A history of Orange County punk, from Adolescents to No Doubt
“Let’s have a war — blame it on the Middle Class!”
The guitar emerges in a blur. The outburst only lasts a second or two before the rest of the band kicks in as abruptly. Someone calls “Out of vogue” repeatedly, as lead singer Jeff Atta responds, “We don't need no magazines/We don’t need no pictures/We don’t need no TV/We don’t wanna know!” It’s over in a minute. The other three songs on the seven-inch are just as abrupt, rushing by so quickly it’s hard to discern melody or rhythm, just this Waring blender buzz.
“I think we thought, ‘OK, punk is loud and it’s fast,’ so we just played as loud and fast as we could,” Atta told L.A. Record in 2011. “We weren’t intentionally trying to play any faster than anyone else.” His brother Mike Atta — the one producing the blur-action guitar work — added, “It was just a six-month period till we got to the speed of the 'Out Of Vogue' single. I don’t know how we got there; it was just a lot of Dr. Pepper and Suzy Q’s.”
The clean-cut kids became a sensation in the Hollywood punk scene, with their louder/faster/harder/shorter speed blasts. They outgrew this ethic quickly. Come 1980’s Scavenged Luxury EP, they’re clearly channeling English post-punk a la Joy Division.
A slew of bands from their native Orange County took notice of the trail the Middle Class blazed. They established the O.C. as a punk stronghold.
“O.C. life is not the life for me”
Orange County, part of Southern California’s Los Angeles metropolitan area, spans 948 miles and boasts a population of over 3 million as of the 2021 census. Among its major attractions are Disneyland in Anaheim, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park and beaches everywhere you look — Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach. Which means surfing is king. It boasts a major research university in the University Of California at Irvine, joined by Orange’s Chapman University and Cal State Fullerton. Fullerton was also where Leo Fender pioneered the solid-body electric guitar. The O.C. was such a conservative hotbed from the mid-20th century onward that Ronald Reagan described it as where the "good Republicans go to die."
Of course, this would be fertile soil for punk rebellion to burst free.
“There were a lot of schools in the Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa area that attracted the sort of kids whose families didn’t care about them or whatever, and they just got crazy,” former Black Flag roadie Steve "Mugger" Corbin explained to authors Brendan Mullen and Marc Spitz in their definitive LA punk oral history, We Got The Neutron Bomb. “Huntington Beach was the term the people used, but it was all over Orange County… It was basically a full-on white suburbanite rebellion.”
“There was this misconception that it was plush,” Social Distortion frontman Mike Ness groused in We Got The Neutron Bomb. “Just because we live in a suburban setting, what? There isn’t alcoholism in the home? There isn’t child abuse? There isn’t fucking abandonment? There isn’t fucking addiction? You’re fucking confused, man.”
The beach kids were developing a sound with all the aggression of Black Flag up in Hermosa Beach (part of Los Angeles County), but with a lot more melody and pop sophistication. Even T.S.O.L., whose legend has them stealing all of their initial equipment in a smash-and-grab robbery. Notoriously, they beat up anyone who mocked their appearance.
Musically, their increasingly progressive and melodic sound was rooted in the increasingly progressive and melodic Britpunks the Damned. Jack Grisham’s gritty adenoidal bawl with a slight, California-ized English accent and guitarist Ron Emory’s enormous roar became O.C. punk sonic hallmarks, despite hailing from Long Beach in Los Angeles County. Truthfully, that sound could as easily have been popularized by Posh Boy Records’ Beach Blvd compilation, which collected a handful of what were getting called “beach punk bands” by Hollywood’s in-crowd. Especially influential and enduring: The Crowd, with instant classics such as “Right Time” and “Suzy Is A Surf Rocker.”
Several bands from Fullerton, the home of Fender guitars, granted the Orange County punk scene its ultimate refinement and expression. “I think bands like us and Social Distortion and Agent Orange were able to put out stuff that stood out from hardcore because we had these diverse influences,” Adolescents vocalist Tony Reflex (then billed as “Tony Cadena”) mused in We Got The Neutron Bomb. “I grew up listening to oldies radio, AM stations that played stuff like 'Summer In The City' by the Lovin' Spoonful. So when you start learning to write songs, you gravitate toward what you’re familiar with.”
