Social Distortion live at Shepherds Bush Empire

Social Distortion live at Shepherds Bush Empire, May 3rd 2015

socialdlive_Many Social Distortion fans out there will tell you that the band’s 1983 debut Mommy’s Little Monster is their best record to date. This baffles me. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great punk rock record, but one almost entirely free of the country and other American roots music influences that, to these ears, define Social Distortion among their Californian punk brethren. These aforementioned influences were incorporated in fine style on 1988’s ‘Prison Bound’, but further refined on 1990s self-titled record; my personal favourite, and also home to some of their best-known songs (including ‘Story Of My Life’ and ‘Ball And Chain’). Arguably, it is this album that would give a Social D newcomer the best snapshot of what Mike Ness’ crew are all about, and the man himself clearly agrees with me; to the extent that his band are currently playing the album in its entirety every night, to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

These seasoned veterans certainly look and sound good as they rip through the opening ‘So Far Away’ and ‘Let It Be Me’; so it’s a shame that the crowd don’t seem half as up for it as they were when Social D last played here (about four years ago). It’s at times like these that I wish that I could empty the venue and re-fill it with a couple of thousand clones of myself. Ok, that would mean a whole crowd of slightly podgy 30-something caffeine-addicted misanthropists, but they’d give lesser-known cuts like ‘A Place In My Heart’ the sing-along and jump-around that they deserve, and THEY’D LEAVE THEIR FUCKING CAMERA PHONES AT HOME. Thankfully, though, Mike seems happy, and kindly takes the time to say hello, remind us that we don’t have to go to work tomorrow, and ramble like a star-struck kid about having met The Clash bassist Paul Simonon earlier that day.
sociald
If that sounds a bit too cosy for comfort, it’s worth pointing out that the Social Distortion (and Mike Ness) of today are a far more stable and – dare I say it? – professional beast than they were 25 years ago, and at times tonight, a little Mommy’s Little Monster-style sense of danger wouldn’t have gone amiss. The songs have stood the test of time, though, and even recent cuts like ‘Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown’ are played with kind of vigour that suggests Mike still has a few axes to grind after all these years.

The one-two knockout punch of ‘Ring Of Fire’ and anti-racism anthem ‘Don’t Drag Me Down’ are pretty much as good an encore as you’ll hear from anyone, and whilst it’s been fun revisiting Social Distortion’s past tonight, they’ve also proved that – over three decades in – there’s still plenty of gas left in this rock n’ roll machine.

Review: Alex Gosman
Photo credit: Albert Saludes

Social Distortion – live

London Shepherd’s Bush Empire,
7/7/11

social_distortionFor British Social Distortion fans, the band’s shows are like hot summers – we’re lucky if we get one every few years. Three UK dates (all in London) in the last decade is hardly an impressive track record, but it does lend tonight’s show a sense of occasion, with all manner of punks, greasers and rockabilly types lining the street and pubs outside the Empire. Young or old, they’re a devoted bunch; a fact underlined when Social D frontman Mike Ness invites a couple of kids onstage during the band’s encore. They’ve travelled from Glasgow and Manchester, and like the rest of us, they look pretty damn stoked to be here.

Crazy Arm sound huge for a bunch of skinny guys from Devon. Like the headliners, they’re blessed with the ability to craft songs that are anthemic without being overblown, and the likes of ‘Still To Keep’ and ‘Broken By The Wheel’ are infused with a frenetic folk-punk energy that betrays their rural roots. The applause gets louder with every song, and it’s well deserved, especially from such a partisan crowd.

Cynical folks among us may argue that what we witness tonight is really The Mike Ness Band, but with all due respect to past and present members, Ness has always been the driving force (and main songwriter) behind Social Distortion. It’s doubtful that the Empire will see a louder sing-along in 2011 than that which greets third song ‘Story Of My Life’, and rightly so; for these songs are indeed soundtracks to the frontman’s life of struggle, tragedy and eventual redemption. There’s no bullshit with these guys, and not much in the way of pointless banter; they just rock out with the energy and conviction of a band half their ages, with Ness and guitarist Jonny ‘2 Bags’ Wickersham frequently soloing away down the front into the faces of a sweat-drenched, sold out crowd.

Given the sheer number of classics in their canon, it’s debatable as to whether a perfect Social Distortion set-list could ever exist, but tonight they get pretty close. Renditions of ‘Dear Lover’ (from 1996’s underrated ‘White Light, White Heat, White Trash’) and ‘So Far Away’ are both very welcome surprises, as is the sound of the crowd singing the opening guitar line to ‘Don’t Drag Me Down’. Old standards like ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ and ‘1945’ are still shot through with anti-authoritarian vigour, whilst at the other end of the timeline, a couple of female backing singers are brought on to add a soulful edge to ‘California (Hustle And Flow)’.

