Take away, take away / Take away this ball and chain
Social Distortion is an L.A. punk band who had a jolt of MTV-era success with their 1990 self-titled Epic Records release, their third album, primarily due to this one song, ‘Ball and Chain.’ Musically, it’s about as straightforward as tunes come: a 4-chord sequence, D – A – G – D, that stays the same throughout the entire song. That’s right, no variation in the chorus, no bridge, nothing; there are no changes. But the combination is monotonous magic. It might seem that putting together something entirely uncomplicated and sustained like that would be pretty easy; but if it truly were there would be a lot more bands like Oasis, ELO and oh, say, The Beatles, who’ve been able to often achieve it.
But, of course, like many songs that become generation-spanning classics, ‘Ball and Chain’ is intrinsically captivating both musically and lyrically. In the words of lead singer/writer Mike Ness, it’s “a hard luck story, a forceful cry, a lament, a plea, a folk prayer.” It’s all of that, in guttingly direct prose, the sharp-edged story of someone who’s hit rock bottom, or worse, fears it’s still somewhere beneath.
What is the titular “Ball and Chain” (and no, it’s not the antiquated, stereotypical “wife” as Ralph Kramden might’ve referred to on The Honeymooners). For Ness, whose travails with heroin are well documented, it would seem most directly to be the demon of addiction. But one reason for the song’s enduring popularity, in addition to that flawless chord structure, is its vague universality; the feeling that it can apply equally well metaphorically – to, in other words, pretty much anything. And, quite possibly, something of one’s own making.
But wherever I have gone / I was sure to find myself there
You can run all your life / But not go anywhere
So…what holds you down, holds you back? What’s your ball and chain?
Now I know, we generally try to keep things light here. And there’s absolutely nothing specific in mind. It just seemed somehow apropos as we reach the close of another year, with our knee-jerk consciousness pulled toward thoughts of sometimes profound resolutions, to consider this idea: rather than striving for the acquisition or achievement of something new, what might we instead give up. Free ourselves of. What perhaps self-imposed “ball and chain” could we endeavor to sever and release?
Or, f*ck it, just leave any hard, introspective thinking far, far away, and enjoy this song for all its simple, gritty brilliance. A few minutes of perfect chords can be pretty liberating, too.