The first raw, sloppy, speeding guitar chords announcing an Orange County punk scene blared from Huntington Beach and Fullerton in 1978. They echoed the sound forged in 1976-77 in the seminal punk undergrounds of New York City, London and Los Angeles.
The O.C. scene began gaining momentum in 1979, and the Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange, T.S.O.L. and dozens of other pioneers launched a local punk-alternative movement that continues to evolve.
What the early bands sowed in obscurity blossomed over the next 20 years into one of the most active and commercially significant alternative-rock scenes in the nation.
The international spotlight fell on Orange County starting in 1994, as the Offspring’s “Smash” album focused media attention here. No Doubt’s even hotter-selling “Tragic Kingdom” in 1995 secured O.C.'s place on the alterna-rock map, and seemed to unleash a parade of late-'90s success stories, including Sublime, whose posthumous release, “Sublime,” sold more than 3 million copies. In addition, Korn, Sugar Ray and Reel Big Fish grabbed the airwaves and created gold- and platinum-selling albums.
In the early days, O.C. punk’s unyielding musical force slammed up against an immovable cultural object: the Orange County dream of quiet, well-ordered, economically impregnable suburban living.
Treating rowdy, often outrageous fans as a gang element, local authorities shut down a series of clubs that championed the music. But O.C. punk proved too hardy to erase.
As concert promoter-turned-band manager-turned-record company owner Jim Guerinot put it back then: “The punk scene is like a cockroach. People try to stamp it out, but it always pops up again somewhere else.”
Bands cranked up their amplifiers in word-of-mouth warehouse concerts or at backyard parties. The most ambitious acts got out of town, earning national underground followings with club tours and album releases on small, independent labels.
As the ‘80s and early ‘90s unfolded, aficionados around the world became aware that behind “the Orange Curtain” percolated a scene with its own sounds and traditions. Distinctive and wildly memorable, the music of O.C.'s leading punk founders inspired fresh bands of local kids.
Nowadays, the rosters of most big labels, and many of the key independents, include a band that did its woodshedding here.
And despite the breakthrough commercial successes, some things haven’t changed. The movement still scares most of Orange County officialdom. Bands rely on venues in Los Angeles and Riverside County for high-profile gigs.
In that regard, rock ‘n’ roll’s proudest motto of the alternative era is, and remains, “Do it yourself.” In Orange County, bands come up knowing there is no other way to get it done.
This is the story of their self-made movement.
1978-83: Punk Wakes Up the O.C. Music Scene
As far as the rock-loving world could tell, Orange County had all but slept through the 1970s.
Punk rock was the rude awakener.
In 1977, the sound forged by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash ignited a thriving scene in Los Angeles. A year later, it had pierced “the Orange Curtain"--the imaginary cultural line between a hip, forward-looking metropolis and what was, and still is, commonly assumed to be a status quo-worshiping suburb.
Musically and culturally, punk meant possibility. The titanic mastery or honed expertise of such dominant bands as Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac made ‘70s kids believe rock came from a lofty domain beyond their reach.
The first punk records--raw, elemental, crude, but catchy--showed them they could sneer at rock’s elite with music of their own. All it took was sweat, gumption and hair grease.
In Huntington Beach, a bunch of novices heard punk’s first vinyl salvos and stepped up to the firing line, calling themselves the Crowd.
“I never felt I was good enough to be in a band,” recalled guitarist Jim Kaa. Then he heard punk bands. “I was marginal, and they were as marginal as me. So we said, ‘Let’s go!’ ”
The Crowd’s zestful appropriation of the Ramones’ and Sex Pistols’ sound quickly caught on at backyard parties.
“It was so stale that within six weeks of our getting together, we had 200 people coming to see us,” said Crowd bassist Jay Decker. “We couldn’t play. It didn’t matter.”
The Crowd instigated a beach-punk scene that by 1981 would give birth to T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) and the Vandals.
The same let-it-rip enthusiasm was fanning a separate, inland O.C. scene in Fullerton and Placentia. The Middle Class became the first Orange County punk band to break into the Los Angeles clubs, and the first to put out a vinyl 45, the sizzling “Out of Vogue.”
Before 1978 was over, Agent Orange, a Fullerton band of 15-year-olds destined to be the longest-running O.C. punk crew of all, had moved from playing arena-rock covers to creating original punk songs.
