Descendents Finally Tell Their Punk-Rock Origin Story
Last year, in the middle of pandemic lockdown, Milo Aukerman got a unique opportunity: the chance to sing a handful of songs that he never even knew existed from the back catalog of the Descendents, the pioneering California punk outfit he’s fronted on and off for more than 40 years.
Dating from the first few years after the band’s 1977 formation, the songs — along with many that Aukerman did perform after he joined in 1980 — will finally see release this summer on 9th & Walnut, a newly completed album named after the Long Beach intersection where they practiced early on. A history lesson for Aukerman, the project will be even more so for fans, who have never before had the chance to chart how the Descendents progressed from the jangly, New Wave–influenced sound of their 1979 debut single (“Ride the Wild” b/w “It’s a Hectic World,” recorded by the trio of guitarist Frank Navetta, bassist Tony Lombardo, and drummer Bill Stevenson) to the caffeinated melodic hardcore of their first releases with Aukerman, 1981’s Fat EP and 1982’s Milo Goes to College.
“If you were to listen to the Fat EP and go, ‘Hey, what’d they do before?’ and you go to ‘Ride the Wild’ and you go, ‘What the hell?! They’re like two separate bands,’” says the famously bespectacled singer, “that’s where this record can help bridge some of this hardcore stuff with the basically Sixties songs that were being done by Frank back in that time.”
Descendents’ early era was brief. The Milo Goes to College lineup dissolved by 1983, following Aukerman’s real-life departure for college. Navetta moved to Oregon, where his family lived; Lombardo parted ways with the Descendents after appearing on their second album, I Don’t Want to Grow Up, and before a 1985 tour, feeling weighed down by the pressures of adult life. Stevenson continued on with various lineups of the Descendents and its Milo-less alter ego band All. (Meanwhile, the Descendents’ influence spread to a generation of era-defining musicians, from Dave Grohl to Blink-182, whose Mark Hoppus has likened the band to a “punk-rock Beach Boys.”)
But in 2002, six years after cameo-ing on the Descendents’ excellent 1996 comeback LP, Everything Sucks, Navetta and Lombardo reconvened with Stevenson at the Blasting Room, his studio in Fort Collins, Colorado. The trio recorded new versions of the first 17 songs they ever wrote and played together, plus a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s upbeat British Invasion classic “Glad All Over,” an early band favorite that they used to perform back in the day. Afterward, they played the same material live at Stockage, a Fort Collins fest built around All, with Navetta and Lombardo each singing lead on the songs they wrote.
“They came and stayed with me at my house,” Stevenson recalls of the ’02 sessions with Navetta and Lombardo. “‘Cause we were all still best friends; there was never any bad blood in the band. We just practiced and practiced, and we got [the songs] all up to speed. We tried not to upgrade them or make them fancier than they were. We tried to just leave them how they really were back in the day. Then at the end of that two-week period, we played that little show at Stockage, and it was fun. I was so proud of those guys, ’cause they were out of the loop, but they both really did a good job.”
Stevenson says that while they occasionally consulted old practice tapes when rehearsing, for the most part, the material came back to them effortlessly. “They were our first songs,” the drummer says. “I’ll never forget these songs.”
The tracks they put down lay dormant for almost two decades. Stevenson says that he’d always planned for Aukerman to add vocals, but the project was still in limbo as of 2008, when Navetta died at age 46 after falling into a diabetic coma. Since then, the current lineup of the Descendents, featuring Stevenson, Aukerman, guitarist Stephen Egerton, and bassist Karl Alvarez, has toured intermittently, ramping up its activity considerably after the release of 2016’s Hypercaffium Spazzinate. But once the lockdown hit, Stevenson sent the ’02 recordings to Aukerman, who recorded his vocals at home in Delaware. Stevenson then finished off the mixing at the Blasting Room.
