Thursday, July 15, 2021

Frank Agnew's back on guitar and walking down The Lonely Streets with Greg Antista

Frank Agnew. (Photo by Rob Wallace)

By Andy

Surely at that juncture in their lives, the Adolescents weren't scout material.

Yet, there they were, strolling -- or ramming? -- through the doors of the scout house in Yorba Linda, CA, on March 1, 1980. When the evening was complete and the noise had disintegrated, there was no scoutmaster present to dole out any honors to the lads. What was noteworthy about the night was that the brats from Fullerton had cemented their first gig in the annals of Orange County punk-rock history.

They probably would have scoffed at the comment at the time, but the band had just thrown down the first brick in a soon-to-be successful and legendary path along the punk terrain. 

The "Blue" album was about a year away from entering the punk-rock fray. You know what happened after that. It had "classic" scrawled all over it then, and still does to this day. It's been more than 40 years of plunking that album on the turntable and ripping it up. 

That initial gig featured Frank Agnew and John O'Donovan on the dual-guitar attack, Steve Soto on bass, Tony Cadena on vocals and "Peter Pan" on drums. (Rikk Agnew and Casey Royer would replace O'Donovan and "Pan" about six months later to get the "Blue" ball of fury rolling.)

"We were supposed to open a gig at UC Irvine, the college, and it was supposed to be the Flyboys, Agent Orange and us, and that was to be our first show. But it got canceled that morning," Frank recalled during a phone call from Fullerton to Seattle on June 19. "So we all start calling each other and stuff. And then we ended up having a friend whose dad was a scoutmaster in Yorba Linda and there was a little scout house out there."

Their buddy snagged his old man's keys, and the gig was on with the Detours, Agent Orange and the Adolescents. Everyone piled into the scout house for the show, which saw the Adolescents burn through a set that featured the first three tunes off the "Blue" album, "I Hate Children," "Who is Who" and "Wrecking Crew." 

Winding down after a rehearsal with the unit he now plays for, Greg Antista and The Lonely Streets, Agnew, 56, discussed his past and present career before settling in for the remainder of his day to watch some Westerns.

On July 16, the band's "Under the Neon Heat" -- an album packed with heaps of OC power-pop-punk crunch that also treads on raw country and rock soil -- will enter the world on Primal Beat Records.

"I know we're doing some festival in Utah in August. The idea is to just get out there and play. I'm really proud of it and really happy with it," Agnew said of the album.

As we get rolling with the interview, we'll step back into Agnew's past at the outset, rumble into the present and then mix things up a bit from there.


** Today is the 40th anniversary of the big Santa Monica Civic show with Black Flag, Adolescents, DOA and the Minutemen back in the day. 

Agnew: I'll be damned. It is, isn't it?

** Someone put up a flier today on Facebook or Instagram, and we've got the same flier framed in our bathroom because we had gone to that show as well. And I was like, 'Well, how perfect just to ask you about that?' Because that was the first time that I saw you guys play. And that was with Pat Smear on guitar.

Agnew: Yes, it was. That's right.

** What do you remember about that show? That was a big one. 

Agnew: I just remember it being a ton of fun. First of all, at that point, it was the biggest place we played. And that I felt was like the peak, when we played there. I do remember that me and Soto picked up Pat at his house on the way there because he lived near the area.

It was one of those gigs where everything went well. We played well, all the other bands played well. And it was also one of those gigs where there was these backstage rooms, but everyone kind of hung out in one. It was just like a big party backstage with all of us.

And one memory I do have was I had a baseball hat that said DG something because it stood for some company, like some refrigeration company or something like that. I remember Dave Gregg from DOA goes, 'Hey, can I have that hat?' I'm all, 'Why?' He goes, 'It's got my initials on it.' I took it off and I looked, I'm all, 'Sure does, here, it's yours.' So that's really one fond memory I have with that because I heard he passed not too long ago (2014).

And then, of course, just all of us back there drinking beer (laughs) and just having a good time. There was a ton of people there and everyone was into it. I remember thinking after the show, 'I could do this forever.'

** That was a memorable one. Like I said, that was the first time I saw you guys. So I was fired up. And what's funny about that show is that during DOA, my brother came up to me and he was like, 'Hey, I can get us backstage' because he knew someone that was gonna kind of walk us over there. And so we walked over there and all of a sudden I got grabbed and pulled backstage and it was Mike Ness.

Agnew: Oh, you know what else I remember? Speaking of Mike Ness -- his younger brother, Troy, I think it was before we went on, did a little ventriloquist act (it was Soto's idea). No punk show has ever had that.

