Essential Albums, ’78-98
This isn’t a best list of albums from Orange County’s punk alterna-rock scene over the past 20 years. But if you heard them all you’d get a good overview of the stylistic breadth of the Orange County rock movement and how its story unfolded.
“Adolescents” Frontier, 1981
“It was just flat-out rebellion. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion. ‘Let’s head 100 miles per hour into a brick wall and see which of us stands up.’ ”
That, says singer Tony Brandenburg, was the prevailing mind-set as the Adolescents recorded their first album in March 1981.
The “Wrecking Crew,” as the Fullerton band styled itself in one song, wasn’t happy. Brandenburg, who took Tony Cadena as the first in an ever-changing sequence of noms-de-punk, was a fierce 17-year-old advocate of punk’s anti-commercial, live-for-the-moment ethic; guitarist Rikk Agnew, 22, was old enough to see career potential in the band’s barreling, often catchy repertoire.
Inflamed by intra-band tensions and the indignities and occasional beatings he’d suffered at the hands of a punk-hating world, the scrawny Brandenburg channeled his outrage into a hot-wired performance of sneers and snarls.
Bandmates--Rikk Agnew and his brother, Frank, on guitars, Steve Soto on bass and Casey Royer on drums--answered the challenge with hurtling playing and backup singing that soared or roared as required.
Nobody was left standing. Rikk Agnew, who moved to the Adolescents with Royer, was fired before the album’s May 1981 release; no matter that he was Ads’ most advanced songwriter. By August, after recording a three-song EP, “Welcome to Reality,” the remaining members had quit.
Still, in “Adolescents,” they left an underground classic. The 13 songs defined the O.C. punk experience, back when punk was an beleaguered subculture.
“Amoeba,” with lyrics by Royer, is a metaphoric account of a single-celled creature, read punk youth culture, growing in size and self-awareness under the scornful, dismissive eye of adult authority.
“Kids of the Black Hole” was Rikk Agnew’s epic tribute to the hedonistic, comradely denizens of a Fullerton crash pad that cradled the fertile North County punk scene during 1979-80.
The two songs introduced a massed, harmonized “octave guitar” blitz--an Orange County rock signature. The Ads, along with Social Distortion and Agent Orange, freely credited the Mechanics, an unsung band formed in Fullerton in 1977, as a key influence for that guitar sound, and helpful cues in songwriting and showmanship. “Going to a Mechanics practice was like going to Mecca,” the Ads’ Steve Soto recalled.
“Adolescents” marked the punk-rock debut of producer Thom Wilson, who went on to record seminal releases by T.S.O.L. and the Vandals, and eventually became a crucial architect of the Offspring’s sound.
“Balboa Fun Zone” Triple X, 1988
Punk didn’t go away. Within a few years of its early ‘80s outbreak, a new generation of fans clamored for the vanished heroes.
The Adolescents obliged with a 1986 reunion and a 1987 album, “Brats in Battalions,” that tried unsuccessfully to recapture the hard-core punk magic of 1981. Tony Cadena had become Tony Montana. (Today he’s Tony Reflex when fronting his current band, the ADZ, and Tony Brandenburg while working his day job teaching developmentally disabled kids.)
He split after “Brats,” leaving the remaining Ads (with former Mechanics member Sandy Hanson on drums) to explore the more openly melodic, pop-rock influences that always appealed to Soto and the Agnew brothers.
“Balboa Fun Zone” resulted, taking the Adolescents to musical adulthood that marked Soto’s emergence as a significant singing and songwriting talent.
It was a noble failure, too advanced for fans who craved the hard-and-fast stuff, and too ahead of its time for the wave that would lift pop-buoyed punk into the mainstream during the 1990s.
The Adolescents broke up for good (except for occasional reunion shows) in 1990.
Rikk Agnew went on to release solo projects sporadically; Soto and Hanson stuck together to play punk-pop in Joyride and 22 Jacks, and Frank Agnew became a low-profile but creatively valued sidekick on other projects, including records by Tender Fury, Rule 62 and Mr. Mirainga.
“Living in Darkness” Posh Boy, 1981
Punk rock was booming in Orange County in 1981, but Mike Palm wasn’t in a mood to celebrate. As Agent Orange stepped into a North Hollywood studio that September to record its first album, Palm, the band’s 18-year-old founder and singer-songwriter, felt a sense of doom.
