WASHINGTON, November, 29, 2012 —During the late ‘70s and early ‘80s there was an explosion of underground punk rock bands in major cities across the US. This was actually the second wave of American punk that saw bands being influenced by English punk bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols (who in turn were primarily inspired by American punk band the Ramones). Bands in the punk scene soon started sprouting up everywhere by the dozens. Most of them flamed out relatively quickly. Some had decently long careers but were gone by the end of the ‘80s. Even fewer somehow managed to remain viable and stay together for the long haul, in some cases increasing their popularity even more by the time the ‘90s rolled around.
That final scenario paints the narrative that is Social Distortion. Social Distortion began in 1978 but didn’t really enjoy success of any kind until the ‘90s. They were somewhat well known in the LA punk scene, but one would be hard pressed to have heard of them outside of Southern California. In fact, aside from a single album release, and despite being embedded in the scene, they were largely absent from the public eye (and ear) in terms of tangible available material.
That changed when the band got back together and released Prison Break in 1988. The ’90s saw the band release Social Distortion and Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell and both albums reached gold record status. When people think of Social Distortion—and that accounts for a majority of people who saw them recently at the 9:30 Club—this ‘90s edition is the band that people bring to mind.
Unfortunately or not, that band doesn’t really exist anymore. Social D’s front man, founding member, and creative driving force, Mike Ness, is clearly still with the band. Social Distortion wouldn’t exist without Mike Ness. But even though they still play the classic songs, it’s really all a Mike Ness production now. Or at least that’s the guy everyone is familiar with and the individual who’s become very much the only face of the band at this point.
There’s nothing essentially wrong with this because Mike Ness’ sensibilities are always what made this band viable and it’s the only reason Social Distortion is still an item today. In addition, people going to see Social Distortion aren’t generally interested in the band outside of Mike Ness anyway. As long as Ness’ reassuring voice is at the front of Social Distortion, everyone taking them in live will likely be happy.
One of the reasons why Social Distortion wasn’t really relevant during the punk explosion in the ‘80s, and why they found moderate success with the college/alternative rock movement in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, is because they aren’t really a punk band to begin with. Sure, they’re grouped in with that scene and will never distance themselves from being identified with the genre. But that’s never been who they were (and are) as a band. What they play is straight up mid tempo rock and roll. There are no real frills or bells and whistles with this band. They don’t play fast, loose, or chaotic with their material.
In fact, despite their association with punk music, this is one of those professional sounding bands people will readily listen to, and they’ve been that way for quite awhile. The most distinctive aspect of the band is omnipresence of Mike Ness’ gruff vocals. But this is a band that knows what they do well, and they do about as effectively and efficiently as any band that’s current out there.
This is ultimately what people who are interested in Social Distortion are coming to see. SD’s fans aren’t normally traditional fans of punk rock, so they’re not regarding the band as some bizarre extension of an ancient punk rock scene. Instead they’ve bought into the brand that Social Distortion has developed over the years. They might not be exactly the same band their fans remember, even from the ‘90s. But it’s still Mike Ness pushing the same Social D sound, which has become distinctive in and of itself.
It doesn’t matter much that the line-up’s changed because ultimately that’s become irrelevant. Their fans just want to hear the same reliable, rocking sound Social Distortion has been known for during the past two decades. And for the band’s fans in attendance at the 9:30 Club, that’s exactly what they got.
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