Friday, December 09, 2011
In the past week, I have witnessed the American hardcore punk rock band Off! not once, but twice. They lit a fire under my ass and made me want to dance. Well, I would've danced, except the slam pit looked like a match to the death and I got all scared. My brother partook and has the bung knee and bruises to prove it. Fuck that, I'll just tap my feet. They've got an ace 16-track CD on the Vice label, of all people, which compiles their four 7" EPs (which is also available as a handsome 7" box complete w/ Pettibon art. They rip out a mean, lean, short, fast & loud punk rock which sounds like the last 30 years ceased to exist. It's part Germs, part Adolescents and part Nervous Breakdown sped up to breaking point. It ain't nothing new, that's a given, but does it give me a blast? You bet. A truly good sound never ages, and Off! are to be given credit for being a real band: a fearsome foursome who aren't just living off past glories, but emitting a sound which, dumb as this may sound, is also totally fresh. Would I care for them if not for their pedigree? Likely not, but I never said I was consistent. Ginn probably thinks Morris is a first-rate retrograde asshole for being in a band like Off!, but I'll ask you this: what would you rather listen to, Off! or the last 20+ years of Ginn recordings? I thought so.
Anyway, let's speak of one of the bands from whence they came, namely the Circle Jerks (I've written about Redd Kross before, but may do it again in the future). Off! are made up of Keith Morris, Steve McDonald, Dimitri Coats and Mario Rubalcaba. The latter two have done time in bands such as Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Earthless and Burning Brides, bands who mean little to me and hence I won't be wasting your or my time tackling their respective output and where it fits within the musical universe. No disrespect to either - Mario is a mean and wild skin-hitter and Dimitri slashes out a cool Ginn/Ashton-style guitar - but I've never even heard the Burning Brides, Hot Snakes or Earthless (who toured here not too long ago and whom I heard good reports of), and haven't listened to RFTC since I lost a cassette a friend made for me of their early singles back in about 1993 (though I recall liking some of the tunes). So on w/ the show it is...
The Circle Jerks' '80s discography is a wildly uneven beast, though one I can claim great sentimental attachment to. Along w/ the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, they were the first US HC band I claimed fandom for all those years ago (1986, to be exact. What, you missed the silver jubilee party?). High on the fumes of the Repo Man soundtrack, I went out and bought their debut, Group Sex (1980) and 1985's Wonderful in one hit. More on the latter soon. The debut is absolutely one of thee classics slabs of SoCal punk rock destruction. It's duration is a mere 15 minutes, but it packs more twists & turns, lyrical barbs and ge-u-ine musical invention within its quarter hour than most punkers packed into their complete discographies (actually, most of which didn't go beyond a mere 7", but the point has been made). Along w/ the likes of (GI), Damaged and Adolescents, it remains my fave piece of fast-paced LA mayhem from the period. But I'm getting ahead of myself here.... you know the CJ story, correct? Formed by Keith Morris once he was booted from the 'Flag in '79, along w/ Greg Hetson, fresh from Red Cross, bassist Roger Rogerson and sticksman, Lucky Lehrer. They hit the scene quick - supergroup that they were - and made a big splash in the suburban HC market within months of their debut. Sure, they ripped off some tunes from 'Flag and the 'Cross, but musical thievery is what makes the world spin on its axis. You can see footage of 'em here from Decline Of Western Civilisation: during their peak years they were a white-hot unit. Bozo punk-thrash w/ a beer-clutching singer at the helm, though they could pen some hot riffage (I'm thinking of tunes like "Beverly Hills", "Back Against The Wall", "World Up My Ass", "Red Tape" et al), though they never went down the life is pain/I want to be insane world of heaviness & gloom that the 'Flag fellows travelled down. I love that path, too, though the 'Jerks could be kinda dumb and almost, err, "funny" w/out merely being a precursor to Doggy Style. Got me? Group Sex was a huge indie hit for the Frontier label and helped keep a roof over their heads until Suicidal Tendencies hit paydirt a coupla years later.
The band switched labels for '82's Wild In The Streets. The edition I have - an old LP from the '80s - is on Step-Forward Records, some fly-by-night mob whom I know nothing about (the band had an old-school rock & roll manager, so who knows what production/label team he hooked 'em up with). Some subsequent reissues have been put out through Frontier (even via Epitaph at one stage), so who the fuck knows who owns the rights to this one. When I said the 'Jerks were uneven, I wasn't lying. WITS is still a great platter, but it sounds like it's under-rehearsed, sloppily produced and mixed out the ass. The title track is a mover (a Garland Jeffreys cover, in fact), and having just listened to it for the first time in a number of years, there's a bunch of tracks I'll equally vouch for ("Murder The Disturbed", "86'd", "Political Stu"), though there's something about it which doesn't quite make up the greatness of the debut. Subsequent reissues have been re-mixed and -mastered, so maybe they give it an edge the original version lacks. The material's there, but the production and execution doesn't always hit the mark. Still, for '82 punker action, this one's a keeper.
