The early history of the Descendents never made that much sense. After releasing a single and an EP, the band made their full-length debut with the seminal Milo Goes To College in 1982. The album positioned the group as one of the most popular and commercial to come out of the early ’80s Southern California hardcore scene. Then they immediately disappeared. Making good on the promise of the album’s title, lead singer Milo Aukerman went to college, and became a molecular biologist. Drummer Bill Stevenson joined Black Flag. Teen guitarist Frank Navetta quit the band to become a fisherman in Oregon, while adult bass player (he was nearly 40 when Milo was released) Tony Lombardo took a job as a mail carrier for the USPS.
By the time Aukerman returned for their sophomore album I Don’t Want To Grow Up, they were already a different band. Navetta, one of the founders, was out. Lombardo, the primary songwriter on Milo Goes To College, stepped back, recording bass for the album but handing a majority of the songwriting duties to Stevenson. Despite its title, I Don’t Want To Grow Up saw the band evolving, replacing punk snarl with Beach Boys harmonies and experimental tangents that would become staples of the band’s future output. In essence, the modern Descendents were born.
Still, for the next 40 years, it always felt like a link was missing in their evolutionary chain. How did Milo Goes To College come from the guys who released Fat, and where did that energy go on I Don’t Want To Grow Up? 9th & Walnut, a collection of recordings the original members began putting together in 2002, answers this question.
Founded in 1977, the Descendents bummed around their practice studio in the South Bay of Los Angeles for roughly five years before Milo Goes To College. During that time, they released the pre-Aukerman single “Ride The Wild”/”It’s A Hectic World” and the Fat EP. Within these two releases, listeners would get a sense of the two sides that would define the band at that point: Macho-mocking hardcore and Beach Boys-inspired punk-pop. However, the two styles felt at odds with each other. “Ride The Wild” was slower and more melodic, gravitating towards a new wave sound. Lombardo and Navetta shared vocal duties, harmonizing throughout the song in an attempt to ape the Wilson brothers. ”It’s A Hectic World,” the record’s B-side, however, offered a glimpse at the herky-jerky punk the band would later be known for. Two years later, Fat would see the Descendents attempting to create American hardcore in the vein of their contemporaries Black Flag, mostly leaving the harmonies behind. Milo Goes To College smoothed over the bumps in their idiosyncratic songwriting like a scalding iron, bringing them together for an LP that felt complete and musically consistent. In short, it solidified their sound.
The jump from their early releases to Milo always felt abrupt, especially against their later ’80s output. The follow-up records, Enjoy!, I Don’t Want To Grow Up, and All, would see the band replacing blazing hardcore with a playful mix of punk, new wave, surf, and even avant garde jazz. As interesting (and underrated) as those efforts are, they never matched the popularity or influence of their debut: Milo Goes To College singlehandedly created American pop-punk. For better or worse, without it, there’s no Green Day, no Blink-182, and no Weezer (this is especially true when you consider who brought the Buddy Holly glasses back in style).
So where did that original Descendents sound go? In 2002, while on hiatus, the original four-piece reunited to find out. Recording some of their earliest songs, Aukerman, Stevenson, Lombardo, and Navetta began work on what would become 9th & Walnut, named after their original SoCal practice space. The result is 18 songs that sound like the band that would go on to record Milo Goes To College, a messy mix of melody, fury, and adolescent humor. 9th & Walnut isn’t the best Descendents record. It’s probably not even in the top five. But it is this weird, special thing that gives fans an essential part of the band that’s gone unheard over the last four decades.
The lack of recordings from the band’s first five years always made Milo seem like an anomaly. For many fans—particularly those who prefer their debut to the musical chaos and trolling of Enjoy!—the Descendents ceased to be after their first album. 9th & Walnut gives those fans more of the band they like. Tracks like “Mohicans” and “Nightage” show off Auckerman’s scratchy vocal range with soaring choruses and catchy melodies. And, of course, there’s the interplay of original bassist Lombardo and the late guitarist Navetta, who died in 2008. Their mix of flatulent bass runs and bright, trebly guitars harken to a time before the band went to college, started experimenting, and polished their sound.
With the band turning 45 next year, 9th & Walnut is a chance to see Descendents on the verge of greatness. There’s no reason why these songs couldn’t have become their first LP, but it would’ve spoiled some of the specialness of Milo Goes To College, a near-perfect LP released in a stacked year for American punk. In 1982, the Descendents shared record store shelves with The Misfits’ Walk Among Us, Bad Brains’ ROIR tape, Zero Boys’ Vicious Cycle, Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record, and Discharge’s Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing. 9th & Walnut never would’ve stacked up against those records, but Milo Goes To College was original enough and good enough to stand a chance. This latest release is a nice companion to their official debut, a peek at a soon-to-be groundbreaking band having the taste to edit themselves—a rarity in all genres but especially punk. For a band that would record an entire track of its members farting into a microphone, the restraint is hard to believe, but it sure is nice to hear what they were up to before Milo went to college.