Published Jan 01, 2006For a band that once claimed they couldn't sell out a telephone booth, the Descendents have had a mighty impact on the world of punk music. The predecessors of pop-punk as we know it today, the band's influence on popular music cannot be underestimated. Still recording and touring after more than 25 years, the Descendents have stayed relevant through a complete dedication to All, a concept celebrating the satisfaction that comes with the achievement of one's best. Eventually, the group would pay tribute to this ideology with a new band name: All. Conceived during they heyday of L.A. punk rock in the late 70s, the Descendents cemented themselves as a perennial group of outsider losers. With songs honouring the joy of farting and eating mixed in with songs about pop-punk's most cherished of topics girls the band has always strived for immaturity and fun. Even today, with spouses, kids, doctorates, record labels, and recording studios, the band remains committed to the same simple kind of fun they found while fishing and eating fast food in Hermosa Beach in 1978. Coffee, food, and girls. Meet the Descendents.
Through his part-time job at a tackle shop in Hermosa Beach, California, (owned by the father of Black Flag/Circle Jerks singer Keith Morris), Bill Stevenson meets Frank Navetta. Bill is excited by the songs Frank has been writing, and between fishing and school, the two begin to play together with Bill on drums and Frank on guitar. After joining forces with bassist Tony Lombardo, the band begin playing shows in the South Bay area, a growing punk community that would give birth to the Germs, Minutemen, and X. Looking back on it today, Bill says "Even if one person came to see us, we thought we were the coolest thing in the whole world."
The band continue to experiment with their sound, even playing a few gigs with a female vocalist. For the most part, however, Frank and Tony trade-off vocal duties, and the group's first release, the seven-inch Ride The Wild, features one song by each of them. With a distinctly surf-y sound and much longer songs than the ones the Descendents would come to be known for in the future, Ride sells about 500 copies at the teenaged band's high school. Milo Aukerman, a "huge dork" who attends the same school as the group, becomes the Descendents' number one fan, convincing Bill to drive him to watch the band practice every single day.
While watching the band practice, Milo is coaxed into singing by Frank. Initially petrified, Milo claims "I can't sing." Frank insists that he "just fucking do it!" Despite his reservations, Milo grows into his role as the band's front-man, slowly easing himself into the songwriting process. Bill continues to work part-time as a fisherman, along with another local punk, Pat McCuistion. Probably the only L.A. punks involved in commercial fishing, they stay out on the water until all hours, night after night, a regimen that takes it's toll on Bill. While Pat indulges in speed to keep his energy up, Bill turns to caffeine: Enter the Bonus Cup. The beginning of the Descendents' reputation as a coffee-driven band, the Bonus Cup consists of Bill dumping all the coffee grounds he possibly can into a mug of water and stirring. Several years later, the Descendents would become one of the first bands to sell a coffee mug as merchandise, offering the Bonus Cup, an official Descendents coffee mug, to their eager, caffeinated fans in 1985.
The first release from the new line-up comes out on Greg Ginn's (Black Flag) label, SST. Fat consists solely of songs about food, a subject insisted on by Pat, considered the band's unofficial fifth member. He believes that the band should be writing songs about the things that they actually care about not girls, but fishing and food. Containing such gems as the 16-second "I Like Food," the Descendents pledge to "turn dining back into eating." The group became known for songs like "Wienerschnitzel," which extols the virtues of ordering from a fast food restaurant. Labelled "food rock" by many, the band is quite happy with the characterisation of their music. In fact, there are many songs about food that don't even make it onto the EP. "It was just what we were into at the time," recalls Bill now. "Artist validity would have been the last possible thing we would have used to drive us."
