LA Times Orange County Calender Live!, December 31, 1998.
The first raw, sloppy, speeding guitar chords announcing an
Orange County punk scene blared from Huntington Beach
and Fullerton in 1978. They echoed the sound forged in
1976-77 in the seminal punk undergrounds of New York City, London
and Los Angeles.
The O.C. scene began gaining momentum in 1979, and the
Adolescents, Social Distortion, Agent Orange, T.S.O.L. and dozens
of other pioneers launched a local punk-alternative movement that
continues to evolve.
What the early bands sowed in obscurity blossomed over the next 20
years into one of the most active and commercially significant
alternative-rock scenes in the nation.
The international spotlight fell on Orange County starting in 1994,
the Offspring's "Smash" album focused media attention here. No
Doubt's even hotter-selling "Tragic Kingdom" in 1995 secured O.C.'s
place on the alterna-rock map, and seemed to unleash a parade of
late-'90s success stories, including Sublime, whose posthumous
release, "Sublime," sold more than 3 million copies. In addition,
Sugar Ray and Reel Big Fish grabbed the airwaves and created gold-
and platinum-selling albums.
In the early days, O.C. punk's unyielding musical force slammed up
against an immovable cultural object: the Orange County dream of
quiet, well-ordered, economically impregnable suburban living.
Treating rowdy, often outrageous fans as a gang element, local
authorities shut down a series of clubs that championed the music.
But O.C. punk proved too hardy to erase.
As concert promoter-turned-band manager-turned-record company
owner Jim Guerinot put it back then: "The punk scene is like a
cockroach. People try to stamp it out, but it always pops up again
Bands cranked up their amplifiers in word-of-mouth warehouse
concerts or at backyard parties. The most ambitious acts got out of
town, earning national underground followings with club tours and
album releases on small, independent labels.
As the '80s and early '90s unfolded, aficionados around the world
became aware that behind "the Orange Curtain" percolated a scene
with its own sounds and traditions. Distinctive and wildly
the music of O.C.'s leading punk founders inspired fresh bands of
Nowadays, the rosters of most big labels, and many of the key
independents, include a band that did its woodshedding here.
And despite the breakthrough commercial successes, some things
haven't changed. The movement still scares most of Orange County
officialdom. Bands rely on venues in Los Angeles and Riverside
County for high-profile gigs.
In that regard, rock 'n' roll's proudest motto of the alternative
and remains, "Do it yourself." In Orange County, bands come up
knowing there is no other way to get it done.
This is the story of their self-made movement.
1978-83: Punk Wakes Up the O.C. Music Scene
As far as the rock-loving world could tell, Orange County had all
slept through the 1970s.
Punk rock was the rude awakener.
In 1977, the sound forged by the Ramones, Sex Pistols and the Clash
ignited a thriving scene in Los Angeles. A year later, it had
"the Orange Curtain"--the imaginary cultural line between a hip,
forward-looking metropolis and what was, and still is, commonly
assumed to be a status quo-worshiping suburb.
Musically and culturally, punk meant possibility. The titanic
or honed expertise of such dominant bands as Led Zeppelin and
Fleetwood Mac made '70s kids believe rock came from a lofty
domain beyond their reach.
The first punk records--raw, elemental, crude, but catchy--showed
them they could sneer at rock's elite with music of their own. All
took was sweat, gumption and hair grease.
In Huntington Beach, a bunch of novices heard punk's first vinyl
salvos and stepped up to the firing line, calling themselves the
"I never felt I was good enough to be in a band," recalled guitarist
Kaa. Then he heard punk bands. "I was marginal, and they were as
marginal as me. So we said, 'Let's go!' "
The Crowd's zestful appropriation of the Ramones' and Sex Pistols'
sound quickly caught on at backyard parties.
"It was so stale that within six weeks of our getting together, we
200 people coming to see us," said Crowd bassist Jay Decker. "We
couldn't play. It didn't matter."
The Crowd instigated a beach-punk scene that by 1981 would give
birth to T.S.O.L. (True Sounds of Liberty) and the Vandals.
The same let-it-rip enthusiasm was fanning a separate, inland O.C.
scene in Fullerton and Placentia. The Middle Class became the first
Orange County punk band to break into the Los Angeles clubs, and
the first to put out a vinyl 45, the sizzling "Out of Vogue."
