Bridging the gap between the first wave of punk rock and the genesis of hardcore bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag, Agent Orange came blasting out of Orange County, Calif. in 1979 with a fast and aggressive but melodic blend of attitude, surf-rock guitar, and catchy melodies. Led by singer-guitarist Mike Palm, the trio blended tightly wound originals with covers of surf classics like Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and “Pipeline” by the Chantays. Alongside bands like Social Distortion and Bad Religion, Agent Orange was part of a strong second wave of American punk acts.
They were also among the first to mix surf sounds with punk, something Palm says was all but preordained by his background. “Growing up in southern California, my older brother worked at the Fender guitar factory, so those instruments themselves are kind of the signature sound of surf music,” he says. “My cousin played in one of the original surf bands, the Surfaris, so it was kind of always around. And we lived close to the beach. All my friends surfed. It’s almost like growing up in New Orleans and playing jazz, y’know? A genuine influence is always the best way to mold your own style. If you grow up with it, it’s a part of you.”
In addition to those family and geographical influences, Palm sees a lot of similarities in the way both punk rock and surf rock were created. “Surf music is pretty melodic, but at the same time, it can be very primitive, because it’s a genre where anybody could pick up a guitar and go for it,” he says. “Which parallels punk rock, where you had a bunch of really young, untrained kids picking up instruments and starting bands, so the two combined perfectly for me.”
Though they’ve been together for over 25 years (with Palm as the only constant member), Agent Orange’s recorded output is somewhat small: Three studio albums, three EPs, and six singles, along with various compilation appearances. But their sound has garnered them a fiercely loyal fan base, and echoes of their sound can be heard in bands like Blink 182, Green Day, and the Offspring. “I’d like to think that my contribution to other musicians down the line is for them to hear the value of originality, and then take certain elements of what we’re doing, and use that as jumping-off point,” Palm says. “So it’s not like, ‘Oh, wow, listen to that song, it sounds just like an Agent Orange song.’ I’ve heard bands do that, and it’s always been a really cool thing. There are only a couple of bands that are around that are just really great plagiarists.”
Despite the group’s ups and downs over the years, including periods of inactivity, constant shuffling of personnel, and multiple false-starts with different record labels, Palm says he never seriously entertained the idea of ending Agent Orange. “I think of this as a music fan would, which is kind of the whole reason this whole thing started in the first place,” he says. “It always bothered me when I saw somebody that I really backed and got behind and felt good about throw it all away over something like some squabble or it rained that day or they had a bad show and broke up. It always seemed like something that was a little too important. I kind of looked it at it like, ‘Why can’t you look down the road and see this thing lasting longer?’ I think part of it is that you have to care about it. That was my line of thinking; I tried to look at the future and see if there was a bump in the road and make sure we didn’t freak out about it.”
In fact, the only two times that Palm thought the band might not keep going were due to outside circumstances, not anything within the band. “During the ska years in the early ’80s, there were a couple of years there where we’d be on tour and Strike Anywhere or someone like that was playing down the street, and they were huge,” he says. “It was like a genre war for a little while for punk bands. Ska was the flavor of the month. That was a ripple we had to ride through.
“But probably the closest I came is when we were signed to Enigma Records and things were a bit rocky there,” he continues. “But we hung on, and now the whole record label thing is almost beside the point, you know? It’s kind of hard now to think that a record label would make you want to pack it in, but I think more than anything what eluded us the whole time is that we never really found a good home for the band, as far as labels go. Every label we worked with, they weren’t willing to do their part. They weren’t willing to put the effort in. They wanted to smash-and-grab and take whatever they could out of it.”
Despite that problem with finding a label (which might explain that slim catalog of releases), Palm sees the glass as half full, because Agent Orange can still pack ’em in on the road. “The bottom line is that the band gets onstage and plays a song and people listen to it,” he says. “If that works out, it’s entirely possible to fly under the radar, do it on your own terms, have a good solid following, be able to tour as much as you want, and have a great time doing it. There’s always a new audience coming up, because of the all-ages shows. There are a lot of young kids into skateboarding, punk rock. We just keep delivering the goods, and it works out great for everybody. I’m just stoked to say that punk rock is alive and well.”
Stay cool. Support City Paper.
City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.