Keith Morris: “We didn’t consider Black Flag to be a punk rock band – we were just loud and abrasive”

Black Flag and Circle Jerks legend Keith Morris reflects on a life in punk – from the volatile Southern Californian scene to the Decline Of Western Civilization and beyond.

Keith Morris: “We didn’t consider Black Flag to be a punk rock band – we were just loud and abrasive”
Ian Winwood
Dimitri Coats

When Keith Morris sang the words 'I was so wasted', first with Black Flag and then with Circle Jerks, he didn’t sound like a young man who had plans for living a long life. Back then, at the turn of the ’80s, this firebrand of the Southern Californian punk rock scene was “so jacked up” that he just “couldn’t get any higher than that”. Live fast, die young, et cetera et cetera.

Now into his fourth decade of sobriety, in the 21st century Keith is just one of a legion of Angelinos and citizens of Orange County – Bad Religion, Social Distortion, Descendents and X are also among this number – who have made it their business to prove that punk is no longer strictly a younger person’s game. As well as being the singer in the somewhat recently reunited Circle Jerks – who this week return to the UK for the first time in 35 years – the 66-year-old also fronts the groups OFF! and FLAG. With his distinctly strident vocal style resonating across the decades, he is both a key architect and a keeper of the flame of a movement that continues to prosper and endure.

Kerrang! caught up with Keith in his hotel room in Ashville, North Carolina, to get the skinny on a life in punk.

How did punk rock make its way into your life?
“There was a record shop that I would hang out in occasionally, and they had a box of singles on the counter. I remember purchasing Patti Smith’s Pissing In A River, I bought The Damned’s Neat Neat Neat. But where we’re talking about these albums, Patti Smith goes back further than The Damned, and she doesn’t even go back far enough to catch up with her husband’s band, the MC5 – she was married to Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith – or Iggy & The Stooges, who I would consider to be some of the early punk rock bands. If we look at the overall scenario… there’s footage of Elvis dressed really nice, which could be in a roundabout way a 'fuck-you punk rock youth-vs.-authority' from people who didn’t want to be like their parents. Rock’n’roll has always had an element of punk rock. That’s what rock’n’roll is about.”

You made your bones as the singer in Black Flag. Did you imagine that people would still be asking you about that band more than four decades later?
“Black Flag was the first band I was in. When we were doing what we were doing, we didn’t really consider ourselves to be a punk rock band. We were just loud and abrasive. It was us against the world. It was us against the authority figures. It was us against all of the people that lived in our community that wanted to hear the Doobie Brothers, wanted to hear Fleetwood Mac with Stevie Nicks, wanted to hear Elton John – the list goes on. Now I’m not taking a swipe at any of those bands, because they’re all of their place in time. Some of them are really good, some of them are screw that crap. But we didn’t have an agenda. We didn’t have anybody telling us what to do if we wanted to become successful; we just weren’t worried about any of that. We just wanted to play, and we would play anywhere, any time, for anybody. Whether it be a party in a backyard that was [for] our high school football team and the cheerleaders, the surfers and the druggies, and the dudes that slept under the Hermosa Pier – we’d play it. Sometimes biker gangs would pull up and have their area in the backyard where it’s just all of them and their bikes. And we’d start playing and the whole place would erupt into a brawl… We would play on a Friday or Saturday night, knowing that we could get away with what we were doing until 10pm, and then the cops would put the clamp down.”

The punk scene in Southern California at that time was remarkably fertile. In time, though, it became violent. How problematic was that for you as a performer?
“Well, it eventually became both clique-ish and violent, neither of which I was cool with. To go back to Black Flag, we just wanted to play. That’s all we were interested in. That other stuff got in the way of that, and so of course we resented it.”

After leaving Black Flag, you formed Circle Jerks. What do you remember about the making of the band’s classic debut, Group Sex?
“We were flying by the seat of our pants. With the Circle Jerks, it was the same thing I’d said about Black Flag. When we didn’t really have anything to do that day, the recording of Group Sex was basically us sitting by our telephones waiting for the [recording studio] to call us and say, ‘Hey, we have two hours starting at five. Get here for then and we can start recording.’ Or, ‘We don’t have any time today but we know that tomorrow you can start at three in the afternoon and maybe we can work ’til six or seven.’ So it was just piece by piece. We never had a week of time to go in there or anything like that. I remember one day sitting in my house down in Inglewood and Greg [Hetson, guitarist] was with me because he had the pickup truck that would carry our gear that was stored in my garage. So we were sitting patiently by the phone. ‘Hey Greg, why don’t you go grab us a couple of cheeseburgers and I’ll wait for the phone call?’ And that call might not happen, or it could happen at seven o’clock at night… So it was very patchwork. We had no control over the situation. We didn’t have any money. In fact, part of the deal was that a friend of Lucky’s [Lehrer, drummer] gave us a bag of obnoxious smelling skunk weed marijuana to hand over to the studio.”

Along with Germs, X, Fear, Black Flag and more, in 1981 Circle Jerks were immortalised in the Penelope Spheeris film The Decline Of Western Civilization. Do you find it remarkable that such a low-budget film has become such an important historical document?
“Well, I had run across Penelope in a parking lot. I’m walking to my car and all of a sudden I hear a woman screaming at me, ‘Keith! Keith! Over here, Keith!’ And she’s waving, and I look back and see her. And so I go running back over to where she’s at and we start having a discussion in which she says, ‘I’m making a documentary and I would like for you to be in the documentary. I would like to film Black Flag with you as the vocalist.’ At the time, I didn’t realise the importance of what she was doing. She said, ‘I need to have you in the documentary.’ I guess she liked everything that I did, but by then I was a member of the Circle Jerks. I’d already quit Black Flag. But because she wanted Black Flag to be in the movie, with me as the vocalist, she gave me the Herculean task to go back to the guys in Black Flag and say, ‘Penelope Spheeris wants to film us for her documentary.’ And they couldn’t show me the door quick enough. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass. They were laughing so hard that it was not even a conversation. But I knew what the outcome was going to be. So I went back to Penelope and I said, ‘They hate my guts. They will not have anything to do with me.’”

