Is this band good: Social Distortion

A regular feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good

Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good. 

Check out past entries on Cake, Soul Coughing, B-52s, Ben Folds Five, They Might Be Giants and late ‘00s indie darlings.

THE DEFENDANT: SOCIAL DISTORTION

Let’s get one thing straight: Social Distortion is a good band. No, a great band! Their loud guitars and downtrodden tales of woe—mama mia. I don’t think there’s quite a band that’s mastered the art of rock ‘n’ roll quite like lead singer Mike Ness and his gang of merry miscreants. If anyone has a different opinion, feel free to meet me outside and we can settle this in the parking lot. Social Distortion = great. Case closed. 

So, there you have it. There’s definitely nothing negative to say about Social Distortion. 

Yep.

Okay, I think we can talk freely now. If Mike Ness had been reading this, he’s probably moved along by now, and it’s probably in everyone’s best interest to keep the singer of Social Distortion happy, because, frankly, he’s a scary, scary man. Just the look at his Google Image results. The tattoos, the slicked-back prison cut, the vacant stare—it all points to a man who, I’m sure, would not think twice about fucking up some lowly Substack writer. 

And that’s pretty much the persona Ness has developed over the 40-plus years that Social Distortion has been around. Formed in the mean streets of, uh, Fullerton in 1978, Social Distortion was built on a foundation of what authorities in the ‘50s would call “delinquency” and “antisocialism” and other outdated terms used to describe Rebel Without A Cause types. Their early songs were the anti-authority/punk 101 type, or as Ness describes it: “I was writing about rebelling against mom and dad and the cops.” 

By no means were these songs very original (“1945” sounds like a rip-off of Adolescents’ “Amoeba”), but Ness’ distinctive-yet-melodic growl and blues influences gave the band a fierce edge in a scene that was quickly turning to hardcore. 

After releasing their debut album, 1982’s Mommy’s LIttle Monster, Ness fell deep into substance abuse and petty crime—experiences that would later serve as lyrical topics on nearly every song he wrote. Six years later, Ness got clean and Social Distortion put out Prison Bound, an album that leaned more into blues-rock than punk, and cemented the Social D sound that really hasn’t changed since. 

The ‘90s were very kind to the band, largely due to a three-record deal with the major label Epic. I’d be shocked if anyone hadn’t heard at least one song from their 1990 self-titled album. In fact, I had been hearing “Ball and Chain,” “Story of My Life,” and their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” ( on the radio for years before I even got into punk, before I even knew who sang those songs. 

But when I did get get into punk, I was genuinely shocked that A) Social Distortion is generally considered a legendary band, and B) wait, those songs are punk? 

When I first heard Social Distortion, they seemed much more in line with the post-grunge rock ‘n’ roll that alternative radio played, not like Rancid, Offspring, or Green Day. Social D was heavy, but their sound was clean. I didn’t understand the reverence—it was like suddenly realizing that not only all your friends love Seven Mary Three, but Seven Mary Three was also a seminal band in music history. Social Distortion just sounded like meat and potatoes rock ‘n’ roll to me. 

But is that straight-forwardness what makes Social Distortion good? The Boss loves them, and that’s not nothing. The band might have never achieved Green Day status, but there’s no denying their popularity, especially in Southern California. 

(Side note: Social Distortion is a sleeper candidate for a band that—like like Sublime or Red Hot Chili Peppers—just hits differently in Southern California. People down here LOOOVE Social Distortion, but once you leave, nobody really listens to them outside of the hits). 

What exactly makes Social Distortion so enduring? Is it like a tortoise/hare thing, where hard work and consistency equal quality? Is there retro appeal? Is it an aesthetic thing? Like, does listening to gangster-lookin’ dudes make people feel cool? 

Which brings us to the 2.5 million dollar question: is Social Distortion a good band? 

PROSECUTORS 

Taylor Semingson: Hello fellow Awk Jocks! My name is Taylor Semingson, and I play guitar and keyboard in the band Shades McCool. We are known for our energetic yet accurate cover of a car alarm. Did you know you can listen to our album Pretty Good Guy for free on various internet websites? For supplemental income, I work as an engineer designing implants and instruments for spine surgery.

Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of this newsletter. I’ve been known to have opinions about music. Most of them are correct. 

BACKGROUND 

Ryan: When I think of Social Distortion, there’s one memory that stands out. 

