If you were to create a Mount Rushmore of 80s hardcore punk legends – beings who changed the shape of the genre and influenced the following generations – you’d likely include Henry Rollins, Keith Morris, Brett Gurewitz and Bill Stevenson (if you don’t know any of those names, immediately educate yourself – you’re in for a blast). While they’re all influential in their own way, Bill Stevenson may appear to be the least well known. And yet, his involvement with both Black Flag (much like Rollins and Morris), Descendents and All, as well as being a respected and accomplished producer in his own right, has led to an adoration from punk fans for decades.
Perhaps the only person who is as equally well loved and closely connected to Stevenson is Milo Aukerman, frontman of punk band Descendents. Cemented in legacy by an instantly recognisable logo designed to imitate Aukerman’s distinctive look, it’s simple charm and childish nature are the perfect dichotomy for technically impressive yet frantically quick melodic hardcore.
With the release of their eighth album, ‘9th and Walnut’, named after their practice space of the time, we get an incite into their early days. Recorded in 2002 and completed in 2020, this album features tracks written between 1977 and 1980, before the release of their debut EP ‘Fat EP’. Not only do we get a look into the past, we’re treated to the original line-up of Stevenson and Aukerman on drums and vocals respectively, Tony Lombardo on bass and guitarist Frank Navetta, who’s posthumous appearance is largely in thanks to the earlier recording sessions.
Opening with ‘Sailor’s Choice’, It’s safe to say whatever formula they created in 1977 has lasted up until their 2016 release, ‘Hypercaffium Spazzinate’, with little change. The distinctive drum patterns, lightening quick baselines, Aukerman’s wailing. It’s a warming hug from an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Instantly familiar, but refreshingly welcoming.
Their typical snark and humour is prevalent throughout, with ‘You Make Me Sick’ and ‘Yore Disgusting’ channelling their juvenile sense of humour – the former even including Aukerman heaving at the close.
Fans of the angst-ridden tracks like ‘Hope’ and ‘She’s The One’ have no need to fret, with single ‘Nightage’ being an absolute thunder-bastard. Featuring a wandering bassline before Stevenson’s near robotic drumming leads into a typically self-pitying verse, it’s the track that could easily have fit on ‘Milo Goes To College’, ideally between ‘I Wanna Be A Bear’ and ‘I’m Not A Loser’. Long harmonies in the choruses and a scintillating riff from Navetta add additional depth to what is already a stunning song. Similarly, ‘Grudge’ and ‘Baby Doncha Know’ have that thread of teenage animosity coursing through them, complete with catchy melodies and singalong moments.
The recordings of ‘It’s A Hectic World’ and ‘Ride The Wild’ feature Aukerman singing these songs on record for the first time. Originally recorded in 79 with Lombardo and Navetta on vocal duties respectively, the surf rock sound is a far cry to where Descendents are today, although the framework was very much there to see. Deceptively quick basslines, frantically restrained drumming and a lyrical prowess that’s simple yet emotive, it has paved the way for every track written and recorded in the 40+ years since.
With a runtime of around 25 minutes off 18 tracks, ‘9th & Walnut’ doesn’t hang about. And it doesn’t have to. While this style of punk may not be for everyone, it’s a style that proves to be timeless, you could draw a line from any track from on this record to any song from their discography and see the fingerprints. ‘9th & Walnut’ isn’t just an exceptional Descendents album – it’s the Rosetta Stone of their history, showing the cornerstone of their sound, their ambition and their song writing talents at such a young age. What a career they’ve had.