Before 1978 was over, Agent Orange, a Fullerton band of
15-year-olds destined to be the longest-running O.C. punk crew of
had moved from playing arena-rock covers to creating original punk
The Adolescents and Social Distortion quickly joined Agent Orange
in a burgeoning underground scene. Their communal clubhouse was
"the Black Hole," a one-bedroom pad in a nondescript Fullerton
apartment complex. Its graffiti-streaked walls witnessed wild
experimentation with sex and intoxicants.
"It was Sodom and Gomorrah, ancient Rome," recalled the
Adolescents' Rikk Agnew, who immortalized the scene's aura of
comradeship and decadence in a classic punk anthem, "Kids of the
Black Hole." It painted the Black Hole--and punk in general--as a
refuge, a "house that belonged to all the homeless kids."
But the O.C. punk explosion resisted stereotyping. It was about pure
sonic joy as well as self-conscious rebellion against social and
norms, and it drew in the well-off and well-adjusted along with the
disenfranchised and the delinquent.
Mike Ness of Social Distortion--the Black Hole's original
Tony Brandenburg, singer of the Adolescents, fit the rebel mold.
They were outcasts from splintered, money-strapped families who
found in punk a perfect outlet for their rage.
"I liked the aggressiveness," Ness recalled. "It sounded like I felt
Deep resentment and psychic wounds could fuel memorable
music--or give rise to bizarre antics. Some early punks sported
swastikas and other Nazi regalia for shock value, and, for a while,
"slashing" became a thing: Musicians using razor blades in lieu of
guitar picks cut their flesh into bloody ribbons on stage.
Drug and alcohol abuse sidetracked or derailed such talented bands
as Social Distortion and the Adolescents. By 1981, slam-dancing,
to tackle football without pads and helmets, was widely practiced. A
taint of violence shadowed the shows.
But many punkers, even Ness' and Brandenburg's own bandmates,
had no serious gripes with life.
The Crowd didn't manufacture anger for its mostly fun-spirited
Agent Orange bassist James Levesque quit quarterbacking the El
Dorado High School varsity team to play punk rock, and his mom
cheered, figuring the decibels would do less damage than blitzing
The common denominator was a delight in a simpler, more aggressive
way of making music.
That alone could get a punk kid in trouble.
With their shorn hair (in defiance of rock's Beatles-inspired
of long hair as a definitive mark of youth-cultural belonging),
Their frequent persecutors, the jocks, were usually bigger; their
musical rivals, the hard-rock fans, far more numerous. Combined,
they could make a punk kid's school day an ordeal.
In every way, punk challenged Orange County's ideal of quiet
"Basically, they're into violence," a Huntington Beach police
told The Times in 1979. "They have hatred virtually for everybody.
There's no motive, no rationale. They just do whatever they feel
at the time."
The officer went on to issue a plea: "We can't do anything without
the public's help. It's the only way we're going to stop it."
Misjudging punk as a gang movement, police in Huntington Beach
and Newport Beach detained kids on the streets, snapping their mug
shots for police files.
The main battleground in the clash between punk and propriety was a
small Costa Mesa club called the Cuckoo's Nest. In February 1978, it
veered from its rock format and began packing in crowds by booking
punk. Within four years, despite owner Jerry Roach's attempts to
mount a First Amendment defense, city officials had shut down the
The decisive skirmish occurred Jan. 30, 1981, when a volatile punk
fan named Pat Brown hopped into his car and peeled out of the
Cuckoo's Nest parking lot, knocking over two cops who had tried to
stop him. The officers suffered cuts and bruises; Brown's car
stopped three bullets from a police handgun.
The Vandals immediately turned the incident into folklore with their
song "The Legend of Pat Brown": "Pat Brown tried to run the cops
down / Pat Brown run 'em into the ground."
Looking back, Roach said officialdom had completely misread the
burgeoning punk scene. "They looked so tough and mean and rough.
[But] when you got to know 'em, they were just kids."
Ever since, most grass-roots venues emphasizing punk rock have
been forced out of business.
A stack of remarkable and enduring recordings survived the tumult of
O.C.'s punk explosion. From 1981 to 1983, the Adolescents
("Adolescents"), Agent Orange ("Living in Darkness"), Social
Distortion ("Mommy's Little Monster") and T.S.O.L. ("Dance With
Me") put out albums regarded today as essential to a
connoisseur-caliber punk/alterna-rock record collection.
The hallmark of their approach was a raw, thrusting attack harnessed
to a catchy melody, with lyrics usually dwelling on everyday
But there was no mistaking one band for another.
