For rockabilly punk band Social Distortion, gaining national recognition during the eighties punk era demanded an edge. A self described “hard-ass, macho group,” Social Distortion grinded its way through Fuller-ton, California’s, punk movement by doing their own thing while committing themselves to their art. Singer, songwriter, guitarist, and front man Mike Ness drew from the sounds of fifties musicians such as Johnny Cash, Eddie Cochran, and Chuck Berry, and added to them the raw, explosive angst of punk. That mix, along with a willingness to work hard as a band, eventually put Social Distortion into its own arena. The Trouser Press Guide to 90’s Rock stated that “Social Distortion was recognized as the sonic template for some of the bands that broke California punk-pop into the big time in 1994.”*
Ness and guitarist Dennis Danell founded Social Distortion in 1979 while they were in high school. Claiming that they felt they were more of a social band than a political band, Social Distortion said the name just went along with much of their song writing. They began making music with a philosophy that learning to play the instruments was a priority. Jeffrey Ressner from Rolling Stone quoted Ness in 1990 as proclaiming “We were never really part of what we called the forbidden beat, that real thump, thump, thump, one-two-f-— you drumbeat and screaming into the microphone. We always wanted to learn how to sing and play our guitars.” Social Distortion live shows initially covered acts such as the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Danell commented on their simple, heavy guitar sound in an interview with an Earwig writer, “I credit that to the fact that we grew up in Fullerton, which is where Fender guitars come from. So we’d always been around that, and we always wanted a heavy, vintage kind of tube sound, but as intense as possible. And we try to keep it as simple as we possibly can, and not let other things mask what we’re trying to do.” Common among punk and alternative groups, the Sex Pistols were a preeminent influence. Ness stated in an interview by Rolling Stone’s Chris Mundy, “When I heard the Sex Pistols … those guys sounded like I felt. I fell in love with it.”
Social Distortion’s first incarnation was completed by Brent Liles on bass and Derek O’Brien on drums and vocals. Their debut, 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster, was put out amidst Ness’ heroin addiction which nearly took his life and wreaked havoc on the career of the band. Liles and O’Brien left the group during those turbulent years, but were replaced by drummer Chris Reece and bassist John Maurer in 1984. Alex Ogg stated in The Rough Guide to Rock, “by 1984 Ness’s drug problems were devouring most of the band’s income, and they practically vanished from view, with only the occasional Los Angeles or San Francisco date to keep any memories alive.” Finally in 1988, Ness claimed to have quit his addiction, later telling Chris Mundy of Rolling Stone “My life got better the day I stopped….” Their 1988 offering, Prison Bound, seemed to be a work created from a feeling of camaraderie with Johnny Cash as it contained a heavy acoustic guitar sound and a significant country influence.
Miraculously surviving the chaos of the early eighties, Social Distortion worked hard during the nineties, putting out their first major label album, Social Distortion, along with an EP entitled Story of My Life…and Other Stories in 1990. Ness and his fellow band mates did what they had to do to keep things going. Ness painted houses, Maurer worked in a barber shop cutting hair for at least eight months before heading back into the studio for their next project. 1992’s Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, a chronicle of life on the streets, broken hearts, punks, addictions, and lost innocence, continued their three-chord, straight-up rock style of expression even while letting up on the savage electric feel of Social Distortion.
A collection of singles from their early days in 1981 were gathered, along with a few compilation tracks, fora 1995 release, Mainliner (Wreckage from the Past). It was obvious from the previous work that Social Distortion was cutting their own path through the punk landscape. Even while many others were cranking out the hardcore stuff in the early eighties, Social Distortion’s rockabilly
Members include Chuck Biscuits, drums; Dennis Danell, guitar; John Maurer, bass; Mike Ness, vocals, guitar, songwriter.
Group formed in 1979 in Fullerton, CA; recorded several singles in 1981; debut album, Mommy’s Little Monster, released in 1983; signed with Epic, released Social Distortion, 1990; live release, Live at the Roxy, released, 1998; Mike Ness’ solo release, Cheating at Solataire, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Epic Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
punk sound was distinctive. After their sensitive and reflective White Light White Heat White Trash in 1996, Chuck Biscuits, a former member of such pioneering bands as DOA, the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and Danzig, was added as the new drummer. Danell commented in an interview with Miami New Times’ Georgina Cardenas on the group’s return totheir punk roots for the 1996 release, “We went back to our punk roots because we thought punk was getting lost in the alternative onslaught…. All these alternative bands are supposed to be part of the punk movement, but we just don’t see it; we don’t feel that what they do has anything to do with punk.”
Even though Social Distortion’s music has been flavored with vintage rockand roll, the group kept up with modern times by broadcasting a live concert over the Internet. Late in 1996, asold-outshowatthe Hollywood Palladium was available for viewing on the Web. Social Distortion captured their live sound from three concerts played in Southern California and released a project in 1998 entitled Live at the Roxy. Returning to the small label recording company, their live album was released by Time Bomb.
