Two girls in their late teens stand side-by-side at Chain Reaction in Anaheim, their arms resting against the front of the stage. The house lights have just come up, signaling the end of the opening act. The walls of the dark, no-frills venue are covered with band stickers and T-shirts—a visual testament to its rich music history.
"Sam, is he on next?" the girl with Manic Panic blue pinup curls asks her friend, as a new group of musicians bring their instruments onstage. A young drummer with golden, shoulder-length hair and a blue backward baseball hat emerges from the shadows. Focused like a construction worker about to turn screws in the dark, he places one pair of drumsticks on the seat behind his Zildjian drum kit and another on the ground, but within arm's reach.
Sam's eyes stay glued on the drummer until he walks offstage. She then looks at her friend, who is smiling at her. "Oh, man," Sam replies with a mischievous smile and eyes loaded with dreamy puppy love. "He's definitely on next."
Hotel Books take the stage. As the drummer sits, he and Sam make eye contact, and he smiles at her. "You guys are the kind of 'friends,'" the blue-haired girl says to Sam, emphasizing the word with air quotes, "that are going to get married." Sam shoots a look at her friend, then shakes her head while a smirk forms on her face. "It's rare to find someone who will protect you in mosh pits, who you also get to kiss and go to their shows," says the blue-haired girl.
The first heavy guitar chord shrieks from the speakers. The crowd tightly packs together in front of the stage, unencumbered by barricades. Hotel Books' lead singer addresses the crowd: "Everyone should expect to get hit, but if you see someone on the ground, HELP THEM UP!"
Sam laughs as her blond-haired beau smacks his sticks together three times, signaling the start of the show. She raises a fist in the air and screams, "Fuck yeah!"
The lights dim, and the bodies in the room form a gaping, churning mosh pit. It's a scene that's repeated night after night at Chain Reaction, one of the few all-ages, DIY punk venues in OC left standing, and it's all thanks to the people inside dedicated to propping it up.
Tucked in a strip mall on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Euclid Boulevard, Chain Reaction never bothered with vintage décor or trendy mixologists. Instead, it thrives—as it has for the past 20 years—on being an anti-hipster refuge, complete with no alcohol, concertgoers between the ages of 15 and 20 looking to release some angst, and a lovable-yet-dingy aesthetic. Its stage has hosted bands from big names to cult faves to your cousin's metal trio that had their parents helping them unload amps and guitars from a Jeep Renegade.
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Chain Reaction gained a reputation early on among music-lovers and top industry executives for booking bands that went on to become big. Among those deserving of credit for that is original owner Tim Hill. He had been running a lucrative electrical-wiring business in Santa Fe Springs when a friend persuaded him to invest in a club, but that venture turned out to be a bust. Hill decided to stick with the idea, though, buying his friend out of the business for $10,000, and started putting on punk and metal shows. Though Chain Reaction lost money for five years, Hill describes it as a labor of love. "It's so rewarding to see Chain still thriving and prospering," says Hill. "The fact that it's been around for 20 years is amazing—especially for a place that doesn't serve alcohol."
According to renowned talent buyer Jon Halperin, before the club opened in 1996, bands often hopped right over OC while touring SoCal. But that began to change as word about the all-ages, DIY venue spread. From 2000 to 2006, when Halperin booked shows for Chain Reaction, the club hosted dozens of stellar bands, from At-The-Drive-In and Death Cab for Cutie to Taking Back Sunday. "What we did was help to bring live music to Orange County," Halperin says. "We're a part of that sphere. We're not all of it, nor are we trying to take credit for all of it. But I feel like Chain Reaction played an important role in creating a live-music environment in Orange County."
Around 2003, the Plain White T's and Fall Out Boy were practically in-house bands, playing the venue whenever they came through Orange County because they knew people would show up to see them. People went to the club even if they didn't know the band that was playing, Halperin explains, because of the consistency of quality music. "I used to make deals with people all the time," Halperin says. "People would buy tickets to one show, and I'd tell them to buy tickets to another show based upon the other tickets they'd purchased. If they didn't like the music, I'd give them a refund, no questions asked." No one ever asked for their money back.
The venue became a hotspot for A&R reps and record-label honchos. Nitro Records, founded by Offspring front man Dexter Holland, and Bob Becker's Fearless Records were just two of the major labels that frequently camped out at Chain Reaction. Bands in the developmental stages of their careers—including Thrice, 18 Visions and Saosin—would roll through the venue, causing it to catch the attention of bigger markets, particularly hardcore. "That was when things really started to get going," Halperin says. "There wasn't a night when five to 10 industry people—whether it be record label executives, A&Rs, you name it—weren't there hanging out."