The Adolescents and Social Distortion quickly joined Agent Orange in a burgeoning underground scene. Their communal clubhouse was “the Black Hole,” a one-bedroom pad in a nondescript Fullerton apartment complex. Its graffiti-streaked walls witnessed wild experimentation with sex and intoxicants.
“It was Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient Rome,” recalled the Adolescents’ Rikk Agnew, who immortalized the scene’s aura of comradeship and decadence in a classic punk anthem, “Kids of the Black Hole.” It painted the Black Hole--and punk in general--as a refuge, a “house that belonged to all the homeless kids.”
But the O.C. punk explosion resisted stereotyping. It was about pure sonic joy as well as self-conscious rebellion against social and familial norms, and it drew in the well-off and well-adjusted along with the disenfranchised and the delinquent.
Mike Ness of Social Distortion--the Black Hole’s original tenant--and Tony Brandenburg, singer of the Adolescents, fit the rebel mold. They were outcasts from splintered, money-strapped families who found in punk a perfect outlet for their rage.
“I liked the aggressiveness,” Ness recalled. “It sounded like I felt inside.”
Deep resentment and psychic wounds could fuel memorable music--or give rise to bizarre antics. Some early punks sported swastikas and other Nazi regalia for shock value, and, for a while, “slashing” became a thing: Musicians using razor blades in lieu of guitar picks cut their flesh into bloody ribbons on stage.
Drug and alcohol abuse sidetracked or derailed such talented bands as Social Distortion and the Adolescents. By 1981, slam-dancing, akin to tackle football without pads and helmets, was widely practiced. A taint of violence shadowed the shows.
But many punkers, even Ness’ and Brandenburg’s own bandmates, had no serious gripes with life.
The Crowd didn’t manufacture anger for its mostly fun-spirited songs. Agent Orange bassist James Levesque quit quarterbacking the El Dorado High School varsity team to play punk rock, and his mom cheered, figuring the decibels would do less damage than blitzing linebackers.
The common denominator was a delight in a simpler, more aggressive way of making music.
That alone could get a punk kid in trouble.
With their shorn hair (in defiance of rock’s Beatles-inspired tradition of long hair as a definitive mark of youth-cultural belonging), punks stood out.
Their frequent persecutors, the jocks, were usually bigger; their musical rivals, the hard-rock fans, far more numerous. Combined, they could make a punk kid’s school day an ordeal.
In every way, punk challenged Orange County’s ideal of quiet suburban living.
“Basically, they’re into violence,” a Huntington Beach police sergeant told The Times in 1979. “They have hatred virtually for everybody. There’s no motive, no rationale. They just do whatever they feel like at the time.”
The officer went on to issue a plea: “We can’t do anything without the public’s help. It’s the only way we’re going to stop it.”
Misjudging punk as a gang movement, police in Huntington Beach and Newport Beach detained kids on the streets, snapping their mug shots for police files.
The main battleground in the clash between punk and propriety was a small Costa Mesa club called the Cuckoo’s Nest. In February 1978, it veered from its rock format and began packing in crowds by booking punk. Within four years, despite owner Jerry Roach’s attempts to mount a First Amendment defense, city officials had shut down the place.
The decisive skirmish occurred Jan. 30, 1981, when a volatile punk fan named Pat Brown hopped into his car and peeled out of the Cuckoo’s Nest parking lot, knocking over two cops who had tried to stop him. The officers suffered cuts and bruises; Brown’s car stopped three bullets from a police handgun.
The Vandals immediately turned the incident into folklore with their song “The Legend of Pat Brown”: “Pat Brown tried to run the cops down / Pat Brown run ‘em into the ground.”
Looking back, Roach said officialdom had completely misread the burgeoning punk scene. “They looked so tough and mean and rough. [But] when you got to know ‘em, they were just kids.”
Ever since, most grass-roots venues emphasizing punk rock have been forced out of business.
A stack of remarkable and enduring recordings survived the tumult of O.C.'s punk explosion. From 1981 to 1983, the Adolescents (“Adolescents”), Agent Orange (“Living in Darkness”), Social Distortion (“Mommy’s Little Monster”) and T.S.O.L. (“Dance With Me”) put out albums regarded today as essential to a connoisseur-caliber punk/alterna-rock record collection.
The hallmark of their approach was a raw, thrusting attack harnessed to a catchy melody, with lyrics usually dwelling on everyday realities. But there was no mistaking one band for another.
