POSTED ON APRIL 27, 2011:
More than 30 years later, Social Distortion symbolizes more than just punk rock
When Social Distortion was spawned in 1978, the band blasted out of Los Angeles' punk scene: it was loud, raucous and in your face. At the time, no one would have guessed the band would still be rocking on 15 years later, much less 30. That's what has happened, though, and along the way, Social Distortion became more than just an iconic punk band -- it turned into a band that represents true-blue rock 'n' roll.
Now touring in support of the band's latest album, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, guitarist Jonny Wickersham took a little time last week to discuss the band's evolution and how he became part of the iconic group. A few years younger than leader Mike Ness and the other original members of the band, Wickersham grew up in Southern California and admits to being a fan of the group from an early age, seeing the band play shows and parties on a regular basis.
By the time Wickersham was in his early 20s, he was playing in punk bands in the same music community and had become friends with Ness and guitarist Dennis Danell. In 1997, he was asked to fill in for Danell on the band's European tour as Danell stayed home for the birth of his son. That made Wickersham a natural and easy fit once Ness decided he needed to move on without his longtime partner after Danell passed away from a brain aneurism in 2000. Wickersham has a unique perspective, then, being able to reflect on the band as both a fan and a member.
"In a lot of ways, in the beginning, the band started out as a punk rock band," he said. "They looked like a punk band and talked about a lot of the same things, but there was something that set the band apart -- I just couldn't define it at the time.
"Back then, I think what was different was Social D was a little more rock 'n' roll than a lot of its peers," he said. "The band wasn't as fast or thrashy. Mike didn't want the band to just be one of those hyper 'One, two, fuck you' type bands."
Over the years, bandleader Mike Ness has incorporated many elements from classic rock, country and rockabilly, giving the band a distinct identity and sound that set it apart from its punk rock peers. By recording rock version of Johnny Cash's signature "Ring of Fire" and even covering The Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" in the band's early days, Ness kicked down doors and crossed boundaries, a move that undoubtedly added to the band's longevity.
"The band has always had a swagger," Wickersham said. "The Rolling Stones definitely played a major influence throughout, for sure.
"Over time, the band progressively defined its sound, even before I joined," he continued. "I think Mike has found the perfect mix of Americana and punk."
The integration of outside elements didn't occur without some level of resistance, especially initially, but those influences have become a part of Social Distortion's identity and signature sound.
"I remember when Mike recorded 'Prison Bound' in '88," Wickersham said. "That was a big move for the band at that point. I remember the Jason and the Scorchers at the time and Mike kind of said 'That's the direction I want to go' and it kind of pissed off a lot of the punk kids."
Even so, Ness stuck to his guns and Social Distortion found its true identity in a hybrid of punk, country and honky-tonk. The band scored a pair of minor hits with "Ball and Chain" and its take on Cash's "Ring of Fire."
With the band's latest release, you can look back and see its evolution, from the opening crunch of "Road Zombie" to the anthemic closer, "Still Alive." Along the way, Social Distortion still displays its early, hard-charging attitude in "Machine Gun Blues" and a distinct Stones-like swagger in "California (Hustle and Flow)," blending it all into a logical and cohesive package.
"Over the years, I think Mike hasn't so much slowed down in tempo as found his groove," Wickersham said.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Social Distortion has become an incredibly tight rock band over the years. As Wickersham explained, the band is "always kind of on tour" and as a result, stays in top form. That's also why, even though Social Distortion doesn't release new records in short intervals, each one consistently sounds fresh and vital.
New songs start out as ideas being sorted out in soundchecks and rehearsals with leader Mike Ness fleshing out the pieces that resonate with him as the songs eventually get worked out on the road.
"The best stuff rises to the top," Wickersham said. "We eventually realize which songs have staying power."
Wickersham is quick to point out that the band doesn't intentionally wait to put out albums, but lets each record come together naturally. By the time the group is ready to record, however, there's usually an anticipation built up and fans are more excited to hear the new material.
"The other thing that's cool is it gives the band a chance to evolve," he said. "Social D has a tried and true sound that we won't compromise, but we still get to grow. I think this record is different than the last one, which was different from White Light, White Heat."
With Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, that evolution has given the band a slightly more polished sound than in the past, with Mike Ness even incorporating female background vocals into the mix for the first time. As the band has evolved, however, Ness and company have kept the band's punk edge while growing into something more.
Ness' snarling vocals and the growling guitars are still intact, along with the blues and country edge that have become part of the band's signature. It has all matured into a cohesive whole, however, perhaps best displayed in tracks like "Bakersfield" and closer "Still Alive," which reflects on the band's history with one eye still squarely focused on the future.
Sure, the old punk rockers will show up for Social Distortion's show at Cain's Ballroom this Friday night, as will the latest generation of punk kids. Don't be surprised to see the cross generational crowd draw country, Americana and classic rock fans as well, however. After all, over 30 plus years, Social Distortion has found its place in the hearts and music libraries of all those fans and become a true American rock icon more than just a legendary punk band.
The band's concert at Cain's Ballroom this Friday night is officially sold out, but you know tickets will still be floating around on the street if you haven't planned accordingly. Sharks and Chuck Ragan (formerly of Hot Water Music) will open the show at 8pm.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A38394