In the summer between 9th and 10th grade, I began playing drums in a cover band with a bunch of older guys (drummers at Park City High School were rare, so anyone who wanted to start a band had to take what they could get, even if it meant slumming with a freshman). We held practices in my downstairs bedroom, cranking out elementary renditions blink-182’s “Adam’s Song,” Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of,” Green Day’s “When I Come Around,” and Social Distortion's “Story of My Life” (big ups to my mom for pretending not to care that bunch of 16-year-olds were screaming FUCK YOU I WON’T DO WHAT YOU TELL ME!” for hours on end). 

Being a novice drummer, “Story of My Life” and its basic boom-chick-baboom-chick beat proved super effective in teaching me how to get in a groove with other musicians. During one rehearsal of that song, I distinctly remember thinking, we’re killing this. I had finally found that musical sweet spot where my limbs were working independently of my brain, and I didn’t need to think about what I was doing. It was one of those beautiful moments where I had transcended the cumbersome obstacles of self-consciousness, physicality, and metacognition, and just become art. 

This is it! I thought, playing harder, beating the shit out of my second-hand Mapex drums. I’m finally a musician! 

And then I looked over and at Kenny, our bass player. He was lying on my bed, playing his part while staring at the ceiling. 

Now that’s all I can think of when I hear “Story of My Life,” (and, by extension, most other Social Distortion songs): Kenny practically falling asleep while playing it. 

   
Taylor:
This is a little bit uncomfortable, because prior to this assignment I would have considered myself a Guy Who Does Not Like Social Distortion. In fact, when I first started digging into their catalogue, my first thought was, does Spotify have a ‘private’ mode? I don’t think that anyone living in San Diego has a “first time” they heard one of their songs—if your ears spent more than five minutes near a radio playing 91X or 94.9, you did. At some point you realize it’s just background noise that has always existed, for better or worse.

As John Hodgman says, “specificity is the soul of narrative,” so here’s a somewhat specific memory I have of this band. I used to work at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, CA in the mid-2000s, and I would often have to swing by a machine shop on site. Machine shop dudes are intimidating, gruff folks with dirty hands that made me nervous when I was in my early 20s. They would play 91X all day long in the shop, and I’ll be damned if “Ball and Chain”, “Story of my Life”, or “Ring of Fire” weren’t playing every SINGLE time I was there. The constipated vocal tones of Mike Ness competing with the hissing and grinding of industrial machines manned by muscular men scowling at me is a visceral experience that I will never forget, and one that feels exactly on brand for the Soshe D.

Another funny thing that happened as I was diving into the back catalogue was the realization that I actually owned White Light White Heat White Trash when I was in high school but couldn’t remember anything about it except the little ventriloquist dummy on the cover. How about that!

CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE

Ryan: Imagine finding yourself in a bar in the outskirts of town. This is one of those bars that you’d have to go out of your way to find, but to everyone else there—the townies and locals—it’s their bar. For San Diegans, I’m thinking maybe East County—maybe Santee or Lakeside—but every town has an outskirts, and you know where yours is. 

The night you find yourself in this particular bar, it just so happens to be the night everyone’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll band is playing. This band might as well just be called Rock ‘N’ Roll Band. 

Rock ‘N’ Roll Band starts playing. You drink your drink. The pours are strong out in the outskirts, and suddenly you find yourself nodding along to Rock ‘N’ Roll band. They’re tight, but more importantly, they rock. You order another drink, and then another. Now, Rock ‘N’ Roll Band is really cooking. How have you never heard of these guys before? (And of course they’d be guys—aged-out, washed-up, living vicariously through their youth). You’re connecting hard to their heartbreaking songs glorifying the hard-knock life, and this room of strangers and townies are now your best friends. Rock ‘N’ Roll Band might be the best performance you’ve ever seen. 

Then, in the morning, you wake up in your bed, unsure of how you got there. Your head feels shrunken. You reach into your back pocket to make sure your wallet is still there, and feel a self-produced CD by Rock ‘N’ Roll band. 

Excited, you throw it into your stereo and hit play and—

It’s fine. It’s okay. Nothing more.

Social Distortion is Rock ‘N’ Roll Band—a perfectly fine townie band that has somehow broken into the mainstream. 