** Yeah, you got to mix it up a little bit, you know, entertain the people.

Agnew: And I remember everyone was throwing change at him because he said something like, 'I ain't getting paid for doing this.' Or the little dummy was saying that. And then just like a ton of change was getting thrown on stage, and I think he made about 50 bucks in change.

Greg Antista and The Lonely Streets. (Photo by Harmon Gerber) 

** Let's fast forward into today. You're playing with Greg's band now, The Lonely Streets. What's it like being a part of this band now? Another band for you over these years. Still having a good time, still challenging yourself and making it all worth the while?

Agnew: Absolutely. It's funny because it had been a while since I played with a band. We'll see, because the last band I played with at that point was 45 Grave. I think I was with them till '13 or something like that and then I just kind of got burnt out. So, I wasn't doing much musically. I was doing some studio work and that's about it.

And then, well a year ago, January, just before the pandemic hit, I was thinking about the old days, because so many people have passed. And so I thought, 'Well, Greg's still around, I haven't talked to him in a few years, wonder what the hell he's up to.' I still had his number. So I called him and I said, 'Hey, what's up?' Well, we just kind of shot the shit for a while. And then we hung up and then he called me the next night and says, 'What are you doing musically?' I'm all, 'Nothing right now.' He goes, 'Do you wanna join my band?' (laughs) 

When I went in the studio, it was pretty much open season, and so I was able to just learn the songs and come up with my parts. I've always liked it that way because I don't have too much time to think too much about the songs.

I remember the last day of recording, and that's when the pandemic really hit. Everything was getting shut down and I was just like, 'Wow, OK, well, good timing. We finished this thing.'

** So how do you feel about these songs? I listened to this thing a couple of times in the car last week, and these are solid. Are these right up your alley? Do you feel just as good (with these) as you have about, maybe songs you played in the past?

Agnew: I do. There's two things I liked about them immediately: they were simple (and) these are really catchy, good songs. They're sing-along songs. I thought the lyrics were really strong. The overall feel of the songs is upbeat, which I thought, 'Wow, we could all really use this right now.' Because everything had been kind of dark and stuff. And then, of course, the pandemic hit. I also liked it because it allowed me to kind of do a lot of different guitar stuff on it that I normally wouldn't be able to do, but those songs kind of left it wide open for that.

** That's what I like about Greg's stuff, because I heard the previous album, too. And obviously, you're gonna have your song structures, but then you also got like you said, you've got these wide open spaces where you can just kind of go into different territories and stuff like that and really open the songs up even more and try some stuff out, which is cool.

Agnew: Yeah. That's a great thing about working with Greg because he's one of those guys -- I said, 'Greg, I have this idea,' and he goes, 'OK, cool, try it. If it works, great. If not, we won't use it.' He had that kind of attitude about a lot of stuff, because when I went in there, I laid down a lot of different guitar stuff.

So it was just like, 'OK, pick and choose what you like.' And another thing that it really left wide open was a lot of vocal harmony stuff, which is what I'm really big on. I like that. To me, it's always impressive when you have a band that could do a lot of good harmonies.

** That goes right back to the beginning, huh?

Agnew: Yep, sure does.

** It sticks with you over the years. It's good to be able to do that because that just lifts songs up even even further.

Agnew: It does. There's nothing like a song that you could sing along with, hum along with. When you think back, even a band like the Ramones, they were simple, but you could sing along with their songs. You felt a part of it. And they really didn't have any vocal harmonies or anything, but it's just the fact that they had that sing-along quality to it.

** I totally agree. I like so many different styles of music, but I'm a sucker for those harmony vocals, especially when they're alongside some heavy chugging music. 

Agnew: Something aggressive about it. Like what we did with the Adolescents -- there wasn't a whole lot of punk bands doing that. But Rikk and I had an older half sister who was one of those '60s Beatle fanatics, and so she would play her Beatles records around all the time we were growing up. And, of course, they always had great harmonies and stuff. So I guess that was just something that was ingrained on us, even young. And even when we got into the punk thing -- 'Well, harmonies are still cool.'

Frank Agnew in the '80s. (Photo by Alicia Hardy)

** So growing up in the Agnew household, lots of music around, huh?

Agnew: Yes. My folks weren't musical per say. They didn't really play music or anything like that, but they were always listening to music. My dad, I remember as a kid growing up, he used to listen to a lot of Irish folk stuff. He was Irish. And I remember Clancy Brothers, Irish Rovers or Dennis Day, a lot of that varied kind of Irish stuff.

And then my mom was Mexican, so she used to listen to a lot of Latin music and then with some Harry Belafonte thrown in. A lot of that because my aunt, my mom's sister, lived a couple of blocks away (and) at times she'd come over, bring her Harry Belafonte records. It was either during the weekend, there was always a record on the record player, and when any other family came over and everyone just kind of sitting around drinking beer and talking. There was always music going on. And then my aunt Sylvia, which is my mom's youngest sister, she was a big fan of that whole Burt Bacharach thing and Tom Jones, and stuff like that. (Plus his older half sister with her Beatles, British Invasion and Four Seasons records.) We absorbed it all.

