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Success Is a Matter of Record : Rock: Social Distortion is hoping its new album goes gold, but if it doesn’t, the O.C. band will just make another.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Social Distortion’s new album, “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell,” is full of characters caught up in emotions they can’t control.

There’s the guy suffering through a bad case of the existential horrors in the stormy opening track, “Cold Feelings.” There’s the fellow walking around with a perpetual thundercloud over his head in “Bad Luck,” and the protagonist of “Sometimes I Do,” who’s so terminally mixed up that he has become a fatalist. There is also a wide assortment of lovelorn losers who have been dumped and landed hard, so they sing to rub their bruises.

As they sat over a restaurant lunch recently, contemplating the release this week of their fourth album over a long and sometimes haphazard career, band mates Mike Ness and Dennis Danell were being careful to keep their own emotions in check on one important subject: the prospect that this new record might turn their band into a Big Success.

Is it time for Social Distortion, formed in the Orange County punk-rock boom of 1979, given up for dead by 1984-85 because of drug and alcohol woes, but now on a steady, four-year upswing, to think in terms of a gold or platinum album, the rock world’s equivalent to a key to the executive washroom?

“Ideally, that would be the outcome,” Danell offered tentatively. “But if it doesn’t do as well as expected, we’re still going to do another record.”

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“We’re trying to keep our expectations down,” Ness added. “That way you’re not disappointed.”

Two years ago, the band released “Social Distortion,” its first album for a major label (Epic) after two previous independent albums that the group had financed itself. Social Distortion toured through much of 1990-91, including three months of arena dates opening for Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Album sales reached 250,000, a more-than-solid showing for a band that had previously moved only in the punk underground. Strategically speaking, Social Distortion was poised for a breakthrough. And the early signs for “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” are good: Its first single, “Bad Luck,” has risen quickly to No. 4 on Billboard’s alternative-rock chart.

Ness, the point man who writes and sings Social Distortion’s songs and plays lead guitar, has always said he could see the band becoming as popular as the Clash, the British punk band that attained platinum success before it self-destructed in the early ‘80s. But Ness said he tried to shunt aside expectations and pressures for commercial success while Social Distortion was working on its new album.

“You can’t think that way, ‘cause it interferes with creativity,” he said during an interview at a restaurant near his Costa Mesa apartment. (Ness’ home, which he has had since before Social Distortion signed its major label deal, is a modest rented place in a modest neighborhood. Its gray exterior is nondescript, but inside it’s a storehouse for the unusual antique bric-a-brac that Ness collects with a passion, including a working cigarette machine, a collection of dolls, posters advertising sexploitation films from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a shelf-full of antique radios.)

“Sure, there’s pressure” for a commercial breakthrough, Ness said. “But it’s not like when I’m writing the songs I’m thinking about radio airplay. It’s just self-indulgence. I’m writing for me and hoping other people like it.”

Not everyone around the band is being so circumspect about its prospects.

“I don’t see us doing anything less than a gold record,” signifying sales of 500,000 copies, said Jim Guerinot, who has managed Social Distortion since 1983, when he was promoting punk concerts in Orange County. Now Guerinot is vice president in charge of marketing for a major record label, A & M.

“I’m a record label guy, and I can tell when people (involved in pushing an album for a record company) are really into it. These guys (at Epic) are going to kill for this band. Anything less than a gold record would shock all of us, and who knows what can happen beyond that, once you catch fire?”

Social Distortion’s album arrives at a time when the sweeping success of Nirvana’s album, “Nevermind,” has the record industry anticipating great things for alternative rock that is loud, rebellious and melodic. Those have been the foundations of Social Distortion’s sound since its first singles in 1981 and its 1983 debut album, “Mommy’s Little Monster.”

The Clash and the Rolling Stones were the key inspirations for Social Distortion’s early sound. They haven’t disappeared from it, but “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” reflects a continued, and intensified, exploration of country influences that first cropped up on the 1988 album, “Prison Bound.”

Besides nine Ness originals, the album includes hard-edged covers of two ‘50s-vintage country songs: “Making Believe,” a standard first done by Kitty Wells, and “King of Fools,” by Ed Bruce.

“I collect music from that era, the obscure rockabillies who had that edge. They were almost like little punk bands,” Ness said. In applying its trademark wall of grinding, punk-based sound to country sources, Social Distortion has come up with a highly charged, raucous rock-country hybrid in the tradition of the Stones’ “All Down the Line” or “Powderfinger,” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

Not that fans of Neil Young always got the connection when Social Distortion was opening for him last winter. Ness and Danell said that the arena surroundings and the mix of fan generations with clashing ideas about proper concert behavior made it a less than ideal situation for Social Distortion.