KROQ-FM deejay Rodney Bingenheimer embraced the Orange County music, playing highlights from its major local bands on his Sunday night radio show. Robbie Fields, a small-time music entrepreneur, saw potential in suburban punk.
“In Hollywood, the people are coming from all over the country. They’re coming starry-eyed, they’re thinking about their career,” Fields said. “You go to the suburbs and the kids aren’t thinking about that. . . . Consequently, the music was totally uncalculated. Even though they might have been influenced by the Damned or the Clash or the Ramones, they were making their own statements; they were writing about their own lives.”
Fields combed the clubs and backyard parties, signing many of the significant local bands to his Posh Boy label for their initial singles or albums. At the time, big labels had no use for punk rock; they simply could not envision a mass market for it.
Predictably, no band from the O.C. punk boom of 1978-1983 prospered. Many, however, served as key inspirations to those who would break through to mainstream success more than a decade later.
Perhaps because they were baptized by fire, all proved hardy and tenacious. Twenty years after the movement began, key musicians from each of its signature bands--the Adolescents, Agent Orange, the Crowd, D.I., Social Distortion, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals--play on.
With their establishment-shaking rabble-rousing, and music-making of lasting appeal, the punk pioneers had awakened a sleeping scene.
1984-93: A Clampdown Behind Orange Curtain
For years, O.C. punk rock hid out in backyards or fly-by-night warehouse gigs where the cops were half-expected to show up and pull the plug.
One fall night in 1983 it surfaced, and Bryan Holland and Greg Kriesel were missing it: The volatile band Social Distortion was playing to 2,000 kids at UC Irvine’s spartan gymnasium, Crawford Hall. But the two buddies were shut out of the sold-out show.
Back to a friend’s house in Garden Grove they went, settling, in their disappointment, for an under-aged beer-drinking session.
Before that night ended, they had resolved to take up instruments. They would have their own punk band. They would be . . . Manic Subsidal.
On further reflection--two years’ worth, actually--they would be the Offspring, an apt name for second-generation punks who could trace their lineage to the Big Bang that set off a musical movement in Orange County in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Holland, a big, pink-cheeked blond kid, had fallen as a high school sophomore for the local punk LPs his older brother brought home: the “Rodney on the Roq” and “Beach Blvd” compilations and the first album by the Adolescents. He got Kriesel, a friend from the Pacifica High School cross-country team, hooked as well, saving him from the clutches of Rush fandom.
They spent the summer of ’83 listening over and over to T.S.O.L.'s comically macabre “Dance With Me” album. Somehow, Holland, Kriesel and countless others in Orange County hadn’t gotten the word: Punk was dead.
The genre’s only million-selling band, the Clash, had its break on MTV in 1982, then imploded, taking with it any big-label interest in marketing punk bands.
Alternative rock evolved from punk’s remains.
Its sound preserved some of punk’s willful abrasiveness and refusal to bend to arena-rock norms. A national network of college radio stations and grass-roots clubs sprang up to serve an audience interested in the burgeoning alternative scene and the occasional punk remnant.
Orange County’s center of alternativity was Safari Sam’s. The Huntington Beach club was a niche of bohemian experimentation in a county famed for its suburban conformity.
For 20 months in 1985-86, the peak years of the alternative movement, Sam’s imported definitive punk and alt-rock bands such as the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Camper Van Beethoven and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Local bands such as El Grupo Sexo, Swamp Zombies and National People’s Gang found a nurturing home there.
On nights when no band played, Sam’s became a staging ground for poetry, theater and even an experimental opera.
Naturally, it couldn’t last.
Nonconformist youth culture didn’t jibe with the city’s plans for downtown redevelopment, and when a single neighbor complained about noise, litter and vandalism, the authorities had their excuse to shut down the music.
On Nov. 23, 1986, co-owner Sam Lanni led a funeral march from the club to the beach and tossed a copy of the U.S. Constitution onto a pyre fueled by a makeshift coffin of beer cartons. “The Constitution has no meaning in Huntington Beach,” he declared.
Orange County wouldn’t get another night-in, night-out clubhouse for punk-alternative creativity and community until 1989, when the Doll Hut, at half the size of the 102-capacity Sam’s, opened in an Anaheim warehouse district.
In the meantime, the Orange County alternative scene decamped to Bogart’s, a mile across the county line in Long Beach. Its adventurous blend of visiting acts (including an on-the-rise Nirvana) and woodshedding locals prevailed until late 1993, when redevelopment claimed yet another bit of rock paradise.