** How did you get from there until, I guess gradually you probably picked up on, you know, maybe some rock music and then gravitated toward hearing some punk bands as well. 

Agnew: I think it all started with the Beatles, of course, because my older half sister had left. She hooked up with someone and left, but she left a lot of her records behind.

And so me and my brothers would play those records a lot. We kind of got into it that way as kids, and talking 8, 9, 10 years old. And then, with our allowance money, we'd go get like a Rolling Stone record, and so we started getting into that whole thing.

And then they used to be in Creem magazine and stuff. So we buy the magazine and read about these different bands like, 'Whoa, look at this band, Black Sabbath. They look rad. Let's go buy one of their records.' I was really into the original Alice Cooper band -- I'd buy some of their records, 'cause you'd hear about these guys or see 'em on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert or Midnight Special.

And then in the mid '70s, we all kind of got into the whole prog-rock thing with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Yes, all that stuff. 

I think it was early '77, Rikk went to -- there was this record store in Long Beach called Zed Record. Which back then was the only place you can get any kind of British imports and alternative stuff. And he came back and he had the first Damned single. 

A little earlier in '76 was when that first Ramones album came out, and I bought that one, I bought it from mowing lawn money. Rikk's all, 'You should buy that album. Look at these guys. They look different. They look trippy. Let's listen to it.' First, I'm all, 'What the hell is this?' It was so different. So I set it aside thinking I'll probably never listen to it again, but then I kept hearing the songs in my head. So I came home from school one day and I put it on again and I heard the whole thing -- the whole thing goes by in like 25 minutes, 20 minutes. I was looking at the pictures of 'em and then I put it on again. After the third listen, I was a total convert. I'm all, 'These guys are bitchin'.' And then, of course, that's when we start hearing about the new stuff coming out of New York.

The British punk is what really made us converts, the Sex Pistols, especially the early Damned stuff, Buzzcocks. It seemed like every week, Rikk would come home from Zed with two or three new records of bands we'd never seen or heard of. And we just really got into it.

But even before that, Rikk was in high school with some friends. He had a friend who played guitar. And so, Rikk thought, 'You know what? Hey, I'll pick up a cheap bass and learn how to play bass.' And he picked up a bass and taught himself how to play it. And they were like a rock cover band. But then when the punk thing hit, it was like, 'Wait a minute, we could all be in a band like now,' you know what I mean?

I think the first instrument I got was a bass. Rikk was playing guitar by then. 

** When did you first start playing that bass? 

Agnew: 10 years old.

That's when I first got it, and I learned like 'Smoke on the Water' and stuff like that. So I taught myself bass with all the old rock music. But then the punk thing hit, that's when I got a guitar. You know, chords, couple of riffs here, a couple of leads here. Cool. And then, of course, Alfie followed suit when his hands got big enough.

And so the three of us would just sit there with our instruments and just jam around and play around. We're all self-taught. We just pick up stuff here and there. When we watched Midnight Special or Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, I'd watch the guitar players' hands and try to figure out what they were doing. That's when we started to really play music, when the punk thing happened, because before that we were just kind of plunking around on instruments.

When the punk thing happened, it's like we could actually be a band and play gigs.

Back cover of the "Blue" album. (Photos by Glen E. Friedman)

** Speaking of the 'Blue' album, that's 40 years as well this year.

Agnew: Yep. 40 years in late April, early May it trickled out.

** I pulled mine out. I grabbed that when it first came out and it's pretty beat up. It probably skips all over the place. Looking at the photos on the back here, a couple of you guys are looking really, really young, but writing some amazing songs. What are your thoughts when you look back on that?

Agnew: I was 16 years old on that record, and I think I still had zits (laughs). I think I weighed 115 pounds back then. We recorded that in four days. That was it. I remember we went in there on a Monday and did all the basic tracks, drums, bass, and then Rikk and I doubled the rhythm guitars. And then on the second day, we did all the overdubs, Rikk and I, we did all the guitar layering and solos and octaves and all that stuff.

And then on the third day was lead and backing vocals. And the fourth day was mix and edit -- it was done. It went quick because we'd been playing a lot and we were rehearsing a lot. Essentially with the 'Blue' album, it was our live set back then.

** There's not a bad one on there. It's pretty solid.

Agnew: Very proud of that record.

** For that to come together so fast like that, sometimes, it's like lightning in a bottle. It all comes together. It's not always going to happen. With any other albums, you could probably say it was completely different. But sometimes the magic is just there, and you just gotta go with it.