By the time Chain Reaction opened its doors, all-ages music clubs—always a regional rarity—were on their way out in OC as concert promoters sought the revenue of liquor and adults. But as an alcohol-free venue, it provided a safe space of sorts for teens and young adults to hang out and see live music without much threat of being in harm's way or getting into trouble. "There isn't a drug or alcohol problem there," Halperin says. "Which made it a safe place for parents to drop off their kids."
The onetime talent buyer even recalls meeting numerous young concertgoers' parents to walk them through the venue prior to or during a show. "It shows support all around," Halperin says. "I mean, why wouldn't people do that?"
The Chain Reaction staff tried to make the place particularly safe for girls to attend concerts in an era before safe spaces became popular. "Back in those days, girls didn't really go to punk shows—it was a rarity to see one because of how dangerous the shows sometimes got," recalls Becker. "You could count all of the girls at a punk show on less than one hand. But all that changed when the next wave of punk came—you know, when Epitaph, Fat Wreck Chords and all those bands were doing their thing. That's when girls finally started coming out to shows, and that was a really great thing."
But Chain Reaction being located next to Disneyland and not serving alcohol are two reasons Becker believes it's a place at which parents can feel safe leaving their kids. Though Becker laughingly admits he thinks it'd be awesome if the venue had a section for older people to enjoy a beer or two, he recognizes that being a dry club is a testament to its longevity and success. "They're obviously doing something right because it's challenging to keep a venue like that open," he says. "It's pretty amazing Chain Reaction has been able to last the way it has for 20 years."
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Andy Serrao began going to shows and working at Chain Reaction when he was 15 years old. Now in his early 30s, Serrao owns the venue, allowing him to nurture the community he grew up in. Like many young underground-music-lovers, Serrao became infatuated with Chain Reaction as soon as he realized it was a spot where he and his friends were allowed—and encouraged—to hang out. "I became friends with some of the security guards, and I was always friends with the bands who played at the venue," Serrao says. "When I moved out of my parents' house to go to Cal State Fullerton, I was promoted and made a part of the Chain Reaction staff, and that's when I realized I never wanted to leave. I worked seven days a week while in college, and I'd go 60 to 70 days without a day off."
He worked the door, box office or any other area that required his efforts. All of Serrao's friends, including the ones he made while in high school and college, are from Chain Reaction. He even met his wife through friends at the club. "There are a lot of kids who go to Chain once, sometimes multiple times a week," Serrao says. "That was me back in the early 2000s. That's how all of this happened for me."
Helping him run the place are Darel McFadyen and Garrett Carroll. Serrao calls them his right-hand men and says they do whatever needs to be done.
"[Andy] really cares about the people working around him," says Becker. "He cares about his workers, and he cares about the bands—he really takes care of them. That's why employees don't want to stop working at Chain. It's also why bands, big and small, come back and want to play there."
But the venue's charisma and spirit are also factors in its endurance. "Chain Reaction was always like the little engine that could," says Tazy Phyllipz, DJ and creator of the long-running radio show Ska Parade. "It's always had a lot of heart and soul in ways that other venues don't."
"Bands could play House of Blues or the Observatory, but they choose to play Chain," says Hill. "It goes to show that bands are taken care of, which is something I did and something Andy still does. It's why bands love to play there."
On Saturday, on the Observatory grounds, Chain Reaction celebrates its 20 years of existence with Chain Fest, a musical showcase featuring some of the most iconic bands that have played there, including Circa Survive, Coheed and Cambria, MXPX, Portugal the Man, and Underoath. The lineup also has a stacked undercard of supporting acts who continue to work their way up the ladder.
Coheed and Cambria lead guitarist Travis Stever says playing Chain Fest feels like a homecoming of sorts. "Playing that area and for Chain Reaction is going to bring back a lot of memories for me and the band," he says. "We're so excited to play with the other bands on the bill; some of those guys are like our brothers. It's going to be a great night of music, for sure."
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Go ahead and call Chain Reaction what it is: the CBGB of the West Coast. Although comparing an all-ages venue in Anaheim to New York's world-famous birthplace of punk seems blasphemous, the similarities between the two are more than music snobs would admit.