Bogart’s exemplified the commingling of Orange County and Long Beach alt-rockers in a single music scene--an alliance forged in 1980 when Huntington Beach punkers Mike Roche and Ron Emory hooked up with Long Beach counterparts Jack Grisham and Todd Barnes to form T.S.O.L.
The alternative scene was documented by small, independent record labels such as SST, Slash and Frontier in Los Angeles, Twin/Tone in Minneapolis, Homestead in New Jersey and Mammoth in North Carolina. Orange County’s contribution was Doctor Dream Records, started by piano player David Hayes in his Santa Ana bedroom in 1983. By 1986, Doctor Dream, having graduated from singles to LPs, bolstered hope that a home-grown band might pierce the mythic Orange Curtain.
Doctor Dream propelled some of the most distinctive O.C. alterna-rockers into the world, including Ann De Jarnett, El Grupo Sexo, Eggplant, the Swamp Zombies, National People’s Gang and Cadillac Tramps. But none scored a curtain-cutting hit, and by 1996 Doctor Dream’s top acts had expired from exhaustion, discouragement or internal dissension. Hayes kept the label going, but its pulse barely registered.
The mainstream music industry in Los Angeles sometimes plucked an Orange County rock act. But the scene’s handful of major-label bands--Altered State, Anything Box, Burning Tree, Vinnie James and Xtra Large--failed to make the commercial jump required for extended life in the sell-or-die majors.
The few Orange County rock acts that did score hits in the 1980s lacked the critical respect, sustained impact or strong local presence that might have raised the county’s profile as a music scene.
What the masses heard from O.C. was singer Terri Nunn’s orgasmic groaning on Berlin’s lustful hit “Sex (I’m a . . . )”; Stacy Q’s girlish flirtatiousness on “Two of Hearts,” an airy dance-pop hit; and Stryper’s Bible-thumping exertions as the first Christian hard rock band to sell in the millions.
By the early ‘90s, only Social Distortion had escaped the punk-alternative underground to see a glimmer of national success, becoming the first O.C. punk-alternative band with a major-label deal.
It was an amazing turnabout, considering that bandleader Mike Ness had once seemed far more likely to wind up a corpse or a convict than a punk eminence praised for integrity, authenticity and gifts as a melodist and musical storyteller.
Within a few years, however, Ness had cleaned up. Starting with “Prison Bound,” the 1988 album whose moving title cut about a wasted life is one of the greatest songs ever to come out of O.C., Ness turned Social Distortion’s albums into an ongoing dialogue about impulsiveness, its consequences and the hard struggle for maturity.
Social Distortion’s resilience bore fruit, as albums for Epic in 1990 and 1992 sold more than 250,000 copies each--short of a hit breakthrough, but respectable tallies that far surpassed any O.C. punk-alternative releases up to that time.
The group was featured in Rolling Stone and opened for Neil Young & Crazy Horse on a long arena tour.
Although Social Distortion proudly proclaimed its Fullerton origins, other upwardly mobile rockers played down their O.C. connections.
In the early ‘90s, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine emerged as two of the biggest stars in an alterna-rock movement that, led by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, had burst from the underground and into the arena-rock mainstream.
Weiland spent his high school years in Huntington Beach and de la Rocha in Irvine, but each left to find success and never emphasized home-county ties.
As the mid-'90s dawned, only a few cultists and connoisseurs outside of O.C. knew about its rich punk-rock tradition. For those obsessed
with spotting the hot, new and up-and-coming local music scenes, 714 either meant nothing or was considered an unlucky number in the lottery of rock success.
1994-95: ‘Smash’ Goes the Curtain
It took nine years, during which the Offspring had grown from rank beginner to respected practitioner in the national punk underground, but the band finally got headliner status in its home territory.
Fans in punk-saturated Orange County, however, saw the catchy, crunchy band as no big deal. As 1993 waned, the Offspring drew only about 150 people, less than half of capacity, to an all-ages punk bill in Fullerton.
A few months later, the club’s booker, John Pantle, remembering that night, would joke that he might go down in history as the last promoter ever to lose money on the Offspring.
Soon after flopping in Fullerton, the band was in a Los Angeles studio, hurriedly recording its third album. It was a juggling act by obsessed hobbyists, not full-time rock professionals.
Bryan “Dexter” Holland, the Offspring’s singer and main creative cog, juggled songs and viruses, the cloning of which he researched as a PhD candidate in molecular biology at USC.
Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, a school janitor in the band’s hometown of Garden Grove, juggled mops and his calling as a punk guitarist. Wasserman and drummer Ron Welty, each a single dad with a small child, juggled family duties along with everything else.
Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel had founded an Offspring precursor when they were non-musicians who owned nice punk record collections but no guitars.
As fans, they gravitated toward music from the initial Orange County punk boom of 1979-83. Later, as novice recording artists, they gravitated toward Thom Wilson, who had produced key sessions by some of the county’s finest: the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals.
Wilson thought his punk days were behind him until the Offspring painstakingly sought him out. Flattered, and detecting a spark in their songwriting, he agreed to hone the untutored band’s sound.
The resulting 1989 debut album, “The Offspring,” gave the band license to join alternative rock’s do-it-yourself touring derby. They took to the road in Holland’s 1979 Toyota truck and slept in parks or schoolyards when they couldn’t cadge lodging.
The Offspring’s dues-paying paid off in 1992, when the band landed a record deal with Epitaph Records, an established L.A. punk label that previously had rejected them. The band’s second album, “Ignition,” revealed an increasing knack for hard-edged but accessible songs.
As the Offspring worked on “Smash” with Wilson, things began to look up. Epitaph knew how to peddle punk rock. Its strategy for the Offspring was to place tracks from “Ignition” in skate- and snowboarding videos. Sales accelerated.
With “Smash” taking shape in the studio, producer Wilson told the band it was good enough to sell 150,000 copies, a huge hit by punk’s out-of-the-mainstream standards.
They thought he was crazy.
That March, veteran record promoter Mike Jacobs took a song from the album to L.A.'s KROQ-FM, alterna-rock’s leading kingmaker.
“I’d presented them [Offspring songs] in the past, but they didn’t play it because it was too hard or whatever,” Epitaph exec Andy Kaulkin recalled. “But this one had a groove to it, and it was not the ultra-fast punk sound.”
The song was “Come Out and Play (Keep ‘Em Separated),” a typically sardonic number that skewered mindless youth violence.
Its funky groove gave way to old-fashioned rock power chords and a little Middle Eastern snake-charmer guitar lick straight out of O.C. rock annals. Dick Dale’s 1963 surf classic, “Miserlou,” revved up a traditional Arab melody, and Agent Orange followed his lead on its 1980 punk classic, “Bloodstains.” That tune helped turn Holland into a punk fan.
For a clincher, Holland added a tag line that would stick in the collective ear of America’s youth:
“Ya gotta keep ‘em separated” went the singsong, half-spoken refrain, delivered in a gravel-voiced cholo accent by Jason McLean, one of the band’s most loyal fans.
KROQ played it, and listeners kept requesting it. The Offspring knocked out a low-budget video of “Come Out and Play,” and MTV screened it over and over.
By June 1994, the band had upped its O.C. concert draw by a factor of 100, serenading 15,000 fans in a triumphant homecoming at the KROQ Weenie Roast festival at Irvine Meadows.
With noisy “grunge” bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam having whetted rock fans’ appetites for aggressive, impolite, slickness-averse music, punk finally had its moment of mass-market glory.
“Smash” would pass the 5-million sales mark in the U.S., and 11 million worldwide, making it the top-selling rock album ever released by a small independent label.
The Orange Curtain had parted wide, and the Offspring took pains in interviews to tell the world about the slice of music history hidden behind it. Holland and Kriesel pumped some of their earnings into the grass-roots punk scene by starting Nitro Records and signing the O.C. bands Guttermouth, the Vandals and One Hit Wonder.
But punk wouldn’t be punk without its dark side. In December 1994, a gang of a dozen racist skinheads beat and stabbed an 18-year-old Vandals fan at the Ice House, a cavernous Fullerton venue, for the crime of wearing a T-shirt with an image of Jimi Hendrix.
Authorities closed the Ice House after another violent incident during a subsequent show. In August 1995, white supremacists assaulted a concert-goer outside a show by L.A. punk band Fear at the Viva Las Vegas club in Orange, apparently because of his Asian-Indian ancestry.
Losing money on the Offspring hadn’t driven John Pantle out of local punk-rock promotion, but that racist attack at his Viva Las Vegas show did.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in as much personal pain,” said Pantle, who retreated to a gig as booker for the swanky West Hollywood mainstream pop venue the House of Blues. “The problems [posed by white-power skinheads] have been a huge setback for live music in Orange County.”
