“We weren’t supposed to live this long.” So ruminates Social Distortion’s resident troubadour, creator and frontman Mike Ness on forming the punk rock outlaw band as a teenager 40 years ago in the working class city of Fullerton, California.
It was nearing the dawn of the Reagan administration and a growing music scene was burgeoning in the OC with pioneers like Social D, The Adolescents and The Germs challenging the status quo like their Brit brethren Sex Pistols and The Clash. But still, Ness says, “Punk was a four-letter word back then, there was a stigma behind it. And I definitely didn’t think we’d make it to this point.”
After battling drug addiction, stints behind bars and losing seminal founding members like Dennis Danell who passed away from a brain aneurysm in 2000, Social Distortion really shouldn’t have made it to this point. But the band beat the odds, eventually finding commercial success with a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and singles “Ball and Chain” and “Story Of My Life” that took on a more cowpunk-rockabilly stylized version of punk that set them apart.
Ness and the current iteration of Social Distortion — rhythm guitarist Jonny Wickersham, bassist Brent Harding and drummer David Hidalgo Jr. — recently announced a 40th anniversary celebration to look back at the legacy, which will be held at Irvine’s FivePoint Amphitheatre on Oct. 26 with additional performances from friends like Joan Jett, The Distillers, The Kills, Frank Turner and Eagles Of Death Metal, among others.
“It’s funny, at the beginning of the year, my manager was asking about doing this big celebration. and I was like, can’t we just mention [the anniversary]?” Ness says, laughing. “But now that time has gone by and being on tour right now, playing our set with songs from throughout our career, now I’m starting to get into reflection mode and it feels great.”
Ness adds, “We’re really lucky — it’s such a unique thing to stay relevant through several generations and be somewhat more popular at this point than even 20 years ago. But it’s always been that way, it’s always been a slow uphill climb and it just worked out.”
Part of the charm is Ness’ lyrical prowess, throwing himself into songs dripping with honesty about the doldrums of daily life and overcoming its pitfalls — the “rock n roll blues” as some would call it.
“I grew up in a rough household and I wasn’t allowed a voice, so I found my voice in the band,” says Ness, who admits he was as much inspired by Johnny Rotten as he was great blues legends like Elmore James, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. “I grew up with a lot of music before I ever heard punk, and it was all blues-based music of the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and all the classic rock, so that’s definitely what always made us a little more than just a regular punk band.”
In addition to working on an upcoming documentary about Social Distortion, carrying off from their appearance in the 1984 expose “Another State Of Mind,” Ness says a new album is finally nearing completion — the first new material since 2011’s “Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes.”
“We’ve been in pre-production for four months, and we are scheduled to go into the studio in January and start recording,” says Ness noting that a number of songs are very much inspired by the times. “I mean, I don’t want to write a whole political album as that’s not in my wheelhouse but I’m challenging myself on this next record.”
The idea has been percolating with Ness as he has drug the anti-war anthem “1945” and the anti-hate track “Don’t Drag Me Down” out of the vault at recent shows.
“That song [‘Don’t Drag Me Down’] I wrote 25 years ago when I thought racism was really bad and sadly I feel that it’s more relevant now than when I wrote it,” says Ness, who made headlines a year ago for an alleged altercation with a Trump supporter at a show.
“But what’s really sad is how quiet America is right now. This country was founded on rebellion, founded on questioning authority and the people in charge and now everyone is quiet? There are enough aware people in this country and it’s just odd to me that it’s so quiet. Apathy is such a drag.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.