The resulting album — which spans more than 40 years, from songwriting through recording, mixing, and release — is a sort of Descendents prequel that finally lets us hear the band in its most stripped-down and innocent form. And, aside from the four-and-a-half–minute Fat EP, it will stand as the only other Descendents release ever to feature the Aukerman/Navetta/Lombardo/Stevenson lineup that recorded Milo Goes to College.
“During this Covid time, it’s a good place to put this album out and let people enjoy it and have a little fun with it, and then we go back to our regularly scheduled programming, so to speak,” Stevenson says with a laugh.
For the drummer, a respected underground-rock lifer who has also played with Black Flag and the Lemonheads, produced Alkaline Trio and Rise Against, and written some of the Descendents’ most memorable songs, the record — out July 23rd on Epitaph — documents not just “the first songs [he] ever played with a human being,” but also the moment when he found his calling.
“This was magic time for me,” Stevenson, now 57, says of the era being revisited on 9th & Walnut. “This was kind of when my life began.”
For many listeners, the Descendents story begins with Milo Goes to College, an album that reconciled the antisocial fury of the band’s Southern California peers like Black Flag with diary-entry vulnerability and sing-along hooks. But by the time they had recorded that LP, now hailed as pop-punk‘s Old Testament, they’d already written and set aside an album’s worth of other songs.
As detailed in the definitive 2013 Descendents/All doc Filmage, the band grew out of the grade-school friendship of Navetta and fellow Manhattan Beach guitarist Dave Nolte. The two started writing songs together, and Navetta gave the band its intentionally misspelled name. Their friend Stevenson — an eager fan of Nolte’s other band, Sixties-influenced power-pop outfit the Last — joined on drums, and Navetta recruited Tony Lombardo, a bassist close to 20 years older than the other members who lived near Navetta’s siblings’ Long Beach home at 9th and Walnut, where the fledgling band held practices in the garage.
Nolte bowed out to concentrate on the Last, and the other three honed songs written by Navetta and Lombardo. (Starting on Milo Goes to College, Stevenson would step up as one of the band’s driving creative forces, but by this point, he wasn’t yet writing his own songs.) In 1979, with Nolte producing, the band recorded the “Ride the Wild”/”It’s a Hectic World” single, which they put out on their own Orca label, named after Stevenson’s fishing boat. Aukerman bought the 45 from his high-school buddy Stevenson, and started tagging along to practices.
“I went to go see them practice, and the songs they were playing were these songs,” Aukerman recalls of the material heard on 9th & Walnut. “I actually sang ‘It’s a Hectic World,’ and then shortly thereafter, they asked me to join. But by that time, some of these songs had already been kicked off the set list.”
According to Stevenson, the bulk of this material was never recorded because the band simply outgrew it. “By the time we learned how to play well enough to be competent and proficient, and also by the time we figured out, oh, there’s these little record labels that will put your stuff out, we were sick of all these songs and we thought our new batch was better. So they kind of just got pushed to the side, except for ‘Parents’ and ‘Statue of Liberty,’ [which] made their way onto Milo Goes to College,” the drummer says.
At the time, the Descendents weren’t yet playing at hardcore warp speed; their sound was closer to aggro garage rock, as heard on caustic, compact 9th & Walnut songs like Lombardo’s “You Make Me Sick” and Navetta’s “Baby Doncha Know,” premiering today, where Aukerman sings the guitarist’s scathing dismissal of a woman who won’t accept that her time has passed: “You’re getting older and you always try to look young/But baby doncha know your best has already been done. … And I’m really through with you/And I really hate you.”
“It’s Frank’s song, and a lot of Frank’s music, especially during that period, was kind of steeped in bitter resentment,” Aukerman says. “So that comes out in ‘Baby Doncha Know.’ It’s kind of a harsh lyric. I think at the time my 19-year-old self was kind of like, ‘Oh, this is punk,’ and I really liked it for the fact that it was just so in-your-face, but looking back, I go, ‘Wow, that guy was pretty bitter about stuff.’”
The Descendents would famously expand their palette to include songs about heartbreak, fishing, and fast food, but even on Milo Goes to College, themes of alienation would crop up in Navetta-penned songs like “I’m Not a Loser.”
