Orange County Punk is Still Alive and Sneering
Meet the OGs and newcomers keeping a white-knuckled grip on Orange County's sweaty punk rock legacy.
All photos by John Gilhooley
Wild, fast, loud, and proud: These aren’t words one usually ascribes to a sprawling suburb. Especially not one named after a damn fruit.
You might associate Orange County music with sun, ska, beaches, bros, and really bad MTV reality shows starring vapid rich kids. Our Angeleno neighbors to the north are quick to dismiss us as a homogenous white bread wasteland, a vassal county only worth talking about because, hey, we have Disneyland!
The rest of the world typically distills our musical heritage down to exactly three bands: No Doubt, Social Distortion, and The Offspring. But like any other major city, you can bet that an entire ecosystem of impressive acts exist outside the confines of boring FM radio. Particularly when we’re talking about punk rock—sweet, savage, sweaty punk rock.
We’ve loved it since the days when patch-covered jean jackets, dyed hair, and mohawks stiffened with raw egg whites were an invitation to get your ass kicked by any jock within spitting distance.
Despite being the tattooed OC god he is now, Social Distortion founder Mike Ness will be the first to tell you he suffered many a beating (and occasionally gave a few) in his high school years wearing eyeliner and black nail polish when he started the band in 1978. So did a lot of the guys coming up in the late 70s and early 80s who dared to pour gasoline on the inspiration sparked by The Ramones, and set ablaze by The Damned.
On the heels of The Detours, DI, and Agent Orange, living legends like Rikk Agnew, his brothers Frank and Alfie, Steve Soto, and Tony Cadena would form the Adolescents, introducing the world to their self-titled debut (commonly known as The Blue Album) and several other classics after that. Their sound was different from what was going on up in LA at the time—it was faster, more aggressive, and yet still melodic. Agnew’s doubled guitar tones and inventive chord progressions singlehandedly made him the Brian Wilson of OC punk.
These guys, along with bands like The Naughty Women, The Mechanics, and The Omlits, were the forefathers of punk rock in Orange County. Disillusionment in the wake of the Summer of Love and the cocaine disco haze of the 70s fueled backlash in the form of self-destructive teenage anarchy. Its epicenter was the Black Hole, Ness’ Fullerton apartment that became ground zero for all of the scene’s self destructive behavior. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll occurred nightly, just a stone’s throw away from a local high school. It even inspired the Ads’ most famous tune, 1981's aptly titled “Kids of the Black Hole.”
Clubs like Safari Sam’s and the Cuckoo’s Nest soon became legend as the punk scene spread throughout OC and created a whole generation of mommy’s little monsters. Or in some cases, not so little. The 6’4” Jack Grisham of Long Beach band TSOL (True Sounds of Liberty) epitomized punk rock’s violent, mischievous, and undeniable power. The quartet was a ringleader in a hardcore punk gang called Vicious Circle that made the band almost as infamous for B&Es and brawls as they were for banging on guitars. Grisham (who now lives in Huntington Beach) and his TSOL band mates were a rough group of pretty boys, able to pull prom queens despite their black lipstick, weird clothes, and bad attitudes.
Just a few miles from the Magic Kingdom, the Doll Hut remains one of the last, most infamous OC punk rock dive bars still in existence. It’s also one of the smallest, no bigger than a living room. Yet the scrappy little roadhouse filtered every ounce of punk rock royalty this county ever had through its doors. That includes The Offspring and their LA brethren Bad Religion. Through the 80s and 90s, it was like the punk scene’s own personal party house. Fights and fucking were commonplace, and bouncers always had their hands full. To this day, despite several changes in management and a brief closure in 2012, the Hut remains one of the main hubs of punk rock culture in OC. Other spots, like the Tiki Room in Costa Mesa, Fitzgerald’s in Huntington Beach, linger on as well.
OC punk is an umbrella term: Because the county doesn’t have a defined urban center, each of its 50 or so municipalities tends to plant its own flag in the punk scene. North and Central OC cities like Fullerton, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, and Santa Ana historically get most of the credit, as do bands that were offshoots into the hardcore scene, beginning in the 70s with The Middle Class in Fullerton and China White in Huntington Beach. Hardcore music continued to thrive with the arrival of East Coast transplant label Revelation Records in the 90s along with their straight edge ilk, giving a platform to bands like Uniform Choice and Ignite.