Watch any interview with Mike Ness and I bet you’ll hear him describe Social Distortion’s sound as “blues-based rock ‘n’ roll.” It’s a line he repeats over and over, as if it were some mental press release that rests between his brain and shellacked hair. And, yeah, “blues” is a key descriptor here, because if there’s one unifying theme to Social D’s catalog, it’s that everything in life is goddamn miserable. Ness can never win. He’s got bad luck. His favorite pool hall got turned into a 7-11, for chrissakes! A trip through the band’s discography is a dour, humorless excursion, indeed. Can someone please just give Mike Ness a hug? 

Make no mistake, I’m not questioning the validity of Ness’ songs. I honestly believe that he’s been through some shit, and the fact that he’s able to channel his experiences into a lucrative and enduring career is nothing but respectable. 

But when the blues is your brand, it feels kind of like a facsimile and just a little disingenuous. There are tons of Mike Ness-type guys who fetishize the Social D aesthetic. They buy hot rods and tattoo their arms and wear their hats low and idolize old gangsters like John Dillinger (by the way, this is every old punk in Orange County). They relish their troubled past and are more than happy to wear their underdoggedness like a personality. Sure, maybe they’ve had some rough times, but if they haven’t experienced real disenfranchisement or racial injustice, how blue can their blues be? Honestly Ness, I hate to sound like a Republican parent, but maybe just buy some new jeans—jeans without holes!—before you go out looking for a job. 

Considering all of that, what really sets Social Distortion apart from a townie bar band? What’s the difference between Social D and, say, Blues Hammer? 

Perhaps this super-serious humorlessness would be a little more forgivable if Social Distortion had a little spice, but their entire catalog is a variation on the same four songs. “Prison Bound” is basically the same song as “Ball and Chain”; switch out “Cold Feelings” for “Don’t Drag Me Down” and who would notice? It doesn’t help that all Social Distortion songs are twice as long as they need to be. After giving Mike Ness a hug, can someone tell him that punk songs don’t need nearly as many guitar solos as he thinks they do? 

But at the end of the day, should these be marks against the band? If the music is loud, fast, and fun (well, fun-ish) does the misery and unoriginality really matter? There are plenty of thrilling Social Distortion songs that hit me right in the primordial rock ‘n’ roll heart, and to be fair, Ness can write one hell of a ballad. In fact, I think songs like “Bad Luck,” “When The Angels Sing,” and “Angel’s Wings” should be considered up there with Springsteen, Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash in the echelon of Americana greats. 

And the band’s cover of “Ring of Fire” is pretty good, too. 

THEORETICAL EVIDENCE 

Taylor: As I depart on this expedition to learn more about the Loch Ness Mikester, will I discover some shimmering sunken treasure? Or will I instead be setting sail toward the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Let’s find out!

So I have to start off with a disclaimer here first. I know no one likes to hear (or read) someone complain for minutes on end. I just simply don’t care for the singing style of Mike Ness, but in the best interest of you, the dear reader, I will strike that from the record of my evaluation from this point forward! You’re welcome!

Since I really had no knowledge of the Social Distortion archives aside from The Big Three songs I mentioned earlier (and apparently an album I owned but can’t remember), what better place to start than the beginning? 

I was pleasantly surprised by Mommy’s Little Monster and the straightforward classic punk style of the album that felt way too cool for this band. The opening track “The Creeps” is pretty rad, starting off with a blazing guitar riff that is followed by a drum fade-in, which I’ve always thought kicks ass. It’s also the first of many times I heard what I found to be a Social Distortion Signature™—the repeated two-note hammer-on pull-off in a guitar solo that sounds kinda like “deedle-eedle-eedle-eedle-eedle”. Listen. You’ll hear it. They also seemed to be dipping their toes in the waters of horror punk with lyrics like “I just wanna give you the creeps! Run and hide when I’m on the streets. Your fears and your tears. I’ll taunt you in your sleep!” Ummm Freddy Krueger much?!

Ok so the natural next album to listen to would have been Prison Bound, but I glanced ahead at the discography on Spotify and saw that the subsequent album was their self titled Social Distortion—home to the three big bangers that put these fellas on the map! The “seminal” album! Prison Bound will have to wait until next time.

Straight off the bat, this album has a much higher production value, which I guess is pretty cool. Re-listening to “Story of My Life” with an open mind and fresh ears actually made me appreciate it way more—this sucker is a straight up pop song with a catchy chorus and nice guitar tone throughout. Nothing could have prepared me for the total mind-fuck to follow though, as “Sick Boys” started to play. I knew this song from MxPx’s album Let It Happen, and never knew it was a cover. It was like my life had been flipped upside down! I had to take a Social Distortion break and listen to some MxPx to cool off. 

