Circle Jerks – Group Sex

At this point, six years after the band that Keith Morris, Steven McDonald, Dimitri Coats and Mario Rubalcaba started took off (ahem – no pun intended) and brought hardcore punk into a much brighter and broader spotlight before a much larger audience, the history of where OFF came from and the circumstances which got them started have been well-documented. It is already a matter of public record, for example, that OFF was formed after Burning Brides guitarist Dimitri Coats was tapped to produce a new Circle Jerks album, and co-wrote sixteen songs with Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris toward that end. It is also a matter of public record that Circle Jerks guitarist Greg Hetson, bassist Roger Rogerson and drummer Lucky Lehrer rejected those songs. Finally, it is no secret that Morris quit Circle Jerks and recorded the songs he’d written with Coats for an album which would be called First Four EPs.

The First Four EPs was a great success for OFF and proved to be the launching point for a great new band, while the members of Circle Jerks were left behind, sucking on sour grapes. Because of that, one has to wonder what inspired Hetson, Rogerson and Lehrer to reject the songs – did they feel that they just weren’t at the right level for Circle Jerks? That perhaps they’d moved beyond the punk rock of that stripe (which seems very plausible, given that Hetson has Bad Religion obligations to maintain, and the single that Lehrer released last year and Rogerson produced for him is more folk rock than anything)? The only way to hope and ascertain what the problem that the other bandmembers may have had with songs like “Black Thoughts,” “Upside Down (for which Hetson did get a co-writing credit on First Four EPs),” “Poison City” and “Fuck People” is to dig back into Circle Jerks’ catalogue and see if finding anything is passably comparable.

Such a search doesn’t take long – one need only look to Circle Jerks’ debut album, Group Sex, to get a sense of where the genetic code for First Four EPs first germinated.

To this day, regardless of everything that may have come along since, listeners will need to actively try to remember to inhale when “Deny Everything” crashes to life at the opening of Group Sex‘s A-side; it won’t knock the wind out of them, it’ll just shock them so hard  that remembering the basic human mechanics for life will take a second. There, Keith Morris spits and bellows like a man possessed through lines like “Innocent until I’m proven guilty/ Deny everything, deny everything/ I’m being framed, it’s all a set-up/ Deny everything deny everything” and really locks into a perfect rage with “I’m just a spoke in the wheel, just a part of the puzzle/ A Part of the game, I’m being framed,” but the greatest deviation from what was the punk rock norm at the time of the recording is the sound which backs him. There, the band assembles and unleashes a perfect storm of guitar, bass and drums that is thick and blasts through at a breakneck pace but, somehow, manages to be so well-articulated that every note and movement is perfectly defined in spite of its shockingly short, 33-second run-time.

“Deny Everything” is the meticulous definition of who and what Circle Jerks are all about. It is the blueprint for what Circle Jerks were doing at the beginning of their career and would spearhead a style that many other bands (including – but certainly not limited to Descendents, Vandals, Adolescents and NOFX) would find fame with, after they put their own stamp on it; but a single song does not an album make. In fact, “Deny Everything” is a strong start, but it is by no stretch the strongest on the A-side of Group Sex. After “I Just Want Some Skank” epitomizes young lust and anger simultaneously, “Beverly Hills” spits on the popular image that the rest of North America has to the glamorous ‘burgh (check out the methodical disgust in Mossis’ voice through lines like “Beverly Hills, Century City – everything’s so nice and pretty/ All the people look the same/ Don’t they know they’re so damned lame?”) and really sums up the viewpoint that West coast punk held in the Eighties before “Operation” kneecaps the concepts of young lust and capricious youth by promoting vasectomies in song, “Back Against The Wall” offers the fatalist response to acts of teen angst (like graffiti, destruction of property, et c. – and cites the fact that the cops are always around the corner to arrest for them) and “Wasted” almost comes off as apologetic for all the dumb and senseless junk that the character in the song used to pull (“I was a hippie, I was a burnout/ I was a dropout, You know I was out of my head” and that’s only the beginning). None of this stuff sounds like the work of young men trying to hold up the punk banner, but the unflinching, unwavering belief in Keith Morris’ presentation here certainly sounds like a new form both of punk as well as patrons of it.

…And the best part? The music loses precisely no steam when Group Sex‘s A-side exhausts itself and the record needs flipping – the B-side picks up at exactly the level “Behind The Door” left off. “World Up My Ass” is the perfect illustration of how much First Four EPs was intended to be a “back to basics” release for Circle Jerks. Here, Keith Morris sounds so pissed off that he might be frothing at the mouth as he hisses and seethes, “Society is burning me up/ Take a bite, spit it out/ Take their rules/Rip ’em up, tear ’em down” and it’s very exciting but, even better, it actually sounds like a genuine pre-cursor to songs like “Black Thoughts,” “Upside Down,” “Fuck People” and Full Of Shit” from OFF!’s First Four EPs; in fact an argument could easily be made that the difference between the authoritative voice on Group Sex and the one on OFF!’s first album is about thirty years – the character in the song has aged, but the voice is the same.

The obvious and unavoidable comparisons to possible subjects and similarities between what’s on Group Sex and current events and characters in the twenty-first century continue through “Paid Vacation.” There, backed by a lean and very skate-ready sounding instrumental performance, Morris proves that his convictions and opinions remain the same (who isn’t totally dismayed by lines like “I hope you’re having fun/Where’s your uniform? Where’s your gun?/ Better rub up that suntan oil/ Cause you’ll be fighting in the desert/ It’s not Vietnam/ Just another oil company scam/Salute the flag for Uncle Sam/ Get your money out, place your bets, it’s Afghanistan” and how they mirror sentiments post-9/11?) as they would be decades later before putting a slightly new spin on a very old chestnut (“Live Fast, Die Young” is, in many ways, as old or older than James Dean), getting perfectly confrontational (“What’s Your Problem?” – the title says it all) and then damning the political torpedos one more time with “Red Tape” (see lines like “Red tape, I can see, can’t you see?/ Red tape, doin’ to/ you and doin’ to me/ Red tape bureaucracies and bourgeoisie/ Red tape, killing you, killing me” for some vintage complaint punk) to close both the side and the album. Here (more so than on the A-side), Circle Jerks prove their mettle as an intelligent punk band more than most of their peers because they follow no handbook for punk songwriting and have the brass to link very classic ideas of rebellion with events which were current in 1980, but (either by luck or design – it’s hard to tell) also manage to remain pertinent in the twenty-first century; it’s pretty incredible.

“So, with so many similarities to present day evident, what could have possessed Circle Jerks to turn down the songs which ended up appearing on OFF!’s First Four EPs,” you ask? Good fucking question reader – but there doesn’t appear to be any good answer. There’s no denying that the songs which would appear on the First Four EPs would have made excellent echoes of the songs on Group Sex if Circle Jerks had taken the opportunity. Perhaps a member of the band will come forward someday and explain what happened in that regard but, until then, listeners can just enjoy Group Sex and thank their lucky stars that the members of OFF! didn’t just let the songs they had remain unrecorded.

(Frontier, 1980)

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Bill Adams

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.