This week, Social Distortion improbably gained national media attention after lead singer Mike Ness allegedly assaulted a Trump supporter during a concert.
Some of the incident was recorded in shaky smartphone footage by someone too far from the fight to record it clearly. As Ness was barrelling through “Ring of Fire,” he angrily speaks to an unseen audience member, then unstraps his guitar, jumps off stage and disappears into the crowd for less than a minute. Then he returns to the stage and runs through a power chord pattern with the force of a freight train.
News reports state Ness made some anti-Trump statements from the stage, angering a Tim Hildebrand, a right-leaning audience member, standing near the front of the crowd. The Trump lover spent the next two songs with both two middle fingers extended to express his disapproval of Ness’ politicking. Ness, a 56-year-old father of two and a vegetarian, reportedly landed a series of punches to Hildebrand’s face, leaving him with black eyes and a damaged tooth. Despite attending a punk rock show, a common cultural event where attendees can reasonably expect to encounter to physical violence and where the accepted social norm is to brush off violent incidents if they don’t involve permanent injuries, Hildebrand reportedly rushed to the police after the scuffle and plans to press charges.
While Social Distortion have been a beloved mainstay of American punk since the early ‘80s, the media attention the band is enjoying in the wake of the scuffle will no doubt introduce them to a new audience. As a public service to Trump haters jumping on the Social D bandwagon, here’s a quick and dirty guide to your new favorite punk band.
Let’s start here because it’s important, a foundational truth and fun to write: Social Distortion rules. In fact, they rule hard. Ness, the driving force of the band, is a gifted songwriter with exceptional and unique talents both as a singer and a guitar player. While it’s not his primary gift, he’s also an adept cultural curator who helped expand the punk idiom by embracing Americana, blues and country music. His style has evolved over his decades-long career but the quality of his music is admirably consistent.
Despite the political edge to their new notoriety, Social D. are generally not a political band. In fact, their apolitical nature played a big role in their first big media appearance. When they first bubbled up from the ooze of Orange County, they were a hard-edged, new wave-influenced band with goth affections. Their disastrous 1982 tour with the overtly political punk group Youth Brigade was recorded in the classic punk documentary Another State of Mind, named for a Social Distortion song Ness composes on an acoustic guitar during the film. While Youth Brigade’s members are charged with political purpose, Ness spends long, lazy days living in rundown motels watching soap operas and tending to his eye-liner and spikey hair. He gives off a strong lost puppy dog vibe. The movie also includes footage of Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye cheerfully scooping cones as a Baskin-Robbins employee. It’s an invaluable punk document.
The band broke up after the tour captured in Another State of Mind, then briefly reconstituted to record their debut album Mommy’s Little Monster. For a little over 30 minutes, the band runs fast and hot through simple but effective punk tunes. Ness’s songwriting skill and swagger as a frontman are obvious. Their musical ideas outpace their somewhat rudimentary musicianship and the band seems on the verge of falling apart at times, but the title track, “Another State of Mind” and “My Hour of Darkness” are some of the greatest straight-ahead punk songs ever recorded.
Then, a despondent Ness spiraled into heroin addiction. After kicking his habit, he reformed Social Distortion and released their sophomore record Prison Bound five years after Mommy’s Little Monster. The album hinted at the country and blues elements that would soon be at the forefront of their style. Ness must have thought deeply about the guitar while getting clean; his playing is more economical and effective than Mommy’s Little Monster and on songs like “On My Nerves,” he takes his time and chooses his shots and his style starts to gel. Unlike the breakneck pace of their debut, they slow down the tempo to great effect on tracks like “Indulgence” and “Like an Outlaw (For You)” and the punk folk anthem of the title track. Particularly in the acoustic-guitar blues shuffle-rhythm title track, the relaxed pace displays the band’s newfound chemistry.
In 1990, Social Distortion refined the blues, folk and country elements of Prison Bound for a self titled album. The result was a classic punk. “Story of my Life” and “Ball and Chain” are foundational documents for blues and country-style hard-edged music. Ness covered Johnny Cash years before Rick Rubin rehabilitated the man in black’s career. The album as a whole is so great it’s almost boring but there’s no denying the urgency of tracks like “Let it be me” and “So Far Away.”
Their 1992 follow-up Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell further refines their sound, almost to its detriment. The lost puppy in excessive eye liner image is long gone. In their music videos for songs like “Bad Luck,” Ness and bandmates appear as chunky rockabilly-looking tough guys. With the slick production, the band sounds mean and loud but the gloss sacrifices some of their earlier grit. Nonetheless, every single song is an all-timer. Ness again covers country classics but instead of a tackling a signature song from a beloved icon, he unearths deep rockabilly and country ballad cuts for “King of Fools” and “Making Believe.”
and Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell were the high-water mark of Social D’s career, but Social Distortion subsequent albums and Ness’s solo work remained high quality. Ness’s 1999 solo album Cheating At Solitaire had a radio hit with his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright” proving he can make any song sound like Social Distortion.
So, look. A lot of liberals seem easily swayed by people voicing simple anti-Trump sentiments. With Social Distortion, there’s a rare opportunity to open up to an amazing body of work. If Mike Ness ends up becoming some unlikely anti-Trump icon and gets interviewed by Rachel Maddow or something, at least it’s a small, cool thing to come from the otherwise intolerable era of Trump politics.