I think that writing and music (specifically lyrics) have certain similarities, the most notable of which is the tendency to write what you know and feel right now and not being able to take that step back and consider that, “man, what I’m thinking/feeling right now would make a great piece of art… but boy, I’ll bet I’ll be able to express it even better a little bit down the road when I’m more mature and better at my craft.” I think this contributes to the “such-and-such band’s debut release was so awesome, but their later stuff sucks” syndrome. The truth is they had lifetime of experiences to draw from on that first record, and now there’s a much smaller pool of new experiences, or old ones that weren’t powerful enough to make the cut the first time, to use on the follow-up. This also contributes in a way to the dreaded “recovery album,” the one that follows the musician’s trip to rehab when he/she is full of powerful new experiences… all of which are tied to their stint in rehab and the resultant self-reflection.
What does any of this have to do with the Circle Jerks’ second album, 1982s Wild in the Streets? Well, listening to it this morning got me thinking about punk rock as protest music, which got me thinking about other types of protest music, which got me thinking “hey, that would be a good blog post,” which got me thinking, “dude, you probably shouldn’t do a whole thing on protest music as part of a Circle Jerks post but save it for something bigger and better when you can spend more time on it.” But screw that. This is a blog, not a research paper. If you see a footnote on Life in the Vinyl Lane it’s probably a rant about Jethro Tull or something.
There will be some overgeneralization here, and your mileage may vary. But here it goes.
Popular music has, for a very long time, been a way for the up-and-coming young generation to rebel against “the man,” which is a loosely organized group of people like parents, the government, cops, teachers, and anyone who says “back when I was your age…” Hell, rock ‘n’ roll itself WAS protest music back in the 1950s, with it’s swiveling hips and ability to reach across racial lines. You can even go back further and look at things like swing and the “flapper” movement. So the early rock of the 1950s was the protest of the World War II-era babies protesting against society.
Probably the most famous musical protest movement was the late mid-1960s to mid-1970s, for lack of a better term the “hippie culture.” If the 1950s rebellion was more about music and movement, the next wave was about the message. The early rebellion was about just trying to break free, the latter about actually believing you could make a change in the world. Bob Dylan, CSNY, Buffalo Springfield… there was an idealistic dream of escaping the mire of the atomic age and Vietnam (or Algeria if you were French… or the Franco regime if you were Spanish… or the Berlin Wall if you were in West Germany… or hosting a NATO base full of Americans if you were in Iceland…it goes on and on). But that idealism bled to death slowly, and eventually most of those hippies ended up doing a lot of the same things their parents had done – got jobs, bought houses and cars, raised families, and destroyed their economies.
Which brought us to punk rock. Which was not only a rebellion against society, but perhaps just as much so against “the hippies,” who you hear referred to often in early punk interviews. The hippie rebellion was idealistic. The punk rebellion was nihilistic. (♠) I think some of the disdain the punks held towards the hippies was simply because the hippies though they could change society, whereas the punks had what was, at least to them, a more realistic view of their place in the social order. They were outside of it, pure and simple. From punk we moved on to hip hop, and then later possibly grunge, which was a lot like punk but even less idealistic (and in more flannel).
Wake up tomorrow, do it again.
Get so fed up
With your fucking scams.
Chewed my fingernails to the bone.
Get off my back,
Just leave me alone!
— “Leave Me Alone,” Circle Jerks
The Circle Jerks were one of the earliest Los Angeles punk bands. They’re all over the place in the seminal punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, with their high-intesity early hardcore style and look. Even their name is a big “screw you” to authority, as are the names of some of their albums like Group Sex and Golden Shower of Hits, which were sure to offend most of society. But that was exactly the point. They knew how they were viewed, and they were giving it right back.
The songs on Wild in the Streets are about alienation, crappy jobs, and people telling you what to do. While the music and message is hardcore, it’s early enough in the movement that there’s still a strong emphasis on keeping the vocals up front in the mix and singing clearly to get the message across. The songs are quick bursts – the longest clocks in at a mere 2:35, and 10 of the 15 tracks are under two minutes.
In many ways Wild in the Streets is the perfect example of early 1980s LA punk. The bands is musically tight, the message is clear, and the anger is right on the surface. No subtlety, just in your face punk rock. Accept no substitutes.
(♠) This is of course a massive oversimplification. There were nihilistic elements to punk, but there were absolutely some pro-active undercurrents – vegetarianism, animal rights, women’s rights, straight edge, etc. It was really about wanting to be left alone to live your life your way, not a complete rejection of hope… though there was certainly a recognition that their dream was unlikely to become a reality.