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
* * *
"I felt that the blue album, for all that it is, didn't tell our story at all. It only told the second half of the story," says Tony now. "Everything that happened prior to that—'Black Sheep,' 'Growing Up Today'—all those songs were real powerful statements that we were making: 'Hey! We're alive! Hey, listen, we have something to say!'"
After their blackout conversation, Tony asked Rikk Agnew to start a new band; Rikk recommended his brother Frank instead. Frank had been listening to Iggy and the Stooges in between the Zeppelin, and he hauled in a drummer named Greg Williams—nicknamed "Peter Pan"—from school band. By then, Steve had left Agent Orange because Palm wouldn't include his songs in the set, and so with guitarist John O'Donovan, the early Adolescents began writing the songs that would make up the first round of demos—writing them on the phone because they were grounded.
"It was a pretty severe restriction," says Steve. "I was supposed to be at a church social, and I went and smoked pot and saw Apocalypse Now, and when I came home, my dad had called the place I was supposed to be, so he asked me where I was: 'Oh, Dad, I played Ping-Pong and went swimming, it was all really fun.' That got me like a month and a half. But it was a good time for the Adolescents—we got a lot done."
Steve had to ask for his own phone line for Christmas because he was talking to Tony so much, putting the receiver against his acoustic guitar in Fullerton as Tony listened carefully in Anaheim, fitting the music to lyrics he'd been writing while riding the county bus—like blue-album kick-off track "I Hate Children," born on the late-night telephone lines. Busy kids, says Tony, who adopted the stage name Tony Reflex: this was pre-Xerox, so they made fliers in print shop or arm bands in graphics art class, persuading Jello Biafra to wiggle into one at an LA show. Steve even made a custom TSOL shirt, "but, you know, for a grade," he says.
The first demo with Peter Pan and O'Donovan was recorded by Tony through a cannibal chain of tape decks, melted down to one final raw track in March 1980, just before the band's first show: after three months of rehearsal, the Adolescents had a muddy two-guitar sound and a heavy Germs influence, especially on Tony's pre-puberty vocals. ("People wanted to know why my vocals were different later," he says. The answer: "My voice changed.") But they were a young, cocky, driven band, with a built-in rivalry with Agent Orange: at the last minute, what would have been their first show at Costa Mesa's Cuckoo's Nest was canceled and handed to Agent Orange. Soto says he and Tony went roaring off and kidnapped drummer Greg from his shift at an A&W stand for a midnight rehearsal: "We were pissed!" he says. "Like, 'Screw them! We'll be so good no one can ever do this to us again!'"
And that took until about July.
By then, they had Eddie Joseph from OC band Eddie and the Subtitles as their manager and Rikk Agnew and friend Casey Royer on guitar and drums, respectively: "When they jumped in on it, it kind of moved us to a higher level," says Frank—modestly, since the difference between the two sets of demos is another in a set of drastic Adolescents opposites. A helpful illustration is on Complete Demos in back-to-back versions of "Wrecking Crew," a signature Adolescents song that goes from a comparatively polite and clean May 1980 version to a July monster—all the frills ripped off and all the drag sanded away, Casey hammering the band through a Ramones-y 4/4 beat to a hardcore West Coast TSOL-style tornado. This was a crucial change: Casey and Rikk's song "Amoeba" would break the Adolescents the same way "Bloodstains" broke Agent Orange. There was a balance there, between the guys who carved things into their arms and the guys whose parents helped them load their amps (that was actually both the Agnews): Cadena's desperate lyrics (and epileptic delivery) fit well with Casey and Rikk's blown-apart musicianship, but it wouldn't have worked without the foundation the Adolescents had already spent months putting together.
This is the classic era: like the Beatles after Pete Best, or the Velvet Underground after Angus MacLise, or the Sex Pistols after Glen Matlock. The Adolescents had graduated from playing half-legit lunchtime shows at local high schools (spray painting the words FIRST ADOLESCENT across Servite's baby Jesus) to headlining over Agent Orange at LA clubs (Steve was particularly proud of that). They had Slash Records (who did the Germs and X) and Posh Boy (who got Social Distortion) sniffing around for a deal, but Eddie pointed them toward Lisa Fancher's Frontier—and helpfully pocketed their entire record advance, says Steve. ("She'd given him a check," he says, "and he disappeared.") They played the Germs' last show ever, with Mrs. Agnew carrying on a nice, long conversation with singer Darby Crash backstage: "I wish my mom would come see our band play," he told her that night. "Well, I like your band, and I'll come see you play!" she said back. Four days later, Darby committed suicide, and, says Frank, his mother was devastated.
By the end of the summer of 1980, the Adolescents were almost too big for Orange County. They'd made a formal decision to quit playing the house parties they'd once frequented after a disastrous weekend in Garden Grove: one Friday night, some guys showed up during the first song and threw Tony into the drum kit, finishing that show early. One night later, the same guys showed up for the Adolescents' show two doors down—and found hundreds of angry punk kids waiting for them: "It turned into a huge brawl," says Tony. "The police were called out, and they had the helicopter, and everybody started fighting with the police. I got cut with a box cutter. It was nasty: baseball bats, broken glass, pretty gnarly."
They recorded the blue album in early 1981, almost exactly a year after their very first demo, taking a ridiculously brief two days, a testament to their intensity and proficiency—and their cockiness, since they didn't even feel like two days was a big deal. "Back then, you got in and got it done," says Steve. Tony says the engineer at Sun Valley's Perspective Sound laughed when he heard the vocal tracks; Tony immediately got into trouble the first night for shooting off a fire extinguisher in an on-site basketball court, and Steve forgot his bass and had to sweet-talk South Bay band the Circle Jerks into letting him borrow one. That now-famous blue cover was Tony's, something that looked like his old favorites Cheap Trick's typewritered name. The last night of recording was a school night.
The album came out just before the class of '81 graduated. Steve, who had transferred to more punk-friendly Troy High then (where the homecoming king was a football-playing punk rocker who skipped practice to see the Damned at the Cuckoo's Nest), says the girls at his favorite record store suddenly started asking him for music advice. Maybe that was the real peak—by the end of the summer, they'd shed members (losing Rikk and adding the Germs' Pat Smear, briefly) before a bitter breakup during preparations for a national tour. They'd never make it out of California: from start to finish, the first chapter of the Adolescents couldn't have lasted more than 20 months.
"One day, we were sitting in the garage plunkin' at chords, and then in the blink of an eye we made a record, we were playing shows in LA, and bang!" says Frank. "It was gone. Almost like a wild dream, is kind of how I see it."