Despite the commitment and hard work overtheir 20year career, Social Distortion has produced only one gold album. Even though the group lacked the exposure of having cover shots on Rolling Stoneand appearances at the Grammy Awards, Ness seemed to take the band’s limited success in stride by stating to Michael Gelfand of Allmusic Zine, “I probably wouldn’t go [to the Grammys] anyway, but it’s the point. You want the credibility and the acknowledgment.” However, he also stated that he was proud of their gold record and he was grateful that he has not had to paint houses for about ten years. Members of the band appeared to be ordinary people with common hobbies and interests. Danell enjoys mountain biking, riding motorcycles, and playing poker. Ness collects ’50s atomic paraphernalia and various religious figures. However, Maurerwas slightly more unique in his pursuits as he was licensed as a cosmetologist. Also, both Ness and Danell moved to different areas in their life when they fathered children. They said the move was something new and that it did not take anything away from their philosophies; they were just viewing the world with a different perspective.
Some band members took their Social Distortion experience and progressed into other pursuits. In 1995, the group purchased an Orange County, California, recording studio where they recorded their first two albums. The guys were going to give local bands help with establishing themselves. Maurer did some musical work on his own. He started an independent label, Slip Records, which was something he had wanted to do for many years. The label put out work from punk and acid bands such as Hellbound Hayride’s Sinner. Ness released two solo albums in 1999. The first, a roots-rock project was titled, Cheating at Solitaire. The second album was entitled Underthe Influence. Gelfand said Ness stated “It was very necessary for me to do this record [Cheating at Solitaire] to just let that stuff out. I felt it was very bottled up inside me, and it was very therapeutic to get it out.” Recording for the roots-rock album was done with old style equipment in order to capture the rockabilly sound as well as possible. Ness hoped that the break from Social Distortion provided by his solo work would refresh him for a return to the studio with the band.
Mommy’s Little Monster, 13th Floor, 1983; released Triple X, 1990; released Time Bomb, 1995.
Prison Bound, Restless, 1988; Time Bomb, 1995.
Social Distortion, Epic, 1990.
Story of My Life…and Other Stories, (EP), Epic 1990.
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, Epic, 1992.
Mainliner (Wreckage from the Past), Time Bomb, 1995
White Light White Heat White Trash, 550 Music/Epic, 1996
Live at the Roxy, Time Bomb, 1998.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, The TrouserPress Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
musicHound Rock, Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Rolling Stone, May 31, 1990, p. 34; July 9-23, 1992, pp. 32-3.
“Mike Ness: Life Beyone Social Distortion,”Allmusic Zine, http://www.allmusic.com (September 26, 1999).
Earwig, http://earwig.com (December 9, 1999).
“I Wanna Be Distorted,”Miami NewTimes.com, http://www.miaminewstimes.com (July 31, 1997).
The Rough Guide to Rock, http://www.roughguides.com (December 9, 1999).
Social Distortion homepage, http://www.socialdistortion.com (December 9, 1999).
Punk Rock Band
In 1996 Social Distortion, Orange County, California punk stalwarts, released their third major label album, White Light, White Heat, White Trash, to critical acclaim. It was the band’s first album in four years, the belated follow up to their first major success, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. In those interim years the band lost its longtime drummer and would lose a second drummer before the album was released. Mike Ness, the pumped-up, tattooed singer and songwriter, struggled with newmaterial. The band spent a year in the recording studio, the final results sounding much like previous Social D albums, with its signature blend of roots rock and punk, angry, angst-ridden lyrics and Ness’s gravelly baritone. Upon the album’s release, the band netted legendary punk drummer Chuck Biscuits, of Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and D.O.A. fame.
Formed in 1979 by childhood friends Mike Ness and Dennis Danell, Social Distortion came at the tail end of the initial punk movement. From the beginning, Ness’s songs were marked with anger and frustration. As it was in the beginning, so it is with White Light, White Heat, White Trash. As Lorraine Ali, wrote in Rolling Stone, “One reason for Social D’s longevity is that they never have bought into any one trend but instead have written songs with a timeless, outlaw attitude.” The band has stayed close to the essentials; loud guitars, angry vocals, hard-beaten drums. Social Distortion’s voice, which grewout of angry adolescence, has not changed.
The early Social D played hard-driving Ramones-style songs typifying teenage attitudes like distrust of parents and of authority. Suburban punks from Orange County, they entered a scene dominated by Los Angeles groups like X, the Weirdos, and proto-hardcore bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks. The band’s early years were tumultuous. Fast driving hard core was replacing the punk rock of the seventies. Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols was dead of an overdose and a hero to some. Hard drugs were rampant. “I started drinking and doing drugs when I was eleven,” said Ness. “I did them until I was twentythree. I got thrown out of my house when I was fifteen. Then I just survived. My houses were mostly just a bunch of dope fiends shooting up,” he told Chris Mundy of Rolling Stone.
Ness and the band itself were on shaky ground when they toured cross-country in an old, unreliable tour bus. The film Another State of Mind documents that troubled tour. There was a defection of two original members and Ness fell deeper into addiction. John Maurer, a childhood friend of Ness and a former roadie for the band, took over as bass player in 1984. Later that same year, Chris Reece, from the San Francisco punk band, The Lewd, became their drummer. The band tried to get it together to record while Ness battled his drug addiction. Social D reformed itself, releasing Prison Bound in 1988, their first recording since Ness got clean. Their early punk, Ramones-style sound took on a rockabilly/country flavor which was to become, over the next several albums, their signature style. The band was blues-based, set at punk pace. “We were never hardcore,” says Ness. “And by 1984 punk had lost it. Like anything, when it gets big, it gets diluted.” he told Mundy. The album included a cover of the Johnny Cash classic, “Ring of Fire.” The band continued to tour, much as they had in the early days, and in 1990 they released Social Distortion, their major label debut. They toured that year as the supporting act to NeilYoung.
Their follow-up album, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell was released in February of 1992. It marked the band’s first real commercial success. The video for “I Was Wrong” was in heavy rotation on MTV’s “Buzz Bin” for 12 weeks. The album sold over 400,000 copies. With songs titled “Born To Lose,” “King of Fools,” and “Bad Luck,” the album continued Ness’s interest in the dark side of country while remaining true to the band’s punk origins. Various critics decried the record as sounding like a shotgun wedding between two disparate types of music, a wedding that was surprisingly successful. A review in the Los Angeles Reader described Somewhere
For the Record…
Original members include Mike Ness, guitar and vocals; Dennis Danell, guitar; Brent Liles (left band in 1988) bass; Derek O’Brien (left band in 1988), vocals, drums. Later members include John Maurer (joined band in 1984), bass; Chris Reece (member 1988-1994), drums; Chuck Biscuits (joined band in 1996), drums.
Addresses: Record company —Sony Music, Attn: Dave Gottlieb, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211; phone: 212 8330-8491; fax: 212 833-4060.
Between Heaven and Hell as “somewhere between the Ramones and Johnny Cash.”
Persistence had finally paid off. The band’s longevity, it’s origins in the tail end of the initial punk wave, and Ness’s personal history had earned the band the recognition it deserved. While the outlaw pose adopted by Ness and the songs about drifters, losers and hard luck were rock and roll clichés, Ness had lived what he sang about, and this authenticity shined through. The band toured for nearly sixteen months, co-billed with the Ramones, and later headlining with the Rev. Horton Heat.
Four years passed before the release of their next album, White Light, White Heat, White Trash. During this time Social Distortion was engaged in a lengthy legal battle to reclaim ownership of its back catalogue. They were eventually victorious and the early singles were released on a compilation on Mainliner records, as well as their first EP and “Mommy’s Little Monster.” The band also assumed ownership of “The Casbah,” the Orange County studio wherethey recorded their first two albums, after its owner died in an accident. Chris Reece, who had been with the band for over ten years, left at the end of 1994, as Ness struggled to write new songs. A replacement drummer lasted little more than a year and it was only upon completion of White Light, White Heat, White Trash that Chuck Biscuits, legendary drummer for Black Flag, Circle Jerks, D.O.A. and recently Danzig, joined the band.
White Light, White Heat, White Trash marked both a return to the roots of the band and a culmination of all that the band had worked through overtheyears. Ness sings “in a compassionate growl that fuses pain, anger, shame, and courage, he’s chased by memories he can’t outrun,” wrote Ira Robbins, in Rolling Stone. Ness did not veer from the familiar terrain of frustration, anger, and contrition. However, while the subjects seem familiar, they are viewed with a more mature and wizened outlook. The first single and video “I Was Wrong” reflects upon the singer’s self-destructive past; it is the song of a survivor.
The album was produced by Michael Beinhorn who has recorded Soundgarden, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Basic tracks were recorded in New York; overdub and mixing were done in LosAngeles. Ness, a Southern California native, immersed himself in the local scene while continuing to write songs. The sound is more raw, less country than the roots-punkof Social Distortion and Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. As Ness explained, “Every record I write 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 of 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 has so much more soul and substance than what’s called alternative now.”
Mommy’s Little Monster, Time Bomb Records, 1982.
Prison Bound, Sticky Fingers Records, 1988.
Social Distortion, Epic, 1990.
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, Epic, 1992.
Mainliner: Wreckage From the Past, Time Bomb Recordings, 1995.
White Light, White Heat, White Trash, Sony 550 Music, 1996.
Future Looks Bright Ahead, Posh Boy, 1981.
Rodney on the ROQ Vol. II, Posh Boy, 1981.
Someone Got Their Head Kicked In, B.Y.O. Records, 1981.
Hell Comes to Your House Vol. I, Bemisbrain, 1982.
More Than A State of Mind, Restless, 1990.
Los Angeles Reader, March 6, 1992.
New York Times, November 29, 1996.
Rolling Stone, July 9-23, 1992; October 3, 1996.
Additional information gathered from publicity materials provided by 550 Music.