Pop Life

Flannel File: The Descendents

One hot morning in August of 1997, my little brother and I hopped on MARTA (Mom wouldn't let me use the car) and moseyed on down to the Lakewood Fairgrounds in Atlanta for the third-ever Warped Tour. Should the writer of a column about experimental music be ashamed of having gone to the Warped Tour as a kid? Yes, clearly he should have burst from the womb reading Henry Miller and listening to Mission of Burma (oh wait, that was my brother). But in my defense, sample the lineups from some of these early years of the festival:

1995- L7, Seaweed, Swingin' Utters, CIV, Quicksand (that's right- the first Warped Tour had both ex-Gorilla-Biscuits bands! Beat that, Coachella!)

1996- Beck, Dance Hall Crashers, Fishbone (!), Dick Dale (!!!), Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Rocket From the Crypt

1997- Amazing Royal Crowns, Descendents, Murder City Devils, Social Distortion, the Bouncing Souls

OK, true, the 1997 Warped Tour also featured blink 182 (bleh), Sugar Ray (ick) and Limp Bizkit (barf). Wow, I totally do not remember seeing those last two bands, thank God. But luckily, I did see the Descendents, which is the point of this story. And pretty soon afterwards, I went out and bought the album they had just released: Everything Sucks.

At this point, I knew nothing at all about the Descendents. After I had listened to Everything Sucks approximately 1000 times- I only owned about 15 CDs at the time, including such masterpieces as Dishwalla's Pet Your Friends - I got the impression from some of my friends who actually knew something about the Descendents that Everything Sucks was considered something of a disappointment.

I can see why. This followup the 1987 career-defining punk opus ALL was recorded after an eight-year hiatus, during which vocalist Milo Aukerman got a Ph.D. and the other three members played in the prog-punk band also called All. Whereas the band's 1980s albums followed a steady progression from snotty, nimble, girl-obsessed pop-punk to cheerfully irreverent, virtuosic, girl-obsessed pop-punk, the reunited band departed substantially in both style and tone, toward a lean and almost viciously hard musical idiom, with thematic material that veered between unwinking sentiment and borderline bitterness. For a teenager hoping for a dose of the sweet, nonthreatening Descendents of old, Everything Sucks may have sounded grungified and angsty, bordering on macho. This may sound like a strange criticism to make of a hardcore punk band, but a large part of the appeal of the Descendents' classic albums is their joyful boyishness, which Everything Sucks seems to lack.

But the thing is, those classic albums were made when the Descendents were, in fact, still boys. All four of the members that made ALL were born within a year of each other in 1963 and 1964, making them only about 23 years old when ALL came out, even though it was their fifth album! Eight years later, they were all over 30: ostensibly, men.

And Everything Sucks reflects both the maturity and the hardness that come with growing up a little. The album opens with title track's crabby snarl, which repeats on violently acerbic songs like "Caught," "Doghouse" and "Eunuch Boy," the last of which manages to be both empathic and mean in only 20 seconds; to contain the bile, the band employs piercing psychoanalysis on "Rotting Out" and "This Place."

The Descendents were known for their songs about girls, but here they write something more like punk rock ballads for grownups. "I'm the One" and "She Loves Me" retain the puppy-love hopelessness, here shaded strongly toward desperation.

Meanwhile, romantic experience and psychological depth yield some of the most interesting songs on the album. Here I'm referring to the smartly detached "Sick-O-Me" as well as "Hateful Notebook," a tribute to a brainy, bitchy woman that, in its portrayal of a strong female foil, is about as close to feminist as it is possible for a band full of total dudes to get. The album also includes two straight-up love songs, "We" and "I Won't Let Me," which have the same goal as Al Green and Andre 3000 : making the adrenaline surge for monogamy.

Some of Everything Sucks' finest moments deal are self-reflexive. "When I Get Old" updates 1985's "I Don't Want to Grow Up" as a pledge to remain unspoiled by maturity that, remarkably, leaves room for uncertainty: "Will I do myself proud, or only what's allowed?"

Finally, the closer, "Thank You," is an eloquent and moving anthem for rock and roll itself: "Did you know you're why I go and waste my time at a rock 'n' roll show? You let me know I'm not alone. . . I won't say your name, but you know who you are, and I'll never be the same again now. . . thank you for playing the way you play." Every once and future punk rocker needs to feel this, to remember what it is about the music that turned them on in this first place.

Set to music that streamlined the noodling of (the band) All into fast and brutally hard guitar rock, these songs achieve a maturity and complexity, balanced with catharsis, that Bad Religion ("theophany?") never managed. It may not be the most representative Descendents album, but as an introduction to hardcore punk at a time when the genre had become decadent, it was pretty hard to beat.

The less said about Cool To Be You the better.

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Daniel Mee