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Will the Flash of 'White Light' Burn Steadily?

October 02, 1996|MIKE BOEHM

In the potentially lucrative marketplace for hard-edged punk-alternative rock, Social Distortion remains, to quote the title of its 1992 album release, "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell."

With "White Light White Heat White Trash"--its first release since '92, the year "alternative" entered the mainstream--SD is hoping to move closer to heaven on the charts. The early returns are good: The album debuted this week at No. 27 on Billboard's albums chart, the highest position of Social Distortion's career. Fans nationwide bought 30,000 copies in the album's first week of release.

The band from Orange County established solid punk credentials and a substantial cult following with its first two albums, "Mommy's Little Monster" (1983) and "Prison Bound" (1988). Its major label debut in 1990, "Social Distortion" on Epic, sold about 250,000 copies, giving SD a very respectable foothold on a broad, mainstream audience.

With "Somewhere," the band was shooting for a breakthrough to gold sales (500,000 copies). But despite an explosive single, "Bad Luck," the album proved to be a commercial holding action, reaching 296,000 in sales, according to SoundScan.

The band's manager, Jim Guerinot, and Dave Gottlieb, the 550 Music/ Epic executive who will oversee the marketing of "White Light," say the explosion of grunge rock in '92 probably kept "Somewhere"--with its far different, country-tinged punk sound--from becoming the band's breakthrough.

"It wasn't what the story was [in '92]," Guerinot said. "In '94 the story was all about punk rock bands, and we didn't release a record then. But now is a good time. We're going to be judged on our own merits."

SD leader Mike Ness notes that there are now about 80 radio stations across the country with modern-rock formats amenable to the band, compared with about 20 when its last record came out. Gottlieb said he is encouraged by the reception of the single, "I Was Wrong," which has moved quickly into the Top 10 on Billboard's modern-rock airplay chart while receiving some MTV exposure as well.

"I think we're much better prepared for the long haul" in promoting the new record, Gottlieb said. Unlike '92, he said, the label has a long-term marketing plan that stretches beyond six months. One major difference will be extensive overseas touring for a band that until now has been almost exclusively a U.S. attraction.

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Four years in the making, and loaded with tracks that have radio potential, "White Light" arrives with the feel of a go-for-broke effort. But, having been disappointed before, the SD camp isn't talking in terms of make-or-break outcomes.

"I hate to put that kind of a pressure on any artist," Gottlieb said. "An artist can deliver an amazing record, like Social Distortion has," and not reap commensurate sales. "I don't think this is their last, best shot, but it may be their best shot yet."

Ness said he found himself wondering during the long, arduous making of "White Light" whether he might be facing "possibly the rise or demise of my future." But now that the album is done, he says he isn't putting that kind of weight on its commercial outcome.

"We've been lucky. We've been able to make a living doing what we love. If it never gets better than it is now, it would be OK. We didn't start this band to make a million dollars. We started it to make our music heard. But a lot's happened in the past four years, and now a lot more ears can hear our music."

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