1983's Golden Shower Of Hits is a bit of a clunker. It was the last to feature Rogerson & Lehrer (he's apparently a successful attorney these days; down here we call 'em lawyers), and was released yet again on a different label: Allegiance. You know 'em? Me neither. That may explain why it's never been reissued. Or if it has, I've never seen it nor heard of it. Or maybe it remains out of print simply because it isn't that good. It's got some turkeys ("Junk Mail"... an anti-junk mail song? Sounds like they're reaching), and a good half of it simply sounds uninspired, but it's not a total write-off: "Rats Of Reality", "Product Of My Environment" and the tunes featured on Repo Man, "Coup D'Etat" and a reconfigured "When The Shit Hits The Fan" are hot, and the title track, a medley of schlock by the likes Karen Carpenter, The Association, Paul Anka and The Captain & Tenille is pretty, err, "funny" (tune's good, too). Some of GSOH is strictly punk-by-numbers autopilot material, though, and for me it's my least fave disc of theirs.
Another record, another label. 1985's Wonderful is where, pardon the pun, the shit hit the fan. Folks loved or loathed this. W/ a new rhythm section (featuring actor Zander Schloss on bass) in tow, the band made a direct stab at the hard rock/metal market... sort of. Released on Combat Core (the "punk" sub-label of metal empire, Combat), the production gives it that big, "rock" sound, Greg Hetson grew his hair out to Boltonesque proportions and there's no doubt this was the band trying to hit the big time. This rousing endorsement aside, I dig this a lot. Call me a sentimental old fool - that may just be the sole reason I do like it - but it's got some strong material, and despite the concessions made to the HM market with the production and slightly slower, more accessible material, there's righteousness buried within its grooves. I thought "heavy metal" (as it was known and recognised in the '80s) was a genre filled w/ total bogusness throughout my teens years (it still mostly is, but I'll tackle that non-issue at a later date), but Wonderful keeps things pretty simple and upbeat throughout. If anything, it's really a sell-out to "rock" - just plain, old simple "rock" - and that's not such a bad thing to dabble in, huh? It's got a lot of great tunes: the title track, "Making The Bombs", "Dude", "Karma Stew", "Rock House", "I & I", et al and nary a clunker in sight (even the party anthem, "Heavy Metal Weekend", has its charms). If you're hearing Wonderful for the first time in the year 2012, it may register a big, fat zero to yer ears; as a semi-mersh punk/rock album made in '85 and heard by these ears in '86, it still manages to weave a manner of half-arsed magic throughout my senses.
I bought 1987's VI upon the week of its release. Again, there's another label change, this time to megacorp indie, Relativity (a fake independent label/distro owned by Sony, whom I believe also owned Combat), and the back cover shot of the band had 'em looking like the years hadn't been kind to them: Morris looked like he'd crawled out of the sewer and Hetson was beginning to resemble an audition for the part of either Barry Manilow or Peter Frampton in a musical. I remember the review by Tim Yohannon at the time in Maximum Rock & Roll: he actually liked it. No more mersh HM flirtations, no tuneless thrash: just four-to-the-floor punk 'n' rock 'n' roll. Or something to that effect. A few folks thought this was a "return to form" after the disaster of Wonderful, something I disagree w/ for a couple of reasons, them namely being that Wonderful is a better record than this, and indeed it's a better record than its predecessor, but hey! VI is still a worthy addition to the CJ's canon of song, so to speak. It's got a rippin' cover of Creedence's "Fortunate Son" as well as blazing originals like "I'm Alive", "Living", "All Wound Up" and "I Don't", the production is still slick though contains enough rust to power the songs, and lyrically it's got a more personal angle, detailing Morris's degenerate lifestyle at the time (he cleaned up years ago). All in all, a worthy way to see out the band before they called it quits for many a year and Hetson made a comfortable living playing w/ the mega-successful yet shit-boring Bad Religion.
If you could divide up the 'Jerks' '80s discography, it's into two distinct camps: the classic early SoCal punk in Group Sex and Wild In The Streets and the big-league rock & roll of the latter two. Golden Shower Of Hits stands in no-man's land, being a record I would deem as being too full of mediocrity to rate much of a mention beyond the mandatory collection-filler. Like I said, it's a wildly uneven affair, but stacking 'em all up to each other and spinning in succession will have it make sense, and put the weaker material into a better light and perspective. And what the fuck, Keith Morris is a fuggin' icon in my book, one of the original smart-arsed suburban dweebs partly responsible for the creation of the glorious music form of the original hardcore punk seed, and for that we should all be eternally grateful. He talked his ass off between songs at the Off! shows, and I was happy to hear that slacker, Californian drawl all night. He's the real fuckin' deal, pal. Below is a great clip: the short-lived line-up featuring Chuck Biscuits on skins, whacking furiously as the band tore through a few songs from Golden Shower... (which sound much better in a live context) at what appears to be a pro telecast taking place in a medium-sized arena. Anyone know the story behind this?