The band releases what is considered by many to be the quintessential pop-punk album, Milo Goes To College. Then, Milo goes to college. Enrolling in El Camino College for one year, Milo then spends 1983 to 1985 studying Biology at U.C. San Diego. The album's cover features the first appearance of a cartoon drawing of Milo, created by Roger Deuerlein, a friend of the band's from high school, which would go on become a staple of the band's releases. In the years prior, the character has adorned student election posters with such headings as "Don't be a nerd like Milo. Vote for Billy!" Selling about 1000 copies, the album receives attention from such publications as the Los Angeles Times, which writes, "Perfect for the little guy who was ever called a nerd and never got the girl. The chainsaw pop combined with earthy humor conveys what is often an inarticulate rage." For Bill, who continues to this day to act as the band's manager, this "weird critical acclaim" has a very specific benefit: "My dad kept giving me shit, saying that I can't write, and I shouldn't be trying to play music, and that my lyrics are lame, and that I suck. But Robert Hillburn [L.A. Times] was saying something different. He was saying that I can write okay, that I'm a decent songwriter. So it served so shut my dad up a little bit, so that I could pursue the band thing a little less encumbered by his stifling attitude." With the Descendents temporarily on hiatus due to Milo's educational pursuits, Bill joins Black Flag.
1983 to 1984
While walking back to the Black Flag practice space late one night, Bill is chased down by a group of white supremacists driving an Camero. Assuming that "Black Flag" is some kind of black rights slogan, they ride up onto the sidewalk in front of the house at 100 MPH. Bill is forced to hop a fence and seek shelter in a nearby schoolyard, where he is stays until they eventually drive away. The band continues to use the space for a short period of time, leaving Pat outside with a rifle for protection. Eventually, however, they decide that things just aren't safe in the house anymore, pack up all their gear in the middle of the night, and leave.
With Milo out of college, Bill leaves Black Flag in April in order to devote himself fully to the Descendents and records I Don't Want To Grow Up. Since the loss of their shared rehearsal space with Black Flag, the band is unable to practice with all of their gear plugged in, right up until the very first day of recording. The result of this unique situation is a much poppier record, with a sound unlike the band's ripping live show. According to Bill, Frank "lights all his gear on fire and moves to Oregon," and is replaced by Ray Copper, while Tony, hoping to devote more time to his wife and kids quits the band to join the U.S. Postal Service. Doug Carrion, formerly of the band Anti, joins on bass.
The band releases Enjoy, their third full-length, with different song titles on the album jacket and the record label. Bill explains the doubling of titles as an attempt to "come up with as many toilet humour related jokes as possible." Even the album's title track is dedicated to the fine pastime of passing gas. Following the "Enjoy Tour," Doug and Ray both leave the band. Karl Alverez (bass), ex-Bad Yodelers, and Stephen Eggerton (guitar), ex-Massacre Guys, join the band, creating the line-up that has remained until today.
All, a concept pioneered by Bill and Pat, is immortalised with the Descendents' fourth full-length record, All. All represents the pinnacle of everything, a balance of achievement with satisfaction. There is All and there is None, and the Descendents make the decision to live their lives in the pursuit of All: "Betterment, morement, allment," Bill would say. Making his debut in the album's artwork is the Bassmaster General, a creation of Karl's, who represents the higher power guiding the band in their quest for All. The release of the record is followed by the "FinALL" tour, known by the band as "The Suntan Tour"; with much of their time being spent in the south, they decide to have a tanning contest. After the tour, however, Milo returns to college to complete his degree. The rest of the band makes the decision to keep playing, but opts to change their name to All. "All the band" is to be the complete fulfilment of "All the concept." Bill says that he wanted to "Let Descendents be my and Milo's sacred thing." Joining the new group on vocals is David Smalley of Dag Nasty.
Pat McCuistion, Bill's long-time friend and huge supporter of the L.A. punk scene, dies while fishing in the middle of a storm. Apparently carrying a ridiculous amount of fish on his boat, Bill would go on to say that he passed while in "a heated pursuit of All." Allroy, All's mascot, makes his debut with Allroy Sez, the first record from the newly-formed group. Another creation of Karl's, Allroy is intended as to be the son of the Bassmaster General. Matt Groening, who reviewed Milo Goes To College while working for the Los Angeles Reader during the 80s, likely draws significant influence from the band's artistic style when he creates his now-infamous Simpsons characters Allroy and Bart Simpson bear an uncanny resemblance. By the year's end, David leaves to join Down By Law, and Scott Reynolds takes over on vocals. Scott lasts only a year, and All's troubles securing a permanent vocalist are finally put to rest by the arrival of Chad Price, who continues to sing with the band today.
