Punks get the blues too. The band Social Distortion has always had them. Its music is loud, but there’s no man to rebel against or parents to blame. It’s a guy shouting back at the troubles weighing him down and the girls on his mind.
The energetic spirit of punk lives well in the music, and front-man Mike Ness writes simple songs with high energy and gusto.One would feel more sympathy for his woes if he didn’t make such enjoyable music from them.
Social Distortion was formed by Ness in 1979 with Casey Royer and, Rikk and Frank Agnew. The original line-up didn’t last for very long though. The Agnew brothers and Royer left to form their own band, The Adolescents, after Ness invited Dennis Danell into Social Distortion. At the time Danell didn’t know how to play any instruments, but he became the band’s rhythm guitarist for the next 20 years. He would be the only other consistent member other than Ness until his death of a brain aneurysm in 2000.
Despite the frequent changes, the band has maintained a signature sound through the infusion of blues and country roots into the songwriting. Ness goes for stories mined from his life, as opposed to distant concepts. His struggle with heroin, the friends he’s lost and the women he’s wanted are ever present in his music.
Social Distortion became widely known in the punk scene in 1983 with its first album, Mommy’s Little Monster, which was released on the independent label 13th Floor Records. The second album, Prison Bound, wouldn’t come out until 1988. In that period the band saw another change in their line-up with the mid-performance departure of Brent Liles and Derek O’Brien at a 1983 New Years Eve show. Bassist John Maurer and drummer Christopher Reece replaced them soon after.
The band’s next album would be their first on major label Epic and their biggest success up to that point. The self-titled record benefited greatly from the label change in production and the continued evolution of their sound. Their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” kept the spirit of the song, but tweaked it with energetic guitars and Ness’ gravelly voice. The result was a punk song with a little bit of twang.
“Ball and Chain” is also another stand out from the record. Ness’ weary voice matches the words beautifully and only makes the story of a broken man looking for a better way more affecting. When he sings, “But wherever I have gone/I was sure to find myself there/You can run all your life/But not go anywhere,” one can relate. Sometimes the last place you want to be is in your head.
Overall the best quality of the music is Ness’ strength in articulating his pain and the troubles with drug addiction in simple terms. However, the band’s songs don’t use many chords; they stick to a verse, chorus, verse, chorus structure, and the drumming is competent, but unremarkable. All of it can become a little tedious. The same could be said about much of the punk genre, but the best music in the genre differentiates itself through its raw energy and humanity.
Social Distortion put what fuck-ups and wayward souls feel in sonic form and they do it in a way listeners can enjoy.
In the end the self-titled album became their first gold record and the beginning of a punk institution. The band went on to make four more albums, the last of which came out this January. Their major label debut remains their most important to many fans and newcomers alike and marks the arrival of Social Distortion country-punk-sound and Ness as a songwriter.
The album’s strength lies not in its complexity but in its relatability. Ness had an experience to share, the words to articulate it and the voice to carry it.