The Offspring also felt the sting of intolerance. As “Smash” lived up to its name, self-appointed arbiters of rock purity ostracized the band for being popular.
When Holland turned up to strum guitar with the Vandals at “Board in O.C.,” a 1995 festival at Cal State Dominguez Hills, some slam-pit denizens pelted him with coins.
Although a few punk zealots decried the Offspring’s breakthrough, most O.C. alterna-rockers took heart from it. In the mid-1980s, when R.E.M. became the first hot-selling alternative band, big labels had gotten in the habit of raiding any scene that spawned a success.
After being overlooked for 15 years, Orange County’s chance to be an alterna-rock capital, or at least an important outpost, had arrived--but only if the hits kept coming.
No Doubt Brings Light to the Tragic Kingdom
A gurgling, bouncing, guitar riff, a chunky drumbeat and an ironically sweet voice: “I’m just a girl in the world, that’s all that you’ll let me be.”
This was the world’s introduction to No Doubt.
Driving home from work one day in the fall of 1995, Eric Stefani heard his little sister Gwen’s voice singing “Just a Girl” on the radio for the first time. He pulled off the road somewhere in Pasadena as tears rolled down his cheeks.
“After eight years, it was just such a rush to see we were making some impact,” he said.
It was a bittersweet moment. Stefani was proud of the band he had shepherded to the brink of fame. But he was one of the casualties along its hard path to success.
Starting with the Stefani siblings’ first performance together at a high school talent show, Eric had been the prodder, the guide, and Gwen the hesitant follower.
He latched onto Madness, the English ska band, in the early 1980s, and it became Gwen’s favorite as well. When Eric began writing and playing music influenced by the British ska-rock bands of the era, Gwen became a performer, too.
“He used to force me to sing stuff,” she recalled. “He’d beg me: Please, sing this.”
Coming from Orange County, her reluctance was understandable. On the local alternative-rock scene, boys dominated and a girl was, well, just a girl.
No Doubt began playing concerts early in 1987, with Gwen trading vocals with John Spence, a classmate from Loara High School in Anaheim and a co-worker of the Stefani siblings at Dairy Queen. More a barker than a singer, he brought a gymnastic energy to the shows and also gave the band its name: “No doubt” was his pet phrase.
No Doubt quickly found grass-roots prosperity. Its sound, heavily influenced by the English “two-tone” ska bands and their rock ‘n’ roll adaptation of Jamaican rhythms, had a ready-made audience in the avid Southern California ska subculture.
No Doubt’s first year on the scene proved as upbeat as the quick-stepping ska beat it played. It emerged as a strong draw and a musical peer of Fishbone and the Untouchables, the leading bands of the West Coast ska scene.
Then, Spence killed himself just before Christmas 1987, apparently overwhelmed by family problems. The band carried on, but Gwen had qualms about being out front on her own.
“We were scared we would lose the hard edge” without a male foil, she recalled. So one of the horn players moved into Spence’s slot. When he left in 1989, Gwen was ready to fly solo.
Without a manager, a record company or even a self-financed release, No Doubt managed to lay the foundation for a lasting career.
Through 1990 and ’91, the band cultivated a following at area colleges. Promoters at Goldenvoice and Avalon Attractions liked the members’ positive attitude and work ethic, and offered No Doubt opening-act slots at such major venues as Irvine Meadows and Anaheim’s Celebrity Theatre.
Gwen Stefani developed into a theatrical, stage-strutting front woman whose bounding energy could get a crowd hopping. She had the savvy to develop a signature look centering on denim overalls, a fashion statement borrowed from Dexys Midnight Runners and their hit video, “Come On Eileen.”
No Doubt’s sound had grown as well, expanding far beyond its ska roots. Two new players--drummer Adrian Young and guitarist Tom Dumont--joined the Stefanis and bassist Tony Kanal, and the band adopted a musical philosophy: Try anything.
It also had a philosophy about how to conduct itself amid the perverseness, dysfunction and slacker chic of an alternative scene awash in drugs and gloomy grunge chords: They resolved to be who they were--stable, middle-class kids whose parents brought them up to be clean-living, pleasant and motivated.
Things looked bright when No Doubt signed with a hot, new label, Interscope. But “No Doubt,” the band’s 1992 debut album, flopped commercially. The second album called for in its contract would likely be the band’s last chance. Making that album proved to be the trial that transformed No Doubt, but not without further losses.