“I think a lot of our fans felt the same way. They wanted to dance in the aisles, and the bouncers would tell ‘em to sit down,” Ness said. “All those (expletive) ‘60s burnouts were there to see Neil Young and smoke joints and sit down and be mellow. But it was good exposure for us. It exposed us to some people who would never have ventured down to the underground clubs. They were now forced to see us.”

Ness said he got friendly enough with the Crazy Horse members to jam with them in their dressing room one night before a show. “Neil Young walked in when it was time for my solo. We were doing a blues thing. I said, ‘Uh-oh, here’s the big guy, I got to do good.’ I did OK, but I was a little intimidated.”

Added Danell: “Neil is a pretty good role model. He’s just a little bit outside the mainstream, but the mainstream still lets him apply his music to it.”

“He’s uncompromising,” Ness chimed in. “He’s very self-indulgent when it comes to his music, and you have to be. That’s what has kept us going--not going with trends. I think we would be five times as popular now if we had long hair” in keeping with the prevailing MTV fashion. “Because we stuck to being ourselves, it’s harder to fit into someone’s format.”

As budding young punks at Fullerton’s Troy High School, Ness and Danell used to take guff for keeping their hair short, punker style. Later, they evolved a look that ties in with their fondness for rootsy musical sources. Basically, the members of Social Distortion (which also includes drummer Christopher Reece and bassist John Maurer) look like four toughs from the ‘50s--tattooed, garbed in T-shirts and black leather, with their sideburns long and their hair greased into bristling flat-tops.

Ness thinks the whole, organically arrived-at package will work now in Social Distortion’s favor. “We’ve reached a level of comfortableness. We’ve established our sound, we’ve established our influences, we’ve established our image.”

Next week, corporate synergy will be working in Social Distortion’s favor. On Monday, the night before the Grammy Awards telecast from New York, S.D. will showcase its new album at CBGB, the lower Manhattan club that, as mid-1970s home to the Ramones, Television and Talking Heads, gave rise to the punk/alternative-rock movement. Social Distortion’s concert will be carried live on a huge Sony display screen in Times Square--Sony being the parent company of Epic Records.

Ness, old punker that he is, likes to look at it as an opportunity for confrontation, rather than an exercise in exploiting corporate connections for the sake of salesmanship.

“It’s something the Clash would have done 10 years ago, I think. For us it could mean something as simple as tormenting some people’s lives” as they look up unsuspectingly at the screen. “Someone’s expecting to see David Letterman or something, and instead they see my snarling face. That pleases me.”

In some ways, Ness is still the defiant kid who bellowed the words “I just want to give you the creeps,” the chorus of the first song on Social Distortion’s first album. That album, with its apt title, “Mommy’s Little Monster,” was a portrait of kids in wild, exuberant rebellion, with only the occasional vague glimmer of awareness that wildness can exact a great personal toll. “Prison Bound,” recorded after Ness had gotten off drugs, dealt with the consequences of living out of control, and the painful process of finding a new way to live. “Social Distortion” looked back on it all from a new perspective of maturity.

Today, Ness says, he still recognizes himself in a new song like “Sometimes I Do,” with its confession of moodiness and confusion.

“I feel that way a lot. This morning, I seem to have woken up on the wrong side of bed. I was angry for no reason. Things around me were just disturbing me. It’s just the inconsistency of life. Some days I feel great and a part of life. I look at people and think, ‘You’re a part of me, you’re my brother.’ Other days--God, I just want to commit genocide.”

Ness used to be famed in local punk circles as a brawler, a guy who never backed away from a fight.

“The old street mentality comes out (sometimes),” he said. “When a guy is tailgating me, (I’ll think) he’s disrespecting me. But today there are other ways of dealing with it.”

Danell, with his easygoing disposition, has been a necessary anchor and personality foil to Ness, who invited his high school buddy into the band before Danell had even learned to play the guitar.

The two recently went on a three-week tour of radio stations, retail stores and Epic branch offices trying to drum up goodwill and enthusiasm for Social Distortion’s album prior to its release.

Ness said 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls and 7 a.m. flights began to get on his nerves. “I’m angry being rushed that early in the morning. Then I’d look at Dennis, and realize, ‘Being angry for the greater portion of the day is not going to do it.’ I’m still learning to make the best of not-so-perfect situations. It’s good for me if I’m around him. If he would have been just like me, we’d both be in prison, or we’d both be dead.”

Instead, Danell has reached 30 (he married his longtime girlfriend in November). Come April 3, Ness also turns 30. A week after that, Social Distortion will go on tour--including an April 23 show at the 4,400-capacity Palladium in Hollywood that will be the band’s biggest headlining performance to date.

“I still feel very young inside,” Ness said of the prospect of being 30.

“I don’t feel any different than when I was 21, although hopefully I act a little different, a little more responsibly,” said Danell. “Hopefully we’ll age gracefully and still keep an open mind. Never get set in our ways, and never stop learning.”


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