History Lesson: Keith Morris and the Circle Jerks

The Circle Jerks were one of the original Los Angeles punk bands and their influence on  music has been monumental.  Formed in 1979 by ex-Black Flag singer Keith Morris and guitarist Greg Hetson, their attack on the musical norm and the politics of culture had a ferocity unmatched by virtually any current “punk” band.  As Simon Reynolds said in an interview I did with him, punk was defined by bands that perhaps lacked virtuosity and pushed their own limits, driven by their own passion and anger.  This was not a fashion statement, it was a group of people speaking out in the only way they could.
They appeared in the seminal film, “The Decline of Western Civilization” in the mid-80’s.  Along with bands like X, Black Flag, The Germs and others, it was middle America’s first exposure to punk.  The film was a huge influence on me and thus the opportunity to interview their leader, Keith Morris was a rare privilege.

TDOA: Can you comment on the direction punk rock has taken since the early 80’s?  Did you ever envision a world where Blink-182 or My Chemical Romance (blech)would be considered “punk rock”?

KM: Yeah I don’t buy into a lot of this new pre-fabricated, boy band, cute is what we aim for red jumpsuit whatever garbage out there.I will say that that drummer from Blink 182 is very good & I saw My Chemical Romance before they signed w/Warner Bros. & there was a great vibe & their performance was nuts.I’ve seen a lot of these bands as the Circle Jerks get asked to play a few shows on the Warped Tour every year & they’re all pretty much a giant clump of musical nothing.  Plus I don’t listen to very much punk rock as I worked for V2 records & I pay attention to stuff like The Shins, New Pornographers, Animal Collective, Grandaddy, The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, Guided By Voices, Cobra Verde, Silversun Pickups, Neon, Sic Alps, Strange Boys, Darker My Love & the list goes on & on………..?

TDOA: Decline of Western Civilization changed my life when it came out.  During the process of being filmed for the movie, how did you react to the way Penelope Spheeris approached the band?  Did you like the finished product?

KM: The Decline of Western Civilization also changed the CJ’s lives as the film gave people in other places the chance to see/hear what was goin’ on in L.A. @ that time & opened doors that might have never been opened.  The whole process was amazing as Penelope was not only a fan of the CJs but also a fan of Keith Morris.  She asked me if she could film Black Flag w/me as the vocalist & of course when I approached Greg Ginn about this he laughed in my face.  I ended up putting together the concert where she filmed Fear, The Alice Bag Band & us.  The Gun Club, Gears & Urinals were also part of this show but were left out of the film.  Many people to this day complain about the fact that the Weirdos, Plugz, Screamers, Deadbeats, Dickies & few others were left out but ultimately that was Penelope’s decision.

TDOA: The movie didn’t talk about the relationship between the bands that were featured.  Did you hang out with the folks in X, The Germs or anyone else?  Any good Darby Crash stories?

KM: I tried to invite myself to as many parties as possible!  I hung out w/Exene & John from X, Derf Scratch the bassist of Fear, the guys from the Adolescents, TSOL, Social Distortion, Plugz, Tomata Du Plenty the vocalist of the Screamers and a whole small army of others. My favorite Darby story is not much of a story……we were hanging out w/Melissa in Manhattan Beach drinking & listening to music & he decided that I needed a “Germs Burn” that is a lit cigarette placed on the upper wrist which makes me a member of their army.  He was also a fan of Black Flag.
TDOA: As someone who remembers seeing Pat Smear play with The Germs, it was surreal to see him play shows with Nirvana?  How did you feel watching him in that situation?

KM: PROUD!It was excellent seeing Pat play in Nirvana ’cause he’s a great guitar player & deserved to be able & go out & play!  I can’t say the same for the Foo Fighters as I’m not a fan in the least bit.  Dave Grohl was bananas in Nirvana, but it’s the typical ”guy in back wantsta’ be the guy in front” situation & he’s doin’ really well & I’m happy for him but I think they suck!  At least they’re better than Blink-182.

TDOA: 25 years later, there’s still limited access for people to hear punk rock music.  Does that frustrate you (shouldn’t you be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by now?) or do you enjoy being part of a very special, smaller “club”?