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As evidenced by Adolescents’ classic “Blue Album,” they wed all that absorbed ‘60s pop with Rikk Agnew’s articulate guitar aggression and their singer’s wild persona. Social Distortion owed more than anyone to the New York Dolls and first-wave English punk, but increasingly brought in American roots music — blues, country and rockabilly — heard not only at X and Blasters gigs, but in Ness’ father’s record collection. Agent Orange, still led to this day by singer/guitarist Mike Palm, applied metal’s roaring guitar sound to Dick Dale’s vintage surf twang.
They responded to Orange County’s stifling conservatism and parental irresponsibility with a frothing negationism and existentialist nihilism. “I love the sound when I smash the glass/If I get caught, they’re gonna kick my ass,” Ness sneered atop the burnt-rubber guitar crash of Social Distortion’s “Telling Them.” As Agent Orange played the Belairs’ ancient surf instrumental “Mr. Moto” backward through enormous Marshall amps, Palm growled, “Bloodstains, speed kills/Fast cars, cheap thrills/Rich girls, fine wine/I’ve lost my sense, I’ve lost control, I’ve lost my mind.” Then there’s Adolescents’ absolute masterpiece, “Kids Of The Black Hole.”
As Agnew alternately chimed like the Byrds and crunched like Johnny Ramone, Reflex chronicled a filthy crash pad once inhabited by Ness, concluding of the behavior he saw on display: “Pushing all the limits to a point of no return/Trashed beyond belief to show the kids don’t wanna learn.” These songwriters neither celebrated nor condemned hedonistic hellraising. They were simply reporting from the abyss.
“We start fights with them punks at the Cuckoo's Nest”
“[The scene at the Cuckoo’s Nest] was crazy,” the Crowd’s guitarist Jim Kaa recalled to the Los Angeles Times in 1998, as the O.C.’s prime punk venue was scheduled for demolition. “It was young, and the police didn’t know what the crazy punks were about. There was a lot of fighting, not just [against] the people at Zubie’s but punks against punks.”
Orange County got its CBGB or Masque in 1976, when former bar owner-turned-real-estate agent Jerry Roach assumed ownership of a down-on-its-luck Costa Mesa bar called Jaws as a commission payment. He renamed it for another hit film of the day, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and ran it as a regular rock bar. After two years of locals covering Boston and Styx proved fruitless, Roach began bringing in Hollywood’s finest punk talent, beginning with a Masque benefit featuring the Skulls, the Bags and the Controllers. Soon Roach was booking such locals as the T.S.O.L.-spawning/Grisham-fronted Vicious Circle and the Slashers. In short order, the new breed — Adolescents, T.S.O.L., Agent Orange, the Crowd, Social Distortion, alongside newer bands such as China White, Shattered Faith and Channel 3 — was sharing that stage with Iggy Pop, Dead Kennedys, Fear, Circle Jerks, Ramones and Black Flag.
Not all the Cuckoo’s Nest’s strip mall neighbors were thrilled by the belligerent noise and strange-looking kids the club brought to the block. Especially Zubie’s, a bar-and-grill frequented by cowboys.
“They’d come out of [Zubie’s] drunk, and there’d be fights every night,” Grisham laughed in that 1998 Los Angeles Times Cuckoo’s Nest post-mortem. “There’s a videotape of me beating up these two cowboy guys, and I was wearing a dress at the time.” A new Huntington Beach band with a wicked sense of humor called the Vandals deftly captured the inter-subcultural violence in two songs on their 1982 debut EP Peace Thru Vandalism, “Urban Struggle” and “The Legend Of Pat Brown.” Over a riff half-inched from the Yardbirds’ 1965 “The Train Kept A-Rollin’,” the latter immortalized a 1981 event in which a Cuckoo’s Nest patron allegedly attempted running over two police officers outside the club, leading to shots fired into Brown’s fleeing car.
