonious Monster briefly and formed the Low & Sweet Orchestra, which has come to include actor Dermot Mulroney and a member of the Pogues. But the Circle Jerks never officially disbanded — a fact loudly confirmed in 1992 on a raging and rude live album. Recorded at shows in California and Mexico, Gig rips up the floorboards with 22 doses of essential Jerkdom, including “When the Shit Hits the Fan,” “Wild in the Streets,” “Beat Me Senseless” and “Coup d’Etat.” Sure it’s fifteen years too late, but the quartet plays ’em like it means ’em, and the hot sound (courtesy producer Paul du Gré) does justice to the spirited performances.
That blast across the world’s bow was followed by the group’s first studio album in eight years. Oddities Abnormalities and Curiosities finds Morris, Hetson, Schloss and Clark slashing away enthusiastically at songs that have teenage energy and adult lyrics. Striking a Peter Pan pose, at least they don’t pretend to be anything they’re not — namely, young kids. (Ironically, Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wanna Destroy You,” with guest vocals by notorious raver Debbie Gibson and L7’s Suzi Gardner, is the only song with real punk conviction.) Producer Niko Bolas keeps the sound loose and raunchy, and the band lands somewhere between post-Rotten Pistols and mid-’70s Stones, making the better-than-fair album more of a mature second start than a continuation of the Circle Jerks’ original slouching bratcore.