"[Chain Reaction has] given people in Orange County who aren't into mainstream music a place of refuge basically, and that's what CBGB gave people living in or around the East Village in Manhattan for decades," says Good Fight Entertainment owner Nick Grimaldi, better known as "Biggie" among those in the industry.
Before CBGB became a wildly popular venue to catch world-class underground music, it was a dive bar. As if a dive bar in Manhattan's very shady East Village wasn't enough, the bar pretty much transformed into a biker bar. Bryan Waterman's book Marquee Moon paints a pretty epic picture of owner Hilly Kristal's clientele before the venue was revamped into Country BlueGrass and Blues, or CBGB. "Hilly's primary clientele in the early '70s was as uneven as the neighborhood's reputation," Waterman wrote. "In addition to some stray drag performers from the Bouwerie Lane across the street, [Hilly] poured drinks mostly for the members of Hells Angels, whose HQ was nearby. . . . It was a derelict bar. Bums would line up outside at 8 a.m. right when the doors would open. The location was less than desirable. Even cabs avoided the area—stripped-out cars on the side streets during the day and trashcan fires on corners at night."
Before Chain Reaction was the music venue it is today, the location was a divey biker bar known as Time Out. Although Anaheim in the early '80s was a far cry from the streets of New York City, it sure as hell wasn't a crime-free, goody-two-shoes town. In fact, a couple of murders went down in the building.
Aside from those murders, not much else is known about that time in Chain Reaction's history, though it's widely believed among the staff there that the place is haunted. There have been a number of unexplainable experiences there. Paranormal investigators who've learned about the murders have even reached out to Serrao to examine the facility. "I'm going be honest," Serrao says, "I've seen things at Chain that have blown my mind. I used to never believe in spirits or ghosts and hauntings—until now. And I'm not the only one; I've seen weird, insane things happen with multiple people who work here."
The venue experienced a few more transitional periods than CBGB did before taking on the role of an underground-music club. It went from a biker bar in the early '80s to a Mexican restaurant in the mid-'80s that was shut down in the early '90s for selling drugs. Hill then took over the building and turned the venue into Public Storage Coffee Lounge. The PS from that incarnation remained on the floor long after the location assumed a new name. "The actual Public Storage company sent me a cease and desist letter to change our name," Hill recalls with a laugh. "That's when we became Chain Reaction."
Since 1996, Chain Reaction has remained a place pop/punk, ska, hardcore, metal and alternative bands could be nurtured and thrive. It keeps a reputation among young bands as the venue to play to not only get noticed, but also catapult into the industry. "Chain Reaction is definitely a feeder venue into music festivals, like Warped Tour," Grimaldi says. "I'd even go as far to say that, at least for a while, all the bands that played Warped Tour were also Chain bands. . . . Chain Reaction definitely influenced that festival, and it still does."
But Warped Tour isn't the only music festival that Chain Reaction has influenced; bands connected to the venue are now playing massive festivals, including Coachella, Berlin's edition of Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. Among them is Long Island-based band Brand New. "It's crazy because Brand New is selling out arenas now, playing major music festivals and co-headlining shows with bands like Modest Mouse," says Serrao, his voice loaded with excitement. "I mean, had you told Brand New they'd be as successful and big as they are now when they were selling out shows at Chain Reaction, they probably would've looked at you like you were crazy. They probably wouldn't have believed it." Serrao pauses to laugh. "I wouldn't have believed it! It's so awesome to see them killing it the way they are."
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After watching the set, Sam and her blue-haired friend head outside to the smoking area. The two are dripping with sweat, but they have massive smiles on their faces. "I'm so glad I ditched work for this," Sam says to her friend. "They're so fucking good live!"
The blue-haired girl dabs the sweat from her face with paper towels. "I agree. I'm glad we came—but I'm so sweaty I feel like I just took a shower—except the opposite."
A young man exits the club and overhears the women. "You should strive to leave every concert like that," he tells them. "Otherwise you're not having a good time."
"Agreed," shouts Sam. "Getting rowdy and sweaty is why I love Chain."
For Serrao, watching young fans discover their love for concerts through nightly bouts of slam-dancing and shrieking is Chain Reaction's link in the DNA of the OC music scene.
"We're a mom-and-pop shop, and we're not trying to be anything different than that," he says. "It's because of this that Chain's always remained the same: It's always maintained its flavor."
Chain Fest, featuring Circa Survive, Coheed and Cambria, Underoath, and more, at the Observatory, 3501 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.observatoryoc.com. Sat., noon. $60. All ages.