Suddenly In Vogue

The Middle Class may have been the most influential band youve never heard of

"We used to hang out with Darby Crash," Mike Atta recalls, "and one of the first times we met him, he said, 'Here, let me give you some Germs Burns.' We asked what that was, and he said it was cigarette burns to our forearms. We said, 'But that would hurt.' He gave us this weird look and looked out for us after that."

Eventually, just about every kid within the scene would go from pogoing in front of the stage one week to being onstage thrashing guitars the next. After catching shows by the Bags and the Weirdos, Jeff figured he could put a band together that could do no worse. Mike already had the good gear, Patton could fit his fingers around the neck of a bass, and Jeff, well, despite being awfully shy for a front man, he could yell on cue. One day while the band rattled the paint cans in the Attas' Santa Ana garage, then-15-year-old Bruce Atta noticed their then-drummer sucked. So he took up the drums, and the band eventually gave the other guy the Pete Best treatment.

"The interesting thing about our band is we all learned to play together," Mike Atta says. "All the chords that I played in the band I found out later did have names."

That didn't matter much at the time, and by 1978, they were playing in LA, although neither brother can remember where exactly their first show was; they were supposed to join the Zeroes at the Anaheim club now known as Cowboy Boogie, but that show fell through. All they know is it wasn't at the two places they would later frequent, Mullen's Masque or the Larchmont Hotel, which hosted their second show, with the Avengers.

Wherever it was, the Middle Class sound was distinctly different.

"We never tried to emulate anyone," Mike says. "We were not a New York Dolls-inspired band; the Pistols were Dolls-influenced. And we were never a blues-based band; X and Social Distortion still remain blues-based. The Middle Class? I don't know what it was based on. We didn't understand those concepts as a band."

But the main difference was the speed. "In our minds, we were playing as fast as the Ramones," Mike says.

But to listeners, the musicians sounded like they were playing eight times faster than most other punk bands, with Jeff's desolate wail giving the music a Germanic feel. Mike says one thing he did pick up from the Ramones was the downstroke playing of their guitars, as opposed to the traditional way of coming back up to strum the strings. "I think it just morphed into that speed we were playing. We never consciously said, 'Let's just be the fastest band on the planet.'"

Jeff has an alternative explanation: "I think we were just so nervous we wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible."

"We were hopped-up on Dr. Pepper," Mike adds. "And a 15-year-old virgin drummer has a lot of energy."

Fullerton bands like the Adolescents and Agent Orange started making some noise as well, followed shortly thereafter by Social Distortion. Even though the Middle Class originally came from Santa Ana, they were classified as part of the burgeoning Fullerton scene.

"We never knew there was anyone else in Orange County doing this," Jeff says. "We all moved to Fullerton after we found out there were other bands. In 1979, when all these bands came out of Orange County, it was as big a surprise to us as anyone."

In an e-mail, Mullen is defensive about the Middle Class' place in SoCal punk history. He writes, "The Middle Class is Exhibit A in the case for affirming that openly suburban teen bands like the Zeros (San Diego County), F-Word (Covina) and the Middle Class (Orange County), young bands not pre-fabbed and controlled by Kim Fowley and Rodney Bingenheimer; non-fashion bands who didn't dress or look the part of archetypal Britpunkers, were in fact very much included in the earlier 'Hollywood' punk scene. I say this because I feel strongly that the old scene that coalesced around the Masque has been falsely stereotyped by a famously documented South Bay hardcore band with a revisionist agenda who has repeatedly dissed us geezers as elitist and exclusionary to bands simply because they came from the 'burbs . . . or didn't 'look the part' of fashionista punks."

He's talking, of course, about Black Flag, who despite being from Hermosa Beach got lumped together with TSOL, the Crowd and other bands to be branded "Huntington Beach surf punks" who introduced violence to a punk scene started by gays, misfits, art students and gay misfit art students. Jocks and skinheads started showing up to punk shows for no other reason but to slam the slam dancers.

And then God created the mosh pit.

* * *

Sometime in 1979, X singer/songwriter and LA punk high priestess Exene Cervenka took the boys of the Middle Class aside and asked them why they were playing so fast.

A year later, kids were yelling at Middle Class to play faster.

March 17, 1979, was a turning point for the band and the LA punk scene. A benefit for the Masque was held that night across the street at the Elks Lodge. After X and the Go-Go's started the show, the cops poured in and, as Mike says, "started cracking heads."

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