Sacred Cow Saturday: Circle Jerks – “Group Sex”

Punk rock has been around long enough  to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every other Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is the Circle Jerks‘ “Group Sex.” Does the 1980 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Dustin Gates will be defending and Carson Winter will be attacking.

Let the battle begin!

The Defense

One of punk rock’s biggest selling points, as far as the classics are concerned, is its relative simplicity. Short songs that are angry about everything and nothing at the same time are a staple of early punk rock records, and Group Sex is no exception. If anything, Group Sex is the epitome of that early age of punk rock: the fifteen minute runtime manages to squeeze in fourteen tracks and cover everything from hating the idea of growing up and wanting to die, to having mindless, drunken sex, and everything in between.

Admittedly, depth (both lyrically and musically) is not the Circle Jerks’ strongest suit, and that’s clear all throughout the band’s debut album. But depth isn’t something that punk rock was concerned about in its early days, and Group Sex exemplifies the “live fast, die young” spirit that so many young punks have been drawn to since the genre’s beginning. It’s that very spirit which keeps the appeal of the album alive, even thirty years after its release.

The Circle Jerks’ peers might have shown more musical diversity (Agent Orange’s surf-rock guitar based music, or Social Distortion’s country tendencies, for example), or lyrical prowess (both Jello Biafra’s political sarcasm and Ian MacKaye’s rallies for social justice were tough to live up to), but Keith Morris knew how to be pissed off, and he excelled at it. Give him any subject, and he found a way to get mad about it. With his signature shout, Morris was even able to turn a song about getting a vasectomy into an act of rebellion. What’s more punk than that?

Fueled by nothing but sheer anger toward life, and everything in it, Group Sex is the embodiment of the “angry at the world” spirit of 1980’s punk rock. Sure, their peers (and rivals) might have been more ground-breaking in taking the genre to new heights, but with Group Sex the Circle Jerks captured the innate anger that comes with just being human. It just might be that era of punk rock’s finest hour. Of course, that’s only if you listen to it four times in a row.

The Attack

Circle Jerks are a better band in theory than practice, and this is coming from someone who unabashedly loves OFF! and believes Keith Morris deserves every bit of his legacy. But, as far as hardcore punk goes, everything Circle Jerks does was done better by their contemporaries.

Group Sex sounds like hardcore punk genericized. While the rest of the scene was moving away from the mold almost immediately after it had been set, the Circle Jerks seem disappointingly content to play power chord progressions really fast and shout lyrical content filled with vague contempt. To some that represents punk at its best, but to me it’s just a disappointing lack of ambition. The worst part about punk rock is that it is so content to be mediocre, and then wave the Flag of Purity as some kind of virtue. Circle Jerks weren’t being defiant in their adherence to form, they were just being boring.

The album opens with “Deny Everything,” a loud and fast song built around a narrator claiming his innocence while maintaining he was framed. Yeah, and so what, you ask? I don’t know. The song doesn’t provide context for what is essentially an internal monologue leaving it completely meaningless. It’s a song written for nothing more than establishing an outlaw status and its lack of substance shows. “Beverly Hills” features the Circle Jerks’ attempt at social commentary with trite observations on commercialism and the superficiality present in Beverly Hills. “Beverly Hills, century city, everything’s so nice and pretty. All the people look the same, don’t they know they’re so damn lame?” Besides sounding like an alienated, but untalented teenager’s poetry homework, it only says the obvious; but worse still, when the second verse comes around, Morris reveals just how much thought he’s put into all of this by repeating his vapid observations in the exact same words.
Group Sex offers a minor redemption in its title track, which if you strain your eyes a little bit is a mockery of 80s-era hedonism. But, otherwise, this is as deep the Circle Jerks go. For some, that might be a thing to be admired– many have found punk rock’s appeal to be in the snarling, animalistic rage that informs the untrained shouts and simplistic musical arrangements. But, unfortunately, I’m not one of those, I prefer my defiance a little more refined. Admittedly, this is where the Circle Jerks and I are split. On Group Sex they aspire to be nothing more than furious, and they succeed. Group Sex fails me personally as a classic because it exists only as a photograph would, to capture a moment in time, when in my opinion it should work to transcend it.


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  1. 4/27/2013 1:38 PM | Permalink

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