KROQ-FM deejay Rodney Bingenheimer embraced the Orange
County music, playing highlights from its major local bands on his
Sunday night radio show. Robbie Fields, a small-time music
entrepreneur, saw potential in suburban punk.
"In Hollywood, the people are coming from all over the country.
They're coming starry-eyed, they're thinking about their career,"
Fields said. "You go to the suburbs and the kids aren't thinking
that. . . . Consequently, the music was totally uncalculated. Even
though they might have been influenced by the Damned or the Clash
or the Ramones, they were making their own statements; they were
writing about their own lives."
Fields combed the clubs and backyard parties, signing many of the
significant local bands to his Posh Boy label for their initial
albums. At the time, big labels had no use for punk rock; they
could not envision a mass market for it.
Predictably, no band from the O.C. punk boom of 1978-1983
prospered. Many, however, served as key inspirations to those who
would break through to mainstream success more than a decade
Perhaps because they were baptized by fire, all proved hardy and
tenacious. Twenty years after the movement began, key musicians
from each of its signature bands--the Adolescents, Agent Orange, the
Crowd, D.I., Social Distortion, T.S.O.L. and the Vandals--play on.
With their establishment-shaking rabble-rousing, and music-making of
lasting appeal, the punk pioneers had awakened a sleeping scene.
1984-93: A Clampdown Behind Orange Curtain
For years, O.C. punk rock hid out in backyards or fly-by-night
warehouse gigs where the cops were half-expected to show up and
pull the plug.
One fall night in 1983 it surfaced, and Bryan Holland and Greg
Kriesel were missing it: The volatile band Social Distortion was
playing to 2,000 kids at UC Irvine's spartan gymnasium, Crawford
Hall. But the two buddies were shut out of the sold-out show.
Back to a friend's house in Garden Grove they went, settling, in
disappointment, for an under-aged beer-drinking session.
Before that night ended, they had resolved to take up instruments.
They would have their own punk band. They would be . . . Manic
On further reflection--two years' worth, actually--they would be the
Offspring, an apt name for second-generation punks who could trace
their lineage to the Big Bang that set off a musical movement in
Orange County in the late '70s and early '80s.
Holland, a big, pink-cheeked blond kid, had fallen as a high school
sophomore for the local punk LPs his older brother brought home: the
"Rodney on the Roq" and "Beach Blvd" compilations and the first
album by the Adolescents. He got Kriesel, a friend from the Pacifica
High School cross-country team, hooked as well, saving him from the
clutches of Rush fandom.
They spent the summer of '83 listening over and over to T.S.O.L.'s
comically macabre "Dance With Me" album. Somehow, Holland,
Kriesel and countless others in Orange County hadn't gotten the
word: Punk was dead.
The genre's only million-selling band, the Clash, had its break on
MTV in 1982, then imploded, taking with it any big-label interest in
marketing punk bands.
Alternative rock evolved from punk's remains.
Its sound preserved some of punk's willful abrasiveness and refusal
to bend to arena-rock norms. A national network of college radio
stations and grass-roots clubs sprang up to serve an audience
interested in the burgeoning alternative scene and the occasional
Orange County's center of alternativity was Safari Sam's. The
Huntington Beach club was a niche of bohemian experimentation in a
county famed for its suburban conformity.
For 20 months in 1985-86, the peak years of the alternative
movement, Sam's imported definitive punk and alt-rock bands such as
the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Camper Van Beethoven
and the Jesus & Mary Chain. Local bands such as El Grupo Sexo,
Swamp Zombies and National People's Gang found a nurturing home
On nights when no band played, Sam's became a staging ground for
poetry, theater and even an experimental opera.
Naturally, it couldn't last.
Nonconformist youth culture didn't jibe with the city's plans for
downtown redevelopment, and when a single neighbor complained
about noise, litter and vandalism, the authorities had their excuse
shut down the music.
On Nov. 23, 1986, co-owner Sam Lanni led a funeral march from the
club to the beach and tossed a copy of the U.S. Constitution onto a
pyre fueled by a makeshift coffin of beer cartons. "The Constitution
has no meaning in Huntington Beach," he declared.
Orange County wouldn't get another night-in, night-out clubhouse for
punk-alternative creativity and community until 1989, when the Doll
Hut, at half the size of the 102-capacity Sam's, opened in an
In the meantime, the Orange County alternative scene decamped to
Bogart's, a mile across the county line in Long Beach. Its
adventurous blend of visiting acts (including an on-the-rise
and woodshedding locals prevailed until late 1993, when
redevelopment claimed yet another bit of rock paradise.