To which she said?
“To which she said, ‘I still have some bands that I want to film. Will you help me out with this?’ And so I helped put together the show at the Fleetwood in King Harbor in Redondo Beach, which is part of the South Bay… I helped put together that show with the Gun Club, The Urinals, The Gears, the Circle Jerks, Alice Bag and Fear. She ended up shooting Fear, Alice Bag, the Circle Jerks – I think there’s a little bit of footage of The Gears – but when the documentary came out there were a lot of bands that were complaining. ‘Why weren’t the Weirdos in the documentary? Why weren’t the Plugz in the documentary?’ But you can’t have them all. It was [Penelope's] decision to make. Nobody was going to make it for her. And she was paying for all of this film, all of this celluloid, out of her own pockets. She was renting the cameras. So it was very much a big hurdle for her.”

Did the film open doors for you?
“It did. What was great about The Decline Of Western Civilization for the Circle Jerks was that it solved the problem of us having run out of places to play in Los Angeles. We’d done our weekend trips to San Francisco. We’d done a handful of trips to Arizona. It was time to get out and act like a touring band, and see what was out there beyond the California border. After the Decline Of Western Civilization came out we had promoters all across America asking us if we’d like to come and play their club. We ended up doing about two weeks of dates on the East coast, and that was a blast. We played Irving Plaza in New York with the Stimulators and the Necros, and that was great; we played with Minor Threat in Washington, D.C. at the 9:30 Club.

"We also played with a band from the UK, in Philadelphia. It was the club’s opening night, a Sunday night – I don’t know why they decided to open their club on a Sunday night rather than a Friday or Saturday – but, anyway, we played with The Stranglers. Hugh Cornwell was a really, really great guy; you won’t meet a nicer guy than him. But they played some rock star shit, too. One of the older guys in the band wouldn’t play unless he had Perrier water. Now, in Philadelphia on a Sunday, all of the markets and liquor stores, anywhere you’re gonna buy adult beverages or carbonated beverages, everything was closed. It was a dry state. So somebody had to drive to New Jersey… which set their set back by about an hour and a half, so the promoter was kind of bummed. But, anyway, The Decline… for us really worked as a business card.”

Three years later, the Circle Jerks appeared in Alex Cox’s cult masterpiece Repo Man. Clearly you liked being movie stars.
“Alex loved all of the bands that were on that movie’s soundtrack [which features Fear, Black Flag, Suicidal Tendencies, Circle Jerks and more], which is a great soundtrack. We got called to be a part of it, I think maybe a couple of days before they were shooting. And I remember that they wanted us to show up at about 10 in the morning. Now, we’re big on the party scene, so we’re constantly carrying around hangovers and headaches, having not bathed for two or three days, all of that kind of stuff. We’re in the middle of summer, and we’re called in to be there at 10am, and our scene, in which we’re an acoustic band playing in a bar, requires us to wear fitted tuxedos. I think it was probably about 11:30, maybe noon, when all four of us had been fitted, and we had turned to the people who had put in the time to customise these tuxedos, to ask if we could take them off. No, we can’t, ’cause they’ll come undone and the needles will fall out and we’ll have to go through all this all over again and we can’t really do that. So we’re stuck in these tuxedos in the middle of summer. Then we were pointed towards the trailer that was supposed to be our room during the day, just to hang out in. So we went to the trailer and discovered there was no air conditioning, so it was like a scene out The Great Escape [where] we’d been put in the sweatbox that gets freezing cold and night and blazing hot in the day. Then, one of us got the brilliant idea that we need something to drink, because we’re hungover. We need to keep the party going. So we went to the people that supply all of the drinks, or all of the snacks, and all of the goodies that are available for everybody, and we asked if they had any beer, to which they replied, ‘We’ve been told that beer is the last thing you get. So, no, we don’t have any beer for you.’ And we were just miserable because we didn’t film our nightclub scene where Otto [played by Emilio Estevez] says ‘I used to like these guys’ until two in the morning. Another 12 hours of waiting!”

And people think there’s a lot of waiting around in rock’n’roll!
“Speaking of movies, my other band OFF! has just finished our movie… basically we have two videos coming out that act as trailers for the movie. We have a new record coming out in September.”

Circle Jerks last came to the UK in 1987 for your first British concerts. What were your impressions of our little island?
“My initial thoughts about England from the first time I was there was that I didn’t have a good time. I didn’t enjoy myself. I found it kind of gritty, very working-class, and it was grey. The skies were grey the entire time I was there. It was cold. But since then, every time I’ve been back to England, I’ve had a blast. I’ve loved it.”

And now, at last, you’re coming back as a Circle Jerk. And only two years later than originally planned!
“When we come over we’re only playing 12 or 14 shows, when in fact we could have spent at least a week in Germany alone. We’re not taking advantage of the opportunity… Normally the mentality is that you go to Europe and you play as many shows as you can while you’re there because you’re probably not going to be able to go back for quite a while. I’ve been twice with OFF! and I’ve been to Europe once with FLAG, and each time it’s been a major blast.”

And this forthcoming tour?
“I am seriously looking forward to our European tour. I’m upset that it’s not more dates, and I’m upset that we’re not playing more festivals because some of those European festivals are nuts. But the U.S. tour we’re on right now has been solid, it’s been gold. And I’m really looking forward to having the same experience over in England.”

Circle Jerks will play Rebellion festival in Blackpool from August 4-7

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?