Punk Pathfinders

Formed in the 1970s in Southern California, Social Distortion blazed trails for other high energy, punk-rock bands

By Ray Schweibert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 14, 2009

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Social Distortion at HOB in 2006

Photo by Kevin McCarty

For some people, punk rock’s mere mention can evoke images of mosh pits and rambunctious young revelers releasing pent-up emotions, but as a musical genre it seems to have become more acclimated into mainstream society.

Parents are no longer as anxious to hunt down like Tokyo Rose the derelict DJs broadcasting punk with the presumed intention of inciting angry riots. Maybe it’s not their cup of tea, but just as their parents finally relented after being inflamed by Elvis’ gyrating hips, they’re now seeing punk for what it is — fun, high-energy, up-tempo music with a message and a conduit for camaraderie, and what it’s not — an automatic fast-track to moral corruption.

Punk as a genre is entrenched in England with bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols, and New York City with the Ramones, but Southern California is also recognized as a principal pioneering ground. One of the original So. Cal. bands is Social Distortion, which was founded in the late 1970s by 17-year-old guitarist, lead singer and principal songwriter Michael Ness. “Social D” is credited with having influenced such contemporary rock bands as Pearl Jam and Green Day, and much of the material Ness and his band produced was inspired by early country and blues greats like Hank Williams, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Starting with 1983’s Mommy’s Little Monster, Social D’s released six studio CDs and commercial hits like “Ball and Chain,” “I Was Wrong,” “When the Angels Sing” and “Story of My Life,” and may best be recognized for performing a cover of the Johnny Cash hit “Ring of Fire.”

Social D returns to Showboat’s House of Blues this Saturday, Oct. 17, for a sold-out show beginning 7pm with opening bands the Strangers and Middle Class Rut. Besides Ness, other members include drummer Adam Willard, bassist Brent Harding and guitarist Jonny “2Bags” Wickersham, who is producing a record for the Strangers called The Human Condition. A member since February 2000, Wickersham spoke to AC Weekly by phone from a tour stop in Buffalo, N.Y.


I understand the Orange County section of Southern California, where you’re from, was a hotbed for punk rock music.

Not just California, but New York, London, D.C., Boston — every area had its own section where it’s rooted. Shane MacGowan, the original singer/songwriter for [the English-Irish band] the Pogues, had a band called the Nips, and was around from the beginning with the [Sex] Pistols and the whole English scene. Shortly thereafter the Pogues and a bunch of bands got that hybrid thing going [more recently with Irish-influenced punk bands like the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly], but you can trace that lineage right back to that.

In 2007, Social D put out a Greatest Hits record, but your last studio CD was in 2004 [Sex, Love, Rock ‘n’ Roll]. Is there anything new in the works?

We’re going to try to get something in the can by early next year. We have some songs we’re really happy about, including five or six we’ve been playing live on this tour and a whole stash of songs that are not quite done that we have to go back and look at the arrangements and maybe finish some verses. We just tour and tour and don’t devote much time to the record, and it’s high time we did that.


Has your fan base been indicating that they’d like to see new material released on a CD?

Social D’s never been a band that puts out a record every year or 18 months. In fact, we do take quite a while between our studio stuff, but the thing is we always focus on putting out the best record we can and that often takes time. One of the cool things about not putting out records like clockwork is that it creates a little anticipation, it seems. I have seen bands — and bands that I’m a fan of — put out so many albums so quickly that after a while people stop paying attention. The question of how the band’s evolved or changed since the last record gets blurred when you produce too much.


Adam Williard, your drummer, recently replaced [the retired] Charlie Quintana. How has that been working out for you?

He joined the band and went right over to Europe with us, and then Canada. He fits right in and has been doing a really good job. He’s from San Diego and played in a band called Rocket from the Crypt. The whole band sounds tight. We owe a lot to [sound engineer and tour manager] Craig Walker. He’s just really good at what he does and we think of him as one of the band. He’s got an excellent ear for tone, which a lot of sound people do not have, unfortunately. He can mix and get any room to sound good. We’re lucky to have him.


I see on your tour schedule you’ll be playing with Pearl Jam at the Wachovia Spectrum in Philly later this month [Oct. 27-28]. How excited are you about that?

They’re friends of ours and great guys. I met them years ago when I was playing with my old band, the Cadillac Tramps, and we had a chance to do a few shows with them in Canada in the early ’90s. For us, you couldn’t even imagine what that would be like. Here we are a band playing little clubs and bars, and now opening for Pearl Jam. It would’ve been the equivalent of opening for Led Zeppelin back in their day. But they were really on point with how they treated their fans and the bands opening for them, and I respect them for that.


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