Bogart's exemplified the commingling of Orange County and Long
Beach alt-rockers in a single music scene--an alliance forged in
when Huntington Beach punkers Mike Roche and Ron Emory
hooked up with Long Beach counterparts Jack Grisham and Todd
Barnes to form T.S.O.L.
The alternative scene was documented by small, independent record
labels such as SST, Slash and Frontier in Los Angeles, Twin/Tone in
Minneapolis, Homestead in New Jersey and Mammoth in North
Carolina. Orange County's contribution was Doctor Dream Records,
started by piano player David Hayes in his Santa Ana bedroom in
1983. By 1986, Doctor Dream, having graduated from singles to LPs,
bolstered hope that a home-grown band might pierce the mythic
Doctor Dream propelled some of the most distinctive O.C.
alterna-rockers into the world, including Ann De Jarnett, El Grupo
Sexo, Eggplant, the Swamp Zombies, National People's Gang and
Cadillac Tramps. But none scored a curtain-cutting hit, and by 1996
Doctor Dream's top acts had expired from exhaustion,
discouragement or internal dissension. Hayes kept the label going,
its pulse barely registered.
The mainstream music industry in Los Angeles sometimes plucked an
Orange County rock act. But the scene's handful of major-label
bands--Altered State, Anything Box, Burning Tree, Vinnie James and
Xtra Large--failed to make the commercial jump required for
extended life in the sell-or-die majors.
The few Orange County rock acts that did score hits in the 1980s
lacked the critical respect, sustained impact or strong local
that might have raised the county's profile as a music scene.
What the masses heard from O.C. was singer Terri Nunn's orgasmic
groaning on Berlin's lustful hit "Sex (I'm a . . . )"; Stacy Q's
flirtatiousness on "Two of Hearts," an airy dance-pop hit; and
Stryper's Bible-thumping exertions as the first Christian hard rock
band to sell in the millions.
By the early '90s, only Social Distortion had escaped the
punk-alternative underground to see a glimmer of national success,
becoming the first O.C. punk-alternative band with a major-label
It was an amazing turnabout, considering that bandleader Mike Ness
had once seemed far more likely to wind up a corpse or a convict
than a punk eminence praised for integrity, authenticity and gifts
melodist and musical storyteller.
Within a few years, however, Ness had cleaned up. Starting with
"Prison Bound," the 1988 album whose moving title cut about a
wasted life is one of the greatest songs ever to come out of O.C.,
Ness turned Social Distortion's albums into an ongoing dialogue
impulsiveness, its consequences and the hard struggle for maturity.
Social Distortion's resilience bore fruit, as albums for Epic in
and 1992 sold more than 250,000 copies each--short of a hit
breakthrough, but respectable tallies that far surpassed any O.C.
punk-alternative releases up to that time.
The group was featured in Rolling Stone and opened for Neil Young
& Crazy Horse on a long arena tour.
Although Social Distortion proudly proclaimed its Fullerton origins,
other upwardly mobile rockers played down their O.C. connections.
In the early '90s, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Zack de
la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine emerged as two of the
biggest stars in an alterna-rock movement that, led by Nirvana and
Pearl Jam, had burst from the underground and into the arena-rock
Weiland spent his high school years in Huntington Beach and de la
Rocha in Irvine, but each left to find success and never emphasized
As the mid-'90s dawned, only a few cultists and connoisseurs outside
of O.C. knew about its rich punk-rock tradition. For those obsessed
with spotting the hot, new and up-and-coming local music scenes, 714
either meant nothing or was considered an unlucky number in the
lottery of rock success.
1994-95: 'Smash' Goes the Curtain
It took nine years, during which the Offspring had grown from rank
beginner to respected practitioner in the national punk underground,
but the band finally got headliner status in its home territory.
Fans in punk-saturated Orange County, however, saw the catchy,
crunchy band as no big deal. As 1993 waned, the Offspring drew
only about 150 people, less than half of capacity, to an all-ages
bill in Fullerton.
A few months later, the club's booker, John Pantle, remembering that
night, would joke that he might go down in history as the last
promoter ever to lose money on the Offspring.
Soon after flopping in Fullerton, the band was in a Los Angeles
studio, hurriedly recording its third album. It was a juggling act
obsessed hobbyists, not full-time rock professionals.