“It was a fiasco every night,” Reflex quipped via text message.
“‘The Legend Of Pat Brown’ epitomizes the entire craziness of that whole era,” Kaa told the L.A. Times. Such incidents were fuel enough for city officials to pull the Cuckoo Nest’s entertainment permits, putting it out of business. But if the locals thought this was the end of O.C. punk, they were in for a shock.
“Wanna be the focal point within your tiny frame”
Most of O.C. punk’s original graduating class has endured, even through constant lineup shifts and side projects. The Middle Class reformed in 2011 for a series of sporadic shows, before Atta died of kidney and lung cancer three years later. T.S.O.L. endured Grisham’s 1983 exit for several new projects — Cathedral Of Tears, Tender Fury and the Joykiller, the latter featuring Emory. Emory was the last man standing, and he left after new singer Joe Wood led T.S.O.L. into an ill-advised hair-metal phase. The original quartet, who performed several well-attended reunions, reformed for good after successfully suing Wood for the rights to the name.
The Crowd still rouse themselves to action when the spirit strikes, the original core of Kaa and brothers Jim and Jay Decker fully intact. Same for Channel 3’s steadfast Mike Magrann and Kimm Gardener. Agent Orange and Social Distortion’s sole original members remain their respective Mikes, Palm and Ness. SD eventually saw moderate mainstream success as their music grew increasingly rootsy. The Vandals have warped more than any other OG O.C. band, to the point of currently not featuring a single original member.
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Adolescents prevail, through periodic dissolutions, reunions, spin-offs and lineup changes galore. Mercurial genius Agnew, whose distorted octave runs became an O.C. punk guitar signature, initially spun off into founding death rockers Christian Death. He then launched a long-running solo career with an impressive debut LP, All By Myself, featuring what became a local anthem, “O.C. Life.” It would enter the repertoire of D.I., ex-Adolescents drummer Casey Royer’s band that once featured Agnew and his brother Alfie on guitar. Reflex, meanwhile, has fronted a slew of bands — the Abandoned, the Flower Leperds, ADZ and Sister Goddamn. But he always returned to Adolescents, whether it features all or some of the original quintet, at least until bassist Steve Soto’s death in 2018. Their latest album, Russian Spider Dump, came out in 2020.
Ultimately, the O.C. sound wove itself inextricably into pop punk’s genetic code, especially Agnew’s high-flying octave runs on guitar. It certainly didn’t hurt that O.C. standard-bearers the Offspring became part of the original trio of bands who brought pop punk into the mainstream in 1994. They even cut an absolutely faithful “O.C. Life” as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of 2008’s Rise and Fall, Rage and Grace. Suddenly, distorted six-string octave leads, high energy and singalong tunes were everywhere, and not just in O.C.’ers who hit such as Sugar Ray. Mind you, there were rawer underground punk revivalists keeping the O.C. legacy pure, such as the way more ‘77-ish U.S. Bombs and the Stitches.
Then No Doubt and Save Ferris arrived and fucked with the formula in important ways. First, by breaking up the straight white male heterodoxy ruling O.C. punk until now, via mixed-race lineups and singers Gwen Stefani and Monique Powell. Second, the incorporation of ska. Come the new century, Avenged Sevenfold became huge, bringing the O.C. ethic to Warped Tour-bred youth, foregrounding the metal elements seasoning Mike Palm’s Agent Orange guitar sound. Then there was Lit, octave-riffing their way through their massive hit “My Own Worst Enemy.”
Orange County punk stands tall and proud to this day. Its influence permeates punk at every level, be it mainstream pop punk or the edgier underground. Adenoidal vocals and distorted guitar octaves are now as firmly embedded in our musical DNA as Jack Grisham’s Doc Martin is up a former Zubie’s patron’s backside. The old guard continues to sell out venues the world over, and make exciting new records. Then you have the newer generation — Death Hymn Number 9, Audacity, Bonecrusher or Bad Antics. Maybe this O.C. life is the life for us, after all.