“Ball and Chain”: Mike Ness’s Inspirational Anthem
Mike Ness, leader of the Southern California based punk rock band Social Distortion (Social D) has written many inspirational songs that strike an emotional chord with his legion of fans over a career spanning more than 40 years. One of the most powerful Ness compositions is the retrospective lament “Ball and Chain”. The tune is featured on Social Distortion’s self-titled album released in 1990, which is the group’s best-selling album to date.
Ness was born in Lynn, Massachusetts. While he was a young boy, his family relocated to Orange County, California. Mike was raised on classic country, blues, and rockabilly. You can hear those influences in many of the songs that Mike has written with Social D, and in his solo projects. Ness and Social D created an amazing interpretation of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”, as one of the tracks on their eponymous album. The band has also covered songs from other country legends like Hank Williams, Wanda Jackson, and Lefty Frizzell.
Mike Ness’s Rocky Adolescence and formation of Social Distortion
When Ness was only 15 years old, he was kicked out of his father’s house, and was literally homeless, living on the streets of Fullerton, California. It was during that time (1978) that Social D was formed. Inspired by the brazen intensity of the Sex Pistols, and undoubtedly their own rebelliousness, the original lineup consisted Ness on lead guitar and lead vocals, Frank Agnew on guitar, his brother Rikk Agnew on bass, and Casey Royer on drums. The group released their first album Mommy’s Little Monster in 1983.
Ness was the original renter of the tiny apartment described in the song “Kids of the Black Hole” by another Fullerton-based punk group The Adolescents. The punk house is located in Fullerton and exists today.
Addiction was Mike Ness’s “Ball and Chain”
By the early 80s, Ness had fallen into an abyss of drugs and alcohol. His addictions nearly killed him, but in 1985, he fought his way back and recovered. He has been clean and sober since. “Ball and Chain” is all about Mike’s struggles with addiction. The lyrics of the song are incredibly honest and affecting. Ness calls “Ball and Chain” a “folk prayer” and a “cry for help”:
“Take away this ball and chain. I’m lonely and I’m tired, and I can’t take any more pain.”
The verses are an unrelenting account of what Ness was going through during the dark days of his life:
“In my broken-down Chevrolet, while I’m singin’ to myself.
There’s got to be another way.”
One of the most poignant lines in the song is the lyric:
“You can run all your life, but not go anywhere”.
There is biting agony declared throughout the tune, but there is also exaltation— to break out of the enslavement of addiction (“ball and chain”) and elevate to a better life. It is quintessential Mike Ness poetry.
“Ball and Chain” Hits for Social Distortion
“Ball and Chain” became a hit at Modern Rock (Alternative) radio— peaking at #13 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1990, and receives significant airplay and streaming to this day, reaching a new generation of fans in a variety of placement in TV, film, and video games. One of the most prominent is the song’s inclusion for the video game Saint’s Row: The Third.
Mike Ness Continues to Share His Art, and Hot Rods
Mike Ness is truly one of punk rock’s most interesting artists. His history is rich in drama and lore. There is much wisdom to be learned from his experiences that he imparts in his music. Social D continues to tour extensively throughout the United States and Canada.
Mike currently lives in Santa Ana, California, with his wife and two sons. He is an avid collector of vintage ephemera such as Hamburglar toys, which are toys modeled after a character used in a TV advertising campaign for McDonald’s restaurants from the early 70s to early 90s, and he loves hot rods. Mike owns a 1954 Chevrolet and a 1936 Ford. In 2003, he founded Black Kat Kustoms with long-time hot rodder and builder Don Nemarnik.