25 Years Ago: Social Distortion Strikes a Balance ‘Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell’
In the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, there were a lot of grandiose expectations dumped on alternative rock bands – especially those signed to major labels. In the eyes of record company executives, any group that cut rough edges around its melodic songs could be the next big thing.
Epic Records had signed SoCal punk band Social Distortion a few years earlier. After self-financing a couple of records and dealing with serious addiction issues in the ’80s, Mike Ness’ group released its self-titled major label debut in 1990. Social Distortion was a breakthrough for the band, landing on the Billboard chart and scoring solid alternative rock radio hits in “Let it Be Me,” “Ball and Chain” and a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
It was in the late ’80s, that frontman Ness had begun merging his hardcore punk roots with his interest in classic country music. At the same time that a few other cow-punk bands were discovering the similarities between the seemingly disparate genres, Social Distortion found its signature sound in a hard-charging twang.
“When I see everyone doing the same thing, I want to do the opposite. [Laughs.] I just got so sick of tattooed Dickies-wearing guys in bands trying to sing pop-punk songs that sound the same,” Ness told the A.V. Club in 2011. “It just made me grateful that we have our own direction and our own sound. That started in the mid-’80s. All these hardcore bands sounded all the same. God, why do you want to do the same thing everyone else is doing?”
For Social Distortion’s fourth album, Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell, Ness and the band stayed true to their direction. The singer-guitarist not only wove hints of old Hank Williams and Johnny Cash records into his original material, but also covered a couple true-blue country tunes. The group’s distorted drive and Ness’ sewer grate vocals tied it all together. All the while, Epic was indicating that the label expected, commercially, a big step up for the band.
“You can't think that way, ’cause it interferes with creativity,” Ness told the Los Angeles Times just before the album’s release. “Sure, there’s pressure… But it’s not like when I’m writing the songs I’m thinking about radio airplay. It’s just self-indulgence. I’m writing for me and hoping other people like it.”
But Epic seemed to be hoping for a lot more – given the prevailing trend in 1992, given the blockbuster glory of Nirvana, given that the album’s lead single, “Bad Luck,” was racing up the alternative chart. As Social Distortion was set to have a pre-release show televised in Times Square, the band’s manager was setting the bar for success at a gold record.
After the release of Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell on Feb. 11, 1992, it became evident that, in spite of the heavy promotion and MTV support, perhaps a punk band with a pronounced rockabilly influence wasn’t quite what the masses were looking for. Although “Bad Luck” became Social Distortion’s biggest hit single, followed by other modest hits in “Cold Feelings” and “When She Begins,” the band didn’t take off in the way that many people around the band had predicted.
Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell eventually went gold in 2000, years after Social Distortion had released its final studio album on Epic. Still, those slow-burning sales were the result of fans coming to the band over time, inspired by seeing the band live or reading reviews which claim that, along with its predecessor, Somewhere presents Social Distortion at the height of its powers. If the band didn’t quite get to mainstream heaven, they certainly were a long way from music hell.
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