photo & text by nacrowe
in the summer of 2001 i went back to my hometown in ORANGE COUNTY for the first time in years to stay with a childhood friend and it was during that stay that i was enlightened (or more like indoctrinated) into the world of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PUNK ROCK. of course i was familiar enough with BLACK FLAG, DESCENDENTS, BAD RELIGION, X, CIRCLE JERKS, THE VANDALS and SOCIAL DISTORTION and the 90s bands from the area but was unfamiliar with IMPACTFUL but lesser high-profile groups like WASTED YOUTH, D.I., FEAR, ADOLESCENTS, DR. KNOW, MINUTEMEN, RICH KIDS ON LSD, THE GERMS, CHANNEL 3, T.S.O.L., BATTALION OF SAINTS, THE MIDDLE CLASS and AGENT ORANGE. in fact it was during that trip that i got to see a reunion ADOLESCENTS show with CHANNEL 3 opening in SANTA ANA as well as FEAR at WARPED TOUR in VENTURA. and T.S.OL. at a gig in POMONA. it was an INFORMATIVE and thoroughly EDUCATIONAL summer to say the least.
amidst the pack of HARDCORE acts coming out of the region in the 1980s, AGENT ORANGE stood out primarily because of their highly IDIOSYNCRATIC hybridization of PUNK ROCK with SURF MUSIC. such an INTRIGUING mix with those long MELODIC, DICK DALE-inspired barrel-roll guitar runs at HARD-CHARGING tempos is heard all over their debut LIVING IN DARKNESS (POSH BOY, 1981) on IMPRESSIVE tracks such as "EVERYTHING TURNS GREY," "LAST GOODBYE," "BLOODSTAINS," "A CRY FOR HELP IN A WORLD GONE MAD," and of course, a cover of "MISERLOU." there is a PROFESSIONALISM and TECHNICAL PRECISION and ELEVATED level of MUSICIANSHIP at play throughout LIVING IN DARKNESS that is UNMATCHED from bands of the period, who tend to sound MUDDLED if not AGNOSTIC to basic recording aspects like PRODUCTION VALUE or playing in time or in key. founding bassist STEVE SOTO left AGENT ORANGE to cofound arguably the other main group of the period with a similar penchant for MUSICIANSHIP and CRAFTSMANSHIP, ADOLESCENTS.
this propulsive, kinetic sound naturally found a kinship in the nascent SKATE scene of the period and provided both a soundtrack to the pastime and a sonic template, along with MELODIC HARDCORE bands like BAD RELIGION, to the UPTEMPO SKATE PUNK bands that rose to prominence over the next decade. most notably PENNYWISE, NOFX, FACE TO FACE, NO USE FOR A NAME, MXPX and so on. i just find it INTRIGUING that a sound that is a variation on SURF MUSIC served as the sonic backdrop to an activity and lifestyle that itself was a variation and innovation on SURFING itself. it is an ODD and FRUITFUL synergy of sorts that seemingly could only take place in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. because of this, for me AGENT ORANGE is the very embodiment of an ORGANIC and wholly AUTHENTIC version of PUNK ROCK from the area. the other vein is the more NIHILISTIC, DRUG-ADDLED and VIOLENT variant exemplified by THE GERMS and FEAR that was more-or-less continued (sans drugs) by AGGRESSIVE bands like BLACK FLAG, SUICIDAL TENDENCIES and the BELLIGERENT and CONFRONTATIONAL COASTAL cohort. both breaks in the family tree are VALID and have their proponents. for me, the example of AGENT ORANGE is one that offered a polished version of PUNK ROCK that was IMPACTFUL due to its reigning in of excess and creating a record with a POWERFUL, DELIBERATE sonic impact.
LIVING IN DARKNESS continues to be required listening in my opinion for anyone interested in HARDCORE or PUNK ROCK in general. definitely worth checking out.