Punk rock has always been the soundtrack of the perturbed ones, the kids that gravitate toward anger, vitriol, and refusal. And legit punk musicians harness that same discordant energy into stripped-down songs that deliver the news of the world or just a barbed sense of disaffection and dissatisfaction. And throughout the tumult of decades, even as the genre has been whitewashed and watered-down, the Adolescents have been on the ragged edge. So, when they tear apart the boredom at Warehouse Live! on April 15 fans will soak up the Fullerton, California band’s authenticity and angst like a potent cocktail.
And age, the curve of battered years, has not slowed them down. “We have some advantages, first and foremost the creativity and drive to write and perform material that is relevant to a contemporary audience,” explains Tony Reflex, whose birth name is Brandenburg and his other alias Cadena.
“If you have nothing to say, you have nothing to sing. At least nothing substantive. The second advantage is simply capital. We have banked enough money to continue writing, recording, and promoting the band using resources from our previous work. It isn´t so much a case of intense productivity as an example of planning and well thought out objectives. Rock and Roll isn´t a job, but it isn´t a hobby, either."
Few bands have retained the strident staying power of Reflex and his crew, which has changed constantly though the years but have relinquished no ounce of pummeling power. Over the last decade, many of their generation have retired, given up the punk creed, fallen into a nameless void, or simply died. In fact, they lost their very own breathlessly talented, all-around beloved bassist Steve Soto, who also anchored bands like Manic Hispanic and more, in June 2018.
Yet, the Adolescents have not stopped producing hard-charging, politically astute albums of maximum intelligence, savvy chops, and trenchant humor stirred from a pre-digital world.
“I like to have fun with words,” admits Reflex, “Make observations. Poke fun. Challenge norms and mores. I have essentially followed the same path in life, so transcribing that is as simple as jotting down thoughts. I grew up reading Ambrose Bierce for fun. Mikhail Bakunin. Dostoevsky. Kafka. Camus. Books. Not memes. I studied history from newspapers, original sources. Spent some time practicing things, like, oh, I don’t know, with deeper understanding ... and intense scrutiny... I listen to Pacifica Radio for news and politics, and I read books. I get no news from networks, and avoid most news outlets.”
In their genesis-years, the dizzy days of pimples, skinny roughhousing, and the origins of hardcore, they released the quintessential Blue Album, a sharp critique of suburbia that likely left no listener unscathed. They attacked snot-nosed youngsters (“I Hate Children”) and the pretenses of vain girls (“L.A. Girl”), questioned political realities that felt like a sham (“Democracy”), catalogued their own descent into miscreant behavior (“Wrecking Crew,” “Rip It Up”), told the tales of often reckless kids managing their own dark destinies in a time of family strife (“Kids of the Black Hole”), and formed a lyrical jigsaw of dislikes (“Creatures”).
And their current disillusionment fits in a continuum. “I am surprised that humans are so gullible,” Reflex argues, “… and lost that they think this democracy actually works. It doesn´t. At least not using the current formula. The song 'Democracy,' from our first record, was contemplative and based on a President Reagan approach.”
The Blue Album unleashed toxic and intoxicating material — unprecedented and feverish. But it was always entirely tuneful – like a meld, as Reflex avows, of the Beatles and Cheap Trick, or, in my own view, the Buzzcocks and the Germs, with a bit more scarred innocence.
Then, for years and years, they remained on again, off again. Line-ups came and went. Reunions tried to scramble the raw energy back into a reliable unit again. Reflex jumpstarted new bands, including Flower Leperds and ADZ. But the hole in the scene was not stitched back together until OC Confidential, released in 2005, proved how irascible, pointed, rhythmic, and unfinished they remained, despite all the intervening years. And Presumed Insolent followed the pace and content too, proving their trek back from underground rock 'n' roll refugees to frontline contenders had been completed.
