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Social Diseases

Mike Ness of Social Distortion has a few problems with today's punk rock.

After emerging from his smack romance, Ness and his latest cadre of collaborators put together 1988's Prison Bound, a disc that blended the combo's punk roots with country and folk influences. Throughout songs such as "Like an Outlaw," Ness, who was always more narratively inclined than most of his punk brethren, showed himself to be a storyteller with a taste for the language of dime novels and pulp fiction. But he's reluctant to make a big deal about the words he writes. "I guess along the way we have defied certain punk stereotypes," he allows. "But when you listen to Seventies and Eighties punk rock, there was a lot more versatility than people want to admit. There were loads of ballads and love songs and whatever. We weren't the only ones doing things different. In fact, I think the period of punk music between 1975 and 1983 was the most significant period of music since the Sixties--or maybe even the Fifties, with Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. But for whatever reasons, it gets completely ignored."

Such a fate did not befall Social Distortion. Prison Bound caught the attention of Epic Records, which signed the band shortly after its release. The quartet's major-label bow, 1990's Social Distortion, was a hard-rocking affair that sprinkled its punk approach with rockabilly and country seasoning. A cover of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" was the most explicit nod to the early days of rock, but it was hardly the only one: "Let It Be Me" begins with a lick that's pure Chuck Berry, while the popular "Ball and Chain" is rife with references to booze, cars and jail that seem straight out of a Gene Vincent cut. Such lyrics led some reviewers to accuse Ness of glorifying the very habits he supposedly left behind him, and there's some truth in that. But at least Ness closed the platter with "Drug Train," a plain-voiced effort that concludes, "The train passes through the graveyard/May the loved ones rest in peace/For the last stop, baby, is a violent crash/And hard times they never cease."

Another CD for Epic, 1992's Between Heaven and Hell, followed much the same formula, with similar success: There wasn't a bum track on the album, and several ditties ("Bad Luck" and "Born to Lose" among them) were downright anthemic. Even so, Epic found Heaven to be a difficult sell. "I can distinctly remember being in the office and listening to them working that record and trying to get radio to play it," Ness recalls. "Back then, there were really only twenty alternative-type stations in the country, so they would call AOR stations and try to get them to play 'Bad Luck.' They'd say, 'Yeah, they're a punk band, but they're a lot more. Can't you play them after Tom Petty or something?' And they'd be like, 'Are you crazy?'

"It was all because of what the media did to the word 'punk.' They just whittled the whole thing down to violence and safety pins and swastikas and shitty music. That's why they had to come up with the phrase 'new wave'--so they could try to sell you something that was kind of punk, but not really. Now, of course, the whole thing's turned around--but that doesn't mean it's better. I see punk-looking people with piercings on Coca-Cola commercials. Man, there's just something about that kind of thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth."

The mutation of punk rock that began with the appearance of the Green Day album Dookie left Ness feeling worse than that. But rather than simply griping about it, he used his ire to make White Trash. "That's a lot of what went into the writing of this record," he says. "I would just turn on MTV, and that would be enough to fuel me for the day. A lot of these bands that are calling themselves punk now were wearing spandex five years ago. They brought in a stylist, they changed their sound, and now they're pretending to be punk. Or else they're trying to sound just like whatever's popular right then. I was over in Europe at this festival, and it was pathetic--I sat through seven bands, and all of them had this sort of Chili Peppers/Rage Against the Machine kind of funky vibe with grungy guitars and heavy-metal hooks. And I was like, 'Come on! Please!' To me, punk was all about individualism and doing what you wanted even if it was unpopular. And now you can walk into a mall and get sleeve-tattooed.

"When something cool becomes popular, it tends to become kind of uncool, you know?" he declares. "It's like the Harley-Davidson syndrome. When I was a kid, if you had a bike, you had to be a fucking badass--you had to at least be able to hold your own in order to earn some respect. But now the lifestyle and the look is so easily attainable that anyone can walk around in that regalia. It's like all image, no background."

With these thoughts in mind, Ness, with the assistance of producer Michael Beinhorn, set out to give White Trash what he describes as "some of the emotion, some of the feel, some of the danger that punk had back in the late Seventies." In large part, they succeeded: The disc is edgier than the last several Distortion offerings without in any way seeming like a capitulation to fashion. From a lyrical standpoint, the tunes are very much in keeping with those that came before them: The only surprise is the prevalence of religious iconography in "When the Angels Sing" and "Crown of Thorns"--images that are echoed by a photograph of Jesus statues that adorns the back cover. But the pleasures inherent in the material don't seem redundant. Rather, they remind a listener that reliability can be a good thing--and that's exactly what Social Distortion offers.

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