September 9, 2009

Mod-A-Day: Social Distortion

Social Distortion is suave punk. The early 80s saw a huge punk rock explosion in Southern California as the raw sound of guitars and drums backed screeching vocals from the valley to the beach. Adolescent angst, new found aggression, and too much free time combined in a generation of bands that pursued independence with a dark, depressing creativity that was tinged with drug addiction, violence and suicide.

Along with literally hundreds of other such bands, a foursome from Orange Co. fronted by Mike Ness, (and originally including Rikk and Frank Agnew from Christian Death and The Adolescents respectively) Social Distortion began playing their hard biting punk in 1978 and in 1981 released "Mainliner" followed in 1983 by their first full album Mommy's Little Monster.

Mostly those early years saw Social D gain a large and loyal following because of so many appearances on local punk compilations such as Poshboy Records comps, Rodney on the Roq, and Hell Comes To Your House (which is the only recording I know of SD's “Lude Boy”). The group wasn't all that different from L.A.'s other front-running punks like X, Circle Jerks or Black Flag. What set Social D apart was their live show. No punk shows lacked energy, yet Social D shows seemed to transcend all that raw aggression and reach a violent, yet controlled new level, thanks mostly to the pure charisma of Mike Ness. They became a mainstay at Southern California clubs like the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Goldenbear, and the Country Club.

The mid-80s took their toll on Social D. Ness succumbed to serious drug addiction and rehab and jail stints followed. The band was virtually unheard from between 1985 and 1988 when Prison Bound their second full-length vinyl record was released. Gone was the unpolished, raw edge that had so characterized their earliest works. In its place was a more mature intensity, and a certain rock-n-blues integrity that so many punk bands lacked. The bluesy, honky-tonk influences gave Social D a more cowpunk sound that previously. The band was back, but the going was no easier than it had been in the earlier parts of the decade.

Finally in 1990 Social D broke through the record industries blindness to real punk, and years before Nirvana, Green Day and "the year punk broke" the band release its self-titled major label debut. Every bit as intense as those early classics like “Telling Them”, “1945” and “Playpen”, this album carried a whole cadre of bluesy punk songs, everyone a hit in and of itself. While “Ball and Chain” was the only chart hit, the video breaking into MTVs "alternative" rotation for a while, the album was loaded with great songs, including terrific cover of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire”, and the Ness penned “So Far Away”.
"I write all the songs in my dining room with my acoustic guitar," says Mike Ness, "and every record I write usually is an example of what I'm listening to. The last two albums, I was listening to a lot of Hank Williams and dark rockabilly and blues as well, so that came out. What I've been listening to the last couple years is back to Johnny Thunders and the Clash and Ramones and Dead Boys, as well as early LA bands: X, the Dickies, stuff like that. That stuff all has so much more soul and substance than what's called alternative now."
With the album's success, the band toured again and began to build an even bigger following, breaking out of the small punk circuit and into larger clubs and rock festivals. The follow-up album -- Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell -- came two years later, and continued the group's progression into a more bluesy, almost rockabilly type punk. Ness's vocals began to whine like a blues singer, but the songs continued to pack a powerful guitar and drum punch that kept them, as always, on the edge. And while his vocal style was maturing, Ness's ability to write powerful lyrics to match the music continued to grow as well. His cynicism was even more pronounced with songs like “Cold Feelings”, “Bad Luck”, “Born to Lose”, “99 to Life”, and “King of Fools”.

It would be four years before another Social D album was released. In the meantime the band toured, in some ways returning to their punk roots as they played up and down the West Coast with longtime LA punkers, X. The combination of X and Social D in one evening seemed to bring out the best in both bands. In particular, Ness seemed more gritty, his aggression more apparent, and the band's attitude was more 'fuck you' than on previous tours in the early 90s.

That typical punk bravado spilled over onto the band’s next release White Light, White Heat, White Trash. Musically, the songs all have that blues echo that now is part of the Social D trademark sound. but with a definite nod to the modern alternative rock of the day. It’s clear too that Ness was still fighting his own demons, and religious imagery is prominent, all of which gives the album a rather dark feeling, though restitution and retribution both are hinted at throughout.

A long eight years would pass before Social D released another album. During that time Ness pursued his country punk persona through a number of solo releases each more honky-tonk than the last. Because of that 2004’s Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll is less bluesy and hearkens back to the band’s punk days more than any of the past three releases. The album is the band’s most mature to date reflecting Ness’ own ability to deal with his past and learn how to live in the present. It’s less about drunkenness and violence, and more about living life with honest to god adult relationships and issues. It also has hints of glam seventies power pop throughout, overall making it a solid rock and roll record. You would expect nothing else from Ness and company. Word on the street is that the band is working on a new LP set for release in 2010.

Social Distortion -- Telling Them

Social Distortion -- Live Before You Die