Why Social Distortion is Still Standing After Four Decades
You just never know what direction the wind will blow when it comes to certain punk bands. Most are lucky to get through a handful of summers together. So it’s almost surreal that Social Distortion, OC’s first breakout punk band, is in its fourth decade of existence—not without their share of turbulent times of course (much of it self-inflicted). Not only has lead singer Mike Ness and his bandmates survived, they have endured and made it to the top of their profession.
During their early days in Fullerton back in 1978, they played shows with local punkers like the Adolescents, China White, and Shattered Faith before getting noticed by a local radio icon, Rodney Bingenheimer. Lots of gigs, radio play and some great early music videos launched them into the punkasphere. They found success in 1983 from their debut album Mommy's Little Monster. Subsequent releases, Prison Bound, and their self-entitled uber-hit album broadened their reach. However, it wasn’t until ’92 when radio stations like KROQ in Los Angeles played “Bad Luck” off Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. KROQ managing director Lewis Largent was a big supporter of the band, and as a result of significant radio love from KROQ and other alternative stations throughout the country, coupled with MTV/VH-1 support… that album and song catapulted their message to the masses. It’s hard to quantify, but ‘92 seems to be the year planet Earth fell in love with these Real Punkers of Orange County.
Then again, in 1981 a documentary film called Dance Craze influenced countless teens and turned them on to 2-Tone ska. In 1984, the documentary film Another State of Mind did the same for the punk scene. What’s interesting about those two films, they both shared global themes about teen angst. Another State of Mind chronicled Social Distortion and Youth Brigade’s 1982 summer tour. It also featured interviews with kids that lived the lifestyle. It’s those interviews that captured the raw emotion you hear in punk songs. Those interviews were very moving; they range from impressive, to inspiring to heartbreaking.
Those kids encompassed the collective soul and experience of being a punk in OC. The documentary also featured a piece on legendary punk band, Minor Threat. It covered the last week of the ill-fated tour and interactions between the bands. Anyone who wants to know why punk is what it is, why people think what they think, why punkers look the way they do, and why the music is a way of life, should check out this film. It will give insight as to why bands like Social D have captured the hearts and minds of their fans.
Over the last few decades, the band’s lineup has been a revolving door.
The one constant for Social D throughout the years has been Ness. The band has gone through extended breaks due to a variety of reasons—notably, rehab, problems with the law, and the death of a bandmate. For fans, the loss of co-founder and Ness’s childhood friend, Dennis Danell—who died of a brain aneurism on February 29, 2000—was surreal. The loss took many by surprise. Anyone who has experienced an unexpected death knows it would take time for the band to re-group. In the end, Ness regrouped and asked former Youth Brigade/ Cadillac Tramps guitarist, Jonny “Two Bags” Wickersham, to join the band. This was an easy choice as Jonny was also Danell's guitar tech, and the band eventually started playing again.
Fast forward to today, the band is simply electric! The merry-go-round of bandmates has come to a halt. The band currently features Mike Ness on lead guitar (vocals), Wickersham (rhythm guitar & backing vocals), Brent Harding (bass & backing vocals), and David Hidalgo Jr., on drums. Hidalgo also does double duty as he plays drums for the SoCal punk band, The Bronx. Rounding out the dynamic sound that is Social D is David Kalish on keys.
For those who aren’t familiar with Social D, they’ve released 7 studio albums, 2 compilations, a live album and 2 DVD’s. Their last album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, was released in 2011. Their early sound has been compared to The Germs and The Dickies, while singing tunes that have universal themes.
Sometime in the mid-80’s, their sound evolved. Taking overtures from country music, rockabilly and some good ole’ rock and roll, the band moved forward with a sound that has become distinctive. As a kid, Ness was surrounded by Johnny Cash records, and he was drawn by the storytelling and how it could move you. Mike and Jonny once said “sometimes we just wish we could’ve played in some Top 40 bands so we could’ve learnt to play and sing in different styles.” For their fans, their style works just fine.
The band works on original music and great covers. Some of their covers include Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire," "Up Around the Bend" by Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Under My Thumb" by the Rolling Stones, and "Tainted Love" by Gloria Jones, a song made popular by Soft Cell. Ness has also had solo projects that featured his country twang with "I Fought the Law" (off Under the Influences), a Sonny Curtis tune that was popularized by the Clash and Green Day. There’s also a Bob Dylan cover called "Don’t Think Twice" (off Cheating at Solitaire). That song is so cool, even Wayland Jennings covered it. Truthfully, Ness and his bandmates have put out the music they wanted to, regardless of what the punk rock music police thought. It’s that attitude that continues to inspire bands coming out of the OC. That’s the thing about great artists, they know when to consider constructive criticism, and when to give that proverbial middle finger to maladroit critics who try to define their sound for them.
All things being equal, there are many bands who connect with their fans. Only a few have their fans believe their songs are about them, or someone they know. After all, who doesn’t have a “friend,” or family member who’s battled alcohol or drugs or some other form of self-destruction, combined with being in and out of jail? Some of their tunes are reminiscent of kick-ass songs by punk legends X, just with a different kinda twang. Ask any fan and they’ll agree, the lyrics are like an old-school country western song or something Johnny Cash would do if he was still alive. Albums like Live at the Roxy captured the allure to their fans. For countless others, songs like When the Angels Sing has helped them cope with the passing of a loved one. Connecting with their fans through powerful words is a key reason Social D touches the soul of anyone who’s ever felt shorted by life in any way.
The other thing fans love about going to a Social D show is being exposed to other cool bands that might not be on the alternative radar of the alternative crowd. Over the years, concertgoers got to know bands and artists like the Suedehead, Frank Turner, the Avett Brothers and the Interrupters just to name a few. Ness is producing music and guiding newcomer Jade Jackson.
On February 28, 2017, the House of Blues, Anaheim is re-opening. For Orange County, this venue is a very big deal. There are others throughout OC, but this one is a special place for concertgoers. It‘s like that place in high school where everyone went after the football game to create memories. The HOB has been closed during the move from Downtown Disney to the Garden Walk, and their absence has been felt by the locals. The band that re-opened the HOB had to be local, and one that could draw fans from all corners of the OC and beyond. LiveNation got it right, of all the bands they could’ve picked, they went with Social D for opening night.
Songs like mega-hit “Story of My Life” along with “Sick Boys,” “When She Begins,” “She’s a Knock Out”, “Mommy’s Little Monster” and “Let It Be Me” create the mosh-pit, while songs like “Ball and Chain,” “Prison Bound, Sometimes I Do,” “I Was Wrong” among countless other songs that mean the world to so many people, for so many different reasons, keep every show live wired from the first drum beat to the last.
For many bands, taking the road less traveled has been the inspiration for great music. At the end of the day, life doesn’t have to be out of control to be punk rock. For Ness, he now lives in Newport Beach with his wife and two children. He’s a vegan and founded Black Kat Kustoms. Jonny and the rest of the band are also in a good place. Jonny recently even commented on being backstage for their shows is not as exciting as you think. Truth is, it’s a very Zen place to be these days. In a very punk rock way, they’ve proved that he who wanders is not always lost.
If anything, this band is the exception to every rule, and you can be dubbed a punk band and still be successful. For years, these cats have been singing about when they’re coming back; turns out, it’s February 28th at the House of Blues, Anaheim. In the end, good times come and good times go, and for Social D fans, the good times will last a little longer! Come out to the HOB and see Social D, Paul Cauthen and Jade Jackson, it’ll be an experience you won’t forget.
Social Distortion plays the House of Blues Anaheim Feb. 28 and Mar. 1 at House of Blues Anaheim. For full details, click here.
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