Interscope, unimpressed with fresh batches of songs, doled out money for studio time in dribs and drabs, rather than letting No Doubt hunker down for a sustained creative push. With Nine Inch Nails, Primus and Snoop Doggy Dogg on its roster, the label had other priorities.
As No Doubt’s primary songwriter, the bulk of indifference and rejection fell on Eric Stefani. His involvement ebbed as Gwen, Dumont and Kanal filled in, writing much of No Doubt’s catchiest stuff. Gwen’s lyrics focused on another casualty of band life--her long-standing romance with Kanal. Eric, already thrown by the changing band dynamic, knew he had to quit when he awoke from a terrible nightmare, looked out his window and saw five crows on a telephone wire--four together, the other apart.
“I looked back, and one had flown,” he recalled. “That was a sign from God. It was telling me something about what I had to do to survive in this life.” He had other creative outlets, including his job as an animator for “The Simpsons.”
A few months later, a fairy godmother appeared. Executives at Trauma Records, an Interscope affiliate, heard No Doubt’s nearly completed album and loved it. Fine, figured Interscope, see if you can take this Cinderella to the big pop ball.
“Tragic Kingdom” came out in October 1995, its title and cover motif--a profusion of rotting oranges--humorously reflecting the band’s vision of the idyllic suburban dream gone wrong. “Just a Girl” soon was inescapable on MTV. A second, harder-rocking single, “Spiderwebs,” also hit big, vaulting the album into the national Top 10.
Though most critics complained that No Doubt was a bunch of good-timey fluff, sales already had reached 2 million when Eric’s parting gift paid a huge dividend: “Don’t Speak,” with lyrics by Gwen, became the omnipresent pop ballad of 1996-97.
In December 1996, “Tragic Kingdom” reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop album chart, a peak no other Orange County act had attained. It stayed there for nine of the next 10 weeks; U.S. sales eventually passed 7 million.
As “Tragic Kingdom” nestled at No. 1, Gwen Stefani went Christmas shopping at Brea Mall and got mobbed. Her new platinum-blond, navel-baring look had made her a fashion icon among legions of teens and preteens.
No Doubt’s members wore their mass stardom with becoming modesty. “I hope we become good songwriters,” Dumont, the co-author of “Just a Girl,” said during the band’s run at No. 1. “I’m certainly proud of the songs on ‘Tragic Kingdom,’ but I think, ‘Maybe I got lucky, maybe I’ll never write another riff as good as any of those.’ ”
“Our next album might be a little more focused,” Gwen Stefani said. “We’ve always been struggling to do that. We’ve had so many different styles and wanted to create our own sound eventually. I don’t know if that will ever happen.”
Upbeat Ska-Rock Bands Keep the Hits Coming
To the wider pop world, No Doubt’s ascent signaled a change in the prevailing emotional climate of ‘90s rock, which had been set by rainy grunge-rockers from Seattle and sarcastic California punk bands.
If it was carefree fun that people wanted, then Orange County had it. Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris, lighthearted young bands from the same ska-rock movement that spawned No Doubt, enjoyed the national spotlight.
Sugar Ray, a hard rock and rap band, came up with a chirpy, summery, Jamaican-inflected song called “Fly” that helped the “Floored” album sell nearly 2 million copies.
From the bands in the first punk boom through No Doubt, the unifying virtue of the best of O.C. alterna-rock had been its grounding in the stuff of everyday life--the sense that the musicians were telling a personal story. That connection grew tenuous with some of the later O.C. arrivals, for whom stylishness and a sense of lighthearted fun outweighed substance.
As the upbeat ska bands rose, so did Korn, spinners of glowering psychodrama taken from the troubled adolescence of singer Jonathan Davis, a thin, pallid fellow whose previous day job had been as an autopsy assistant for the Kern County coroner.
While ambitious rockers including Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against the Machine) and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) had fled Orange County to pursue fame, Korn migrated from Bakersfield to Huntington Beach in the early ‘90s to find a hospitable home in the local grass-roots clubs.
In 1996-97, Korn and the Offspring became the first Orange County alterna-bands to face the challenge of producing sequels to hit albums.
Korn’s second album, “Life Is Peachy,” expanded the band’s head-banging audience without breaking new ground; the grass-roots loyalty of Korn’s fan base was dramatized in 1998 when its third album, “Follow the Leader,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart.
