Twenty years ago my favorite band was not one but two who were essentially one. You follow? Descendents were one of the seminal West Coast punk bands of the 80s who represented the disaffected youth not just because of their feisty frustrations with society, but because they sang about it with a more realistic approach, focusing less on politics and more on immediate foes like the expectations of social constraints, the lack of understanding from parents, the responsibilities of adulthood in general and, of course, girls. They also loved singing about coffee, food, fishing and taking a crap. I can’t say I (publically) celebrated all of these things, but I could certainly tap into a lot of the more emotional aspects of their lyrical and musical output, especially when it came to the fiendish ways of the opposite sex.
Several line up changes on guitar and bass expanded their sound from surf rock to punk to power pop to a more progressive and integrated style that culminated in their magnum opus, All, which not only brought every previous theme to a head but introduced the always present but behind the scenes concept of ALL. Essentially, go for ALL and ALL will set you free.
The central figure was, naturally, lead singer Milo Aukerman, and though he was not the principle songwriter for the band, his final departure to become a biochemist effectively ended things for Descendents once and for all. (Ha, ha, get it…seriously, there are a million of them.)
And yet that’s not quite the case… As legend has it (and I’ve not checked Wiki for accuracy), East Coast punk Dave Smalley of Dag Nasty fame approached the remaining members and said “Hey, you’ve got a good thing going on here,” and with Dave on vocals they reunited under the All moniker.
All’s sound essentially picked up where the final Descendents album left off – a quirky, mathy, off-kilter pop – yet they still maintained many of the basic elements and themes from the Descendents, as well as playing those old songs liberally in their live sets. Smalley stayed for one EP and one album before splitting but the rest of the band has stayed intact over the years with at least two other singers.
Way back then, I think All won out my ultimate affections simply because they were still around and putting out music and because while it might not be Milo up there, they were keeping the glory of the Descendents alive at the same time. For about two years I spent a lot of time listening to these guys, soaking myself in the good tunes, the great tunes and even the ones that just flat out sucked. My girlfriend at the time hated them because she felt they were juvenile (which they were) but also because she was an idiot. My parents hated them because I played them too loud and too often and they as well thought they were juvenile (and my parents are old).
It’s funny how music gives strength to breaking one out of their shell. Fueled by Descendents/All, I first found courage to dye my hair, wear make up in public and feel like it was ok to want to beat the hell out of anyone who couldn’t accept someone striving to be an individual. The fact that someone else out there not only identifies with you but has written a song to prove it – therefore giving one not only solidarity but a catchy rhythm to tap your feet to – is all a 17-year-old kid needs to make it through any rough spot to the next patch of green grass and sunshine.
As the years wore on, however, All certainly fell by the way side. This was partly because my tastes shifted in other directions, but also because they started putting out albums that I felt were inferior to their early material and I just stopped caring. Likewise, when Descendents got back together in 1996 I didn’t much pay attention (but eventually got into that first reunion album a bit). I’d moved on, happy to revisit the old buzz on occasion but no longer part of the (hurtin’) crew.
Today I still enjoy most of the Descendents albums and listen to them quite frequently. However, I only own the Dave Smalley stuff and the one immediately following his departure from All, and really don’t listen to those very often. But when I hear certain songs, it’s easy to get caught up in the old feelings and whisked back to a simpler time when girls or grades were the only thing keeping me from truly being happy and the next smile was achieved at the beginning of the next song.
Here are a few standouts from All…
Just Perfect - Any guy who’s been young and infatuated, especially with someone unobtainable, can relate to the sentiments found in this tight pop number. You just flat know you can make that girl happy if she’d only give you the chance. Of course even if you do you’re wrong, which leads to the next song…
She’s My Ex - One of the greatest break up songs of all time, She’s My Ex doesn’t focus so much on the mushy heartbreak of a split as on the reality, the bare bones facts as they are, with a humorous melancholy that realizes that sometimes thems the breaks and yet one truth remains – she’ll always be my ex.
Scary Sad - I love how music reflects art. I knew a girl exactly like this…I mean EX-ACT-LY. If Bill Stevenson had told me he’d gone a few years into the future, observed this girl’s self-imposed train wreck of a life and gone back to 1989 to write this song, I’d completely believe it. Those of you looking for the gory details just click the link.