Song: "Ball And Chain"
Album: Social Distortion
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As the hardcore scene and sound of Los Angeles began to fade in the mid-1980's, it gave way to two primary offshoots. One of them was the decadent, and often under-talented world of so-called "hair metal," and the other was a rather diverse, yet connected group of bands that attempted to keep the spirit of hardcore and punk alive. While a handful of these bands found moderate musical success, due to the unique and uncompromising sound they played, a majority of the bands in this category remained relatively unknown until the onset of the 1990's. Among these groups was one band that fused together the angst and energy of punk and hardcore with the true roots of nearly all music, and it is much the reason they have endured over the decades. Though they began their career during the high-point of the Los Angeles hardcore scene, it was not until that scene was all but dead that the world began to notice the brilliance of Social Distortion. In many ways, the demise of the L.A. hardcore scene can be seen as benefiting Social Distortion, as it was following this time that the group truly began to hone their distinctive sound, and they reached their artistic apex with their self-titled 1990 release. Striking the ideal balance between punk anger and what one can see as both folk and country influences, the band redefined what was possible within the punk and hardcore genres. Standing as perhaps their finest musical moment, there are few songs in history that are as uncompromising, unapologetic, and unsubtle as Social Distortion's 1990 song, "Ball And Chain."
From the first note of "Ball And Chain," the unique blend of sounds and styles that define Social Distrtion are instantly clear. The blaring, crunching guitar from Dennis Danell and Mike Ness scream with the discontent of punk, yet there is a swing and softness to the sound within one can cearly hear a strong connection to the country style. The way in which the acoustic guitar plays behind the more prominent, distorted electric is sheer musical perfection, and in many ways, it is this interplay that defines the band. The rhythm section of drummer Christopher Reece and bassist John Maurer are equally impressive, as the winding bassline plays alongside the dry, yet forward drumming. Reece's snare is far more prominent in the mix than most drum-work, and it is this aspect that gives "Ball And Chain" an steady walk, almost marching sound. The combined sound gives a clear nod to the rockabilly sounds of the 1950's and 1960's, and it is in songs such as this that one can understand why so many people associate Johnny Cash as one of the earliest musicians that performed with the attitude of punk. Furthermore, on "Ball And Chain," Social Distortion prove that to capture this attitude, one need not be loud OR fast, and that "true" punk is more about spirit and honesty than it is about volume and image.
If there was ever a singer that made it quite clear from where he pulled his style, Mike Ness makes no excuses for his love for blues, country, and folk singers. In both his delivery, as well as the words which he writes, there is an honesty and authenticity that is rarely found elsewhere in any genre from any era. Furthermore, Ness possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, and the grit in his singing always manages to perfectly capture the emotions within the words he sings. "Ball And Chain" is no different, as one can easily sense the pain and frustration, as well as the close proximity that Ness has to his lyrics. It is in lyrics like those on "Ball And Chain" that Mike Ness separates himself from any of his peers, as the honesty and agony within them remain truly unparalleled. Though his own battle with various vices has been well documented, "Ball And Chain" is a lament that can be applied to nearly any situation, giving it a universal appeal unlike any other song. Ignoring any ego or expectations of sound, Ness opens completely and one cannot help but feel his pain when he sings lines like, "...times are hard getting harder, I'm born to lose and destined to fail..." Buried in his words of struggle and strife, Ness also drops one of the most brilliant lyrics ever written, and one cannot deny the simple genius found when he sings, "...you can run all your life, but not go anywhere..."
Without question, "Ball And Chain" remains today one of the most moving and overall impressive "hard luck" songs ever recorded. Due to the authenticity that one can experience in both the singing and music, it stands far above the rest of the Social Distortion catalog, and in nearly every aspect, it defines everything that makes them such a phenomenal band. The way in which the guitars bring the tone and attitude of punk and hardcore, yet simultaneously come off as far more roots-based gives the group a far wider appeal, and it also shows that they were clearly more talented and musically knowledgeable than a majority of their peers. Though it took the band the better part of a decade to master this sound and style, no group since has been able to balance the hardcore attitude with the fundamentals of roots music as perfectly as one finds on Social Distortion's third album. Throughout the record, Mike Ness puts his past and present emotions and situations on display, and it is his honesty that makes many of the songs so intriguing. The words he sings can often be applied to a number of situations, yet the pain and frustration are rarely anything short of universal. This ability to speak to so many different circumstances through a single lyric is a testament to his extraordinary talent, and there are few songs in history that hit as hard and in as brutally honest a fashion as one finds in Social Distortion's 1990 song, "Ball And Chain."