The recording contract he had just signed seemed like a trap (a lawsuit over royalties would ensue), and, far from regarding punk as a burgeoning form, he saw it sliding into a morass of violence, conformity and addiction.
Palm, however, would become an upbeat presence, his subsequent output maintaining a darkly dramatic feel, but with hopeful lyrics that advocated determined striving against the odds. Agent Orange’s influential amalgam of punk, ‘60s garage-rock and Southern California surf-guitar music helped perpetuate punk and expand its musical reach.
“Living in Darkness” is Agent Orange’s signature work. Palm, singing and playing guitar, teamed with drummer Scott Miller and bassist James Levesque for a hard-driving trip through foreboding and isolation.
Besides such highlights as the title track and “Bloodstains,” a ferociously pummeling song with a snake-charmer surf-guitar solo, Agent Orange covered Dick Dale’s “Miserlou,” cementing the connection between O.C.'s surf-rock past and its punk-rock present.
Through most of the 1980s, Agent Orange was the county’s most stable and prosperous punk/alternative band, touring regularly and pioneering the now-commonplace connection between rock and surf-and-skate culture. Palm was avid about both sports, and Agent Orange songs were incorporated in promotional videos for Vision Sports, a skateboard manufacturer. By the mid-'80s, Agent Orange was earning a healthy income from its own Vision-produced skateboard model, and it had landed a deal with a solid independent label, Enigma Records.
But it took them five years to come up with “This Is the Voice,” a strong follow-up to “Living in Darkness”; in 1987, instability set in. Lineup changes and squabbles with the label cost Agent Orange its momentum.
Without a record deal, Palm scrounged for cash to record an album. Agent Orange continued to perform regularly--one fine 1990 performance was captured on an album, “Real Live Sound"--but it wasn’t until 1996 that Palm mustered a third studio album, “Virtually Indestructible.”
Still, Agent Orange soldiers on, the only band in continuous existence during the 20-year span of O.C. punk/alternative history.
“Beach Blvd” Posh Boy, 1979
“Beach Blvd” was the first album to certify that punk rock had infected the Southern California suburbs. Robbie “Posh Boy” Fields, a transplanted Englishman, was working as a substitute teacher and restaurant maitre d’ in 1977 when he caught the punk-rock bug. Punk was a product of New York, London and Los Angeles, but Fields had the prescient idea of looking to the suburbs.
“Beach Blvd” was a sampler of his earliest finds--the catchy blitz-pop of the Crowd from Huntington Beach and the Simpletones from Rosemead, and the darker, mordant approach of Rik L Rik (real name: Rick Elerick) from Covina. The album title advertised the music’s suburban origins: Highway 39, known as Beach Boulevard in Orange County, ran inland from the Crowd’s hometown to Rik L Rik’s.
Highlights such as the Simpletones’ innocent ode to teen romance, “I Have a Date,” and the Crowd’s silly, 51-second exercise in velocity, “Trix Are for Kids,” were radical departures from punk’s angry image.
KROQ-FM’s taste-making disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer was quick to endorse the suburban punk outpouring, providing liner notes for “Beach Blvd” and playing the music on his weekly show on 106.7.
The Posh Boy-Bingenheimer alliance continued in 1980-81, as the label released two extremely influential “Rodney on the Roq” compilations that helped launch such O.C. punk luminaries as the Adolescents, Agent Orange, Social Distortion and T.S.O.L.
Some of Fields’ young signees came to vilify suburban punk’s first mogul as an exploiter of naive kids, but the personable label boss managed eventually to patch up most of the rifts--and to generate royalties for the early punkers by licensing their work for ‘90s compilations when punk finally became commercially hot.
“Right Time,” a rousing, 1980 anthem by the Crowd on the expanded, CD reissue of “Beach Blvd,” summed up the commercial fate of O.C.'s pioneering punk releases: “I made the right move, at the wrong time.”
But the enjoyment of playing raw, fast, catchy music didn’t fade. Since returning in 1987 after a four-year retirement, the Crowd has continued to play the local grass-roots clubs, showing punk crowds that it’s always the right time for a good time.
