Mike Ness, Dennis Danell and the rest of Social Distortion didn't expect their major-label debut would gain much traction when they headed into the Track Record in North Hollywood in the summer of 1989. Their sound at the time, which melded rockabilly, blues and country on top of punk, was a quirk in the Southern California punk scene.
"This was my shot," a tired Ness says as he sips on coffee the morning after a gig in Charlotte. "This was a major-label record, and I had a shot to carve a direction for the future of this band and what I wanted this band to sound like in 30 years."
Though it's apparent now that the band was on the verge of widespread success, those early days didn't hint at anything special on the horizon. Formed in 1979, Social Distortion's first 11 years were marked by Ness' drug and alcohol problems, in addition to him spending time in and out of jail. Once he was sober and ready to go, Social Distortion inked a deal with Epic Records and got to work on their self-titled, third album. Ness knew he had to do something that would separate Social Distortion from their contemporaries of that day and would be true to what the band was about.
Though songs from that album have become iconic anthems that arguably encapsulate the Orange County punk ethos, Ness wasn't necessarily confident in them at the time. "By the mid-'80s, a lot of the bands were starting to sound the same and stereotype themselves with these ridiculous rules of what was and wasn't punk," he explains. "When I was writing songs such as 'Story of My Life' and 'Ball and Chain,' I wasn't sure people were going to like them. I knew I did, so it was a huge risk-taking thing because these weren't stereotypical punk songs."
While recording and writing what made up Social Distortion, Ness had been sober for five years. With a newfound energy that wasn't dulled by substance abuse, the songwriter's work ethic increased, and that sharpened and drove his band mates as well. Many of the lyrics on that album were based on Ness' inner reflections, warning signs–such as in "It Coulda Been Me"–if listeners decided to veer down the path he had once been on.
"I like that 'Ball and Chain' means something different to everyone who listens to it," he says. "But for me, it meant asking for help from a higher power and something greater than myself. Up until that point in my life, I'd ended up in the back of police cars or overdosed in a hospital. It's a spiritual song, and I think people relate to it because everyone has struggles, and the ball and chain is obviously the struggles of people's lives and trying to overcome them."
Working with a new producer, Dave Jerden, Ness was more focused on the production than on making a seminal album. He was worried Epic would try to change the band's sound, but fortunately, he says, the powerhouse label didn't meddle. Having a smallish budget allowed the band to work quietly without being too much on anyone's radar. And more important to Ness, he was able to quit his day job; he hasn't had one since.
Despite Epic's feeble attempts at marketing Southern California punk to the mainstream, Social Distortion managed to carve out a loyal fan base across the country–even the world. The band didn't let their integrity get compromised by some of the label's marketing schemes, and that attitude remains with them today. The latest incarnation of the band is currently on an extensive tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Social Distortion by playing it front to back. Ness is pleased with revisiting the material in such a fashion, even if it's far from what the group are accustomed to. Every show is sold out, and according to Ness, the aura of the crowd has been different. The commemorative tour is a testament to the fans who bought the album and helped make the band what they are today, says the singer, who has seen kids as young as 5 in the audience.
"It's been interesting revisiting this at this time," Ness says. "I don't listen to my own music very often, so to go back in time and literally relive it every night makes it interesting on many levels. It was such a pivotal point in our career, and if not for [the fans], this may not have ever happened."
As excited as he is to take a trip back, Ness can't help but remember one of his closest friends, guitarist Dennis Danell, who died in 2000. "The only sad thing is that Dennis isn't at my side while I'm leading this project," he says. "I wish he was around to celebrate this, too."
Over the years, Social Distortion have become one of the most revered punk bands. Ness has struck up a friendship with Bruce Springsteen, who in recent years has brought him onstage at area gigs for thunderous renditions of "Bad Luck," which is off Social Distortion's follow up, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. The Boss has referred to the outfit as "a great Southern California punk band," words Ness doesn't take lightly.
With all of the praise that has been bestowed upon the band by critics, fans and peers, Ness always points to Social Distortion as the record that allowed them to become the band they are today.
"To hear a big star like Bruce acknowledge you and praise you, not only is it a milestone, but it's definitely something that makes me think that maybe we're better than I realize," Ness says. "When I wrote this album, I never realized I'd write songs that would change people's lives through the hard times and the good times. I'm just a singer and a guitar player, and I'm grateful these songs have become timeless and passed on for three generations. Besides, what's more hardcore than real life?"
Social Distortion perform with Nikki Lane and Drag the River at the Observatory, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sun. N Tues.-Wed., 8 p.m. $35. All ages.
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