Bryan "Dexter" Holland, the Offspring's singer and main creative
cog, juggled songs and viruses, the cloning of which he researched
a PhD candidate in molecular biology at USC.
Kevin "Noodles" Wasserman, a school janitor in the band's hometown
of Garden Grove, juggled mops and his calling as a punk guitarist.
Wasserman and drummer Ron Welty, each a single dad with a small
child, juggled family duties along with everything else.
Holland and bassist Greg Kriesel had founded an Offspring precursor
when they were non-musicians who owned nice punk record
collections but no guitars.
As fans, they gravitated toward music from the initial Orange County
punk boom of 1979-83. Later, as novice recording artists, they
gravitated toward Thom Wilson, who had produced key sessions by
some of the county's finest: the Adolescents, T.S.O.L. and the
Wilson thought his punk days were behind him until the Offspring
painstakingly sought him out. Flattered, and detecting a spark in
songwriting, he agreed to hone the untutored band's sound.
The resulting 1989 debut album, "The Offspring," gave the band
license to join alternative rock's do-it-yourself touring derby.
took to the road in Holland's 1979 Toyota truck and slept in parks
schoolyards when they couldn't cadge lodging.
The Offspring's dues-paying paid off in 1992, when the band landed a
record deal with Epitaph Records, an established L.A. punk label
previously had rejected them. The band's second album, "Ignition,"
revealed an increasing knack for hard-edged but accessible songs.
As the Offspring worked on "Smash" with Wilson, things began to
look up. Epitaph knew how to peddle punk rock. Its strategy for the
Offspring was to place tracks from "Ignition" in skate- and
snowboarding videos. Sales accelerated.
With "Smash" taking shape in the studio, producer Wilson told the
band it was good enough to sell 150,000 copies, a huge hit by punk's
They thought he was crazy.
That March, veteran record promoter Mike Jacobs took a song from
the album to L.A.'s KROQ-FM, alterna-rock's leading kingmaker.
"I'd presented them [Offspring songs] in the past, but they didn't
it because it was too hard or whatever," Epitaph exec Andy Kaulkin
recalled. "But this one had a groove to it, and it was not the
The song was "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," a
typically sardonic number that skewered mindless youth violence.
Its funky groove gave way to old-fashioned rock power chords and a
little Middle Eastern snake-charmer guitar lick straight out of O.C.
rock annals. Dick Dale's 1963 surf classic, "Miserlou," revved up a
traditional Arab melody, and Agent Orange followed his lead on its
1980 punk classic, "Bloodstains." That tune helped turn Holland into
For a clincher, Holland added a tag line that would stick in the
collective ear of America's youth:
"Ya gotta keep 'em separated" went the singsong, half-spoken
refrain, delivered in a gravel-voiced cholo accent by Jason McLean,
one of the band's most loyal fans.
KROQ played it, and listeners kept requesting it. The Offspring
knocked out a low-budget video of "Come Out and Play," and MTV
screened it over and over.
By June 1994, the band had upped its O.C. concert draw by a factor
of 100, serenading 15,000 fans in a triumphant homecoming at the
KROQ Weenie Roast festival at Irvine Meadows.
With noisy "grunge" bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam having
whetted rock fans' appetites for aggressive, impolite,
music, punk finally had its moment of mass-market glory.
"Smash" would pass the 5-million sales mark in the U.S., and 11
million worldwide, making it the top-selling rock album ever
by a small independent label.
The Orange Curtain had parted wide, and the Offspring took pains in
interviews to tell the world about the slice of music history hidden
behind it. Holland and Kriesel pumped some of their earnings into
grass-roots punk scene by starting Nitro Records and signing the
O.C. bands Guttermouth, the Vandals and One Hit Wonder.
But punk wouldn't be punk without its dark side. In December 1994,
a gang of a dozen racist skinheads beat and stabbed an 18-year-old
Vandals fan at the Ice House, a cavernous Fullerton venue, for the
crime of wearing a T-shirt with an image of Jimi Hendrix.
Authorities closed the Ice House after another violent incident
a subsequent show. In August 1995, white supremacists assaulted a
concert-goer outside a show by L.A. punk band Fear at the Viva Las
Vegas club in Orange, apparently because of his Asian-Indian
Losing money on the Offspring hadn't driven John Pantle out of local
punk-rock promotion, but that racist attack at his Viva Las Vegas
"I don't think I've ever been in as much personal pain," said
who retreated to a gig as booker for the swanky West Hollywood
mainstream pop venue the House of Blues. "The problems [posed by
white-power skinheads] have been a huge setback for live music in
The Offspring also felt the sting of intolerance. As "Smash" lived
to its name, self-appointed arbiters of rock purity ostracized the
for being popular.
