What I love about the Adolescents was that they occupied a very cool niche in punk history. They weren’t ’77 punk, and they weren’t hardcore punk. They were something perfectly in between. They had the catchy three-chord simplicity of early punk, but also a snotty attitude and ramped-up aggression that foreshadowed the arrival of hardcore. It wouldn’t be quite correct to say this band invented snotty teenage punk, but they’ve got to be considered one of the defining bands of the style. Formed in 1980 by 17-year-olds Steve Soto and Tony Cadena and featuring 16-year-old Frank Agnew on guitar, The Adolescents really were adolescents. The quick departure of original members John O’Donovan (guitar) and Peter Pan (drums) paved the way for the addition of a couple of scene veterans in ex Social Distortion players Rikk Agnew (Frank’s brother) and Casey Royer. The combination of Rikk Agnew’s skilled songwriting and Cadena’s attitude-laden, authentically teenage vocals proved hard to beat, and in short order the group powered out the classic single “Amoeba”. With its snarling vocals, ripping melodic guitar leads, and rousing sing-along chorus, it created a blueprint not just for The Adolescents but for Orange County punk as a whole. As synonymous with its time and place as “God Save the Queen” and “Blitzkrieg Bop” were to theirs, this song alone would have made legends of The Adolescents. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Adolescents (aka The Blue Album) is one of those rare debut LPs that plays like a best-of collection. In addition to “Amoeba”, songs like “Creatures”, “No Way”, “Wrecking Crew”, “Who Is Who”, and the near-epic “Kids of the Black Hole” are all bona fide classics that are still being copied today by up-and-coming punk groups who could only dream of being half this good. The group plays with the youthful abandon and slamming raw energy that are essential to this style of music, but one should not overlook the incredible skill that went into making the record. The guitar playing of the Agnew brothers- a hallmark of both The Adolescents in particular and the O.C. punk sound in general - mirrors the stylings of Johnny Thunders but kicks it up a notch. And the songwriting, largely credited to the elder Agnew, packs these hard-charging tunes with honest-to-goodness hooks! Cadena on vocals sounds so ferociously indignant that it’s almost shocking to see old video footage where he looks like a little kid (the way he sang, I always pictured a cross between Lemmy and Henry Rollins!). When people talk about all-time great vocal performances on punk rock albums, maybe they bring up Jake Burns on Inflammable Material or Jello Biafra on Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables or John Lydon on Never Mind the Bollocks. Rarely is Tony Cadena’s name brought up, but it damn well ought to be. From the first line of “I Hate Children” through the final raging strain of “Creatures”, he raises the standard for what “snotty” vocals are supposed to sound like.
While most adolescent punk rock is considered utterly disposable or at best charmingly juvenile, Adolescents is a remarkably enduring and transcendent recording. I was already in my mid-to-late 20s when I first heard it – long past the point where I held a “teenage” point of view. Even now, at the age of 40 and very much an average Joe, I find these songs exceptionally relevant to the human experience. If tunes like “No Way”, “L.A. Girl”, and “Creatures” articulate how fake and fickle society truly is, there’s no denying that’s truer than ever today. “I Hate Children” is still really fucking funny. And “Kids of the Black Hole”, in its candid critique of teenage hedonism run amok, comes off eerily prophetic in the context of our current culture. Most importantly, this remains some of the hottest and fiercest punk music ever committed to record. I would imagine that if you are a teenage punk struggling to find acceptance in the high school hierarchy and the world at large, cuts like “Who Is Who” and “Wrecking Crew” would become personal anthems the instant you heard them. And the great thing is that these are songs you’ll never need to “outgrow”. I listen to this album at the gym when I’m pulling heavy weight off the floor and at home when I’m cleaning the bathroom. It’s not just a classic punk LP but also one of the greatest albums of the past 30 years, period. And although there have been numerous reboots of The Adolescents franchise with varying lineups, they’ve never been able to quite recapture the magic of that first album. Then again, neither has anyone else.