These days, “punk rock” encompasses a lot. Lending a snarling edge and dense distortion to lithe orchestrations that take cues from classic rock titans like The Who and U2, Toronto’s F—-ed Up has been one of the most visible bands to twist punk in ways that have pissed off more than a few genre devotees — even as they thrill others. It’s a sound that’s far removed from the dominating throb and murky mood preferred by Denmark’s Iceage or the barbed riffs and breakneck momentum crafted by the Tar Heel-based Double Negative.
One could fill far more than this page cataloging the contrasting styles that battle for space under punk’s ever-widening umbrella. And you can be sure that this amazing diversity wouldn’t exist were it not for the genre-busting work of bands such as Social Distortion.
“We listen to a lot of different music,” explains Jonny Wickersham, the group’s guitarist since 2000, and a close confidant of the band during its early days. “There’s a lot of different influences in the band. I guess the idea for us is to try to bring those in in a way that still works without compromising that sound that is the band. We’re not an experimental band or anything. It’s just what we do.”
Emerging in 1978 from Los Angeles’ fertile punk petri dish, Social Distortion endured multiple lineup shifts before recording its first LP. That effort — 1983’s searing and sensational Mommy’s Little Monster — surged and chugged with powerful riffs garnished by garage-inspired fills and bolstered by some of the era’s more satisfying guitar tones. Bands rarely arrive so fully formed.
But Mike Ness, the outfit’s singer and leader, has never been one to let a good thing rest. Following his stint in rehab and further personnel shifts, 1988’s Prison Bound confidently explored influences well outside of Monster’s limited palette. “Indulgence” sprawls with tangling riffs and a surf-inspired bass line that mutates into a tenacious thrum. “Like an Outlaw (For You)” explores country a la Johnny Cash, keenly corrupting a journeyman ode with meaty distortion and hard-driving rhythms. Bright, brash and jangling, “Backstreet Girl” is a clear precursor to the ‘90s indie rock of Superchunk and Built to Spill. As multifaceted and accessible as any punk record could ever be, Prison Bound predicted the genre’s present-day diversity and — to the chagrin of some devoted fans — enforced that Social Distortion wouldn’t be limited by anybody’s notion of what is and isn’t punk.
“I was around when they were recording Prison Bound,” Wickersham recalls. “Mike had to contend with a lot of the core fans back in those days who weren’t really approving of the new direction of Social D. Obviously, Mommy’s Little Monster and Prison Bound are two completely different records in a lot of ways. There were people who weren’t feeling it, for sure. I remember seeing shows and seeing the kids; they wanted fast and aggressive music that they could slam-dance to. Mike, he didn’t care. He made the record he wanted to make, and he took the direction that he wanted to take. I’ve always respected that.”
Over the years, the band’s taste for classic country and old school rock ‘n’ roll has become more pronounced. 1990’s Social Distortion — which features a potent, if obvious cover of the Cash classic “Ring of Fire” — moves with an outlaw lilt almost as often as it opts for punk aggression. Two decades later, the band’s 2011 (and latest) outing, Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes, swaggers with honky-tonk abandon, grafting guitar grit onto bright melodies and bitter narratives. Its road-worn charms have more in common with alt-Americana acts such as Lucero and Reckless Kelly than they do with any punk rock progenitor.
“Some records have leaned more to a looser Americana feel,” Wickersham says. “Some records have leaned more to a greasier, garage-rock feel. Some have leaned into an aggressive punk rock thing. Those are just sort of the key elements that make up this band.”
After some summer touring, Social Distortion plans to re-enter the studio and record a new album. If it comes out next year, it would be the group’s shortest turnaround since its early ‘90s heyday. Ness isn’t interested in conforming to any kind of set schedule for releases. He does things his own way.
“I don’t see it stopping anytime soon, that’s for sure,” Wickersham concludes. “As long as people want to hear the music, I think we’re going to bring it to them. That’s just what we do.”
who: Social Distortion, with Cheap Time and Dave Hause
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, June 5 (7 p.m. $33/$35. http://www.theorangepeel.net)