In 1997, the Offspring’s “Ixnay on the Hombre,” showing no signs of creative slump, attracted nearly 3 million buyers worldwide--a precipitous drop-off from the “Smash” haul of 11 million sales, but a more-than-respectable foundation for an ongoing career that continued with the November 1998 release of the band’s fifth album, “Americana,” which quickly sold one million copies.
With local successes proliferating, sorrow intruded May 25, 1996, when Brad Nowell of Sublime died of a heroin overdose.
The magnitude of the loss fully registered with the posthumous release of “Sublime,” in which Nowell fulfilled his promise as the most soulful singer and, arguably, the best style-hopping songwriter and guitarist that the O.C./Long Beach scene had produced. The band ended with Nowell’s death; “Sublime” sold 3 million copies.
After years of obscurity, the commercial breakthrough of Orange County/Long Beach alterna-rock has yielded 10 million-selling albums since 1994, and another four topping the 500,000 mark--the platinum and gold currency that the music industry understands. So far in the 1990s, the eight most prominent groups have had combined U.S. sales of 28 million, SoundScan reported.
Those successes, and the scores of strong recordings that fell shy of hit status, contradict stereotypes of Orange County as a creatively inert place of pampered wealth, reactionary politics, sanitized, hand-me-down culture and terminal unhipness.
“It’s gone from a place that you’d whisper that you live there to a place I’d consider living,” said Cary Baker, a veteran music publicist from Los Angeles. “It seems like all sorts of good things are happening.”
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“It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. You had ultimate control of this monstrous storm going on around you. But there was a calm there. You were at peace and at home in the middle of this chaos. They were your friends and you had a common goal. You were all molecules in this rage.”
MIKE ROCHE OF TSOL--1989, on performing punk rock
“For me it wasn’t just a kind of music. It should have been called ‘punk life’ instead of ‘punk rock.’ I decided, ‘I’m sick of being the quiet little kid in a houseful of loudmouths,’ and punk gave me the excuse.”
MIKE “GABBY” GABORNO, CADILLAC TRAMPS SINGER--1991
“I thought I was in hell.”
BUD GAUGH OF SUBLIME--1996, on awaking to find Brad Nowell dead in the San Francisco hotel room they were sharing
“My mom got mad. I said, ‘Dad’s got tattoos.’ She said, ‘Dad was in the war.’ I said, ‘Punk rock’s a war.’ ”
CASEY ROYER OF THE ADOLESCENTS AND D.I.--1989, on his first tattoo, a leopard on his right biceps
“Before I was Mike from Social Distortion, I was a kid in a dysfunctional, alcoholic home who never felt a part of anything, who grew up afraid. And by the time I was 17, all that turned to anger, because anger was much more comfortable.”
MIKE NESS OF SOCIAL DISTORTION--1996
“It’s as trippy as you think it would be. Nothing seems real. You’re still the same, but everybody looks at you differently. It sometimes enters my head that whatever goes up comes down, and it’s not always going to be like that. I just indulge in the weirdness of it and go, ‘This is such a [expletive] trip.”’
GWEN STEFANI OF NO DOUBT--1997
In the Beginning
Rock ‘n’ roll in Orange County didn’t begin with punk. For a time in the 1960s, vital and influential music broke out here:
1961-63: Surf rock started splashing around the world. Revolutionary young O.C. guitarist Dick Dale generated his surf-rock classic “Miserlou” with much help from the Fullerton-built guitars and amplifiers of Leo Fender. The Chantays’ “Pipeline” added another O.C. surf-rock classic to the history books. Soon, however, Beatlemania and the British invasion hit, spelling instant wipeout for surf instrumentals.
1963-66: The Righteous Brothers, a duo from Santa Ana, first came to national attention with “Little Latin Lupe Lu” and what came to be known as “blue-eyed soul.” Their string of hits continued into the mid-'60s as Bill Medley’s rumbling baritone, Bobby Hatfield’s sweet tenor and Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound production turned “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” and “Unchained Melody” into breathtaking peaks of romantic pop.
1962-68: O.C. had a folk scene, too, centered around the Golden Bear nightclub in Huntington Beach and the Prison of Socrates in Newport Beach. The region served as a low-key spawning ground for Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Jose Feliciano, a folk musician from New York City, moved to Orange County in 1968 and soon saw his fortunes soar with a hit rendition of the Doors’ “Light My Fire.”
1969-78: Nothing. Music that mattered beyond local borders failed to materialize.