By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
After seeing the Sex Pistols spit and sneer their way across America, it might be easy for jaded mosh pit denizens and music critics alike to dismiss the new Descendents album, Everything Sucks, as yet another moneymaking scheme aimed at the ears and wallets of the burgeoning suburban mall punk population.
Why not? With all the attention surrounding punk rock in the past several years--massive radio and MTV air play, retrospectives in major music magazines, beer commercials--everyone including the Circle Jerks and the aforementioned Pistols have been seen dusting off amps and bottles of hair color, hoping to cash in on the new punk "revolution." Even the Germs--a band with more legend than talent--were the subjects of a tribute album earlier this year.
But those who would like to accuse the Descendents of looking to make a quick buck off of name recognition aren't seeing the entire picture. Unlike other bands, the group never really went away. Rather, the Descendents (and their alter ego ALL) have been toiling in the shadows for the past 18 years, cranking out album after album, not giving a damn if the records sold one copy or a million. They are as they were--four dorky guys who love making music; nothing more and nothing less.
The band started at a Los Angeles high school in 1978 as a trio, its members united by common obsessions with--and not necessarily in this order--food, girls, coffee, and fishing. The trio--which consisted of Bill Stevenson on drums, Tony Lombardo on bass, and Frank Navetta on guitar--combined the gut-pummeling power of Black Sabbath with the sweet pop sensibilities of the Beach Boys, mixing up the concoction at rush tempos. When Stevenson convinced his best friend, singer Milo Aukerman, to join the band two years later, the blueprint for the genre later known in marketing circles as "pop punk" was complete.
In 1982, the band released Milo Goes to College, considered its masterpiece and one of the best punk albums of all time. The album is filled with anthems that are, as the Los Angeles Times wrote at the time of its release, "perfect for the little guy who was ever called a nerd and never got the girl." Despite the praise, however, it seemed as if the album would be it for the band: Aukerman did indeed go to college, and Stevenson left to join hardcore luminary Black Flag.
Two years later, however, Aukerman and Stevenson were back, and so were the Descendents. Before Aukerman left the band again in 1987 to pursue his Ph.D and a career in biochemistry, the band released five more records (including two live albums) and were joined by Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez on guitar and bass, respectively. The Descendents' preceding studio album, 1987's ALL, included "All-O-Gistics," a set of commandments that outlined the band's collective philosophy ("Thou shalt covet thy neighbor's food," "Thou shalt not partake of decaf," "Thou shalt always go for greatness," etc.). With Aukerman away at school, the band enlisted a new singer--Dave Smalley--and rechristened itself ALL in honor of this philosophy.
The new name spawned a period of change for the band. From 1988 to 1995, ALL released eight more albums (including last year's Pummel on Interscope Records), had three different lead singers (Smalley, Scott Reynolds, and Chad Price), and moved twice, ending up in Fort Collins, Colorado. But for all the changes the band endured, one thing remained constant: the music. Each album contained at least two or three songs that would have been surefire hits if only programmers at radio stations and MTV had been paying a little attention. These are, after all, the same people who made Hootie and the Blowfish bigger than Jesus.
Instead, Stevenson and the band got to see watered-down knockoffs becoming hugely popular by copping the Descendents' sound and singing with hooked-on-Buzzcocks British accents. But success by such bandwagon jumpers did lead to good things for the group, Stevenson says.
"Interscope gave us, like, a million bucks last year, and we built a recording studio," he says. "And then they basically didn't do too well with Pummel, so we bailed out, and took our recording studio with us."
Interscope signed the band thinking it had picked up another easy-to-market, cookie-cutter punk band. Stevenson says that the band knew otherwise.
"I think the thing they didn't realize, and we did realize, is that it's easier to market some of those mall punk bands because you've got the fashion that's there with it; you know, the nice hairdos and the fake British accents. But with ALL or Descendents, it's basically these ugly dork people playing music. They thought they could market it because it was the right music, but you know the fact of it is, is that the music doesn't have anything to do with anything really. We knew that."
After leaving Interscope, the band hooked up with Epitaph Records, the closest thing punk rock has to a major label. Brett Gurewitz, president and founder of Epitaph, toured with the Descendents and ALL while he was a member of Bad Religion. "We've kind of been in the trenches together over the years," Stevenson says. "He seems the most into it."