By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
12. Fu Manchu
It's easy to dismiss Fu Manchu as San Clemente's answer to That '70s Show, since the music they make is a sound seemingly designed to fire up a zillion bongs. Brand them "stoner rock" if you must, but they're really just a great, honest, blue-collar metal band—graduates of the Sabbath school of eardrum bleeding, with songs about pool skating, surfing, El Caminos, Mongoose BMX bikes, the beach, driving around, Dogtown, UFOs and vans (both the Chevy and slip-on shoe variety). Our fave burned-in Fu memory? A record store set in Austin, Texas—when they blasted out "Hell on Wheels," the tympanic crunch was so ungodly brutal that it loosened years-old dust clumps in the store's ceiling fans. Another 15 minutes, and the windows would've gone, too. When a band has the raw aural power to perform free janitorial services, how can you not be impressed?
13. Vinnie James
Sucks that he's all but forgotten now, but Huntington Beach's Vinnie James made one amazing album for RCA Records in 1991, All American Boy, a positively Springsteenian work that reached for Big Themes. Take the lead track, "Freedom Cried," a head-bobbin' tune about the U.S. sociopolitical system waking up to its mistakes of the past: "I remember the red man, he was proud and free/Down through the years, he's been a really good friend to me/I let him sell me almost everything he had/Then I just took the rest when times got really bad." Other songs touched on race, homelessness and war, all put to a crunching rock & roll soundtrack with celeb session folks like Kenny Aronoff, Al Kooper and Waddy Wachtel. But RCA, as major labels do, dropped the ball, and All American Boy depressingly went nowhere. Last we heard, James (who first made a dent in the OC scene as a member of Rumbletown) had weirdly changed his name to Masada, and then disappeared. We just hope to god he's not living under a bridge someplace.
Instagon isn't a band—it's a rite of passage, a force of nature, even an audio demon, says founder Lob (as a chaos magician in good standing, you'd doubt him at your peril), and since its conception in 1993, Instagon has ground through literally hundreds of members in even more live improv performances, hacking out a sound that really is almost sentient. Lob and his bass may be at the center of the Instagon monster, but the music can come from anywhere—it's been a neo-primitive tribal jam, Miles Davis drafted into Flipper, Black Sabbath jamming with Sun Ra—and anyone, coalescing anew at each gig out of whatever musicians (a vibrator counts as a musical instrument, right?) Lob summons up, including members of Sublime, the Adolescents and OC Weekly. They're one of Orange County's cultural institutions: if you haven't been in Instagon, you simply haven't been.
Let's be clear: when we say "TSOL," we mean the fabled Jack Grisham-fronted version, the band that composed punk classics like "Abolish Government," "Superficial Love," and everyone's favorite ode to necrophilia, "Code Blue." We mean the TSOL. that were by far the most popular OC punk band when OC punk first broke—at their peak, the band was selling out the Hollywood Palladium. Let's be even more clear: we do not mean the vomitous, late-'80s, Joe Wood-fronted hairspray metal bastardization of TSOL. (the thought still makes us shudder). But it's a very good thing that Grisham, one of the funniest, most outrageous personalities the OC scene has ever produced—g'wan, ask him about the time he carved FUCK CUSTOMERS into his arm while working at the hardware store—re-formed the punkier rendition of the band a few years ago. Otherwise, history might've remembered it quite differently.
16. Junior Watson
Just to make this simple: Junior Watson is the world's greatest living blues guitarist, and he's better than most of the dead ones, too. Most other players treat the blues either as a hallowed ritual to be recited at rote or as a Kleenex for their over-amped 19,000-note ego-wanks. Watson just makes it his own. He has an encyclopedic grasp of blues styles, but he burns the book nightly, instead playing a borderless brand of blues defined only by his ebullient personality and boundless musical invention. He's been splendid for decades, with the Mighty Flyers, Canned Heat, Kim Wilson, Charlie Musselwhite, and on his own, but he's never been as good as he is right now.
17. The Cadillac Tramps
Of all the pre-Offspring-era OC bands that should've made it huge, the Cadillac Tramps for a time looked to be the one. They had a big following (evidenced by the neat fact that they had to be billed under a fake name once when they played Linda's Doll Hut) and music that threw together Social D-influenced punk energy with impressive pop, blues, rockabilly and soul instincts. At their 1993-94 peak, they were opening Canadian shows for Pearl Jam and playing South By Southwest, seemingly on their way to becoming mega. And then they broke up, partially because their several Dr. Dream albums never sold the numbers they deserved to have, partially because of internal drug problems. During their absence, a lot of really lame Tramps clone bands sprouted up in the county, a testament to their influence. But when they reunited in 1999 (they still play sporadic shows), all those lesser bands mysteriously vanished, obviously fearing how ridiculous they'd look next to the true originals.