image: Steve Hopson

August 6, 2014
by John Gentile

Quick! Name four bands that Keith Morris has been in! 

“Four! Uh… uh… I’m not too good under pressure… Black Flag… Circle Jerks… uh… uh…. OFF! Uh…”

Time’s up!

“Hey, you didn’t tell me there was a time lim-“

That’s right! Few people know that for a short period of time, Keith Morris—hero, dreadlocked punk rock frontman/wildman, was in a secret, long lost band.* That band was called “Buglamp”… or sometimes, “Bug Lamp.”

Although long-buried sources cite that Buglamp existed from 1990 through 1993, it’s more likely the band had a much shorter life span. Sparked to life in the beginning of its existence, the band sputtered out before anyone really took notice—though they did grace the world with three very interesting recordings.

Buglamp originally formed in late 1990 or early 1991 at a time when Morris’ main band, the Circle Jerks, were slowing to a halt. Although the Jerks had lit the LA punk scene on fire, or perhaps, kept the fire blazing, in the early ‘80s with their wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am classics Group Sex, Wild in the Streets, and Golden Shower of Hits, by the late ’80s they was reeling. Guitarist Greg Hetson had joined Bad Religion a few years earlier in 1984, which Morris cites as a struggling point for the band. Meanwhile, bassist and newer Circle Jerk Zander Schloss was spending time in the studio with Joe Strummer, working on both the Walker score and Strummer’s post-Clash “comeback” album, Earthquake Weather.

And although the band’s trio of classic LPs are now considered punk rock canon, the Jerks were having troubling getting to the next level at the time. While Bad Religion, NOFX, and Green Day were, or soon would, rocket to international superstardom, the Jerks were stuck at being medium-level rockers, and frankly, had been for about five years.

On top of that, substance issues were plaguing the Circle Jerks, with Morris finally deciding to go clean in 1989, though other members continued to use in varying degrees. The result was a band that was unsure of where to go. So, with tension in the air, a lack of funds, and that next level of recognition seemingly perpetually out of their grasp, the Circle Jerks decided to hang it up (again.) Of course, the band had broken up multiple times before, but this one was sort of advertised as being “for real.” Around April 1991, Morris announced that the Circle Jerks would do two last shows and that would be that.

But at the same time, Keith Morris revealed a new band called Buglamp. For the group, Morris brought Bruce Duff onboard as bassist. Although the name “Bruce Duff” might not snag the recognition of names like “Mick Jones” or “Darby Crash,” the selection was actually a power play by Morris: Duff had been involved in the punk rock scene virtually since its genesis, and in fact even played in bands before punk “began.” After playing in art-rock group Numbers, Duff would go on to play in respected punk bands including Twisted Roots, 45 Grave, Cheetah Chrome, Jeff Dahl, and even make an appearance with Redd Kross. Also, around that time, Duff was working as publicist and day-to-day manager for XXX Records, having previously served as the first publicist for Epitaph Records and the Circle Jerks.

On guitar was Daniel Root. Root had experience of his own, having played with Tender Fury, and Rik L Rik, (of Negative Trend). After Buglamp, he would go on to the join the Adolescents.

The band debuted on April 11, 1991 at a venue called The Pub on the UC Santa Barbara campus. Prior to the gig, Morris announced that while a member or two wanted to play Circle Jerks tunes, the band was starting anew. In addition to some original material, the band was also going to cover Garland Jefferies and the Soft Boys. Interestingly, the Circle Jerks famously covered Garland Jeffreys with their famed take on “Wild in the Streets” and the Circle Jerks would cover the Soft Boys with “I Wanna Destroy You” on their 1995 comeback album Oddities, Abnormalities and Curiosities. (Equally interesting is that Morris would use this strategy again—new band packed with heavy hitters, no old songs—to much greater success with OFF! when the Circle Jerks again broke up over disputes with producer Dimitri Coats, who of course, would found OFF! with Morris.)

