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Photo by Luke EchterlingSocial Distortion, one of the most prolific and influential groups in American underground-rock history, established the pop-punk template that more polished outfits such as Green Day and the Offspring would eventually convert into multiplatinum success. It later settled into a grizzled country-punk hybrid, best exemplified by its 1990 hit cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." The group celebrates its 25th birthday this year with a new studio album and a tour.
But even its most hardcore fans seldom remember that before Mike Ness, another front man briefly handled singing duties for the band.
And even fewer seem aware that today, Social D's original vocalist, Tom Corvin, is a mild-mannered TV reporter for ABC's Kansas City, Missouri, affiliate, KMBC Channel 9.
Corvin is one of the station's "live on the scene" correspondents, covering breaking news several nights a week. At six-foot-seven, the well-groomed guy in the impeccable suit who introduces his sound bites in a commanding tone brings to mind imposing ex-jock sportscasters, not death rockers.
Corvin has mentioned his punk past to a few broadcast buddies over the years, but he's done so less and less as the group has become more popular. "Primarily because I don't think people believed me," he says.
Some of his Channel 9 co-workers found out about a month ago—Corvin says he's not sure how—and a brief buzz resulted.
"For a couple of days, people were like, 'Dang, you were in a punk band,'" Corvin says. "Some of them actually know who Social Distortion is. It does give me a false sense of temporary pride, but I quickly remember that I had very little if anything to do with Mike's success."
In the driver's seat was Casey Royer, who popped a Cheap Trick cassette into the Pinto's player and asked Corvin to sing along. He tackled "Surrender," hitting the high notes with a versatile voice he'd developed in church choir. Royer said nothing after the song ended. He just started the car and drove to his parents' house. An hour later, the band's other members—a bassist known only as Mark and a 16-year-old guitarist named Mike Ness—gathered in Royer's bedroom. He had the job.
Luckily, he had plenty of time on his hands. A bench-riding scrub on the Cal State Fullerton basketball team that made a surprise run in the 1978 NCAA tournament, Corvin was cut to make room for the incoming hotshot recruits who suddenly became interested in the squad. He had agreed to try out for the band after Royer, a cafeteria worker at the athlete-heavy apartment complex where Corvin lived, asked him.
This embryonic incarnation of Social Distortion played covers, mimicking Van Halen, David Bowie and the Cars. But after a few months, Social Distortion composed its first original songs, with Ness crafting the guitar riffs and Royer penning most of the lyrics. Social Distortion practiced in an industrial-park storage facility with a pull-down metal door. It shared the space with a group called the Strand, which was already playing club concerts and recording its material. In an effort to impress both the Strand and his Social Distortion band mates, Corvin took his first stab at solo songwriting, bringing a tune called "Sid Is Dead" to practice soon after the death of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. Corvin says he can't remember any of the lyrics, but he recalls the song's reception.
"Frederick, the singer of the Strand, took the paper from me and read it out loud," Corvin says. "I remember the polite silence afterward and how someone set a beer can on my crumpled lyric sheet before our practice ended."
Though he had become a popular sports columnist for Fullerton's student paper on his way to obtaining an undergraduate degree in journalism, the ex-athlete's writing didn't impress his punk peers. From then on, he was content to contribute a few scattered lines to Royer's creations. Many of the tunes from that lineup didn't last beyond the band's early gigs; the crowds for those house parties sometimes numbered in the single digits and topped out at an all-time high of 300. However, Corvin's Social Distortion did produce one instantly catchy number, on which he helped write the lyrics. "This amoeba's got a mind of its own/But don't turn your back, you stupid science world," Corvin howled on "Amoeba," which became a regional radio hit for the Adolescents, Royer's next band.
After Corvin left the group in the fall of 1979, Social Distortion kept the musical foundation but changed the lyrics. Released as "1945," the Ness-revised version replaced "ahhh-meee-bahhh" with "Atom bomb/ TNT/New disease/Poor city."
In the October 1980 issue of Flipside, Ness explained the switch. "Our singer [Tommy Corbin, as the zine incorrectly identifies him] and drummer would write the songs, but the songs didn't mean anything. They wrote a song about an amoeba, a little fuckin' stupid little cell."
Although Ness later disparaged Corvin's contributions, the two seldom sparred as band mates, mostly because Ness had not yet become the type of punk purist who would bristle at Corvin's swim-trunks-and-flip-flops wardrobe.