That album seemed to gel two worlds with measurable, pleasurable effect – their own brand of melodic Southern California surf-hitched punk with pungent politics, often brimming with sharp wordplay, like the infectious “Conquest of the Planet of the Sea Monkeys,” which takes aim at the media-saturated generation who give up their independence, plus free thought, and end up endlessly conforming. As the song declares, “See monkeys playing / monkey see monkey do.” In the hard-hitting harmonies, the band inserts a musical algorithm of critical thinking that helps empower listeners to unhitch from their telepods of mass media.
“While I am no scientist, I am resilient enough to learn and comment, not on some dumb social media fartstorm, but to analyze and critically evaluate some of the insanity by using a teaspoon to scoop up the pseudo-science garbage that is being dropped on us by the scoopful. It is daunting. But it is something,” says Reflex.
“What I learned from the media, advertisers, and corporations is how to spend grandiose amounts of money convincing people that what they know as real, is actually fake, and that what they are selling is a facade. That stuff I learned from Mad magazine, National Lampoon, and a show called Captain Consumer. My first world view came from the book The Hundredth Monkey by Ken Keyes Jr. and the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. When we are young we can merge all of these crazy things into one insane narrative, and it becomes our own.”
In the post-Trump environment, humor has been one of the gravest, and greatest, casualties too: people are more likely to spew vendetta-filled tirades in the media ecology rather than buckle down and use comic opportunities to explore justice, the politics of a free society, or rationality and humanism in the age of overwhelming digital life with its parade of lies, deceit, and fake news. For instance, “Flat Earth Stomp” is one of the effective eviscerations they offer, but instead of using cold logic to pry people away from the shysters, they say “Dance right up onto the edge!” In that moment of rockin’ satire, hopefully people realize the weight and legitimacy of truth.
This doesn’t mean they shy away from being hard-and-fast in their denunciations either: “Cropduster” reveals their hard-question attitudes regarding “foreign revolution? Suicide missions, social evolution?”. Meanwhile, “Nuclear Football” uses tongue-in-cheek caricatures to shed light on the troublesome creeps of the world, from Steve Bannon to “Rocket Man” — North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-un.
“Cropduster … chronicles stealth bombers and drone counterparts, and the song 'Double Down' from La Vendetta (2014), which examines how readily we share our personal information to public companies, and then sell it to our government spy agencies. It is all insane,” explains Reflex.
But they also do not embrace all members of the left, liberals, and allies without some cynicism or ribbing, like those who line-up at the Earth Mama Fest “mumbling some nonsense,” which is revealed in the tune “Alice on Wonderbread.” And sometimes they keep their eye on the local sects of wonky, colorful people still surging through the city of dreams-gone-weird, like “Hollywood Boulevard / outer space creatures / Manic street preachers / Go-go dancers / a circus of freaks” that drift through the lens of “Gazetteer.”
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And that is just a small portion of their appeal in a time of growing robot overlords, echo chambers, and punk rock paint-by-numbers. They feel ever clear in their denunciations of stupidity because they urge people to laugh at themselves; they remain starkly buoyant in their tunes as they retrain people to have fun, even in the thick of a culture war; and they remain earnest archivers, enablers, and practitioners of punk’s promise to shake up the system and keep focused on everyday people.
“I don´t think world citizens have the capability, nor education, nor the desire, nor the time, to make sound decisions before they shoot off insipid snippets of misinformation, unwarranted opinions, and useless trepidation. The president of a major superpower just told the world that windmills cause cancer. Tell me, how do we combat such ignorance?”
“I personally do it with music. If I tried to do it without art- relying only on the cognitive discourse of the past- I would end up lost and politically confused. Some fight fire with fire. I fight fire with marshmallows. No, I don´t a have great hopes for the new dissemination of knowledge. People simply lack the patience to find solutions. We have become an instant oatmeal society. I will continue to do what I do. Fight back. Resist. Reeducate. Review. Renew.”
The Adolescents, with openers Neighborhood Brats, The Cops, and Liberty and Justice, are scheduled for April 15, 8 p.m. Warehouse Live, 813 Saint Emanuel. For information, call 713-225-5483, or visit warehouselive.com. $15 advance, $17 day of show, plus fees.