Life is funny, we learn from it and live through it. We create history that defines moments in time. For most people, history started when we were teens. For Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, life got very interesting in the late 1970s and into the ’80s. Disco was done, and rock was still king. A new scene emerged, and it was called punk rock. Early American punk consisted of such bands as Bad Brains, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, X and from Orange County there was Social Distortion.
So why is this band such a big deal? Social D calls Fullerton home, where it was founded by iconic front man Mike Ness. In those early days, they had no radio play; they did what they did because they loved it. In a recent interview, Ness told us that back then “punk was a four-letter word and it had a stigma behind it.” When asked if he ever thought he’d be playing music at this level 40 years later, he replied, “Absolutely not; I would’ve been surprised to hear I was still alive.” Fans love that Ness is so brutally honesty. He’s lived a life we can relate to, or know someone who’s walked a similar path.
To understand why this band matters, we have to step back to a time before social media. Turns out 1982 was a defining year for social norms; that’s when the documentary Another State of Mind was released. The film chronicled the ill-fated summer tour of three punk bands: Social Distortion, Youth Brigade and Minor Threat. The storyline captured the trials and tribulations of being a punker, and the adversities punk bands experience. The film defined a mindset and a lifestyle that launched a movement.
Ness was born on April 3, 1962, in Lynn, Massachusetts. His family moved to the OC later that year. As the song goes, Ness didn’t have much interest in sports or school elections. He was one of nine punkers at his high school, and they weren’t wining any popularity contests. In the end, like most teens, he became rebellious. This caused a fracture at home that was beyond repair, and he found himself roaming the streets of Fullerton at age 15. In time, he was taken in by the local punk community and at the end of the day, he found a one-bedroom apartment. Back then, he loved blues, county and rock … and he also loved English punk bands. The Ramones and New York Dolls also helped shape his punk rock world.
Inspired by The Clash, Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Ness founded Social D with Casey Royer in 1978. It was moderate at best, but they found immediate success with a 7-inch record. In 1983, the world changed forever for Ness. That’s when the music gods looked down favorably on a song called “Mommy’s Little Monster. ” That song put Social D on a map–a small map, but a map nonetheless. When asked who that song was about, Ness laughed and told us, “It was about me and some of my friends.”
It took another five years before Midas paid Social D a visit. Their next album was Prison Bound, and it got mad props and identified Ness as a legit front man and lyricist. That 1988 album chronicled his battle with drug addiction, and the demons that accompany it. He received praise from his fans for giving them insight to his life; it also allowed them to join him in his struggles and triumphs. Then, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell hit. That album featured songs that launched the band into the Punkasphere as it included such uber-hits as “Bad Luck,” “When She Begins” and “Sometimes I Do.” Ness tells us that the album focused on what we humans do with our time on Earth: the good, the bad and the ugly.
The band hit it big in 1990 with their eponymous album; it was a monster. It included songs like “Ball and Chain,” “Sick Boys,” “Story of My Life” and a cover of Cash’s”Ring of Fire.” Those songs had more of a rockabilly feel that set them apart from the rest of the punk pack. Truth-be-told, the clever lyrics drew in newer fans. With good looks, a great voice and insane guitar hooks, Ness became a punk rock icon for speaking truth. He was credited for singing about more than just broken-down Chevrolets. Social D captured the essence of being a soul in need of rescue from itself; that’s a truth money just can’t buy.
The band has bounced around labels over the years, even leaving and returning to Laguna Beach-based Time Bomb Recordings, which in 1995 released a collection of Social Distortion recordings from 1981 titled Mainliner: Wreckage From the Past.
Sadly, the Social D story also has a very dark side. After battling drug addiction and stints in the county jail, seminal founding member Dennis Danell, who had attended Troy High School with Ness, died of a heart condition in the driveway of what was to be his new Costa Mesa home in 2000. The loss hit Ness and all the band’s fans hard, as they would be again in 2007 with the passing of Brent Liles, who had been Social D’s bass player from 1981-1984 (as well as fellow Fullerton punks Agent Orange from ’88-’92). He was struck by a vehicle while cycling in 2007.
Fortunately, fans, Ness and his band were eventually able to cope and heal. When asked about Social Distortion songs that have the most meaning to him, Ness mentions “When the Angels Sing” as it helps deal with loss, whether it be band-related or personal. Other songs Ness cites are “Prison Bound,” a wake-up call that made him realize his place was behind a mic, not prison bars, and “Writing on the Wall,” which he concedes cuts so deeply he can’t sing it live. He told us that these songs mean the most to him because they aren’t necessarily his band’s biggest hits, but they capture the essence of the soul and they matter.
Social D’s tunes have been featured in movies, television shows and on late night. (Kimmel loves them!) They’ve performed everywhere, they’ve taken the stage at the biggest festivals on the planet. Other albums that have made their mark include White Light, White Heat, White Trash; Live at the Roxy; Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll; and then there’s the last release, 2011’s Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. Ness has also put out solo albums. Cheating at Solitaire, from 1999, saw him hit gold with a Bob Dylan classic, “Don’t Think Twice.” His other solo album, Under the Influences, came out the same year. In 2013, Social D received critical acclaim for their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Up Around the Bend,” which was on the soundtrack to the animated movie Free Birds.
Ness told us that every song and every album has meaning. It outlines things that went on in his life. As he grew older, two things became clear: 13 was his lucky number, and that old saying “he who wanders is not always lost” is true.
Asked what the biggest misconceptions are about him, he answered, “People that don’t know me seem scared when they meet me. … It’s the tattoos. I also think they expect a rock star arriving in a limo everywhere I go; that’s just not me.” He recognizes the disappointment on people’s faces when they see him with his chihuahuas as opposed to pit bulls. “It’s the punk rocker they expect,” he says, “instead they get me.” For underneath all the ink and rock-star persona, there’s a normal, down-to-earth guy who’s trying to live right. Despite all the challenges life has thrown his way, he’s found a good balance.
It’s a balance he brings to sets with the current Social Distortion incarnation, which also features Jonny “2 Bags” Wickersham on rhythm guitar, Brent Harding on bass and David Hidalgo Jr. on drums. Ness remains the band’s lead vocalist and guitar player. Collectively, the band is as tight as ever and their signature sound remains electrifying and bone-crushing. Ness is a great storyteller and their catalogue of music is nothing short of legendary. It should also be noted that Social D loves to give newer bands platforms to play on big stages–just as they were given chances way back when.
Social Distortion’s 40th Anniversary Orange County; Sounds from Behind the Orange Curtain with Bully, Mannequin Pussy, The Kills, Black Lips, The Distillers, Frank Turner, Eagles of Death Metal, Plague Vendor and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts at FivePoint Amphitheatre, 14800 Chinon, Irvine, (949) 988-6800; concerts1.livenation.com. Sat., October 26; gates open at 1 p.m. $39.50-$99.50.