POP MUSIC REVIEW : Social Distortion Appears Headed Straight for Championship Season

Considering that over the years Social Distortion has openly addressed its drinking and drugging excesses on film and in print, it may seem odd to discuss the band in athletic terms.

But Wednesday at the Coach House the quartet came across as a lean, mean, finely tuned team at the top of its game. And given that impressive performance, and some circumstances surrounding the show, it looks as if the veteran Orange County squad is primed for a championship season.

For one thing, just before the concert Social Distortion completed a deal with Enigma Records to distribute its new record, "Prison Bound," according to band manager Jim Guerinot. The album, which was recorded at the Fullerton studio where the band cut its 1983 LP, "Mommy's Little Monster," is slated for release in early March, Guerinot said.

Meanwhile, some other aspects of the Coach House show bode well for S.D.: Despite the fact that it has been five years since the foursome put out an album, and that the concert was held in midweek, the club was absolutely jammed. Plus, more than half of the audience was under 18, which means many of these folks were mere whippersnappers when the group began issuing its sonic booms in 1980.

Yet, judging by the vintage of others at the show, it appeared that S.D. has retained many of its earliest fans who were attracted by such singles as "Playpen" and "1945," as well as the group's wild, unpredictable, though often sloppy shows. All of this paints a pretty promising picture, but the most significant point to emerge from Wednesday's show is that, whether playing old songs or new, these guys are sounding better than ever.

In fact, one of the more interesting, pleasantly surprising aspects of the evening was that the set remained so seamless while it spanned several years--and a few styles--of music.

Perhaps because the quartet now plays with considerably more precision and assurance, it managed to take its earliest punk blasts ("It's the Law"), cover tunes ("Ring of Fire," "Under My Thumb") and the Rawhide-Rock leanings of its newer material ("Lost Child," "Like an Outlaw," etc.) and turn it all into one solid, exhilarating piece.

That's a lot of ground to cover in 80 minutes; yet nothing sounded too dated, and nothing sounded too incongruous. It just sounded like Social Distortion on a good night. A very good night.

Looking fit (and like he may even have added a few more tattoos) singer-guitarist Mike Ness was in fine voice throughout. And he and guitarist Dennis Danell engaged in some fiery fret-slinging duels that--when laid over the more frantic romps, like "Mommy's Little Monster"--had the crowd going bonkers.

Maybe a little too bonkers. Toward the end of the evening, a few patrons were scooting along the table tops, slamming into each other, hopping on stage, getting into fights--and a lot of these goofballs had to be ejected from the club. None of this was uncommon behavior at punk shows several years ago, but since Social Distortion has opted not to live in the past, it seems a little screwy that some of its fans still do.

In the wake of this brief bedlam--and in a clear case of saving the best for last--S.D. slowed things down a bit with "Prison Bound" to close out the set. "Prison Bound" is such an exceptional, tuneful number that--get this--it isn't that hard to imagine hearing the song on the radio.

And if that happens, it would be all the more reason for anyone who ever dismissed Social Distortion as "chumps" to think about revising that to "champs."

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