But in contrast to the success of OFF!, Buglamp was not a fiery explosion. The band never really caught on and eventually petered to a stop sometime in 1993, though interestingly, their end doesn’t seem to be the result of intra-band tension. In an interview sometime after the band’s demise, Bruce Duff lamented that “We had done excellent things with Bug Lamp, but no one cared. No one wanted to accept Keith as a rock singer, though he is really good. What a waste.” Even more surprisingly, this year, when asked if he could return to a particular point in his career, Morris stated, “Even more importantly, I’d go back and keep the original line up of Buglamp together. Buglamp’s last gig was crazy for me due to the fact that I was sandwiched in between two record company people who were offering me millions of dollars to the Keith Morris band! That wasn’t going to happen as I possess an ego, but not large enough to try something as ridiculous as that!” So Buglamp came and went with little notice. Though, they did manage to leave a mere three official recordings in their wake—two covers and one original. Rumors of other demos persist, but their existence has been unsubstantiated as of yet. Still, for a band that had little fanfare, their slim body of work is impressive.

The first Buglamp track released was a cover of Ramones’ “Sha-La-La (Howling at the Moon)” from the tribute album Gabba Gabba Hey, released by Duff’s employer, XXX Records. Although perhaps hampered by weak production, the track featured a new side of Morris. Prior to starting Buglamp, Morris usually flipped from being vocally pissed off to being a mischievous kid gone wild. But as he pulls from the gut like Joey Ramone, Morris does an admirable job of conveying the hopeful, but melancholy, spirit essential to the song. Really, it’s a side of Morris not seen before or since.

Following that, the band was given the closing track on the Roadside Prophets soundtrack, appearing alongside John Doe of X. The movie itself, produced by Doe, Ad Rock of the Beastie Boys, and Abbie Wool, also featured the Pogues, Ad Rock, and Exene Cervenka. “El Dorado” features the hard rock sound alluded to by Duff. As the band pounds out a mid-tempo, blues-based rocker, Morris snarls in his Circle Jerks style. As he snaps out lines about “the bossman’s daughter,” the classic Morris edge is applied to a smoother instrumental.

The last track to be released by Buglamp would be a massive, nearly 10 minute take on the Alice Cooper classic “Second Coming/Ballad of Dwight Frye” from XXX’s Welcome to Our Nightmare tribute. (The Flaming Lips, before they were The Flaming Lips, amusingly provide the follow-up song “Sun Arise.)”

The Buglamp version of the track really is a masterful take. Morris, like so few artists, is able to replicate Alice Cooper’s famed hooked voice that at once warbles and barks, emoting anger, fear, and insanity with the slightest tinge of his voice. Really, as Morris flickers from quiet dread to howling fury, he both reveals his true skill as a singer and why he’s lasted so long in punk rock. He also shows how much influence he takes from the Detroit hard rockers. Meanwhile, Duff and Root perform the not-so-easy task of conveying the power and intricacy of the famed Glen Buxton/Dennis Dunaway dynamic. They are at once proto-heavy metal, proto-gothic, and post-psychedelic. The heavy atmosphere of the early ‘70s is by no means easy to replicate, but not only do the players do it justice, they bring it to life.

It’s probably too much to say that Buglamp never should have ended or to demand a reunion. Morris is making some of his very best work with OFF! and Duff is working on fascinating projects with Circle and Cheetah Chrome, as well as his autobiography. But maybe that’s what makes Buglamp so interesting. It’s forever locked in a forgotten box, there for those who take the time to seek it out. As an artifact, it provides more background about these musicians than is suggested by “two cover songs and a soundtrack tune.”

Thanks to Keith Morris for granting us permission to stream these songs.

*“Hey John! Keith Morris was in a fifth band- Midget Handjob!”

Nice try, poindexter! But, I’m afraid that Midget Handjob was a “studio project.” So ha!