Today’s OC punk scene keeps a pretty white-knuckled grip on the past. Many of the OGs—from TSOL to Adolescents, DI, Agent Orange, The Vandals, and The Crowd—continue to tour and play shows frequently. But there are still plenty of young bands who’ve taken up the mantle.
The scene survives in OC on the efforts of multiple generations, sometimes at very different ends of the punk spectrum. Some of the venues have changed. Costa Mesa’s Avalon Bar (run by the late Mike Conley, vocalist for 80s punk band M.I.A.) and Club Mesa have both gone from punk havens to upscale craft cocktail watering holes, now called the Wayfarer (formerly Detroit Bar) and Casa, respectively. Not much punk going on there. Storied venue Koo’s Cafe has been replaced by DIY spots like Top Acid in the heart of Downtown Santa Ana.
Just a few miles away, The Galaxy, an infamously run-down club where hardcore and crust punks once ruled, is now a revamped concert powerhouse called The Observatory. Plenty of nostalgic and legendary punk bands are still featured on their calendar amidst the full schedule hipster acts and big names like Morrissey, Lauryn Hill, and Snoop Dogg. They’ve also become the epicenter for festivals curated by the likes of Fullerton-bred garage label du jour Burger Records, and The Growlers’ Beach Goth. Other places, like Chain Reaction in Anaheim, the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, Programme HQ, the Slidebar, and Continental Room in Fullerton remain more contemporary bastions of punk passion every day of the week.
Millennial OC punks come in all forms. Some attack the stage with faces smeared in fake blood and face paint, others opt to wear androgynous get-ups that would confuse the fuck out of the average middle class suburbanite. That feeling—of living in an area that sees the punk community as a crack in its perfect, porcelain veneer—is the fire that forces its OC bands to keep carving their own niche.
At the risk of leaving out more than a few totally important punks who deserve recognition by you kind folks in the comments section, these are the bands bringing forth the essence of OC punk today. Read on and scroll below for additional photos.
Duane Peters Gunfight
Say hello to OC’s punk rock version of Keith Richards. You likely know him as the heavily tattooed, ever-inebriated frontman for the US Bombs. Most recently, he bangs around in a band aptly named after himself, Duane Peters Gunfight. His style? Raw, unnerving, shout-spit-and-laugh-in-your-face punk rock savagery. Throughout the 80s, he was feared as a pro skateboarder and all-around hellraiser. Peters, who lived up to his name as The Master of Disaster, embodied IDGAF decades before we had a clever acronym for it. In the skating world, he broke ground as consistently as he broke bones. The laundry list of bands he’s been in is massive (but still pales in comparison to his rap sheet). Braving years of jailhouse horrors, drug abuse, and intense bodily harm, the fact that Peters still walks among us is nothing short of a miracle. Come to think of it, he makes Keith Richards look like kind of a pussy.
Death Hymn Number 9
These guys are the most reckless, highly-caffeinated punk rock zombies you’d ever want to meet. But the ghoulish white makeup and blood spattered clothes are really just the start of it. Their utter disregard for their instruments or the stage on which they stomp and howl makes them one of the most destructive bands in the scene. In the beginning, around the mid-00s, Death Hymn Number 9’s brand of thrash punk and haunted bayou blues was too wild to even have a lead singer. That is, until the throat-shredding, high flying frontman Paul’e’wog came along around 2010. Since then, the Fullerton-bred four-piece’s unabashed destruction and intense musicianship has made them a punk rock staple in OC. They continue to leave a trail of satisfied fans and broken bar furniture in their undead wake.
In the 80s, Fullerton birthed the Adolescents. Two decades later, we have the Audacity, who did us one better by starting as prepubescents. Beginning as larva punks at Laguna Road Elementary School, guitarists and singers Kyle Gibson and Matt Schmalfeld bonded over their shared proclivities toward the Buzzcocks and Bikini Kill. Before they had completed high school, they'd added bassist Cameron Crowe and drummer Thomas Alvarez to release their Burger Records debut Power Drowning. Their Descendents-meets-Adolescents style of punk has only gotten more distilled and volatile over the years, despite the benign album titles Mellow Cruisers (2012) and Butterknife (2013). At this point, the early 20-somethings are a seasoned, touring act playing with some of the most preeminent bands, from their mentors the Ads, to F.Y.P., and vouched for by Toys That Kill’s Todd Congelliere, who tapped them as his backing band.