When I returned to Social D and smashed play on the Johnny Cash cover “Ring of Fire,” I soon realized I was in the midst of another Social Distortion Signature™—the pick slide! You probably all know what that is, but just in case, it’s when you drag a pick along one of the bigger guitar strings to make a totally badass screeching noise. Most songs have zero-to-one pick slide in them. “Ring of Fire” has EIGHT PICK SLIDES! If you are looking for a high density of pick slides, this is the song for you. Finally, the closing track “Drug Train” is just straight up caca doo doo. You know how people who suck used to talk about how they wanted to have a beer with George W. Bush? This is what I imagine they would listen to while having that beer.

Up next on the docket was White Light White Heat White Trash, which was the album that 16-year-old Taylor bought at Circuit City for some reason. I feel like this is a nice, high-quality recording. All of the instruments sound fantastic, and the bass is mixed so loud that it blew my hair back on the opening track. The album also seems to be less “cowpunk” than the previous one, which is a welcome reprieve. My good friend Tony Gidlund (Shades McCool himself) once told me that when he was playing in Fever Sleeves he considered the vocals to just be like another instrument, and preferred them to blend into the mix more. I think Mike Ness must have also heard this from Tony, because that’s exactly what they’re doing on this album. “I Was Wrong” was the hit single, and I really relate to this one because I have actually been wrong before too. “Through These Eyes” totally rips—classic punk song. I think Young Taylor was onto something with this purchase.

Since I’ve got work in the morning, I’ve chosen to skip over Sex, Love and Rock ‘N’ Roll, mostly due to the lack of an oxford comma and weird ‘N’ thing. I guess it’s better than Sex, Love and Rock and Roll. 

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes is the most recent Social D album, and ay caramba is this thing strange! Just a real identity crisis of an album… Opens with an instrumental track, followed by an actual country-rock song “California (Hustle and Flow)” with the lyrics “Well, I was born, babe, with nothing to lose. But the black man taught me how to sing the blues. Made a little life outta rock ‘n’ roll, and that crazy California hustle and flow.” What are we doing here, Mike? “Diamond in the Rough” feels like it could be a song by Semisonic or Filter or something. I feel so many different things after listening to this album, but mostly just confusion.

Whew, we did it, team! Look, no matter how you slice it, Social Distortion has been around for FORTY YEARS and that’s gotta be worth something. Are they good? I think if you give anyone in the world 40 years to make a good painting, something they paint along the way will be worth looking at. That’s how I feel about Social D—they have made a few things worth pumping into your ears. And boy howdy can they do a pick slide.

VERDICT

Social Distortion is definitely a band. 

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THE WEEKLY GOODS

Go to this

A few weeks ago, you read a guest post by journalist/comedian, Ombretta di Dio, about being a woman in San Diego’s stand-up comedy scene and how some clubs are making efforts to be more welcoming to women. This Friday, Ombretta’s gonna be telling jokes in at “Misery Loves Comedy”—a show which she is also producing—at the IN Art Gallery along with five other very funny people: Katelyn Attard, Tatiana Cwiklinski, Veronica Gordan, Sarah Lynn and Kylie Troop. Tickets will be $15 at the door (bring cash!). Go support non-sausage-fest comedy.  

Go to this

If you saw Ben Johnson’s Fanboy—the film which he wrote and directed—you know the guy can tell a story. This Saturday, Johnson is throwing a reading and release party for Children of the Web, the final book in his epic Webworld trilogy. Described as an urban fantasy, I’m sure Children of the Web will blow some minds. That’s happening at Verbatim on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 4 p.m. 

Watch this (All horror picks until October 31) 

Brain De Palma’s Carrie is rightfully considered one of the best horror films of all time. But before he drenched Sissy Spacek in pig blood, the provocative director made Sisters, a strange noir thriller starring a young Margot Kidder before she became a (my) horror movie scream queen in 1974’s Black Christmas. Sisters is a little bit like if Hitchcock made a giallo slasher—a healthy mix of psychological dread and WTF—and it’s pretty wild. Maybe not as wild as Malignant, but there are definitely some thematic similarities between the two. 

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Got a tip or wanna say hi? Email me at ryancraigbradford@gmail.com, or follow me on Twitter @theryanbradford. And if you like what you’ve just read, please hit that little heart icon at the end of the post.