It’s time to talk about a sacred cow in the world of rock & roll, and a hallowed institution of Southern California. It’s time to talk about Social Distortion.
Social Distortion are just awful. Absolutely terrible. They lack any redeeming qualities whatsoever. I can’t think of a single good thing to say about them.
Technically speaking, I think “Social D” — the term by which I will refer to them for the rest of the article, because it highlights how douchey they are — were the first punk rock band I ever heard. Hometown rock station WAAF (it is, truly, the only station in Boston that really rocks) was spinning “Bad Luck” a lot during the summer of '92.
Even then, they annoyed the ever-loving shit out of me. I recall imitating Mike Ness’ irritatingly affected faux drawl at the middle school lunch table to mild guffaws.
Ness might have been a great singer if he had ever decided to sing in his own voice. Instead, he opted for one of the most cringe-inducingly affected attempts to crossbreed a stereotypical punk-rock singer from a 1980s TV drama with Bruce Springsteen at his mumblingest Nebraska worst. But when the Boss does it, he gets away with it, because it’s genuine. It’s how he really sings. When Ness does it, it sounds like a precocious child imitating his favorite records. There’s not a genuine bone in the man’s body.
His backup band might be the laziest in punk-rock history. Everything proceeds at the most lackadaisical pace possible. For a guy constantly signing about prison and heartache and life on the edge, where’s the urgency? I get that he’s trying to be punk-rock Johnny Cash or whatever, but maybe Johnny Cash doesn’t translate super well to punk rock. Or maybe Mike Ness just isn’t any good at the translation. Whatever the reason, you’ve got serious problems when The Hold Steady's nerdy-ass Craig Finn writes more convincing tales of a life of crime than you.
Surely I can’t be the first person in the world to realize that every Social D song sounds basically the same. It’s not that I expect Ness and the boys to have some Yes-level degree of virtuosity. Some simple, Ramones-y pop craftsmanship would suffice. Those guys got by on three chords for at least five albums. Social D can’t even do it for one. Every album is a mush of riffs rehashed without repurposing, by-the-numbers drum beats and Ness’ signature “HURRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR” crooning.
Yet somehow, Mike Ness’ pain burns in the heart of every punk-rock uncle with a receding-hairline pompadour. His rant about how easy it is to be punk nowadays on Live at the Roxy is an unwitting caricature of a lecture every punk under 40 has heard around closing time, sandwiched between furious debates about the real meaning of “straight edge” and wandering tirades about how annoying Bad Brains’ reggae songs are.
Yeah, grandpa. I get it. You had to walk uphill both ways through six feet of snow to be into punk rock back in the 1800s. You're way more legit than I am. Your tired Sailor Jerry ripoff tattoos mean so much more than mine.
All of this would be forgivable if it weren’t for Ness’ bizarre sense of self-importance. People clown on Danzig all the time for his level of self-seriousness. But Ness dwarfs Danzig’s lack of self-awareness by leaps and bounds. He’s built a career out of being Orange County’s answer to Billy Idol, sans any of the talent or panache. Idol has always had his tongue planted at least partly in his cheek, without veering into total self-parody.
Ness somehow skipped straight to the self-parody part at age 20. The scene in Another State of Mind where he applies his guyliner is easily the film's most cringe-worthy — and this is in a movie that also features a scene of a kid moshing in a room by himself.
Part of me feels bad for the guy. He’s the quintessential “big fish, small pond” rock star who eked out a niche playing mediocre rock for a core constituency that will eat up whatever he craps out and buy a branded gas station jacket and scally cap to boot. At some point, I’m sure he wanted more out of life. But hey, why mess around with a cushy gig like being in a punk-rock retirement home act?