It’s no secret that most bands have a shelf life.
Between touring, greedy record labels, shady managers and clashing egos mixed with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, many groups tend to quickly implode. Doubly so for punk bands who, more often than not, live an anarchist life. Yet, through it all (and several implosions), formative Los Angeles hardcore act Circle Jerks are celebrating an impressive 44 years of intensity. On July 16 they’ll be at the Catalyst with fellow L.A. punk godfathers T.S.O.L and Detroit’s Negative Approach.
“If you would’ve told me back then that I’d be in my 60s playing in a seminal, top tier hardcore band for sold out crowds—more successful than ever—and that punk rock would be pervasive in all areas of culture worldwide—fashion, television, films—I would’ve said ‘You’re fucking crazy,’” bassist, Zander Schloss says.
“We were a bunch of outsiders; nobody wanted anything to do with us back then.”
Despite being outsiders, the band—and individual members—left a deep, boot-to-the-face impression on society making it impossible to talk about punk without them. Along with heavily influential albums like Group Sex, Wild in the Streets and Wonderful, the Circle Jerks appeared in not one, but two must-see movies for any rebellious teen: Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man (with Emilio Estevez and the late Harry Dean Stanton) along with Penelope Spheeris’ 1980s L.A. scene documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization.
Mainstream acts like Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers list them as influences. In fact, RHCP bassist, Flea, was in the Circle Jerks for a brief stint in the mid-80s. Even their logo, the “Skankin’ Kid,” was co-opted by punk supporters of Bernie Sanders in 2016 with the maverick congressman looking ready to destroy a circle pit.
“I love music,” says singer, Keith Morris. “I enjoy what I’m doing. I have the greatest job in the world.”
Circle Jerks formed in 1979 when Morris left another infamous hardcore founding group, Black Flag, and teamed up with guitarist Greg Hetson (who would later join Bad Religion). Throughout the decades they had some line-up changes, along with several break-ups and reunions. However, the core has primarily consisted of Morris, Hetson and Schloss, who joined the band in 1984. Schloss would later go on to score the Sid & Nancy soundtrack and often collaborated with punk legend Joe Strummer (see a theme?).
Today, hardcore is bigger than ever with new blood like Santa Cruz’s own Drain and Scowl (who the Circle Jerks have taken on tour) now in the spotlight. Baltimore’s Turnstile even broke the mainstream ceiling last year when they appeared on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Yet none of this could’ve happened without the Circle Jerks’ undying tenacity. They slam danced so today’s bands can stage dive.
Morris sees today’s scene having a similar excitement to the fledgling years of the 1980s but with some nuanced differences.
“It’s become more party-like. For a long time the mentality was, ‘I just want to fuck shit up. Let’s wreck this place so we don’t have a place to go to see these bands.’”
In 2019, they announced a 2020 reunion tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their debut album, Group Sex. Of course, that didn’t happen. However, in 2021 they hit the road with drummer Joey Castillo—whose rock pedigree includes Wasted Youth, Danzig and Queens of the Stone Age—and haven’t stopped since. Their sound is tighter and faster than ever, defying fans young and old not to maniacally mosh at shows.
Of course, touring in their 60s is not the same as touring in their 20s. Especially for a hardcore band that expels more energy on stage than many musicians half their age.
“It takes its toll, physically, as an older person,” explains Schloss. “That being said, if I have to rip my arm off to service the music—to give the crowd what they’re looking for, which is something sharp, intense and visceral—I’ll do it.”
So after four decades will the Circle Jerks expire anytime soon? Don’t count on it, even if they take another hiatus.
“As long as people are interested in showing up and seeing us, why not do it?” Morris says. “There’s no punk rock retirement fund or 401k.”
Circle Jerks with T.S.O.L. and Negative Approach perform Sunday, July 16. Doors 7pm, Show 8pm. The Catalyst, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $35 plus fees. Catalystclub.com