KM: Well when we started we didn’t think it was gonna’ last this long & we had no map or blueprint as to what was gonna’ happen.  I’m not frustrated in the least bit as it’s all what it is!  We were presented w/an opportunity & we took advantage of as much of it as we could.  The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is for all the rock stars out there……not for me!  I enjoy the fact that I’m recognized by a few people & not that popular which allows me a freedom that some of these other characters can’t enjoy.  I can walk down Sunset or Hollywood Blvd. & peeps honk or say hi & that’s totally cool & I enjoy this but I like to leave it @ that.

TDOA: What role do The Circle Jerks play in current music in your mind?  What do you aspire to do?

KM: Well we’ve inspired bands & musicians as far reaching as the Black Crowes, Ryan Adams, Los Lobos, King Kahn & the Shrines, The Bronx, The Thermals & Mudhoney to Turbonegro, The Boredoms & The Queens of the Stone Age.  I’m writing lyrics & songs for a new CJs recording, a story for a movie, gettin’ ready to do some foreign touring & trying to survive.

TDOA: You recently played some overseas shows.  Where did you go and who did you play with?

KM: We played 4 shows in South America……Santigo, Chile, Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo & Porto Alegre in Brazil.  The shows were crazy,well attended & a TOTAL BLAST!  I wouldn’t hesitate to go back down there!  We played w/local bands of varying quality &  fan bases.  The one’s I paid attention to were actually worthy of being able to play events like the SXSW!

TDOA: What are you listening to these days?

KM: In addition to the bands I listed before, add Alice Cooper, Procol Harum, UFO, X, MC5, Blue Oyster Cult, Be Your Own Pet, Sonic Youth, Turbo Fruits, Clouds, Captain Beyond, Gris Gris, Willowz, War Tapes, Mint Chicks, Drones, Black Mountain, Roxy Music, Burning Brides, Humble Pie, Beatles, Damned, Who, Crystal Stilts, Robert Pollard,  Wooden Ships, Entrance, Sparklehorse, Fifty Tons of Black Terror, Monkees,  just to name a few…

TDOA: I interviewed Randy from No Age on Wednesday.  I offer every band we interview an opportunity to ask a question of someone we’re interviewing in the near future.  He was psyched to ask you a question: “Other than yourself, who was your favorite Black Flag singer?”

KM: First off I get totally wiped out by No Age as i’m into their tunes, D.I.Y. attitude when they can just set up & play,the fact that they’re part of a group of bands that remind me of the late 70’s Southern Calif punk scene & both the kooks are great characters.  As for the other Black Flag front guys I never had the opportunity to see Dezzo &  I only saw Ron “Chavo Pederast” Reyes a coupla’ times including the filming of the BF live segment for “The Decline of Western Civilization” & as much as I loved Ron I always found him to attach a bit of drama to the performances & he was better as the drummer for Red Kross.  I saw the Flag w/Henry @ the Olympic Auditorium & was completely unimpressed.  The next time I  saw them was a  way different scenario……..onna’ Sunday afternoon @ the Cathay De Grande w/the Bangles & I was CRUSHED!  BF were unbelieveably AWESOME!  I walked away in tears asking myself why I quit.It was one of the greatest rock performances i’d ever witnessed!

I would challenge you to find any band (let alone punk) formed prior to 2000 who’s lead singer can name check The Germs, Guided By Voices, Crystal Stilts and Darker My Love in the same interview.  In our continuing discussion regarding music’s relevence as you grow older, Keith Morris weighs in as a heavyweight, still listening, staying touch and growing musically.  All Hail Keith Morris!

…for those of you wondering if a band formed in 1979 can still bring it.  Here’s the Jerks from 2004.


~ by toddc2001 on April 1, 2009.

One Response to “History Lesson: Keith Morris and the Circle Jerks”

  1. Wicked Interview…I’ve kinda faded away from punk in the past few years, like he mentioned but when I hear this old school stuff with actual soul, I realize why I got into “sweetass” tunes to begin with..

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