Descendents - Biography
Hardcore American punk in the early ’80s wasn’t all about lamenting the government and/or being straight edge. You didn’t have to write deeply introspective lyrics or try to raise awareness about crises in El Salvador and Nicaragua. For some—like Los Angeles band, The Descendents—punk rock was about praising simple pleasures, such as girls, food, and flatulence. The Descendents, like fellow California punks The Minutemen, wrote fast songs that were often under a minute in length. And yet—altogether unlike The Minutemen—they weren’t trying to challenge their audience through poetic lyrics or difficult compositions. They embraced melody as much as they embraced fun. Sure, their bespectacled frontman and lyricist, Milo Auckerman, hated his parents, but his politics never strayed far beyond that. The Descendents were coming from a place that was highly relatable to their young fans, a place where over-governing parents are more oppressive than the actual government, and the best form enlightenment comes from the best cheeseburger you can find.
The Descendents came out of the burgeoning Southern California punk scene in 1979, formed in San Pedro. Frank Navetta (singer/guitarist) joined forces with singer/bassist Tony Lombardo (singer/bassist) and Bill Stevenson (drummer) to write songs that were in the craw of punk, only theirs went in for pop-punk hooks. After releasing only one single in their first year together—“Ride the Wild”—The Descendents unceremoniously split up.
In 1981, the band was back. They had added a new member, vocalist Milo Auckerman. A self-proclaimed nerd, Auckerman defined The Descendents with his coffee-loving, goofball persona. While on a long and grueling tour, the band recorded an EP, Fat (1981 SST). Where other punk bands were political or deeply personal in their lyrics, Auckerman preferred to write about things he really liked or that totally annoyed him. He liked food, as exemplified in “I Like Food” (“I like food/food tastes good”) and “Weinerschnitzel.” He was annoyed by his father, and he expressed that in “My Dad Sucks” (“Why can’t he leave me alone? Instead of ruining my life?”). Pretty black and white.
In 1982, the group returned with their debut full-length, Milo Goes to College (SST), so named because of Auckerman’s decision to take a sabbatical from the band to pursue a college degree in biochemistry. The singer’s likeness was drawn in a caricature and used for the album’s cover art. That image would become the band’s symbol, as well as a tattoo for many a punk rock fan. Auckerman continued his trend of juvenile wisdom in his songwriting with tracks like “Bikeage” (“You’re an old maid, but you’re only 15”), as well as his tirade against parents in “Parents” (“Parents, why don’t they shut up?”). In other songs, he was less likable, as on the track “I’m Not a Loser,” where he blatantly refers to his antagonist as a “homo” and a “gay.” On “I’m Not a Punk,” Auckerman and company turns out a compelling one-minute performance, one of the best of their career.
After Milo’s release, Auckerman did go off to college, and Stevenson was off to join a much more self-serious band called Black Flag. Having started it, Lombardo and Navetta might have been able to carry on as The Descendents without Auckerman, but they decided to shelve the group. In fact, Navetta didn’t even come back into the fold when The Descendents had their 1985 reformation. He was replaced with Ray Cooper, formerly of up-and-coming punk band, SWA.
The new lineup recorded I Don’t Want to Grow Up (1985 SST), this time using a drawing of Auckerman wearing a diaper as the cover art. Not much had changed in terms of lyrical content. “Pervert” is true to its title, while the title track sees Auckerman clinging to a love for adolescence. For all its purposeful immaturity, though, Grow Up ends on a very intelligent and positive note. “Ace” is the song’s final track, and, as it clocks in at almost four minutes, it was the longest track they’d ever recorded. Lyrically, Auckerman was never better, singing about the pettiness of human worries, things that get in the way of living (“You say you’ve been running through the lover’s mill/but people are starving while you get your fill”).
After the LP came out, Lombardo departed the band to form a new group, Nuclear Bob, later called Three Car Pileup. Doug Carrion, formerly of short-lived punk band Anti, was Lombardo’s successor. The Descendents recorded for one month in 1986 before releasing Enjoy! (SST). Anyone who expected these guys to turn a corner after the more adult-type themes on I Don’t Want to Grow Up were misled. With Enjoy!, the declaration was clear—The Descendents really didn’t want to grow up. Hence the toilet humor motif of the album, from it’s pink toilet paper cover to the samples heard on “Enjoy” and “Orgofart,” which find the bandmates applauding one another as they record themselves breaking wind. There were darker songs, longer songs (“Days are Blood” is nearly eight minutes, a new Descendents record), and even a Beach Boys’ cover of “Wendy,” but it wasn’t as well received as their previous output. In fact, many fans dismiss this album as the band’s worst.
Carrion left the group and Karl Alvarez joined on bass; then Cooper had quit and was replaced by Stephen Egerton. One of the band’s more polarizing releases, All (1987 SST) was split between filler and some of the best songs—as in, heartfelt numbers—they ever recorded, such as “Pep Talk” and “Clean Sheets.”
Following All was another hiatus, this one lasting about ten years. Auckerman was headed back to college, ready to pursue biochemistry full-time. Meanwhile, Stevenson, Egerton, and Alvarez stayed together, recruiting a new vocalist, Dave Smalley of Dag Nasty, and playing under the name All, after the latest Descendents’ release. After Smalley quit the band, All went through two more lead singers, releasing a total of nine albums between 1988 and 2000. In 1991, All backed former Descendents’ bassist Tony Lombardo on his solo album, New Girl, Old Story. The LP was credited to Tonyall. Also in 1991, a collection of The Descendents’ greatest hits, Somery (SST), was released that summer.
In 1996, Auckerman officially reunited The Descendents and the band went on tour. Their new album, Everything Sucks (1996 Epitaph), featuring the All lineup as well as appearances by Lombardo and Navetta, came out that September. Oddly enough, it cracked the Billboard 200, peaking at #132. After Auckerman went on another stint as a biochemist, The Descendents returned yet again in 2004 with the ever-so-slightly more political, Cool to Be You (Fat Wreck Chords). All the same humor that distinguished the band three decades earlier is still in play.