“We were all, on different levels, kind of just outsiders. Bill and I, we weren’t very popular at our schools, and we kind of had our little group that we huddled with, but really, in retrospect, Frank was the most outsider of all of us,” Aukerman says. “He really didn’t want to mingle with any kind of popular group, and just felt secluded and isolated away from people. He’d go out fishing with Bill and that was how they conquered the world; they couldn’t conquer the world at school, for sure. I think that came through in his lyrics. He also had a troubled family life, and I think that fueled a lot of his dark perspective on things. He was the perfect guy to write punk-rock music, really.”
“He recognized the bullshit in modern human society,” Stevenson says of Navetta. “He recognized it deeper and sooner certainly than I did.”
“Frank Navetta was the most outsider of all of us. … He was the perfect guy to write punk-rock music.” —Milo Aukerman
Navetta’s unsparing outlook is well documented on 9th & Walnut — the aptly named “Grudge” even features the guitarist yelling out, “I got a grudge on you, yeah!” as part of a free-form mid-song rant — but the album also offers a glimpse of his softer side. “To Remember,” a disarmingly vulnerable apology to a lover, feels closer to doo-wop than punk rock.
“That was a song that I loved singing because it was one of the ones that I hadn’t had a chance to do back in ’78, ’79, ’80. You get to see the more redeeming side of Frank, the side that shows his humanity,” says Aukerman, who worked off guide vocals laid down by Navetta in ’02 for the 9th & Walnut songs he hadn’t sung before. “It’s almost the side that persisted into the Milo Goes to College period, where we had our girl problems, or learned, ‘How do we deal with girls?’ or, ‘How do we deal with romance?’ That’s one of the few times in any of his songs that he gets romantic, and I like it for that reason. It definitely brings out his humane side.”
Other Navetta songs on 9th & Walnut are more cryptic. The lyrics for hard-driving opener “Sailor’s Choice” find the avid fisherman rattling off colors — “Red, white, black, and yellow/I just yellow” — that Stevenson and Aukerman say likely represent nautical flags. On “I’m Shaky,” the lyricist is in a reflective mood, blissing out to music alone in his room. “Last night I made love to my radio,” Aukerman sings. “Last night I curled up in bed with my canary.”
Stevenson says he thinks the song chronicles an altered state of mind: “‘I’m Shaky’ sounds like maybe a few too many bong hits. [It] always reminded me of something Jim Morrison might write. Frank loved all of that stuff.”
Stevenson says that the 9th & Walnut material as a whole reflects the band’s love of Sixties rock, as well as the retro-leaning Last.
According to the drummer, these songs date from “when we were more purely influenced by initially the Kinks, the Seeds, the Animals, but then also the Last was a very big influence. There wasn’t the Black Flag influence really yet, because that ‘Nervous Breakdown’ single hadn’t come out yet, and it wasn’t that direct influence that they ended up obviously [being].”
Navetta nodded to that lineage on the endearingly nostalgic “Mohicans” — the chorus of which calls out the “last of the Mohicans” as an homage to the Last — where he traces how punk grew out of earlier rock & roll.
“It’s like the Minutemen’s ‘History Lesson’ song, where they’re saying, ‘We’re just caught up in this great thing that happened over the course of the last few years,’” Aukerman says. “I think that’s why I like that song, because it talks about punk rock. But really the music itself is very almost Beatles-influenced, which to me just hit the sweet spot.”
Tony Lombardo’s unique musical sensibilities were another key component of the early Descendents sound. The bassist first joined the band by sheer geographical chance.
“I lived on Walnut, with this girl that I was with at the time, and Mike, Frank’s brother, lived on Walnut close to 9th Street — very close, just a hop, skip, and a jump,” he says. “So they heard me practicing in the garage with my Peavey amp and my Musicmaster bass that I bought in 1975, and they came over and said, ‘Hey, would you like to jam sometime?’ Yes was the answer, and then we proceeded from that. We played in the garage, and to me it was the thrill of a lifetime.”
