Circle Jerks – Wonderful

Easily the most underrated hardcore band since the genre’s inception in the early Eighties has been the Circle Jerks. The reason that claim is so easy to make is that, pound-for-pound and album-for-album, they broke a surprising amount of ground that a lot of bands would tread upon (and make a lot more money from) later. When the band first appeared with Group Sex in 1980, singer Keith Morris, guitarist Greg Hetson, bassist Roger Rogerson and drummer Lucky Lehrer basically laid out a perfectly complete blueprint for an entire community of punk and hardcore bands to follow (including the members of OFF!, when Morris would take them back to that ground in 2010). Just two years later, the band would only augment their format slightly, but would end up drawing the parameters for skate punk (the document would be called Wild In The Streets) before totally going off the rails for Golden Shower of Hits. Undaunted, Circle Jerks would end up restructuring themselves and forming the blueprint for the poppy, hardcore/skate hybrid that every SoCal bad would make hay with from Pennywise to Green Day to Offspring (and more) from 1991 to 1997 – except that the Circle Jerks would make their spectacular document in 1985.

That album was, very simply, ahead of its time in 1985 – and it was Wonderful.

…And not only that, it starts out wonderfully from note one. As soon as the title track from Wonderful sears out to open the A-side of the album, the differences between it and everything which preceded it are obvious and spectacular. Right away, the gang vocals which line the choruses feel simultaneously poppy and ravingly sarcastic, the polish applied to Greg Hetson’s guitar feels intended to win fans and the new rhythm section of Zander Schloss and Keith Clark (installed when Rogerson and Lehrer were fired during the sessions which yielded Golden Shower) feels more geared to what would eventually be regarded as pop structure – particularly during the cowbell bridge.

Those changes are significant for their time (pop dynamics and song length? In a hardcore song in 1985?), but they’re not alone. At two minutes and seventeen seconds in length, “Wonderful” is almost twice as long as every track on Group Sex. Simply said, while it shouldn’t feel like it
should make much difference in the grand scheme of things, the presentation of “Wonderful” that Circle Jerks use to open this album makes it feel like a totally different kind of record in both sound and structure.

The difference first represented in “Wonderful” endures throughout the rest of Wonderful, with results ranging from excellent to wholly questionable, in retrospect. “Firebaugh,” for example,

ties a more petulant stomp or trot to the song where once it would just have aimed for a land-speed record (as every cut did on Group Sex) while “Making The Bombs” angles toward a leaner style similar to that of Public Image Limited. Further along in the A-side, “Mrs. Jones”sees a bad couple discuss/argue about domesticity with a rhythm figure which comes surprisingly close to that of “Ballroom Blitz” while “Dude” sticks it to suburban culture (doesn’t the chorus of, “Dude, you’re a joke!” about say it all?) before “American Heavy Metal Weekend” attempts to do the same thing to both metal and concert festival cultures to close the side with
slightly less success – if only because it’s just too much of an “okay” thing. As it turns out, punks and skaters making fun of everything in the world that isn’t them works best in small, single- song doses; lining up a few in succession is a little tedious, as Circle Jerks prove, here.

To its credit, the B-side of Wonderful manages to keep the levels of its energy up with a fair bit of wit to go with it – although the side isn’t without its flaws too. “I, I and I” opens the running with some social discourse which (again) comes a little too close to something John Lydon would
write for its own good while “Killing For Jesus” factors a little too much metal and religious criticism (neither of which makes for a terribly good punk rock song) into its running for anyone’s comfort. In fact, when Circle Jerks just stick to their strengths – speedy guitar lines, petulant lyric
sheets and short songs which play through a progression of “in, out and done” (which cuts like “The Crowd,” “Karma Stew” and “Rock House” all have in spades), the album shines brightest. When the band deviates from that progression though (as they do with the obnoxiously long “15
Minutes” and side-closer “Another Broken Heart for Snake” – which features a children’s’ chorus, a small string section and a fucking grand piano), all bets are off and it becomes difficult to not hope that the album will be on to the next thing soon. That feels problematic – when one
realizes that the band wouldn’t have a whole lot left in them (VI was critically applauded when it mixed metal and punk in 1987 but really hasn’t aged well, and Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities’ greatest achievement is that is that it was the first, and only, Circle Jerks album
released on a major label – in 1995 when EVERYONE was getting a deal) – but that doesn’t make it any less true.

“So, is it good that this album got reissued?” Well, yes of course – this album represents a great (if unintentional) stepping stone in the evolution of punk rock. It was the progenitor of the sound that would ultimately put punk rock at every dining room table in the Nineties, and that’s pretty
significant, in any language. “Was it a great album for Circle Jerks?” No, not really. In hindsight, it’s pretty self-evident that trouble was on the horizon for Circle Jerks as early as the release of Wonderful, and they would end up limping along pitifully after this release until death was FINALLY called in 2009 when the songs that Keith Morris wrote for another Circle Jerks album
were rejected by the other band members and ultimately became the material which appears on The First Four EPs by OFF!. In that sense, Wonderful isn’t a bad album at all – but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mark a significant decline and unfortunate turn for the band who made it.

Bill Adams

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