By: Jesse La Tour
The Adolescents, The Middle Class, and The Crowd are all iconic original Orange County punk bands who have inspired thousands, maybe millions, of young people to turn their suburban angst into musical art. They inspired me, a 30-year-old English teacher, to form a hardcore punk band a few years ago. If you are looking for the perfect musical response to all the shitty things about the OC, look no further than these bands.
As I ride the bus to Alex's Bar in Long Beach, I feel mixed emotions. Of course, I'm excited, but my heart is also a little heavy. Last year, Mike Atta, guitarist of The Middle Class, was diagnosed with cancer, and he is still fighting it. Mike, who runs Out of Vogue (probably the coolest shop in downtown Fullerton) is a friend of mine and it has been hard to see him and his family go through this. However, being the true punk that he is, Mike is not letting cancer cramp his style.
Friday night was also a night of celebration–Steve Soto's birthday! For all you non-punkophiles out there, Soto is the original bassist of The Adolescents, another of OC's genuine musical gifts to the world. I came of age in the '90s and grew up thinking that bands like Green Day and Blink-182 were real punk. Then I discovered The Adolescents, and my mind was blown. I learned that there is a vast gulf separating corporate pop punk and true, old school, DIY punk. Both The Adolescents and The Middle Class are punks of this latter kind.
After arriving early to Alex's Bar, I ran into Mike Patton, bassist of The Middle Class and producer of the iconic Adolescents self-titled masterpiece commonly referred to as the “Blue Album.” He also produced The Minutemen. Mike gives me a brief history of The Middle Class, how when they started in Santa Ana in 1976, Orange County felt like a cultural wasteland. They had to go to LA to play shows. Patton was a writer for the pioneering punk zine Flipside, and it was as a writer that he discovered OC bands like Agent Orange, and started booking shows at now-defunct Fullerton venues like The Galaxy (a roller rink on Gilbert), and Ichabod Crane's (now a Mobil station on State College and Chapman). He regaled me with stories about a guy named Eddie Joseph, of the band Eddie and the Subtitles, who reigned over the Fullerton punk scene–Mike dubbed it “Eddie's Empire.”
If there was a theme for tonight, I think it had something to do with the multi-generational nature of punk rock, how it is a community where old and new blend into interesting new combinations, never forgetting the roots of the past, and still pushing forward into the future. As the crowd filtered in, I'm struck by how multi-generational this audience is. Young people wear jackets with patches from old school bands like Fear and The Damned. Older punks wear t-shirts of newer bands. Tattoos also represent this blending of old and new. It's a cross-pollination of punk.
The opening act, Rats in the Wall, exemplify this perfectly. The guitarist looked to be in his mid-50s, and the singer is a skinny girl who looked to be in her 20s. As she screamed and flailed across the stage, and again I think about the inclusiveness of punk. It used to be a pretty male-dominated genre, but this girl can fucking rage. I'm reminded of older bands like X and Crass.
Next up is The Crowd, bratty punks who call themselves, “Huntington Beach's first and foremost punk band,” which is interesting because the singer doesn't move or behave like the stereotypical HB “bro.” He wears a suit, has long hair and glasses. His voice carried a nasally high pitch that recalledThe Dickies or even The Sex Pistols. He also busted out some awesomely awkward dance moves–including the airplane and the twist. But then, a pretty bro-heavy pit starts swirling and flailing.
“No fighting, children,” the singer says, and the crowd reverts to the older-school (and non-violent) punk dance, the pogo.
At one point in the night, I ran into Steve Soto and wished him a happy birthday. “My two favorite bands growing up are playing my birthday party!” he says.
As The Middle Class sets up, I run into my friend Katie Flynn, who works at Out of Vogue. We get talking about the drummer, Matt Simon, who looks and dresses like a total dad (which he is): cargo shorts, a baggy button up shirt. He teaches fourth grade. If you ran into him on the street, you would have no idea that he drums for Orange County's original hardcore band. If a guy like him took the stage at the Hong Kong Cafe or the Cuckoo's Nest in the early '80s, people would have scratched their heads. He is a perfect embodiment of how punk has become multi-generational.
Also, The Middle Class were never a band to fit neatly into stereotypes. They never had spiky hair or patches or any of the typical punk accouterments. They always looked like ordinary suburban kids, which they were. What separated them from the hordes of ordinary suburban kids was how they turned their anger and frustration into art. And The Middle Class is, more than most OC punk bands, an art band.
This is, and has always been, the great irony of The Middle Class. They took an image and turned it on its head. They looked normal, but played harder and faster than anyone else. Jeff Atta, Mike's brother, and the singer of the band, has an unmistakable voice. It's not gravelly or distorted. It's smooth, yet filled with rage. It's indescribably inspiring to see people in their 50s playing hardcore punk with genuine passion and sincerity. It gives me hope.
As the band fired into the song “Home is Where,” I noticed Atta never missed a beat, during his signature super-fast guitar strums. Watching him pouring his effort into this, knowing he is in some pain it's clear that this man is the textbook definition of punk–taking the pain and bewilderment of life and churning, grinding it into something meaningful, into art. As the band finishes with the classic uber-fast “Out of Vogue,” I even caught Atta smiling.
When The Adolescents begin, a large pit immediately forms. I make my way to the safety of the bar, content to listen and watch. The band has gone through different members over the years, and the current lineup is a mix of new people and original members, just as their set is a mix of classics like “Amoeba” and newer stuff. The Adolescents have released six LPs over their 30-pus year career, including a brand new record called “Presumed Insolent.”
Halfway through the show, a birthday cake is brought out and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” to Steve Soto and it feels like a real family affair, young and old pay homage to this local icon. The band closes with their generation-defining anthem “Kids of the Black Hole” which is about an apartment in Fullerton where the local punks, those who didn't fit into the OC culture of their time, used to hang out. Tony Cadena sings and people, young and old, sing along:
House of the filthy, house not a home House of destruction where the lurkers roamed House that belonged to all the homeless kids Kids of the black hole!
People from all ages and backgrounds find common ground in these sounds and lyrics of alienation and rebellion, and they still feel as fresh and relevant as when they were penned three decades ago. Is punk dead? Hell no. Happy birthday, Steve Soto!