Shortly before Lombardo joined the Descendents, some friends he’d been jamming with turned him on to the L.A. punk scene.
“They took me to Hollywood to the Whisky to see the Weirdos and the Zippers. It blew me away,” the bassist says. “The Weirdos were so cool; it was so forceful. That was about 1975, ’76, and that’s what got me into punk rock, liking it and listening to the bass lines. The Flyboys were my favorite. I kind of patterned my style on the Flyboys.”
One of the songs he wrote on 9th & Walnut, “Nightage” — the title of which places it in a long line of Descendents and All “-age” classics, like “Myage” and “Bikeage” — paid tribute to another musician from that scene.
“That was written about Dianne Chai of the Alley Cats, because I was kind of enamored of her, both as a really, really good bass player and as a nice-looking woman,” Lombardo says of the song, which features the refrain, “She’s playing with my heart/But that’s the way it goes.” “Her style is very in the groove and very cool.”
Lombardo’s other 9th & Walnut songs split the difference between classic punk disgust (the amped-up “You Make Me Sick,” which the bassist says was aimed at “people who tried to cash in strictly on their looks, or had lots of money”) and a more quirky, New Wave–ish feel, complete with peppy, old-school backing vocals, as heard on “Tired of Being Tired” and “It’s a Hectic World.” (Like its original single counterpart, “Ride the Wild,” the latter appears here with Aukerman vocals for the first time, since Navetta and Lombardo split up vocal duties on the original 45.)
“When I first started listening to these guys, through ‘Ride the Wild’ and ‘It’s a Hectic World,’ I was kind of a New Wave kid,” Aukerman says. “I came from the Devo side of things, so a song like ‘Hectic World’ was like, ‘Yeah, cool,’ because for me, it was like the next level of what New Wave could be: herky-jerky or energetic but with a little more pace and a little more raw guitar. That’s what I got out of Tony’s songs from that period. I think it made a good [contrast] with Frank’s more angry side.”
Another element that Lombardo brought to the table was a vision of bass as far more than a background instrument. All four of the Lombardo-penned songs on 9th & Walnut start with nimble, ear-catching four-string intros that will sound instantly familiar to any Milo Goes to College devotee, and across the whole record, his crafty, busy-yet-tasteful lines stand out.
“It’s a philosophical thing,” Lombardo says of his approach to the instrument. “When I started playing bass, [I noticed], some bands you hardly hear the bass; they’re just playing the root notes and they’re standing in the back behind the drums. This is older bands even, that aren’t punk at all — classic rock from the Seventies and Sixties. I said, ‘Why is the bass instrument relegated to that position?’ I believe that it should be an active part of the band, especially when you’ve got a three-piece going. Maybe I was a frustrated guitar player; I’ve considered that over the years. But I made a concerted effort to create melodic, really interesting bass lines that conveyed the angst of punk and the urgency.” (Even after Lombardo left the band, that up-front bass philosophy would carry over to Karl Alvarez, his equally brilliant successor in the Descendents and All.)
Rounding out 9th & Walnut are the “Glad All Over” cover — which Lombardo sang back in the day and which Stevenson says led off the band’s very first show — and two songs by co-founder Dave Nolte, whose writing has never before been featured on a Descendents album: the three-chord alienation anthem “Like the Way I Know,” which Aukerman says was originally recorded for Milo Goes to College but left off the final track list, and the fiercely defiant screed “It’s My Hair,” which features some of Aukerman’s grittiest vocals on any Descendents song to date.
“‘It’s My Hair’ is obviously written [from] a very teenage, youthful perspective of just, like, ‘Leave me alone. I want to go do my crazy shit. Don’t fuck with my hair,’” Aukerman says with a laugh.