“Tribal Thunder” Hightone, 1993
As a musician, Dick Dale is O.C. rock’s greatest originator, and as a personality, its most extraordinary original. His signature, starting in 1961, was capturing on guitar the engulfing sensation of power and momentum he felt while surfing.
Using Dale as a guinea pig, Leo Fender, the famed Fullerton instrument-maker, came up with amplifier innovations that gave the guitarist the sonic throw-weight he needed to evoke elemental forces.
Dale founded the instrumental surf-rock style that rode the hit charts until the Beatles arrived in 1964. His reckless, zooming style, marked by screaming skids down the guitar neck, and reverb distortion he applied for that wave-splashed effect, became a benchmark for aficionados of aggressive guitar music.
After 1965, he slipped from the music scene. Dale coped with serious illnesses and injuries, made a fortune in real estate and lost it in an expensive divorce, trained wild animals that he kept at his waterfront mansion and won acquittal in a criminal prosecution for the alleged sexual molestation of a 13-year-old girl.
Dale resumed playing in the ‘70s, but his performances fronting a big band with horns forsook the raw simplicity and power of surf-rock for a Las Vegas show-band approach.
By 1993, Dale’s young wife, Jill, a fan of punk rock, persuaded him to strip his band down to a power trio. “Tribal Thunder” was the result: a searing, amped-up new take on the old surf-rock style.
At 56, Dale finally became a touring guitar gladiator. His career got a boost in 1994, when surf-rock enthusiast Quentin Tarantino used Dale’s 1962 classic, “Miserlou,” as the theme music for his film “Pulp Fiction.”
Making up for his failure to tour in the ‘60s, Dale traveled tirelessly, reaching a young following and tapping into the emerging synergy between hurtling rock music and high velocity board sports (surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding).
In 1996, Dale became the oldest rock hero on the punk-dominated Warped Tour.
“Horse Bites Dog Cries” Triple X, 1985
In the military, D.I. stands for “drill instructor.” The band certainly has filled that role on the Orange County rock scene. Since 1981, D.I. has been something of a boot camp for young punk talent.
So far, 27 players have passed through its ever-changing lineup. The one constant is Casey Royer, an exuberant, free-spirited front man who has stuck to the hard-and-fast vision of the early-'80s hard-core punk scene from which D.I. sprang.
Alternately sardonic and idealistic, D.I. has appealed to fresh generations of punk kids with a mixture of sarcastic Mad magazine humor and determined, punk-all-the-way anthems pitched to fans going through their identity-sorting adolescence.
In the beginning, D.I. was said to stand for “Drug Ideology.” The highlight of “Horse Bites Dog Cries” is “Johnny’s Got a Problem,” a fierce, hurtling gem that stands out among the many strong anti-heroin songs Orange County rock has produced.
With Royer’s old Adolescents mate, Rikk Agnew, lending his muscular guitar riffs, and producer Chaz Ramirez sneaking in such atypical-for-punk elements as synthesizers, “Horse Bites” was D.I.'s most consistent and adventurous album.
At 40, Royer fronts a D.I. lineup that has come full circle: All four members of the current edition were in the band when it started. D.I. at some point evolved to stand for “Do It” and other positive, drug-free variants; collectively, the members of today’s version have been doing it on the O.C. punk/alternative scene for nearly 80 years.
“Mommy’s Little Monster” 13th Floor, 1983
Mike Ness is such a colorful and extreme personality that it’s easy to focus on the sensational side of his story and that of the band he has led since 1979.
The incessant youthful brawling, which he often seemed to court; the illustrated-man proliferation of tattoos; the raging heroin addiction that reduced him to stealing from his closest friends. And, later, the bulked-up muscles and proud sneer of a survivor who knows he’s an original in a business full of imitators.
But the key to Social Distortion’s run as the most powerful and consistent band of the O.C. alterna-rock movement is Ness’ gifted, well-trained set of ears--one of which is missing a chunk bitten off during an early-'80s scrap with another punk rocker.
Music captured Ness long before punk hit. By the third grade, thanks to his rock-loving uncles, he was immersed in the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. When punk arrived, he could apply a trove of classic influences.
While all the other important O.C. punk originators had released albums by 1982, Social Distortion’s turbulent early history took its toll, allowing just a smattering of singles and tracks on compilations.
