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ALT.ROCK.OC: 20 YEARS OF SUBURBAN STRUGGLE

Essential Albums, '78-98

A lot of music has come out of Orange County over the years. To fully grasp the arc of the punk-alternative scene, you need an earful of history.

December 31, 1998|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SD made the album at the Casbah, the Fullerton studio run by Chaz Ramirez, a much-loved record producer who guided many O.C. bands, and had an important hand in honing Social D's sound.

Ramirez was a notorious pack rat, perched in a studio cluttered with gadgets, toys, musical instruments and mounds of electronic gear. Ramirez died in 1993 when he fell from a warehouse attic while scrounging for more stuff to squirrel away at the Casbah. Social Distortion eventually acquired the studio for reasons sentimental as well as practical.

Forced in 1985 to choose between a life of drugs and prison or sobriety and a future, Ness overcame the pull of self-destructive habits. His next 10 years of songwriting and recording revolved around clear-eyed contemplations and hard-edged re-creations of the wild life that had formed him.

Country and blues influences emerged on "Prison Bound" (1988), "Social Distortion" (1990) and "Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell" (1992), but the band never departed from its original concept. All were good albums with some memorable peaks; the gritty title cut of "Prison Bound" may be the apex of O.C. rock.

SOCIAL DISTORTION

"White Light White Heat White Trash" 550 Music/Epic, 1996

For the long-aborning "White Light White Heat White Trash," Ness dug deeper, partly at the insistence of SD's new producer, Michael Beinhorn.

Where previous albums had largely been the diary scrawls of a man trying simply to make extreme experience intelligible, Ness now found the broader vision to sum up what it all meant. Far more tenderness and vulnerability--and even a touch of contrition--entered the mix, but not at the cost of a scorching performance.

"White Light" was the band's third major-label release, its bid to boost commercial returns from steady (about 250,000 sales per album) to stellar. The album debuted in the Top 40, SD's highest-ever chart position, but Epic couldn't push it to the top.

In 1998, the band finally reaped its first gold record, for cumulative sales of the 1990 release, "Social Distortion." SD summed up its first two decades with a searing in-concert retrospective, "Live at the Roxy," then went on hiatus as Ness went to work on a solo album due in 1999. SD now records for Time Bomb, the independent Laguna Beach label launched by its longtime manager, Jim Guerinot.

Other Orange County modern-rock bands have reaped bigger rewards, but when it comes to creative achievement over a long haul, none stands ahead of Social D.

T.S.O.L.

"Dance With Me" Frontier, 1981

T.S.O.L.--for True Sounds of Liberty--was the most dangerous, the most unpredictable and the most popular of O.C. punk bands during the early 1980s, thanks largely to its mercurial front man, Jack Grisham.

Grisham was strapping, handsome, athletic, charming--a natural clown and rabble-rouser, a self-described trouble-maker who got his teenage kicks from vandalism, petty theft and beating up people. He also was a literate songwriter steeped in romanticism and introspection as well as typical punk defiance.

Grisham was capable of spray-painting "I love you grandma" on the cloud-puffed, blue-sky mural that served as a backdrop to the onstage action at O.C.'s famous punk-rock den, the Cuckoo's Nest, but also of attacking T.S.O.L.'s first label boss, Robbie Fields, over a contract dispute. With such a tempestuous ringleader, T.S.O.L. generated a heady mixture of violent release and naughty outrageousness.

The first T.S.O.L. record, a five-song EP, was straightforward, hard-fast punk rock. The themes were political, including tirades against the renewal of the military draft. Grisham sang in a faux-British accent inspired by Johnny Rotten.

But the band's hallmark rage for change and experimentation soon became evident: "Dance With Me," which also emerged in 1981, had little in common with the "T.S.O.L." EP. Its cavalcade of moods and themes was kept on track by the dark authority of the playing.

A spooky mood prevails on "Dance With Me," underlined by a graveyard scene on the cover. The album inhabits a Halloween fun-house hall of horrors on the title song and "Code Blue," in which Grisham plays a necrophiliac giving a hilarious, if explicit, account of his preferences. It veers toward film noir for the cloak-and-dagger mystery "Triangle" and encompasses earnest accounts of embattled individualism.

Offspring founders Dexter Holland and Greg Kriesel played "Dance With Me" obsessively when they were getting into punk.

Producer Thom Wilson had heard all about T.S.O.L.'s violent aura when he agreed to record "Dance With Me," the band's first full-length album. "I was very apprehensive about it. People said to me, 'Are you sure you want to do this? They beat people up.' "

But Wilson found four musicians who took their performance seriously and worked industriously, the lone quirk being Grisham's insistence on sitting while he recorded his vocals.

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