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 Do you find it remarkable that such a low-budget film has become such an important historical document?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.”