Unable to afford to cost of living in L.A., All moves into a house owned by Bill's father in Brookfield, Missouri, population 3500. The band releases an album of live material recorded at legendary New York club CBGB in July the previous year, and name it after a brand of portable toilets. Trailblazer celebrates the camping toilet championed by the band when on tour, where they frequently find themselves playing clubs without a functioning toilet, or without a toilet that had been cleaned in the past five years. Mike, one of the band's roadies, is using the Trailblazer when it collapses under him, causing him to fall into a pile of his own excrement. Bill takes photos.
Milo receives his Ph.D. in genetics from U.C. San Diego, making him the leader of punk's "bio dudes," including Dexter Holland of the Offspring (Ph.D. in molecular biology), and Greg Graffin of Bad Religion (Ph.D. in evolutionary biology).
All relocate once again, setting up camp in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Here, the band establishes their own recording studio, the Blasting Room. Bill would go on to hone his skill as an engineer and a producer through work with bands like the Ataris, Good Riddance, Lagwagon, and Less Than Jake.
Milo becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his work at the Asimino Lab in Madison, Wisconson, and is eventually cajoled by his wife into writing her a song for Valentine's Day. The result, "We," starts him on a writing kick, and he soon phones the rest of the band with hopes of reforming. After a series of All records, including one for major label Interscope, the Descendents reform to release their first album of new material in nine years, Everything Sucks. Criticised by some before the album's release for what appears to be "cashing in" on the popularity of pop-punk, Everything Sucks finds the band in top form after almost 20 years of making music. "Anyone with half a clue knows we don't get back together once something's popular. We just play music when we feel like it. We're 40 years old. I don't care what Hot Topic is doing," Bill says.
With Milo back at work in the lab, All establish Owned and Operated Records. The label is created in an effort to help bolster the punk scene in Ft. Collins, and features such band as Wretch Like Me, Bill the Welder, and Armstrong.
All's music festival Stockage makes it debut this year. The inaugural annual fest features performances not only from many O&O bands, including All, but the very first Descendents line-up of Bill, Frank Navetta, and Tony Lombardo. On the very last night of the three-night festival, All are joined on stage by Scott Reynolds, performing a 30 minute set by what is considered by some to be the strongest incarnation of the band. The double CD Live Plus One is released, and features full sets by both All and the Descendents. The Descendents set is culled from a 1996 performance at the famed Whisky-a-Go-Go in Hollywood, CA, while All's performance was captured only a year earlier at the Starlight in Ft. Collins.
With Milo taking yet another break from his genealogical work, Merican, a teaser EP for the Descendant's upcoming full length, is released to excellent reception. The title track, written by Karl, is one of the band's most political songs to date. "We were in Europe, and you sit at the pub having a beer," Bill explains. "Someone will hear you speaking, and they'll hear your accent, and they'll come up and get in your face and start blaming you for stuff that Bush did. And it's like Fuck you, man, I'm from nowhere. I'm from a garbage can. Don't even try to project this stuff on me.'" The band still maintains focus on the important things in life, however: girls and food. Cool To Be You, the band's first full-length in eight years, comes out on Fat Wreck Chords. Both releases are recorded live off the floor, with the exception of a few guitar overdubs, in an effort to capture the band's natural energy. Milo continues to split his time between researching the plant Arabidopsis gene Luminidependens and the Descendents, while the rest of the band continue their dedication to the ongoing pursuit of All.
Milo Goes To College (SST, 1982)
Recently ranked #20 in Spin's "50 Most Essential Punk Rock Records," ahead of bands like Minutemen and the Fall, Milo is a record that still stands up after more than 20 years. The blueprint for pop-punk as it exists today, a listen through this album reveals the soul of a band creating music that, as the cliché goes, truly was before its time. With its anthem of "I am not a loser," this record proved more influential than anyone in the band could have predicted.
Bonus Fat (SST, 1987)
A re-release of 1981's Fat EP, combined with 1979's Ride The Wild, this EP made available to a larger audience the earliest Descendents recordings. Offering a glimpse into the unique, food-obsessed beginnings of the band, as well as their surf-y first incarnation, this compilation allows the listener to piece together the band's evolution.
Everything Sucks (Epitaph, 1996)
After nine years apart, the Descendents proved that they were far more than just an influence on today's pop-punk bands: they are very much alive and kicking. The pure release of songs like "We" give the listener a glimpse of the fascinating duality of Milo's life, an even split between music and science.