The wait paid off: “Mommy’s Little Monster” was the product of a seasoned band and, in Ness, a singer-songwriter-lead guitarist who had hit upon a fully formed creative style even as his heroin-addled personal life spun toward chaos.
Ness’ approach shunned typical punk hurtling and hollering for structured songwriting and catchy melodic hooks. Brent Liles and Derek O’Brien formed a tight, feisty team on bass and drums. Dennis Danell specialized in grind-noise, whistling wind backdrop. With Ness’ stinging, charged lead guitar bursting out of the mix, SD was primed to make a statement.
The songs on “Mommy’s Little Monster” are like diary entries dashed off before the heat of charged, on-the-edge experience could dissipate. With his hallmark simplicity and directness, Ness told what it was like to be a punk kid stoked on excitement and excess--intelligent and conscious enough to know the possible consequences, but too caught up in the thrill ride to care.
SD made the album at the Casbah, the Fullerton studio run by Chaz Ramirez, a much-loved record producer who guided many O.C. bands, and had an important hand in honing Social D’s sound.
Ramirez was a notorious pack rat, perched in a studio cluttered with gadgets, toys, musical instruments and mounds of electronic gear. Ramirez died in 1993 when he fell from a warehouse attic while scrounging for more stuff to squirrel away at the Casbah. Social Distortion eventually acquired the studio for reasons sentimental as well as practical.
Forced in 1985 to choose between a life of drugs and prison or sobriety and a future, Ness overcame the pull of self-destructive habits. His next 10 years of songwriting and recording revolved around clear-eyed contemplations and hard-edged re-creations of the wild life that had formed him.
Country and blues influences emerged on “Prison Bound” (1988), “Social Distortion” (1990) and “Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell” (1992), but the band never departed from its original concept. All were good albums with some memorable peaks; the gritty title cut of “Prison Bound” may be the apex of O.C. rock.
“White Light White Heat White Trash” 550 Music/Epic, 1996
For the long-aborning “White Light White Heat White Trash,” Ness dug deeper, partly at the insistence of SD’s new producer, Michael Beinhorn.
Where previous albums had largely been the diary scrawls of a man trying simply to make extreme experience intelligible, Ness now found the broader vision to sum up what it all meant. Far more tenderness and vulnerability--and even a touch of contrition--entered the mix, but not at the cost of a scorching performance.
“White Light” was the band’s third major-label release, its bid to boost commercial returns from steady (about 250,000 sales per album) to stellar. The album debuted in the Top 40, SD’s highest-ever chart position, but Epic couldn’t push it to the top.
In 1998, the band finally reaped its first gold record, for cumulative sales of the 1990 release, “Social Distortion.” SD summed up its first two decades with a searing in-concert retrospective, “Live at the Roxy,” then went on hiatus as Ness went to work on a solo album due in 1999. SD now records for Time Bomb, the independent Laguna Beach label launched by its longtime manager, Jim Guerinot.
Other Orange County modern-rock bands have reaped bigger rewards, but when it comes to creative achievement over a long haul, none stands ahead of Social D.
“Dance With Me” Frontier, 1981
T.S.O.L.--for True Sounds of Liberty--was the most dangerous, the most unpredictable and the most popular of O.C. punk bands during the early 1980s, thanks largely to its mercurial front man, Jack Grisham.
Grisham was strapping, handsome, athletic, charming--a natural clown and rabble-rouser, a self-described trouble-maker who got his teenage kicks from vandalism, petty theft and beating up people. He also was a literate songwriter steeped in romanticism and introspection as well as typical punk defiance.
Grisham was capable of spray-painting “I love you grandma” on the cloud-puffed, blue-sky mural that served as a backdrop to the onstage action at O.C.'s famous punk-rock den, the Cuckoo’s Nest, but also of attacking T.S.O.L.'s first label boss, Robbie Fields, over a contract dispute. With such a tempestuous ringleader, T.S.O.L. generated a heady mixture of violent release and naughty outrageousness.
The first T.S.O.L. record, a five-song EP, was straightforward, hard-fast punk rock. The themes were political, including tirades against the renewal of the military draft. Grisham sang in a faux-British accent inspired by Johnny Rotten.
But the band’s hallmark rage for change and experimentation soon became evident: “Dance With Me,” which also emerged in 1981, had little in common with the “T.S.O.L.” EP. Its cavalcade of moods and themes was kept on track by the dark authority of the playing.
