Descendents Founded Pop-Punk Decades Ago. Its Original Lineup Sounds as Fresh as Ever

The South Bay punk legends revived old recordings for a new album that’s special for a lot of reasons

It takes 13 seconds of “Sailor’s Choice,” the opening track on South Bay pop-punk originators Descendents’ 9th & Walnut, to realize there’s something different yet familiar about this 18-song record. That “something” is guitarist Frank Navetta, who penned 11 songs on 9th, wrote Descendents classics such as “Ride the Wild,” “I’m Not a Loser,” “Parents,” and “Mr. Bass,” and and co-wrote “I Wanna Be a Bear,” “My Dad Sucks,” and “Rockstar.”

The roughly minute-long song is based on open chords and a second part that might be a bridge or might be a chorus. Defining the song’s other part—the one over which vocalist Milo Aukerman sings, “Nothing you can do and nothing you can say/Is gonna make me change my way”—is irrelevant because that’s punk. Just play and let others worry about the “rules.” More importantly, the song combines two quintessential early Descendents elements: nautical themes and Navetta’s anger, the latter of which has been missing from the band’s work after the guitarist quit in 1983. (Navetta burned his gear and moved to Oregon to become a fisherman).

Second song “Crepe Suzette” sounds like “Sailor’s Choice,” which is to say it sounds like the original Descendents—Navetta, bassist Tony Lombardo, drummer Bill Stevenson, and singer Milo Aukerman. The tune begins with a back-and-forth bassline and features lyrics that can be written only by an angry teenage boy: “You look pretty nice/so good even kind/But I’m sure that you would dump me/And then not even look behind.”

The angsty lyrics continue with Lombardo’s “You Make Me Sick,” which opens with, “You make me sick with your pretty face/Can’t stand you stinkin’ up the whole place/Don’t want to see you out on the street/I hope we never meet.”

Listening to 9th’s first three songs—and for the duration of the 25-minute record—is when you realize it’s not just Navetta that makes this record special. Instead, it’s the fact that 9th features the foursome who wrote and recorded everything compiled on SST Records’ 1988 Two Things at Once, 1979’s “Ride the Wild/It’s a Hectic World” single, 1981’s Fat EP, the song “Global Probing” from a 1981 compilation called Chunks, and 1982’s seminal Milo Goes to College.

Big guitars. Melodic basslines. Angry lyrics. Caffeinated beats. This is the original Descendents, the quartet that founded pop-punk.

Lombardo, Stevenson, and Aukerman reunited with guitarist Ray Cooper for 1985’s I Don’t Want to Grow Up, the final time the original bassist would play with the band until being featured on “Doghouse” from 1996’s Everything Sucks (a song Navetta wrote and performed). Cooper and bassist Doug Carrion play on 1986’s Enjoy!, but each would leave before 1987’s ALL, which includes guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez. Aukerman quit Descendents after ALL to study biochemsitry, leaving the Stevenson-Alvarez-Egerton trio to rename themselves ALL.

The internet has a way of pitting one entity against another. For example, users tell us that we can’t love Kobe and Michael Jordan—we have to pick one. Well, this story’s not about that. Loving and appreciating the original Descendents lineup is not a knock on the other members. Each Descendents record is great (2016’s Hypercaffium Spazzinate is arguably the band’s second best after Milo Goes to College) and the CD version of ALL’s 1989 Allroy’s Revenge includes three songs—“Fool, “She’s My Ex,” and “Carnage”—that stand up to anything released under the Descendents moniker. In fact, Egerton, Alvarez, and Stevenson are three of the best punk musicians alive and the music they’ve made as ALL (along with singers Dave Smalley, Scott Reynolds, and Chad Price) is, simply put, awesome.

But this is supposed to be Lombardo and Navetta’s moment. When it was released on July 23, 9th & Walnut (on Los Angeles’ Epitaph Records) debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard charts and should be fans’ opportunity to see the original lineup play. Sadly, that can’t happen because Navetta died in 2008, which makes 9thso special. The songs—which were recorded by Stevenson, Lombardo, and Navetta in 2002 with Aukerman adding vocals during the COVID-19 quarantine—represent the last time fans will hear new material from the original band.

At least we have 9th & Walnut, an album comprised of tunes written by Lombardo, Navetta, two by David Nolte (who co-founded the band with Navetta, but left shortly after), and a cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over.” The songs were written before Milo Goes to College, making 9ththe follow-up to Milo and its predecessor.

The Aukerman-Stevenson-Alvarez-Egerton lineup—which plays Saturday, August 21, at FivePoint Amphitheatre in Irvine—has been opening its current shows with “Sailor’s Choice” at the beginning of career-spanning sets. The band is on tour with Rise Against, one of numerous acts to be inspired by Descendents (Green Day, Blink-182, Face to Face, and NOFX are just a few others).

The Navetta-Lombardo lineup never played to thousands of people and never will. But the songs have. Not bad for some kids from the South Bay.

Rise Against with Descendents, Saturday, August 21, FivePoint Amphitheatre, Irvine. 

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