Twins Wyatt and Fletcher Shears (bass and drums, respectively) have four instruments onstage—if you count their bodies. They double as instruments of destruction, diving into crowds, fistfighting each other, or growling and convulsing like a couple of punks possessed. After a pair of successful EPs, the band released their first full-length, Haha, on Epitaph and Burger Records in 2015. Though they’ve gotten a lot of success by being zany and weird, the new album shows a more polished and matured version of everything they’ve been doing the past three years. When they're onstage, there's no time to bask in the glow of being the next big act out of OC. Even the fact the beanpole twosome are both part-time models once contracted for campaigns with fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent (seriously!) doesn't seem to go to their heads. Outside attention from the world stage will always matter less than the one they're intent on destroying at any given moment.
Before you start to rattle off a list of potential influences that have informed the Mink Daggers ballsy punk pedigree, you should probably know that those influences probably involve bands they’ve already been in. This low key, all-star punk outfit includes members of Throw Rag, The Humpers, Disguster, The Hitchhikers and Doom Kounty Electric Chair. Tracks like “Take a Spill” take a shit-kicking stance on the sound that made OC famous, a jet-propelled style of punk replete with uber melodic guitar solos that combine the best of Dick Dale, Chuck Berry, and Satan. If you like old school OC punk, get to know these guys.
Channel 3 (CH3) easily qualifies as one of the most underrated bands in the history of OC punk. Formed in 1980 in Cerritos, singer Mike Magrann and guitarist Kimm Gardener created a hybrid punk experiment that toed the line between the old school grit of bands like the Germs, the hook-heavy sensibility of The Replacements and even, dare we say, a little harmonica here and there. Their formula of raw live shows and kick-ass, three-minute tunes paved the way for a career of opening for bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, X, and Midnight Oil. Despite keeping a relatively low profile in the 90s, they still managed to tour extensively and put out solid albums. For some rollicking good time road music, dig for offerings like 1994 live album How Do You Open the Damn Thing?. These days, the guys are quietly busy, touring Europe extensively, adding their music to compilations and video game soundtracks, and releasing an LPs like 2012’s Land of the Free?—when not popping up here and there to play OC shows and teach the young’ins a thing or two.
Starting an ordinary cover band was never something that appealed to the Yeastie Boys. So instead of standing on stage like a bunch of wannabe bozos singing other people’s songs, they decided to becomes actual Bozos singing other people’s songs.
For this rotating pack of Costa Mesa miscreants, that meant slathering on clown makeup, putting on rainbow wigs and parodying some of the best punk tunes ever fathomed. The end result is a stage show that is part circus, part circle pit. Their pie-throwing, chord-chugging performances border on legendary. They’re known to blanket the crowd in a blizzard of popcorn and streamers while people go apeshit. Where else can you see dudes in gorilla suits and Batman costumes moshing alongside a guy with his daughter on his shoulders? The endless parade of payasos, anchored by ringleader Dirt Williams, boasts a resume of local punk acts including Midlife Chrysler, Super Kill, the Eyesores, and the Adolescents.
Bonecrusher are the epitome of working class, OC street punk. Formed in 1992, and virtually unknown beyond their hometown of Huntington Beach, the band’s classic 1994 Lethal Records debut, World of Pain set them on the road to being a criminally underrated outfit that’s had to scrap for any ounce of success they’ve enjoyed. Even their own labels have ignored them. Through jail stints, rotating band members, and a lackluster 90s punk scene, the band’s brand of knuckles-to-your-nose gusto shines in everything from their crunchy power chords to their blue collar lyrics about brotherhood, skull bashing, and the pursuit of oi! To this day, the band stays vigilant with its current lineup: George Paras and Clyde Abad on guitar, Brian Celi on drums, Mike Kanel on bass, and vocalist Michael Islas.
Bad Antics is an up-and-comer band with an unapologetic link to the 80s glory days of OC punk. These skate-punk extraordinaires have it all—from their energy to their strained, snotty vocals to songs like “Where Did I Go Wrong?” that do nothing if not inspire destruction. The fact that they’ve opened up for skate-punk heroes like JFA and Negative Approach lets you know that the veteran bands (and their fans) can definitely see a bit of OG in these Fullerton thrashers who came up with other fine young punk hybrids like the Audacity, White Night, and Half Goon.
More photos below.
Nate Jackson is the music editor of OC Weekly. Follow him on Twitter.
Duane Peters Gunfight
An earlier version of this article stated that China White is still active and the Surf City Saloon remains operational; China White longer performs and Surf City Saloon is now closed. We regret the error.