"When punk started in the Seventies, it was like a runaway train -- nobody knew where it was going to end up," Social Distortion guitarist Dennis Danell says. "Punk was more dangerous and threatening back then than it is now. I think rap and the whole street-gang thing busting out and getting scary took some of the emphasis away from punk rockers. When people realized they had to contend with drive-by shootings and drug deals, the kid with the blue hair just didn't seem that scary any more."
Times have changed. Back in 1983, when Social Distortion released its debut, Mommy's Little Monster, the band was considered a threat to polite society. Fifteen years later, with deceased rappers and Spice Girls topping the charts, punk rock has become corporate-sponsored, fashionable, even cute.
Which is basically the reason Social Distortion -- a band firmly at odds with the plastic-wrapped present -- has released a disc that aims to recapture the visceral impact of punk's early years. Last year's White Light White Heat White Trash is the quartet's sixth album and its first in four years.
"We went back to our punk roots because we thought punk was getting lost in the alternative onslaught," says guitarist Danell in a phone interview from a Northern California tour stop. "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."
Ness and Danell formed Social Distortion in 1979, when, as a pair of suburban schoolkids in Orange County, they were inspired by the thriving punk scene in nearby Los Angeles. The group carved a niche for itself by infusing punk with elements of rockabilly and the harder-edged rock that came of age in the Sixties.
"We could see similarities between the beginnings of punk and rockabilly," Danell explains. He believes both genres emerged as defiant responses to a repressive dominant culture: "White people didn't want their kids to listen to the Devil's music, stuff like the Delta blues. Here were these people singing about heroin and wine and women, and it freaked people out. The earliest years of rock and roll were the same: Parents didn't want their kids listening to Chuck Berry until Pat Boone did a remake of a Chuck Berry song, and then it was okay. Punk fit right in with that."
Social Distortion managed to build a following by providing a canny blend of genres, replete with power chords, catchy hooks, and lyrics about life on the wrong side of the tracks delivered in an affected British growl. The music, often midtempo and melodic, posed a sharp contrast to that of SoCal contemporaries such as Black Flag, the Germs, and T.S.O.L., who played a mile a minute and with little regard for formal song structure.
The members of Social Distortion also cultivated a distinct image. Rather than sporting mohawks or shaved heads, they looked like sinister versions of Fonzie, tattooed bowling-alley boys from 1957. And they worked hard to live up to their bad-boy image, both on-stage and off. This is especially true of songwriter Ness, whose heroin addiction and self-destructive tendencies are captured in the 1985 documentary film Another State of Mind.
This destructive era, and a subsequent recovery period, kept the band from releasing a second album for a full five years. Prison Bound, a relatively timid sophomore release, was followed by a pair of harder albums, the 1990 eponymous major-label debut (which won the band national attention) and 1992's Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell. These records featured covers of songs by country legends Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire") and Ed Bruce ("King of Fools"). Indeed, Ness's own compositions ("The Story of My Life," "Ball and Chain," "Born to Lose") were steeped in the twangy sensibilities of rockabilly and country.
While Ness has said that he listened to Cash and the forlorn ballads of Hank Williams while he wrote the songs for those early records, it is clear he concentrated on the rabble-rousing punk of the Clash, the Ramones, and Johnny Thunders when he sat down to pen the tunes on White Light.
And though Ness been clean for more than a decade, just about every cut on the new record recalls the rebellious posturing of the group's lean days. ("I've seen the violence and the tears ... I got my schooling in the streets," Ness growls on "Through These Eyes.")
While Ness was writing songs, the rest of the band was kept busy during the four-plus years between Somewhere and White Light by what Danell calls "little setbacks." The band toured for eighteen months, including dates with for everyone from Neil Young to the Ramones to the Reverend Horton Heat. The band also entered into a lengthy legal battle to reclaim ownership of its catalogue, including Mommy's Little Monster, Prison Bound, and a number of early singles packaged on Mainliner, a compilation released last year.