In the 40 years or so since these songs were written, the Descendents (as well as All) have progressed far beyond the stripped-down, literally garage-y sound documented on 9th & Walnut, becoming one of punk’s most versatile and imaginative bands. Lately, they’ve kept busy, putting out a trio of anti-Trump songs in late 2020 and early 2021. (Aukerman also voiced his distaste for the former president via his solo ukulele project RebUke.) But even with a new Descendents full-length in progress — no release date is set but according to Aukerman, the band has already tracked a good number of songs for its follow-up to Hypercaffium Spazzinate — Aukerman and Stevenson are happy to be revisiting their roots on the upcoming collection.
“I could really sink my teeth into it. It probably only probably only took me, like, a few weeks to knock out the vocals, because it was so much fun,” Aukerman, 58, says of recording his parts for 9th & Walnut. “You go on a memory trip when you do this kind of stuff, and Bill said the same thing when he was doing the mixing. It brought him down memory lane in terms of what the songs were like, and what they meant, and just what we were like as people back then.
“What really made it absolutely the most worthwhile thing I did this last year is that I recorded these songs of Frank’s and Tony’s that I’d never, ever even been exposed to back in the day,” he continues. “I mean, when Bill sent me [the songs], and I heard some of the ones that had already been shifted out of the set, so I’d never heard them, I go, ‘Well, these are great songs.’ Songs like ‘Nightage’ and songs like ‘To Remember,’ some of those were the ones I really like the best on the record, just because they were these things that came out of nowhere, and it just made it that much more interesting creatively to tackle those.”
For Lombardo, the topic of the Descendents is bittersweet. After leaving the band, he stayed in its orbit, working with All on a 1991 full-length of his own songs, contributing songs to various Descendents and All albums, and playing Milo Goes to College live in full with Aukerman, Stevenson, and Stephen Egerton at 2014’s Riot Fest. But he says he still regrets leaving the band all those years ago, when he chose domestic stability — a fiancée, a job at the post office, and the actual “Suburban Home,” in Lakewood, California, that he non-ironically yearned for on one of the best-known songs he wrote for Milo Goes to College — over a life on the road.
“As things turned out, within myself, I’d say that it was the biggest mistake I ever made,” he says.
When asked if the release of 9th & Walnut affords him any kind of closure on his time with the band, he takes a second to ponder the question. “Closure? I would be inclined to say no, not closure,” he says. “But more of another reminder of what could have been if I had not done what I did, if I hadn’t been in that particular situation in my life. I would rather have continued with the Descendents. I could have seen the realization of all my songs in some form or other. I feel — I’m not blaming anybody but myself — creatively stymied.”
But despite any lingering regrets, the now 77-year-old bassist — who recently sold his suburban home and moved to San Diego, and says he isn’t actively making music — sounds more or less at peace. When asked how he feels about being featured on another full Descendents album, 36 years after I Don’t Want to Grow Up, he lights up. For him, 9th & Walnut is a testament to the musical bond he always shared with Stevenson and Navetta, which remained intact in the early 2000s even though they hadn’t played together since the mid-Eighties.
“For me personally, it’s really rewarding,” Lombardo says of the album, and the partnership it documents. “I’ve always thought that the three of us had chemistry that is undefinable. How is it that three people can get together and play the way we did and then go their separate ways for years and get together and play that way exactly the same again?”
Stevenson in a way has the most invested in the band, having been its sole consistent member since the early trio days, and having kept All going strong in the periods when the Descendents weren’t active. He’s proud of 9th & Walnut too, and says that once the current Descendents lineup is able to get back out on the road, they might rotate some of these vintage songs into their set. In his mind, the release is a poignant reminder of where their punk-rock saga started.
“I wish [Frank] was here to enjoy it, and I hope his brother and sisters and everybody get a kick out of it, and I hope it brings back some fond memories for everyone,” the drummer says.
He goes on to spell out exactly how much the camaraderie of Descendents’ garage days means to him — and how much he still owes to his original bandmates. “Frank and Tony, they saved me from being a lonely, miserable little boy, and I’ll never forget it,” he says. “Milo, too, later. I would have just been a lonely, little miserable kid.”
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