When Holland turned up to strum guitar with the Vandals at "Board
in O.C.," a 1995 festival at Cal State Dominguez Hills, some
denizens pelted him with coins.
Although a few punk zealots decried the Offspring's breakthrough,
most O.C. alterna-rockers took heart from it. In the mid-1980s, when
R.E.M. became the first hot-selling alternative band, big labels had
gotten in the habit of raiding any scene that spawned a success.
After being overlooked for 15 years, Orange County's chance to be
an alterna-rock capital, or at least an important outpost, had
arrived--but only if the hits kept coming.
No Doubt Brings Light to the Tragic Kingdom
A gurgling, bouncing, guitar riff, a chunky drumbeat and an
sweet voice: "I'm just a girl in the world, that's all that you'll
This was the world's introduction to No Doubt.
Driving home from work one day in the fall of 1995, Eric Stefani
heard his little sister Gwen's voice singing "Just a Girl" on the
for the first time. He pulled off the road somewhere in Pasadena as
tears rolled down his cheeks.
"After eight years, it was just such a rush to see we were making
some impact," he said.
It was a bittersweet moment. Stefani was proud of the band he had
shepherded to the brink of fame. But he was one of the casualties
along its hard path to success.
Starting with the Stefani siblings' first performance together at a
school talent show, Eric had been the prodder, the guide, and Gwen
the hesitant follower.
He latched onto Madness, the English ska band, in the early 1980s,
and it became Gwen's favorite as well. When Eric began writing and
playing music influenced by the British ska-rock bands of the era,
Gwen became a performer, too.
"He used to force me to sing stuff," she recalled. "He'd beg me:
Please, sing this."
Coming from Orange County, her reluctance was understandable. On
the local alternative-rock scene, boys dominated and a girl was,
just a girl.
No Doubt began playing concerts early in 1987, with Gwen trading
vocals with John Spence, a classmate from Loara High School in
Anaheim and a co-worker of the Stefani siblings at Dairy Queen.
More a barker than a singer, he brought a gymnastic energy to the
shows and also gave the band its name: "No doubt" was his pet
No Doubt quickly found grass-roots prosperity. Its sound, heavily
influenced by the English "two-tone" ska bands and their rock 'n'
adaptation of Jamaican rhythms, had a ready-made audience in the
avid Southern California ska subculture.
No Doubt's first year on the scene proved as upbeat as the
quick-stepping ska beat it played. It emerged as a strong draw and a
musical peer of Fishbone and the Untouchables, the leading bands of
the West Coast ska scene.
Then, Spence killed himself just before Christmas 1987, apparently
overwhelmed by family problems. The band carried on, but Gwen
had qualms about being out front on her own.
"We were scared we would lose the hard edge" without a male foil,
she recalled. So one of the horn players moved into Spence's slot.
When he left in 1989, Gwen was ready to fly solo.
Without a manager, a record company or even a self-financed
release, No Doubt managed to lay the foundation for a lasting
Through 1990 and '91, the band cultivated a following at area
colleges. Promoters at Goldenvoice and Avalon Attractions liked the
members' positive attitude and work ethic, and offered No Doubt
opening-act slots at such major venues as Irvine Meadows and
Anaheim's Celebrity Theatre.
Gwen Stefani developed into a theatrical, stage-strutting front
whose bounding energy could get a crowd hopping. She had the
savvy to develop a signature look centering on denim overalls, a
fashion statement borrowed from Dexys Midnight Runners and their
hit video, "Come On Eileen."
No Doubt's sound had grown as well, expanding far beyond its ska
roots. Two new players--drummer Adrian Young and guitarist Tom
Dumont--joined the Stefanis and bassist Tony Kanal, and the band
adopted a musical philosophy: Try anything.
It also had a philosophy about how to conduct itself amid the
perverseness, dysfunction and slacker chic of an alternative scene
awash in drugs and gloomy grunge chords: They resolved to be who
they were--stable, middle-class kids whose parents brought them up
to be clean-living, pleasant and motivated.
Things looked bright when No Doubt signed with a hot, new label,
Interscope. But "No Doubt," the band's 1992 debut album, flopped
commercially. The second album called for in its contract would
be the band's last chance. Making that album proved to be the trial
that transformed No Doubt, but not without further losses.
