Orange County punk veterans the Vandals traced their roots back to the earliest days of their local scene, but didn't really make much of an impact as recording artists until the '90s. By that time, their snide, terminally juvenile humor and catchy punk-pop had done a great deal to set the tone of Orange County's thriving punk and ska scene. Clear spiritual forefathers of bands like the Offspring, blink-182, and Less Than Jake, the Vandals took their cues from early punk comedians like the Dickies and the Descendents, ratcheting up the wiseass factor and delighting in dumb, lowbrow jokes. Sometimes satirical and mostly silly, the Vandals also remained staunchly independent for their entire career, releasing records on a variety of punk indies that afforded them financial and creative control. What was more, their steady lineup from 1989 on afforded them a degree of stability uncommon in punk circles. Solid career management allowed the Vandals to thrive up into the new millennium, over two decades after their formation.
The Vandals were founded in Huntington Beach, CA -- also home to the Crowd and T.S.O.L. -- by guitarist Jan Nils Ackerman in 1980. Their inaugural lineup was completed by vocalist Stevo, bassist Steve Pfauter, and drummer Joe Escalante. Their riotous early shows around Orange County got them banned from several venues, but also worked up enough buzz that their 1982 debut EP, Peace Thru Vandalism, was released by Bad Religion's Epitaph label. It featured signature early numbers like "Anarchy Burger (Hold the Government)," the local radio hit "Urban Struggle," and "The Legend of Pat Brown," about a real-life roommate of Escalante's who went after some undercover cops with his car at a Vandals show in Costa Mesa. The following year, they appeared as themselves in director Penelope Spheeris' punk drama, Suburbia.
The Vandals continued to play around Orange County when they could over the next few years, including a tongue-in-cheek benefit show for the Young Republicans in 1984. The following year, they issued their first full-length LP, When in Rome Do as the Vandals, on the small National Trust label; it featured new bass player Chalmer Lumary, as well as the local radio hits "Lady Killer" and "Mohawk Town." Substantial personnel shifts ensued over the next few years; ex-Fallen Idols singer Dave Quackenbush joined up later in 1985, and Escalante switched from drums to bass. More members came and went; guitarist Warren Fitzgerald came on board in 1987, and drummer Josh Freese joined in 1989, completing a new Vandals lineup that would endure for over a decade afterward.
The album Slippery When Ill, a snarky piss-take on country music that was later reissued under the title The Vandals Play Really Bad Original Country Tunes, was released in 1989. The group subsequently signed with punk indie Triple X, with which they made their first big splash via 1991's Fear of a Punk Planet. With their back catalog out of print, the Vandals next re-recorded much of the band's early material on the 1994 live album Sweatin' to the Oldies. In the meantime, Fitzgerald moonlighted as the guitarist for Oingo Boingo until the group's dissolution in late 1995. Freese also began to branch out with recording sessions for Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves; by the late '90s, he had become an accomplished session drummer for a wide variety of pop and alt-rock acts, and also served stints in Guns N' Roses (the inactive, studio-bound incarnation) and Maynard James Keenan's prog-metal side project, A Perfect Circle.
With the California punk revival in full swing by 1994, the Vandals switched over to the Offspring's new imprint, Nitro Records, for which they cut two albums -- 1995's Live Fast Diarrhea and 1996's The Quickening. Later in 1996, Escalante and Fitzgerald formed their own label, Kung Fu, which was designed to ensure the band's financial independence in the wake of their growing cult popularity on the punk scene. They inaugurated the label at the end of the year with the holiday album Oi to the World: Christmas With the Vandals, and soon set about signing other acts as well. The Vandals returned to Nitro for the 1998 set Hitler Bad, Vandals Good, and completed their contract with 2000's Look What I Almost Stepped In. Having built up Kung Fu into a viable enterprise, they subsequently left Nitro to stick with their own label. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald embarked on another side gig, playing lead guitar with the newly electrified Tenacious D on their 2001 debut album. Freese's session career was also booming by this time, and although he remained a studio regular, he was often replaced during live gigs by a rotating cast of four to five drummers, the most prominent of whom was Brooks Wackerman (later of Bad Religion). Now firmly committed to Kung Fu, the Vandals returned in 2002 with Internet Dating Superstuds. ~ Steve Huey