If you’re a music lover and you get the chance to see the Descendents play live, do it. Even if you have never heard a single song of theirs before, it will be an amazing experience. The band will be blisteringly good, and the crowd will be so ecstatic that you’ll walk away feeling energised and in love with life. I imagine that seeing the Descendents feels the same way that seeing The Beatles must have felt… all those amazing songs and all those diehard fans tuned in to the same frequency. Just pure joy everywhere you look.
So this is my love letter, about Descendents, to anyone who has never heard them.
WE’RE THE PROUD, THE FEW…
The best biography of the Descendents is the 2013 documentary Filmage (a must-watch if you’re a music doco fiend). For those unfamiliar with the band, it’s no hyperbole to say they are one of the all-time greats, across the board. Within their own genre – punk rock – they are utterly revered.
Rightly so. Any ‘Top 10 Punk Albums’ list that doesn’t contain Milo Goes To College is questionable at best, overlooking a record that wielded a megaton of punk rock’s greatest power: propagation. As it was with the Ramones before them, the Descendents inspired the formation of thousands of new bands. To this day, the list of bands who proudly admit ‘we just wanted to sound like the Descendents‘ stretches to the horizon. They never became a household name, nor sold a million records, but the Descendents are one of the most influential American bands of all time.
The mostly-incorrect-anyway cliché that punk bands can’t play their instruments bears no relevance to the Descendents whatsoever. They tick every box. Aside from how proficiently every member of the band can play (seriously, pick up guitar, bass or drums and play along with any album… it’s a workout), Descendents songs have absolutely spirit-lifting hooks all the way through them.
Even simple narratives become powerfully emotional. The often-misheard opening line of Hope so perfectly captures the distress of teenage heartbreak – ‘Why can’t you see you torture me? / you’re already thinking about someone else‘ – yet becomes superseded by the chorus’ triumphant optimism, ‘but I know my day will come‘. The melodies and lyrics ebb and flow together in beautiful synchrony, and a young Milo Aukerman shows off one of the best voices in music.
Although many of the band’s most-loved lyrics were penned by other members, Milo Aukerman is the personification of Descendents. The concerns of the entire band are expressed through Milo’s sweetly melodic, beautifully raspy voice, and his face is literally the band’s icon. From the stage, Milo’s ‘geek’ persona gives way to that of an effortlessly-cool rock star. He is music royalty. One of punk rock’s great frontmen, just being himself.
But in the Descendents, the guy up the back is every bit as important as the guy up the front.
Bill Stevenson is incontestably punk rock’s greatest drummer. Even if you can find someone who can match his abilities, his songwriting skills or his pedigree (ALL, Black Flag/Flag, Descendents); given how he keeps cheating death, and has produced the largest discography of modern punk rock’s greatest albums, who is there but Bill? He practically invented a genre. At least, the massive part Descendents played in musically influencing ‘pop punk’ is matched by how definitively Stevenson’s production influenced its sound. His mixes always sounded bigger and more hi-def than anyone else’s. An entire generation of punk rock bands walked into the studio with Everything Sucks as their sonic reference. ‘Make it sound like this‘.
I DON’T WANNA GROW UP
Milo Goes To College was a powerful album for teenage me. It was a beacon meant for people my age, and it all resonated with me completely. It was a soundtrack to what I can only recall as being great times: skateboarding, the beach, starting my own first band, and the pinnacle of many teenage boys’ interests: girls.
It was a beautiful girl who introduced me to Milo Goes To College – lending me her cassette – and that wonderful rush of adolescent excitement is a feeling I can instantly recall to this day, simply by listening to the album. All of the amazing places and people I have associated with that record; they’re all there every time I put it on. Years later, it was a beautiful girl who introduced me to the brilliance of the band’s ALL album – a record that was ‘too weird’ for me as a hyperactive kid. Now I adore every song on it, and feel warmed by the knowledge that even though you blink your eyes and suddenly you’ve become old, that youthful love never leaves you. What a wonderful, powerful thing music is.
By now though, the greying/chroming Descendents have written as many charming songs about being old as their youthful selves did about being kids. Their relevance has never waned. This has to come down to sincerity. Sincerity is what made adolescent Descendents so powerful, and it is the juju behind their latter-day era being equally as good. Just as the line ‘Parents, why won’t they shut up‘ spoke directly to my 14 year-old self, at 40 few lyrics are as relevant to my interests as ‘I don’t wanna move, I’ll just sit here in my living room and see what’s on the tube, while I’m hanging out with you‘.
Even the band’s concept of ‘achieving ALL’ – of exhaustively striving for perfection – resonates stronger with me than ever. I realise that I have spent my life searching for my own Bill Stevenson to write songs with – a fastidious workaholic who is prepared to fuss over every detail until none are wrong.
Seeing the Descendents on stage in 2017 was as close to a religious experience as that first listen to a borrowed cassette, all those years ago. The band’s quality has not weathered with age. They are possibly even better now than they ever were, which kind of makes sense… if you dedicate your entire life to something you’re probably going to get really good at it. You will achieve ALL.
The spirit of punk rock, clearly, is not confined to any age. It never extinguishes.
When you hear it for the first time, even an old record is brand new. A teenager in 2082 will probably feel the same growing pains Descendents sang about in 1982, just as an ageing kid-at-heart will find the band’s ‘getting old’ songs comforting and apt. Great music is timeless, and even when the sad point arrives where there are no more Descendents shows, their songs will forever remain in circulation, lying in wait for each new generation to discover them for the very first time.
What awesomeness awaits them.