Interscope, unimpressed with fresh batches of songs, doled out
money for studio time in dribs and drabs, rather than letting No
hunker down for a sustained creative push. With Nine Inch Nails,
Primus and Snoop Doggy Dogg on its roster, the label had other
As No Doubt's primary songwriter, the bulk of indifference and
rejection fell on Eric Stefani. His involvement ebbed as Gwen,
Dumont and Kanal filled in, writing much of No Doubt's catchiest
stuff. Gwen's lyrics focused on another casualty of band life--her
long-standing romance with Kanal. Eric, already thrown by the
changing band dynamic, knew he had to quit when he awoke from a
terrible nightmare, looked out his window and saw five crows on a
telephone wire--four together, the other apart.
"I looked back, and one had flown," he recalled. "That was a sign
from God. It was telling me something about what I had to do to
survive in this life." He had other creative outlets, including his
an animator for "The Simpsons."
A few months later, a fairy godmother appeared. Executives at
Trauma Records, an Interscope affiliate, heard No Doubt's nearly
completed album and loved it. Fine, figured Interscope, see if you
take this Cinderella to the big pop ball.
"Tragic Kingdom" came out in October 1995, its title and cover
motif--a profusion of rotting oranges--humorously reflecting the
band's vision of the idyllic suburban dream gone wrong. "Just a
soon was inescapable on MTV. A second, harder-rocking single,
"Spiderwebs," also hit big, vaulting the album into the national Top
Though most critics complained that No Doubt was a bunch of
good-timey fluff, sales already had reached 2 million when Eric's
parting gift paid a huge dividend: "Don't Speak," with lyrics by
became the omnipresent pop ballad of 1996-97.
In December 1996, "Tragic Kingdom" reached No. 1 on the Billboard
pop album chart, a peak no other Orange County act had attained. It
stayed there for nine of the next 10 weeks; U.S. sales eventually
passed 7 million.
As "Tragic Kingdom" nestled at No. 1, Gwen Stefani went Christmas
shopping at Brea Mall and got mobbed. Her new platinum-blond,
navel-baring look had made her a fashion icon among legions of teens
No Doubt's members wore their mass stardom with becoming
modesty. "I hope we become good songwriters," Dumont, the
co-author of "Just a Girl," said during the band's run at No. 1.
certainly proud of the songs on 'Tragic Kingdom,' but I think,
I got lucky, maybe I'll never write another riff as good as any of
"Our next album might be a little more focused," Gwen Stefani said.
"We've always been struggling to do that. We've had so many
different styles and wanted to create our own sound eventually. I
don't know if that will ever happen."
Upbeat Ska-Rock Bands Keep the Hits Coming
To the wider pop world, No Doubt's ascent signaled a change in the
prevailing emotional climate of '90s rock, which had been set by
grunge-rockers from Seattle and sarcastic California punk bands.
If it was carefree fun that people wanted, then Orange County had
Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris, lighthearted young bands from the
same ska-rock movement that spawned No Doubt, enjoyed the
Sugar Ray, a hard rock and rap band, came up with a chirpy,
summery, Jamaican-inflected song called "Fly" that helped the
"Floored" album sell nearly 2 million copies.
From the bands in the first punk boom through No Doubt, the unifying
virtue of the best of O.C. alterna-rock had been its grounding in
stuff of everyday life--the sense that the musicians were telling a
personal story. That connection grew tenuous with some of the later
O.C. arrivals, for whom stylishness and a sense of lighthearted fun
As the upbeat ska bands rose, so did Korn, spinners of glowering
psychodrama taken from the troubled adolescence of singer Jonathan
Davis, a thin, pallid fellow whose previous day job had been as an
autopsy assistant for the Kern County coroner.
While ambitious rockers including Zack de la Rocha (Rage Against
the Machine) and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots) had fled
Orange County to pursue fame, Korn migrated from Bakersfield to
Huntington Beach in the early '90s to find a hospitable home in the
local grass-roots clubs.
In 1996-97, Korn and the Offspring became the first Orange County
alterna-bands to face the challenge of producing sequels to hit
Korn's second album, "Life Is Peachy," expanded the band's
head-banging audience without breaking new ground; the grass-roots
loyalty of Korn's fan base was dramatized in 1998 when its third
album, "Follow the Leader," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop
In 1997, the Offspring's "Ixnay on the Hombre," showing no signs of
creative slump, attracted nearly 3 million buyers worldwide--a
precipitous drop-off from the "Smash" haul of 11 million sales, but
more-than-respectable foundation for an ongoing career that
continued with the November 1998 release of the band's fifth album,
"Americana," which quickly sold one million copies.