Agnew: The stars were lined up, because it seemed so incredibly easy. At the time, we just kind of went in there and knocked it out and that was it. Of course, at the time, I don't think any of us had any idea it would do what it did. You remember back then, the punk scene wasn't big, it was very underground still.

At the time, I kept thinking, 'Well, gee, I can't imagine punk like this ever going mainstream.' Boy, was I wrong.

** So looking at your photo on the back here of this album. What is that young Frank thinking at the moment?

Agnew: It was some place we played (off of Sunset Boulevard) and those pictures were taken in back of that place, knowing that they were going to be used for the 'Blue' album, which I think we just finished recording. 

I remember at the time thinking, you know, how exciting it was and how fun it was, how fun it was doing these shows, the whole scene and everything. I really remember just sitting there thinking, 'Wow, this is going to be in an album and we might even sell like 200 copies.'

** You look pretty mellow. You look like you might just be kind of rolling with it and having a good time.

Agnew: Pretty much. I never took the politics seriously or anything like that. I never got into that whole thing, like, 'Oh, you know, we're gonna tear down society.' I was just enjoying playing in a band, playing the music, getting the occasional girl here and there and just having a good time hanging out with friends. Back then, our friends (were) the guys in the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Bad Religion.

** And obviously to your right there, you've got Soto, who unfortunately passed away (2018). How important was he in your life then? And now... he's probably still with you nowadays in thoughts.

Agnew: It was huge because him and I for pretty much the entire decade of the '80s, were very tight.

In the Adolescents, Rikk and Casey were older and so we really didn't hang out with them. They were old enough to buy beer and go into bars -- me and Soto weren't. He's a year older than me. And then Tony was just Tony -- he just kind of did his thing. So me and Soto hung around, we paired off and we were just really tight all through that time. Even when the Adolescents broke up, we did Legal Weapon together, and then we did some other projects together well through the '80s. By the late '80s, I was married and had a couple of kids. But we always got together, we always stayed tight, we would get some other projects together. 

So really, to answer your question, he was my best friend for years. And you know what it was? We were best friends during the coming-of-age years. Going from from teenage kids to adults and how the world changes when that happens. Even though in later years, weeks and sometimes months would go by when we didn't see or talk to each other on the phone. But we were always just a phone call away. As a matter of fact, I think it was just a few days before he passed, he had texted me and asked me how my younger son was doing because he was going through a bone-marrow transplant at the time.

And I texted him back and said, 'You know, he's doing all right.' Doctors seemed pretty hopeful. He goes, 'You know, we need to get together.' I said, 'You know, that sounds great.' And then it was like two or three days later he passed. Losing him was the first big blow. I lost both my parents this last year and that was huge, too.

But before that, losing Steve because we were so tight. We're so very close that when he passed, and even to this day, I felt like not only a big part of my youth, but a big part of me as a person is vacant. It's empty.

** What do you remember about him the most? 

Agnew: His enthusiasm and his endless energy. For a big guy, he had an endless amount of energy. He had a great sense of humor, probably one of the best singers I've ever known. He had an amazing voice, which is funny, you didn't know that in the Adolescents because he didn't sing, he just played bass. But in later years with other bands he did and solo stuff, when you hear him sing, he had a fantastic voice. He was talented and just a really all-around great guy. When he left, it left a big void.

Steve Soto with the Adolescents in 2015. (Photo by Cat Rose)

** Speaking of your kids, I know one of your sons played in the Adolescents as well. Right?

Agnew: My oldest, yeah (Frank Jr.).

When we did The 'O.C. Confidential' album (2005) because, when we went to do that Rikk was still with us and rehearsed with us, but by the time we went in to record it, he left. He was having a lot of personal problems. So I'm the only guitar player on that record. I did a lot of guitar parts on it. It's like, 'Well, now that we're gonna play shows and do gigs and stuff, we're gonna need another guitar player.'

And I thought, 'Well, who better than Frank Jr?' He knows all the shit already.

** What was that like playing side by side with your son and having another Agnew join the crew?

Agnew: That was a great time. That year or two that we did that -- because we played in Germany, we got flown out to Florida and played a big gig out there -- it was bigger shows. And it was just a lot of fun. It was just great father-and-son time. That has great memories for me as well, being in the Adolescents with him.

** Because he's not in a position to tour extensively, Agnew is not involved with the current lineups of the Adolescents or the Radolescents, which contain members from throughout the band's history, including Rikk Agnew, Frank Agnew Jr., Royer and O'Donovan (Rad --) and Cadena/Reflex (Ad --).


  1. Thank you! What a great interview! The Agnews have been the soundtrack of my life growing up in Fullerton.