The first time Mike Ness got onstage in front of a crowd in 1979 at Marina del Rey Skatepark, he'd hardly sung a note for anyone other than his band mates. There were maybe 50 people in the crowd. The concept of becoming one of the biggest punk bands in Orange County, let alone the world, was unfathomable. Three decades and several lineup changes later, his band are running through sold-out shows faster than broken guitar strings. Between December and late January, Social Distortion are playing 24 shows at West Coast House of Blues venues, including nine in Anaheim. Tickets for most shows were gone almost instantly. Not bad for a band who struggled to fill house parties in their native Fullerton back in the day.
Their blend of punk, rockabilly, country, Americana and classic rock has appealed to fans beyond their initial punk following. At any given show, you're likely to find a mix of old-school punks, jocks, bikers and vice-squad cops, which can be attributed to the cross-cultural appeal of Social Distortion's music. They have, by most accounts, become our finest musical export.
"Story of My Life" clicked with a generation when it was released, and its relevance continues to resonate nearly 22 years after it first hit airwaves. Though he can't quite put his finger on why that song struck a chord with millions of people across the globe, Ness is thankful for the confluence of events that turned it into the band's signature song.
"It's one of those things in which I got lucky and nailed it with something that struck a chord with people growing up," the singer says. "When you're writing a song, you're not aware of what the potential impact is going to be. If you had the power to do that when you were writing it, you'd write them all that way. It's the combination of the melody, the attitude, the emotion, when they all blend together and the laws of physics work for you."
The House of Blues residency was thought of as a way for Social Distortion to spend the holidays close to home while playing a handful of shows locally, which they usually won't do until the end of their touring cycle. This isn't the first time the band have done the residency (the most recent being in 2009), according to longtime rhythm guitarist Jonny "2 Bags" Wickersham. Should you be lucky enough to be in the room, expect eclectic, specially tailored set lists; loads of mutual tough-guy appreciation; and a full helping of rebellious, chain-smoking badassery.
Though the band have been through many members, Ness and Wickersham call this incarnation of the band the best yet, attributing their cohesiveness to a number of factors that are critical to the long-term success of the group.
"Later on, I realized that it's important to surround yourself with the best musicians; eventually, you become good friends because of the love and respect you share for what you're doing," Ness explains. "It feels like a band again, and for a while, it didn't."
Wickersham adds, "We'll be off the road for weeks or months at a time, and we'll get back into the studio to rehearse for shows or for a tour, and we fall right back in. With these guys, there's an immediate connection and understanding of one another, which I attribute to these guys being real players who are in the band to play music, not for any of that other bullshit. We don't play any games, and we happen to all really like one another, which makes it easy to be in a band."
On 2011's Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, Social Distortion moved in more of a roots rock/Americana direction, something that fans who saw them during their early years wouldn't have expected. Building on the momentum from that album, which he calls one of his favorites, Ness is in the process of writing new material that he hopes to complete and record sometime in 2013. Though he doesn't have a firm grasp of what's to come, he says, it could have a more garage-y sound.
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As the band soldier on, having spent nearly nine months on the road, Ness doesn't see their stopping any time in the near future, and he is very proud of what they've accomplished.
"Ultimately, I'd like to believe that 33 years later, society has opened its mind up and realized that this movement was significant, and the music revolution was as important as the time that it came from," he says. "Most bands that were around 33 years ago peaked back then. For us, it's been the opposite. Social Distortion's success has been an organic, upward ladder of slow momentum building, and I don't know a lot of artists who have a similar story, but I know that we've been very lucky, and it's something I don't take for granted."
This article appeared in print as "The House That Punk Built: Social Distortion, OC's greatest band, settle into their House of Blues residency."