With local successes proliferating, sorrow intruded May 25, 1996,
when Brad Nowell of Sublime died of a heroin overdose.
The magnitude of the loss fully registered with the posthumous
release of "Sublime," in which Nowell fulfilled his promise as the
soulful singer and, arguably, the best style-hopping songwriter and
guitarist that the O.C./Long Beach scene had produced. The band
ended with Nowell's death; "Sublime" sold 3 million copies.
After years of obscurity, the commercial breakthrough of Orange
County/Long Beach alterna-rock has yielded 10 million-selling albums
since 1994, and another four topping the 500,000 mark--the platinum
and gold currency that the music industry understands. So far in the
1990s, the eight most prominent groups have had combined U.S.
sales of 28 million, SoundScan reported.
Those successes, and the scores of strong recordings that fell shy
hit status, contradict stereotypes of Orange County as a creatively
inert place of pampered wealth, reactionary politics, sanitized,
hand-me-down culture and terminal unhipness.
"It's gone from a place that you'd whisper that you live there to a
place I'd consider living," said Cary Baker, a veteran music
from Los Angeles. "It seems like all sorts of good things are
* * *
"It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. You had ultimate
control of this monstrous storm going on around you. But there was a
calm there. You were at peace and at home in the middle of this
chaos. They were your friends and you had a common goal. You
were all molecules in this rage."
MIKE ROCHE OF TSOL--1989, on performing punk rock
* * *
"For me it wasn't just a kind of music. It should have been called
'punk life' instead of 'punk rock.' I decided, 'I'm sick of being
little kid in a houseful of loudmouths,' and punk gave me the
MIKE "GABBY" GABORNO, CADILLAC TRAMPS
* * *
"I thought I was in hell."
BUD GAUGH OF SUBLIME--1996, on awaking to find Brad
Nowell dead in the San Francisco hotel room they were sharing
* * *
"My mom got mad. I said, 'Dad's got tattoos.' She said, 'Dad was in
the war.' I said, 'Punk rock's a war.' "
CASEY ROYER OF THE ADOLESCENTS AND D.I.--1989, on
his first tattoo, a leopard on his right biceps
* * *
"Before I was Mike from Social Distortion, I was a kid in a
dysfunctional, alcoholic home who never felt a part of anything, who
grew up afraid. And by the time I was 17, all that turned to anger,
because anger was much more comfortable."
MIKE NESS OF SOCIAL DISTORTION--1996
* * *
"It's as trippy as you think it would be. Nothing seems real. You're
still the same, but everybody looks at you differently. It sometimes
enters my head that whatever goes up comes down, and it's not
always going to be like that. I just indulge in the weirdness of it
go, 'This is such a [expletive] trip."'
GWEN STEFANI OF NO DOUBT--1997
In the Beginning
Rock 'n' roll in Orange County didn't begin with punk. For a time in
the 1960s, vital and influential music broke out here:
1961-63: Surf rock started splashing around the world. Revolutionary
young O.C. guitarist Dick Dale generated his surf-rock classic
"Miserlou" with much help from the Fullerton-built guitars and
amplifiers of Leo Fender. The Chantays' "Pipeline" added another
O.C. surf-rock classic to the history books. Soon, however,
Beatlemania and the British invasion hit, spelling instant wipeout
1963-66: The Righteous Brothers, a duo from Santa Ana, first came
to national attention with "Little Latin Lupe Lu" and what came to
known as "blue-eyed soul." Their string of hits continued into the
mid-'60s as Bill Medley's rumbling baritone, Bobby Hatfield's sweet
tenor and Phil Spector's wall-of-sound production turned "You've
Lost That Lovin' Feelin' " and "Unchained Melody" into breathtaking
peaks of romantic pop.
1962-68: O.C. had a folk scene, too, centered around the Golden
Bear nightclub in Huntington Beach and the Prison of Socrates in
Newport Beach. The region served as a low-key spawning ground
for Tim Buckley, Jackson Browne and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Jose Feliciano, a folk musician from New York City, moved to
Orange County in 1968 and soon saw his fortunes soar with a hit
rendition of the Doors' "Light My Fire."
1969-78: Nothing. Music that mattered beyond local borders failed to
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved