Proudly out of step with the rest of Southern California’s hardcore brigade in its early days and growing further apart with time, Fullerton singer/guitarist Mike Ness (who was actually born in Lynn, Massachusetts) has led his influential group through a fitful career of turbo-charged roots rock that was ironically vindicated when Social Distortion was recognized as the sonic template for some of the bands that broke California punk-pop into the big time in 1994. The raw evidence of the nascent group’s distinctive origins is already unmistakable on the temperate mid-tempo chunk and West-Coast-country-meet-the-Clash essence of the ten 1981 singles and compilation tracks (including “1945” and “Playpen,” twice each) patched together as Mainliner, which contains Ness’ amused contemporary liner-note observation that “people were actually scared of punk being played.”
Social Distortion was first formed in the late ’70s by Ness with drummer Casey Royer and brothers Rikk and Frank Agnew. The real story begins with the arrival of bassist-cum-guitarist Dennis Danell, who died in 2000. (The rhythm section of John Maurer and Bob Stubbs joined in 1984; drummer Christopher Reece replaced Stubbs in 1985, thereby fixing the band’s long-running lineup.) Social D established itself as a top-rank Southern California punk group in 1982 with the “1945” 45. In an era known more for West Coast hardcore (Black Flag, TSOL, Circle Jerks, Fear), this Fullerton band covered the Stones (the B-side is a red-hot “Under My Thumb”) and Creedence in their live shows. Mommy’s Little Monster is a near-perfect example of melodious, riffing punk, just oozing rock’n’roll suss. From the piledriving opener (“The Creeps”) to the swaggering “It Wasn’t a Pretty Picture” to “Another State of Mind,” Monster is a two-guitar punk-pop classic. (The first CD adds “Under My Thumb” and another early track.)
Five years later, Social Distortion were among the last practitioners of this form, and Prison Bound (made and released after the hell-raising Ness had paid a debt to society and gotten clean and sober) adds a new twist. Acoustic guitars abound and Ness has obviously been listening to Johnny Cash; at least half of the LP is tinged with a country feel. “Indulgence” and “Like an Outlaw (for You)” (with cowboy yells and snapping whips) are like parts of a soundtrack for a heroic but sad Western we’ll never see; there’s also another Stones cover, “Backstreet Girl.” Although Prison Bound lacks the all-out dynamics of Monster (credit the loss of original bassist Brent Liles and singing drummer Derrick O’Brien), it’s still a maturely paced, knowing follow-up, and not just for punks.
With Social Distortion signing to a major label, many might have expected the group’s self-titled third LP to ease up on the intensity. Instead, the quartet returns to the debut LP’s guitar assault on such burners as the opening “So Far Away,” and “She’s a Knockout.” The rootsy leanings of Prison Bound are still present, but far more restrained; Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” gets a back- to-basics reading. The rhythm section (including ex-Lewd drummer Chris Reece) finally jells, and Dave Jerden’s production is just right, a striking backdrop for Ness’ great vocals. This veteran punk band not only stuck to its rock’n’roll guns in a higher-stakes outing, but reached a measure of mainstream acceptance in the process. Shocking.
The Story of My Life EP combines the single version of that album track with a pair of bracing 1990 live cuts (“Mommy’s Little Monster” and “1945”) and previously unissued studio renditions of Bo Diddley’s Willie Dixon-written “Pretty Thing” and rockabilly legend Ersel Hickey’s “Shame on Me.”
If Dave Jerden’s rock-solid production on Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell isn’t as savagely electric as it was on Social Distortion, Ness and his three loyal bandmates give up nothing in their driving melodicism. Lashing his husky voice to an unyielding (and, to its mild detriment, unvarying) wall of dynamic rhythm guitar power pushed along by Reece’s relentless backbeat, Ness lays out the autobiographical original “Born to Lose,” snappy, catchy winners (“Bad Luck” and “When She Begins”), rebel-without-a-clue classics (“King of Fools,” “Cold Feelings,” “Sometimes I Do”) and tough-romance ravers (“Bye Bye Baby,” “This Time Darlin’,” “Making Believe”). Even when dealing with such familiar topics, Ness’ unpretentious reflections have a proud poetry and occasionally make deft use of clichés without wallowing in them. Social D isn’t stretching the limits of three-chord rock’n’roll any, but few such bands have as much skill or conviction.
White Light White Heat White Trash, rippingly produced by Michael Beinhorn with punk veteran Chuck Biscuits now in the drummer’s seat, allows Ness to wax sensitive and reflective without sacrificing an inch of the band’s sturdy sonic aggression. “I Was Wrong” is an extraordinary and respectable mea culpa, and sets the tone for an album of mature consideration and searing rock power. “Through These Eyes,” “Pleasure Seeker,” “Gotta Know the Rules,” “Untitled” and “Don’t Drag Me Down” redefine the growling singer as a man of the underworld who has learned to get along in the light.