Back From the Black Hole

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.”


* * *

“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.”


* * *

One day about six or seven years ago, Frank's son Frank Jr. came home from school. It was time for the talk.

Dad, what was the name of your band? he asked.

Frank told him.

The next day Frank Jr. came home and said, “Dad, was your band kind of . . . famous?”

Well, you know, locally we were well-known, said Frank. Okay, said Frank Jr: “Because the kids at school didn't believe me.”

“And then he got into it,” says Frank. “I never pushed him—he got into it on his own, and it's great—playing with him now is a pleasure. Similar to a suburban dad with a mustache playing catch, in a way, except a lot more fun.”

He's on his way to the Weekly photo shoot at Leisure World (“Don't do anything to suggest they're too old or that they need to retire!” said the PR guy; Steve just laughs and says, “We'd sit in wheelchairs if we had to!”), barely back from the final out-of-state date on a tour to support the July release of O.C. Confidential on Irvine independent Finger Records.

How was the tour? You know: some things never change.

“Up in Portland, pretty much every kid in the club got up onstage, and it got more and more crowded—they were barely nodding their heads because it was all they could do,” says drummer Derek. “We couldn't even see each other—just the kids in front of us. And we'd be looking at them like, 'Yeah, this is cool!'”

In some ways, O.C. Confidential is a record no one expected, especially after a post-blue-album career politely described as checkered. After the 1981 breakup—and the subsequent fragmentation into at least four bands that would weave together over the next 25 years, and then the 1986 reunion at Fender's in Long Beach, and the subsequent struggles to release the Brats in Battalions album, and then the 1989 breakup, and the subsequent fragmentation into—well, there was a lot to work through. And after the 1989 breakup, the Adolescents as the Adolescents didn't play out again until 2001, where a birthday reunion at the Doll Hut (where Steve once worked the door) for Tony's wife went nostalgically out of control.

The back-together blue-album lineup made it through a few years of occasional shows—a Flipside zine benefit under a respectful Bad Religion in LA, a wild headlining slot at the Galaxy—but always as a revival act. Except that's not quite the right word, since the sound the Adolescents had helped invent survived mostly unaltered in a hundred other bands: the Offspring may have earned a lawsuit for stealing Agent Orange guitar lines, but they borrowed their entire sound in chunks from the punk chords and pop harmonies on the blue album, and Derek—who joined the band after Casey left (the second time), and who'd record O.C. Confidential himself—laughs now at the jokes NOFX told him they'd make during their own recording sessions: “Okay, you do the Frank Agnew part, and I'll do the Rikk Agnew part!”

“I had people like No Doubt, John Frusciante, Flea and Anthony, even Slash—'I used to listen to you!'” says Tony. “Makes me feel like . . . wow, we had more impact than I ever imagined.”

So in 2002, says Frank, Tony suggested getting together and maybe breaking out the tape deck.


* * *

“When we were in Soto's apartment, it reminded me a lot of when we very first got together,” says Frank. “The three of us—the three original members who were putting songs together in Tony's garage—it almost had the same nostalgic vibe, sitting around and throwing out ideas.”

“I almost don't recognize places where I used to go as a kid,” says Tony, who now lives in Pasadena. “It's kind of funny: I'll look at places and go, 'This is where a carload of guys beat up my brother and ripped part of his earlobe off when they tore out his earring.' I still see it in terms of 25 years ago—I'm kind of haunted by it.”

So O.C. Confidential isn't the blue album, first off—but it's the way that it's not the blue album that makes O.C. Confidential what it is. If anything, Tony's lyrics are more vicious: any subtlety pounded out (“This is a pointless teenage anthem/About how great things used to be”) through cadence-call delivery and A-A-B-B rhyme schemes that make a harsh match to Steve and Frank's tendency to sometimes Beatles-esque (or Cheap Trick?) harmony. The Agnew family genetics are all over Confidential, which on songs like “Lockdown America” and “California Son” almost sounds more like Rikk and little brother Alfie's post-1981 band D.I. than the usual Adolescents, especially since Rikk left halfway through the recording (and is now playing with 45 Grave). And the recording process was anything but the blitzkrieg blue album: O'Brien says the two-plus years of work here were more like “building from fragments,” band members reconciling 20 years of their own troublesome identities (except for Frank) with 20 years of the legend their band built up without them. “This is the best since the blue album!” Frank is saying now, driving back from the Seizure World (his term, not ours) photo shoot. “When we put it together, there was a lot of the original good feeling! The stars were right—”

Suddenly he cuts into a vicious coughing fit, part of the tour flu half the band has contracted. His cell phone fuzzes out as its circuits overload, and he sighs as he clears his throat: “Like I was saying, sonny . . .”



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