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“Greg Ginn and I, when we started Black Flag [in 1976; the band were actually called Panic for the first two years], we were actually clueless,” says Keith Morris. He speaks with an ease that gets more intense the more he expounds. “We didn’t know that we were inventing anything.”
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Black Flag ignited the first round of what would come to be called West Coast punk. There is no question their music—a fiery slow dance of metallic guitar and abrupt meter changes—was an inspiration for punks to follow. But it was their collective business hustle that got the ball rolling for punk back in 1976. Since punk gigs were virtually nonexistent then, Morris and his band mates would organize venues and book shows and paper LA with fliers designed by their first bassist, Raymond Pettibon (also Ginn’s brother). In time, Pettibon’s art would make him almost as famous as the band.
Black Flag had a fluid lineup over the lifetime of the band, especially when it came to bass and drums. “It was a big party,” Morris says. “We never consciously knew what we had going on until much later.”
Singers came and went, too. When Morris left the group in 1979, Henry Rollins stepped in on vocals. Morris then hooked up with Redd Kross guitarist Greg Hetson (who later joined Bad Religion) to start the Circle Jerks—widely acknowledged as one of the most influential hardcore bands.
The Circle Jerks came into their own during the early 1980s, an era of musical expansiveness in LA. It was a time when the punk revival was in full swing, but live shows featured an unlikely smorgasbord of styles and musicians. Any combination of the likes of the Blasters, X, Dwight Yoakam, the Weirdos and the Zeros could end up playing the same bill. “I loved that period of time,” Morris says. “That was an insanely brilliant and magical period of music here in Southern California.”
That epoch of musical benevolence combined with garage rock informs Morris’ new project, OFF! “I’m a fan of the British Invasion, and I’m a fan of what I would consider to be garage rock, like the Seeds and Love, even though they were folksy. If that’s part of the inspiration and that’s part of what’s coming out in our music, I wholeheartedly welcome that.”
OFF! are Morris; drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt); guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides); and Steve McDonald, who plays bass in both OFF! and Redd Kross. The band came to be in 2009 because, according to Morris, things were no longer working out with the Circle Jerks.
“It was like we were in a vehicle going 55, and they just hit the brakes. It got ridiculous. Being at the age that I am [55 years old], in a soul-searching moment, I decided I didn’t need to be around any negativity, didn’t need to be around people who were making horrendous decisions that affected me.”
The songs Morris and Coats were writing for the Circle Jerks ended up being recorded by OFF! There are plans to release them as a box set of EPs. “The other guys decided, for one reason or another, that they weren’t going to participate,” Morris says, “so we went with plan B. Plan B was OFF!” And Morris is okay with that. “I’ve never been happier; I’ve never been busier in a band.”
That said, OFF! haven’t toured or played out much, a situation not unlike that of Morris’ first band. “We never left LA,” Morris says of Black Flag. “We played San Francisco a couple of times, but that was the extent of our touring.” Morris says OFF! will schedule shows, and then break in February so one of the members can take some paternity leave. “There are no deadbeat dads in this band,” he declares. Then, it’s back on the road; they might also play festivals in Germany and Norway.
Perhaps Morris is thinking about his former band (for the record, he has indicated the Jerks are only on hiatus) when he says, “I’m at an age where I’m not gonna get to do this much longer, and there are places I wanna go.”
In the meantime, he says, he’s writing a book. Working title? “How to Chew Gum and Cross the Street at the Same Time,” he says, laughing.
OFF! perform at the FYF Christmas Party with No Age, Soft Pack and more at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; theglasshouse.us, and Aladdin Jr., 3161 N. Garey Ave., Pomona, (909) 593-3887; aladdinjrrestaurant.com. Sat., 7 p.m. $12. All ages. They will also perform in support of the release of a box set of their first four EPs at the Sex, 816 S. Santa Fe St., Los Angeles. Dec. 17, 8 p.m. Free. All ages.
This article appeared in print as "Crusty Punk: Circle Jerks’ Keith Morris goes on about how OFF! came to be."
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