Orange County's Little Monster | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Orange County's Little Monster

Social Distortion 101

Mike Ness is an icon. Regardless of the era of Social Distortion you're into, whether it is the raw early three-cord punk of their late '70s-early '80s output, or their more modern country-tinged, bluesy bar rock, the legend of Mike Ness cannot be denied.

Ness was raised in Orange County and kicked out at 15, roaming the gutter punk-friendly streets of Southern California in the mid to late 1970s. After living in the also legendary "Black Hole" punk house in Fullerton, he was inspired by The Sex Pistols to found Social Distortion with Rikk and Frank Agnew on guitars and Casey Royer on drums. When he asked his high school friend Dennis Danell to join, they stayed the only two constant members of the band for over two decades.

In 1981, they released the Mainliner/Playpen 7-inch, which combined the playful simplicity of The Ramones with the druggy haze of The Pistols. Even though they wouldn't release an album proper until 1983, Mainliner/Playpen received quite a bit of play at the time on the influential Southern California radio station KROQ. This and a U.S./Canadaian tour with Brent Liles on bass and Derek O'Brian on drums kept the band buzzing all throughout Orange County and Los Angeles.

With the release of "Mommy's Little Monster" in 1983, they ceased to be underground and gave the band a name outside of Southern California. "Monster" was one of the final punk albums where earnestness was a virtue, before making way for the eventual pop punk domination of posturing and teenage humor. Ness and Danell believed in PUNK, fully capitalized, as a way of life and a culture and songs like "Creeps" and "Telling Them" reveled in that excitement.

After their tour was over, Ness came back to California without a place to live. During his tenure couch surfing he dove headlong into drug addiction and being strung out on heroin. This culminated in everyone but Danell quitting the band mid-show on New Year's Eve 1983.

The band went on hiatus in 1985 as Ness entered various treatment centers in between brief stints of jail time. Upon reforming in 1986, they released their second album, "Prison Bound," with Ness more determined than ever to combine his love of country and blues with the punk sound and lifestyle. With songs going past the four-minute mark, Social D's small outbursts of anger grew into slower, more methodical critiques of society. While there were still glimpses of Ness' brash, young badass displayed, the Buck Owens/Johnny Cash influences were looming larger as the genre "cowpunk" struggled to be born.

Their self-titled third album was released in 1990. This is where we get "Ball and Chain," "Story of My Life" and their cover of Cash's "Ring of Fire," arguably the three best known songs of their career (with "Story of My Life" going on to appear not only in Reality Bites, but on Guitar Hero 3 as well). Mainstream success had arrived and their hybrid sound of punk, blues, country, and rockabilly was here to stay.

"Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell" came out in 1992 and songs like "Born to Lose" and "Bad Luck" steeped Social D's sound in blues, but also distanced Ness from his early punk roots even more than ever.

Before the release of their fifth album, "White Light, White Heat, White Trash," Ness was quoted as saying it would bring Social D back to their harder edged, punkier roots. "Don't Drag Me Down" and "Down on the World Again" captures that sound beautifully with Ness growling harder than he had in a decade, while still catering to the mainstream with tracks like "I Was Wrong" and "Dear Lover."

After a live album and two solo outings by Ness, the band readied to head back into the studio, only to be blindsided by the death of founding member Dennis Danell. They continued playing sold out shows with a rotating lineup, until finally heading back into the studio and releasing Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, their first album in eight years. While some consider the album to be a bit more polished than punk, "Reach For the Sky" is one of the most powerfully written songs of Ness' career and the entire album contains some of the most genuinely beautiful singing he has ever done.

In 2010, they signed with Epitaph and in 2011, they released Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, their seventh and most recent album. A week later the album had reached #4 on the charts, making it the first top 10 album of their 33-year career playing punk music for grownups.

Social Distortion is touring and coming to Bend for the 25th anniversary of the band's self-titled third album while plotting a return to the studio for a planned 2016 release.

While Ness might be the only original band member, he is arguably this generation's punk Hank Williams. He is touring with Jonny Wickersham (of U.S. Bombs and the last two Social D albums), Brent Harding (from Ness' solo work and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy), and David Hidalgo Jr. (from Suicidal Tendencies). That is a damned fine line-up. Treat yourself.

Social Distortion

6 pm, Monday, September 7.

Century Center, 70 SW Century Dr.


About The Author

Jared Rasic

Film critic and author of food, arts and culture stories for the Source Weekly since 2010.
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