On the surface of it, you might suppose that the Adolescents were trying to do for Orange County's Balboa Peninsula what Bruce Springsteen's early albums did for the honky-tonk boardwalk amusement strip of Asbury Park, N.J.
"Balboa Fun Zone" is the name of the new album by the Adolescents, who emerged in the late '70s and early '80s as one of the leading bands of Orange County's punk rock explosion. On the LP's front cover is a romantic night view of the Fun Zone, with the Ferris wheel aglow. Adorning the back cover is the Fun Zone's old-fashioned carrousel, another landmark in the waterfront stretch of rides, arcades and food stands.
So wouldn't it be natural to assume that the Adolescents spent as much time kicking around Balboa's beach community haunts as ol' Bruce spent walking the Asbury boardwalk that provided the backdrop for several of his early songs?
Well, when the Adolescents gathered in the Fun Zone this week to talk about the album and to pose for some ambiance-soaked photos, it turned out that two of the four band members--drummer Sandy Hansen and guitarist Frank Agnew--had never been there before. Rikk Agnew and Steve Soto, the guitarist and bassist who wrote and sang the songs on "Balboa Fun Zone," confessed that the Fun Zone has never been a regular haunt for them, either.
Instead of Springsteen's Asbury Park, a more apt pop parallel for the Adolescents' Fun Zone would be the Southern California vision of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, who mythologized the surfing life while never taking part in it himself.
To Wilson, surfing was a symbol for a perfect, endless youth; to the Adolescents, who did most of their teen-age hanging out far from Balboa in their landlocked hometown of Fullerton, the Fun Zone stands as a symbol of youth as well--not eternal youth, but a youth that gives way to maturity.
In many ways, this excellent album is about how the Adolescents, who play tonight at the Meadowlark Country Club in Huntington Beach, find themselves turning into adults, appreciating the deeper perspective that growing up brings, yet still cherishing the vibrancy they knew as young punk rockers.
The album's opening and closing songs are set in the Fun Zone. Soto, who wrote the lyrics to both, said the first track, "'Balboa Fun Zone (Riot on the Beach)," is an attempt to evoke the wildness of the Adolescents' early days.
Set to a fast, thrashing punk beat, it chronicles actual rioting that took place a couple of years ago at Balboa (Soto, 25, says he based the lyrics on newspaper accounts, not first-hand experience: "No, no," he said with a chuckle. "I'm not a riotous kind of guy.").
The finale, "Balboa Fun Zone (It's in Your Touch)," is an elegiac folk-rocker with acoustic guitars and some lovely, lyrical singing that couldn't be further from the typical punker's yowl. Just as the music marks a drastic departure from the Adolescents' beginnings, the song's wistful lyrics are about putting a past phase of life behind and looking toward the future.
Between those Balboa bookends are songs about the scars, a few of the joys and some of the hard-won understanding the band has accumulated since it started almost 10 years ago. While the Adolescents still like to play hard and fast, the emphasis is on melody, clarity and a hard-rocking variety that go far beyond the limits of punk.
"Punk, which started out as being a totally liberating kind of music, can put a lock on you," Soto said. Rikk Agnew agrees: "The original idea of punk was individuality and breaking limits. So why not go out and break your own limits?"
The Adolescents weren't always a good bet to reach the band maturity they've begun to show with "Balboa Fun Zone." After early successes, the band fell apart in the early 1980s. Soto said that oversize egos and substance abuse problems caused the breakup.
"We went from being good childhood friends to not even being able to stand being in the same room," Soto said. "Everyone came out of that early (punk) period in Fullerton in a blur. Getting drunk and getting high, that was just one of the things you did."
The frightening side of that life is captured in "Allen Hotel," another song based on an Orange County locale (the hotel is in Fullerton).
"It's one of those last-chance hotels, the kind of place you could live in if you didn't have a job and you were scrounging on the street," said Soto, who sings the song in a raspy voice that sounds like vintage Alice Cooper. "People I knew that were into drugs and drinking, sure enough some of them started moving in there. It went from being a scary place to a possibility, and that was a scary thought.
"If I'd kept on doing the things I was doing, I would have been there myself, and so would everyone in the band. Fortunately for us, we didn't let it get that far. We woke up to it."
The Adolescents regrouped 2 1/2 years ago and released an album in 1987, "Brats in Battalions." Tony Montana, the original Adolescents singer, wrote the lyrics, focusing on political themes and sagas of adolescent desperation typical of punk rock. He delivered his lyrics in an unmelodic rant.
Since Montana's departure (Soto said there were differences over taking a more melodic approach), the band has concentrated more on melody and on writing songs that reflect personal experience--including "It's Tattoo Time," in which Rikk Agnew, proud wearer of 32 tattoos, zestfully proclaims his passion for body decoration.
Agnew, who will turn 30 soon, also contributed "Just Like Before," which starts with punkish anger over problems in a relationship but subsides to reflect more calmly about how the romance continues to hold up despite ongoing friction.
Agnew said he wrote it about his longstanding relationship with his girlfriend, but it also could apply to what has happened to the Adolescents, a band that broke up in its immaturity but now has the chance to grow as its members move into adulthood.
"Being a little older, you can realize that when one member is ragging on the others about the music, it has nothing to do with anything personal," Agnew said. "Instead of having obstinate egos, we just have strong egos."
Some things about the band are still completely adolescent, band members say--such as on-tour rowdiness.
"It's like a slumber party. Our van gets trashed every time we go on tour," Soto said. While the emphasis is on taking advantage of new-found maturity within the band to make more complex music, Soto said, "you still go into the next step with that youthful exuberance. You can be more responsible and still have a lot of fun."
The Adolescents and Smash Fashion play at 10 p.m. today at the Meadowlark Country Club, 16782 Graham St., Huntington Beach. Admission: $6. Information: (714) 650-8541.