But even its most hardcore fans seldom remember that before Mike Ness, another frontman briefly handled singing duties for the band.
And even fewer seem aware that today, Social D's original vocalist, Tom Corvin, is a mild-mannered TV reporter for the local ABC affiliate, KMBC Channel 9.
Corvin is one of the station's "live on the scene" correspondents, covering breaking news several nights a week. At 6-foot-7, the well-groomed guy in the impeccable suit who introduces his sound bites in a commanding tone brings to mind imposing ex-jock sportscasters, not death rockers.
Corvin has mentioned his punk past to a few broadcast buddies over the years, but he's done so less and less as the group has become more popular. "Primarily because I don't think people believed me," he tells the Pitch.
Some of his Channel 9 coworkers found out about a month ago -- Corvin says he's not sure how -- and a brief buzz resulted.
"For a couple of days, people were like, 'Dang, you were in a punk band,'" Corvin says. "Some of them actually know who Social Distortion is. It does give me a false sense of temporary pride, but I quickly remember that I had very little if anything to do with Mike's success."
Corvin's brief association with the band began with a strange audition in a baby-blue Ford Pinto station wagon parked in front of a Fullerton, California, record store.
In the driver's seat was Casey Royer, who popped a Cheap Trick cassette into the Pinto's player and asked Corvin to sing along. He tackled "Surrender," hitting the high notes with a versatile voice he'd developed in church choir. Royer said nothing after the song ended. He just started the car and drove to his parents' house. An hour later, the band's other members -- a bassist known only as Mark and a sixteen-year-old guitarist named Mike Ness -- gathered in Royer's bedroom. He had the job.
Luckily, he had plenty of time on his hands. A bench-riding scrub on the Cal State Fullerton basketball team that made a surprise run in the 1978 NCAA tournament, Corvin was cut to make room for the incoming hot-shot recruits who suddenly became interested in the squad. He had agreed to try out for the band after Royer, a cafeteria worker at the athlete-heavy apartment complex where Corvin lived, asked him.
This embryonic incarnation of Social Distortion played covers, mimicking Van Halen, David Bowie and the Cars. But after a few months, Social Distortion composed its first original songs, with Ness crafting the guitar riffs and Royer penning most of the lyrics. Social Distortion practiced in an industrial-park storage facility with a pull-down metal door. It shared the space with a group called the Strand, which was already playing club concerts and recording its material. In an effort to impress both the Strand and his Social Distortion bandmates, Corvin took his first stab at solo songwriting, bringing a tune called "Sid Is Dead" to practice soon after the death of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious. Corvin says he can't remember any of the lyrics, but he recalls the song's reception.