These old road-dogs have come a long way since their fury-fuelled 1980s heyday, but they’ve got no end of stories to tell, and a damn fine way of telling them. Here’s hoping for their swift return to these shores.

Alex Gosman

Social Distortion

Social Distortion
Hard Times and Nursey Rhymes
Epitaph


Social Distortion are so popular amongst our writers that the following two reviews for their latest album were sent in. Each one had its own take on it so it would be terribly rude of us not to run both. Read two opinions below, firstly from punk aficionado Pete Craven and then a slightly extended review from the human encyclopedia of music, Alex Gosman. – Ed.

I hadn’t pre-heard any of the material from Social Distortion’s latest album, so went into it cold, straight off the bat.

An instrumental (‘Road Zombie’) opens up proceedings, and sounds great. Hallmark Social D, and the very idea of an instrumental itself is one little utilised on the long-playing format, but when done right can be used to great effect. We then slip in to the hard stuff with ‘California (Hustle and Flow)’ and it’s immediately apparent that the mood is set with an optimistic and cool confident swagger, more in line with their two early nineties albums ‘Social Distortion’ and ‘Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell’. As we push on through the 11 tracks, there’s little, if any, of the distemper that fuelled the much loved ‘White Light, White Heat, White Trash’. The Dillinger-esque homage ‘Machine Gun Blues’ is the punkest number in the pack. Take heed; if you still hang on to the lude boy sounds of old (circa; 1945) then you’d best bust out your dusty copy of ‘Mommy’s Little Monsters’ and keep your head buried in the sand, Social D in 2011 are a zillion miles from The Playpen.

I’ve closely followed this bands musical progression over the years, and the progressive direction of this (their 7th) album makes a lot of sense, as they slow burn thru a collection of songs that utilise classic Americana Rock ‘n’ Roll, set to Mike’s mournful tones, lamenting love, loss, redemption… and hope. Indeed, the album closes with Mike declaring he’s “still alive” and will be “here until the bitter end” and thus closes another chapter of this fabled Punk Survivors tale.

Pete Craven

Social Distortion – Hard Times And Nursery Rhymes by Epitaph Records

In keeping with ‘I liked their old stuff better’ mentality, there are folks out there who will tell you that Social Distortion’s 1983 debut ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ is their finest work. Granted, ‘The Creeps’, ‘Another State Of Mind’ and the title track deservedly remain in Social D’s setlists to this day, but in terms of sound, it didn’t really help the band stand out amongst the other leading lights of late 70s/early 80’s Californian punk rock. It was on their 1990 self-titled effort that singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike Ness melded punk rock with his love of American roots music to create the signature Social D sound. If you’ve never heard ‘Story Of My Life’, ‘Ball And Chain’ or even the band’s barnstorming cover of ‘Ring Of Fire’, then you’ve got some catching up to do.

Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes’ is the band’s seventh album in 30-plus years, and even though Ness has long been happily settled down with his wife and kids, the old dog still has a few surprises up his sleeve. Having previously covered ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘Backstreet Girl’, he lets his Rolling Stones influences loose on ‘California (Hustle And Flow)’ and ‘Can’t Take It With You’, both replete with soulful female backing vocals and 70’s swagger.

Quite a departure from those early days, then, but the Social Distortion of old hasn’t left the building just yet; with ‘Gimme The Sweet And Lowdown’ and ‘Machine Gun Blues’ providing the requisite high-octane guitar thrills. And it is testament to the band’s skill that their cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Alone and Forsaken’ sounds no less dark or foreboding than the original, despite its inclusion on a largely upbeat-sounding album.

It isn’t completely flawless; the overly-long ‘Bakersfield’ (complete with corny spoken-word interlude) could have done with some pruning, and the polished production does take the edge off some of the harder, faster songs. It’s a record that arguably shares as much musical territory with Ness’ country/blues-influenced solo album ‘Cheating At Solitaire’ as with previous Social D releases, and it probably won’t strike a chord with the aforementioned ‘Mommy’s Little Monster’ purists.

Overall, though, it’s a fine effort from a band who still have plenty of stories to tell, an ear for a great tune and little concern for passing musical trends. Welcome back, guys; it’s been a while.

Alex Gosman