Back From the Black Hole

If it wasnt for the Adolescents, your scene wouldnt be alive

Photo by James BunoanThe first time they ever talked was during a blackout, sitting by candlelight at a Mexican restaurant in Santa Ana called the Renaissance Cafe, waiting for somebody to pop and reset a circuit breaker so the bands could go back on: Tony Cadena, an undersized baby bird of a kid with dyed hair and ripped jeans, growing up on welfare in Anaheim, and Steve Soto, a heavyset, outgoing nice guy whose dad coached his Little League team in Fullerton. They had opposite looks and opposite lives; they could have sailed right past each other, but it was the end of 1979, and they were both tired of the Eagles on the radio.

Tony knew Steve as the bassist of Agent Orange; Steve knew Tony as the first guy he'd ever seen stage dive. "I'd see him at shows," says Steve now. "Really intense . . ." In what must have been a medieval sort of atmosphere, they plotted out what they thought music should be, says Tony: "Our voice should be heard," he says. "We should no longer be squashed like bugs. So we started talking about the possibility to make a little bit of noise."

This was the first five minutes of the Adolescents, the Orange County punk band whose 1981 self-titled "blue album"—as vital in their discography as the Beatles' white album or the Monks' black album—would score out a homegrown sound that's still going strong today, and a band that would form, write and record a local (and subcultural) classic and then fall apart just after its members finished their senior years of high school. But even though the first and best sprint of their career only lasted about 20 months, they were still the right band at the right time—young and bored and suburban when hundreds of young, bored, suburban kids were flooding into LA's waning first-wave punk scene. Rawer than Social Distortion and harder and faster than Agent Orange, the Adolescents captured best—in their membership and their music—the day-and-night character of the world around them: that opposites-in-harmony formula that Steve and Tony's friendship sort of established marked everything the Adolescents would do.

They were kids who played the high school talent show and kids who dropped out of high school, kids from broken families and kids from (not quite) Cleaver-esque homes. They had Beatles harmonies but played with Black Flag. They were young enough to (have to) be totally honest and old enough to really pound through the bottom of their songs.

Back then, singer Tony's lyrics might have seemed like bratty boasting: "If it wasn't for OC/Your scene wouldn't be alive," he sang. But in 2005—looking at every skater kid with a shiny ADOLE-SCENTS board, every late-model car with stickers cooking on the back window, even the first historical texts bobbing out of a 25-year hangover—his lyrics have become plain fact. If OC punk's still not dead, thank the Adolescents—who aren't dead themselves.

This year is the silver anniversary of the band, 25 years (and change) since high school juniors (or dropouts) Steve and Tony—who, at a chipmunky 4'11" was then waiting for his voice to change and his growth spurt to start—found 15-year-old guitarist Frank Agnew and decided to chase their older friends into the OC punk scene, setting up a frankensteined tape recorder in the Cadena garage to document it. But 2005 also delivers a new set of Adolescents opposites: the Complete Demos 1980-1986 CD, documenting the earliest unreleased recordings by the band, and the brand-new, all-new O.C. Confidential, which is the reunited Adolescents' first real full-length release since 1988. For fans, it's a strange chance to hear one of the county's best-known groups at both ends of their career: the Adolescents at age 17, before anybody knew who they were or what they would do, and the Adolescents at 42, when no one could have expected them to be doing anything at all. For the three founding Adolescents—now promoted to "original" Adolescents in a lineup that adds former Social Distortion drummer Derek O'Brien and guitarist Agnew's son Frank Jr., it's a chance to remember how they made it this far: "The [demos] are very pure, very innocent," laughs Agnew. "[They have] a charm you just kind of lose when you get better and older. You know: something is lost, but something is gained."

* * *

Each of the three founding Adolescents tells his own story about Orange County circa 1979. Steve is almost apologetic when he says there was "definitely love in our house." And Frank says he never had to worry about much: "We had a suburban house, a front yard, a back yard; we could ride our bikes down the street." They were all musical, even then: Steve found a McCartney-style Hofner bass soon after the Beatles lured him into learning an instrument, and Frank was playing guitar on Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" with his little brother Alfie at a talent show at Nicholas Junior High. Even Tony had his own project: an Optigan organ, an early synthesizer that sampled its sounds off giant proto-floppy discs, "a guitar and, like, pots and pans," he laughs. "I was like 12, 13. It was called Purple Haze—classic rock through Optigan and pots and pans."

But as Tony grew up, he spent more time in trouble—his stepdad was a sailor, and Tony says he lived in every Navy housing project there was, constantly the target of the established kids. By the time he got to high school, he was preparing to drop out and take a proficiency exam just for safety's sake: "Passing between classes was always bad—I got knocked unconscious once. I got in a fistfight right in front of the school once. I had an incident where they picked me and my desk up and flipped us over," he says. Punk's materializing popularity just gave his attackers a new word to yell: "For some period, hearing the word 'punk,' I would expect 'fag' and fists right after," he says. "I would flinch."

But he'd also take the bus from Anaheim to Huntington Beach to see the Crowd, one of the county's first wave of punk bands; there, the Edison High kids would get after him. "I couldn't win!" he says. For the young pre-Adolescents, a common love of "bridge bands" like Cheap Trick and Black Sabbath was mutating into something new. Tony had to beg a guy at a Beach Boulevard swap meet to sell him a Ramones LP for 50 cents ("He really thought he was taking advantage of me," he says), and Steve and Agent Orange guitarist Mike Palm managed to learn the Dead Boys' "Sonic Reducer" in the El Dorado High music room—despite the 20 guys around them staggering through "Freebird." The roll-call Beach Boulevard compilation came out in 1979, announcing new signs of life in Orange County—though not as effectively, perhaps, as the time Rikk Agnew (then playing with the Detours) burst in on younger brother Frank and buddy Derek O'Brien, practicing (again) Led Zeppelin songs in Frank's room.

"He came in with a yellow pillowcase over his head, doing a Robert Plant impression, and we started laughing: 'Okay, this is pretty silly!'" says Derek. "And then he took out a knife and started carving his name in his arm, blood everywhere, and we were so freaked out we just kept playing. Later on that night—I was afraid to leave, I just hung out and was really nice to him—he started turning us on to some really freaky music. The artier side of punk: Suicide, the Germs, early Devo. They were his picks at the time. And it was scary."

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