A spooky mood prevails on “Dance With Me,” underlined by a graveyard scene on the cover. The album inhabits a Halloween fun-house hall of horrors on the title song and “Code Blue,” in which Grisham plays a necrophiliac giving a hilarious, if explicit, account of his preferences. It veers toward film noir for the cloak-and-dagger mystery “Triangle” and encompasses earnest accounts of embattled individualism.
Offspring founders Dexter Holland and Greg Kriesel played “Dance With Me” obsessively when they were getting into punk.
Producer Thom Wilson had heard all about T.S.O.L.'s violent aura when he agreed to record “Dance With Me,” the band’s first full-length album. “I was very apprehensive about it. People said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? They beat people up.’ ”
But Wilson found four musicians who took their performance seriously and worked industriously, the lone quirk being Grisham’s insistence on sitting while he recorded his vocals.
T.S.O.L. changed its sound with every record. “Weathered Statues,” a 1982 EP, featured a reggae-punk number, and “Beneath the Shadows” was drenched in rainy romanticism accented by glistening piano and synthesizer shimmers. The album disregarded punk’s sonic and attitudinal boundaries and effectively ended the punk chapter of T.S.O.L.'s career.
Grisham left in 1983 (with drummer Todd Barnes in tow), to pursue an always-interesting but commercially marginal career fronting the bands Cathedral of Tears, Tender Fury and the Joykiller.
Guitarist Ron Emory and bassist Mike Roche kept T.S.O.L. going with fresh recruits Joe Wood and Mitch Dean, but the band steered toward bluesy, hard rock that told tales of gritty street life and eventually courted the proliferating late-'80s heavy-metal audience.
T.S.O.L. toured prolifically, including an opening slot for Guns N’ Roses. But first Emory, then Roche, dropped out, and the band broke up in 1991. In 1990-91, a temporary reunion of the four original members, with quick cash the primary motive, yielded a series of shows and a live album of oldies.
“Peace Thru Vandalism” Epitaph, 1982
Every court has its jester, and in Orange County’s punk/alternative castle, the Vandals have long been the foremost crew in motley.
Sardonic humor was a frequent staple of O.C.'s early punk bands, but this Huntington Beach group, mentored by the Crowd and T.S.O.L., made it a mission.
Since 1980, the Vandals have stood out for their willingness not only to mock the usual authority-figure suspects, but also to puncture some of punk culture’s own pretensions and idiotic excesses.
The Vandals hammered out “Peace Thru Vandalism,” their six-song debut release, during a single night. The bleary-eyed band emerged from that night’s work with not just a record, but also a folkloric artifact. The EP’s most famous song, “The Legend of Pat Brown,” immortalized the real-life rowdy punk fan who “tried to run the cops down” rather than submit to a police traffic stop outside the Cuckoo’s Nest in Costa Mesa.
Other highlights are sendups of punk decadence (“Wannabe Manor”) and punk’s knee-jerk anti-authority stance (“Anarchy Burger [Hold the Government]”). The Vandals would later play against punk type by performing at a fund-raiser for the Orange County Young Republicans.
Singer Steve Jensen, known simply as Stevo, was an enthusiastic 18-year-old clown. The other core members were the band’s founder, guitarist Jan Sakert (who went by the stage name Jan Ackermann, in a spoofing nod to the fleet-fingered guitarist of the yodeling Dutch progressive-rock band Focus) and drummer Joe Escalante.
The Vandals’ next move, in 1984, was to spoof funk and rap music, on “Ladykiller,” from their second release, “When in Rome Do as the Vandals.” It became a novelty hit on KROQ-FM (106.7) and landed the Vandals a series of unlikely opening slots for rappers Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J and Public Enemy.
Stevo was gone by 1985, fired for excessive drinking. “I was an incredible drunk. But it was incredibly punk to be incredibly drunk,” Jensen said several years later.
It was the first step in a complete retooling of a band that now features singer Dave Quackenbush and guitarist Warren Fitzgerald, with Escalante on bass and Josh Freese on drums when not otherwise engaged as one of alterna-rock’s leading session men.
Unchanged is the Vandals’ franchise for poking fun at everything--an approach that in the ‘90s has kept the band busier than ever, including tours as an opening act for the Offspring and No Doubt.