The year 1978 was filled with notable milestones. Among them, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation allowing home brewing in the United States, Pete Rose tallied his 3,000th hit, and Mike Ness formed the iconic California punk rock band Social Distortion. It was also a time of palpable social angst. High gas prices, poor economic growth and foreign affair debacles dominated the headlines and when Americans turned to music during those hard times, and specifically punk rock, it was Mike Ness’ Social Distortion that was there to meet them.
Influenced by bands like The Ramones and The Clash, Social D’s music featured unpolished vocals, blurring rock guitar and blazing fast drum beats to express Ness’ own discontent. They toured the country, whipping crowds into frenzies before finally releasing their first album, Mommy’s Little Monster, in 1983. After more than 30 years and seven albums, it’s difficult to find a rock band with the same sphere of influence.
The songwriting formula that Ness and crew have held onto all these years is likely why, in today’s restless climate, Social Distortion’s music has struck a multi-generational chord. People who have been listening to Social D their entire lives are passing the legacy on by bringing their own children to shows. It’s a connection not lost on Social Distortion guitarist Jonny Wickersham, who’s been with the band for the last 12 years.
“It does seem to be happening all the time,” Wickersham said during a recent phone interview. “You see people from 14 years old to 54 years old at our shows. More and more people bring their kids and they seem to love it. It is the place they want to be.”
Ness’s bare-knuckled approach to writing lyrics, coupled with the disobedient rock-n-roll style of the band members (both past and present), has long given fans the motivation to escape their own demons and release their frustrations.
“That’s the thing about Social D and Mike’s songs,” said Wickersham. “People have responded to them, myself included. Being a fan of the band and listening to them, they hit home […] in the heart. They are songs that you can listen to and then feel something about in your own life.”
And, according to Wickersham, that result is not by accident.
“Social D has always been a band that wanted to meet as many people as possible. Not just a punk crowd. I remember reading interviews [of Mike Ness] when I was 15,” said Wickersham. “That was the goal then and it still is today.”
While the goal of Social Distortion’s music may not have changed, the lineup sure has. Wickersham himself only started touring with the band in 2000, shortly after founding member and Ness’s longtime friend, Dennis Danell, passed away from a brain aneurysm. Now fulltime with Social D and co-writing songs with Ness, Wickersham claims to have grown as a musician in ways that would not have been possible otherwise.
“This is the first time I’ve had to step it up and take a real look at myself as a guitar player,” said Wickersham. “The style of Social D means that Mike wants a big, deep pocket to exist. I’ve never had to make sure I was laying down something solid for someone to play over until now. I’m working harder than I ever have.”
Currently touring in support of last year’s acclaimed release Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes, Social Distortion is happy with the life it has carved out, no member more than Wickersham.
“It’s what we all set out to do when we were kids. It can become a grind, so you just gotta remember, this is what you wanted to do. It’s cool and I love it. It’s the only thing I can do.”
Now in their fourth decade of existence, Ness and Social Distortion still write music capable of getting people through challenging times. Their legacy is not just an extension of bands that influenced them but also a foundation for those to come.
Social Distortion with Toadies
and Lindi Ortega
$36 at bendticket.com
8pm, Wednesday, May 16th
Midtown Ballroom, 51 NW Greenwood Ave.