The latest Social Distortion CD, Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll, arrived eight years after the band's previous studio album. That 1996 release, White Light, White Heat, White Trash, was portrayed as the best chance for this veteran punk band to enjoy a commercial breakthrough.
It didn't happen.
But a funny thing appears to have happened since then. Though the group was inactive up until 2003, Social Distortion-much like The Pixies-has been discovered by a whole new audience.
"I have witnessed, to me, a phenomenon. The band is bigger than it has ever been," says frontman Mike Ness. "We're seeing a whole generation of kids, virtually from word-of-mouth. We haven't been with a major label for at least five years... and just playing live shows here and there. And all of a sudden we're selling out 19 nights at the House of Blues. It's a phenomenon."
That 19-show stand, documented on the DVD, Live in Orange County, took place when they returned three years ago. It was the official re-introduction of a band that many suspected was finished the day Ness released his 1998 solo debut, Cheating at Solitaire. His second solo record came a year later.
It wasn't until 2000, however, that fans seriously doubted the future of Social Distortion. On Feb. 29 of that year, guitarist Dennis Danell-who along with Ness co-founded Social Distortion in 1979-collapsed and died in the driveway of his home, the victim of an aneurysm. Danell was 38.
Ness easily could have buried Social Distortion along with his friend, but that didn't seem right.
The band "was [Dennis'] dream, and I really believe in my heart he would have wanted me to keep it going," Ness explains. "It was almost like, keep this together in honor of him. It's kind of a tribute to him."
Friends since their youth, Danell stood by Ness when the singer-guitarist battled a nasty heroin addiction early in their career. He watched Ness rebound to lead the band through a string of three acclaimed albums-Social Distortion (1990), Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell (1992) and White Light, White Heat, White Trash.
The two drifted apart and collaborated less as songwriters as years went on, but death has a way of amplifying old emotions and turning them on their head.
"I've lost family members before, and I've lost friends that I've been friends with for five, maybe 10 years, but never someone I basically grew up with," Ness explains. "We played together on stage, but he had his circle of friends, I had mine and you just realize, "God, I think this was my best friend.' So I mean, it definitely had a profound effect."
In reforming Social Distortion, though, Ness feels he has assembled the band's best lineup. Danell's guitar slot is filled by Jonny "2 Bags" Wickersham, who served as Danell's guitar technician. The new drummer is Charlie Quintano, who played in the seminal punk band The Plugz and later The Cruzados. Bassist John Maurer returned to record Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll but then left to devote time to his family. Brent Harding, who played on tour with Ness to support Cheating at Solitaire, has filled that slot, at least for the time being.
Even though Sex, Love and Rock 'n' Roll was made in the aftermath of Danell's death, lyrically it's fairly upbeat by the band's standards.
"[It's] generally not as dark of an album as White Light was," Ness says. "And, you know, that was eight years ago, and I'm older-I feel like I'm a little wiser and maybe a little bit more into solutions [as opposed to] the problems."Social Distortion plays at House of Blues on Jan. 27 and 28. You guessed it-sold out.