Photos: Greg Jacobs
For an area with such a rich cultural history, the south bay region of Los Angeles County sure does suck. Except, of course, for Wednesday night, when Hermosa Beach pop punk pioneers Descendents played an unannounced show to approximately 200 people.
The performance marked the first time in 19 years that the group had played in its hometown. As part of the first wave of American hardcore, the original foursome—singer Milo Aukerman, guitarist Frank Navetta (who passed away in 2008), bassist Tony Lombardo, and drummer Bill Stevenson—wrote surf-inspired hardcore blasts about the sorts of things in which high school boys (which three of them were) care: food, fishing, and girls. More than three decades and a few lineup changes (the group has included guitarist Stephen Egerton and bassist Karl Alvarez since 1986) later, songs from the band’s 1982 classic Milo Goes to College and its follow-ups (the 1981 EP Fat) were best received from the mostly middle-aged crowd, which pogoed like Reagan was still president throughout the quartet’s 90-minute performance.
Sure, they’re a little grayer (or balder) than they were during the 80s (and 90s), but seeing Descendents still gives me goosebumps, probably because I’m a little grayer than I was when I first heard them on a punk compilation tape a friend made for me in 10th grade, myself. And judging by the reaction from Wednesday night’s crowd, I wasn’t alone. There’s something about this band that transcends time: Maybe it’s the heart-on-sleeve lyrics or the fact that the members never succumbed to punk’s tired mohawk-and-spikes aesthetic. Rather than look “punk,” Descendents have actually been punk, eschewing all of the things bands “should do” in favor of playing angular and often discordant pop-inspired songs with melodies and harmonies. A pop-tune called “Silly Girl” followed by the start-and-stop/not-really-a-song “All-O-Gistics?” For most, that seemingly haphazard approach to songwriting would equate to a lifetime of empty venues, but for Descendents, a band that claimed it “never did a popular thing,” it’s why people in their 40s (and older) stayed out until midnight on a Wednesday. When we look at Aukerman’s glasses and his infamous side pose when he holds the microphone, or the massive scar on Stevenson’s head from brain surgery (he was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism and a brain tumor), we see guys on stage who look like us. Descendents had released four full-length records wearing whatever threads they could find two years before Nirvana’s Bleach made wearing your regular clothes on stage cool.
It’s this refusal to conform that makes songs such as “Bikeage,” “Coolidge,” “Sour Grapes” and “Jean is Dead” resonate with fans today. It’s also why their show last night was unusual. In 2016, Hermosa Beach is home to an array of restaurants and bars serving overpriced drinks to college-age students with plenty of their parents’ money to spare, a far cry from Descendents songs such as “My Dad Sucks,” in which Aukerman wails, “He’s just a pain in the ass/He’s a thorn in my side/Why can’t he leave me alone/Instead of running my life?” Or “Hope,” arguably the best punk song ever dealing with longing for a girl. The first mosh pit of the night erupted (or tried to) during this song, which was played third in the set. Maybe it was the fact that The Standing Room—the venue for Wednesday’s gig—is the sort of place that normally hosts Beastie Boys and The Killers tribute bands made the moshing/crowd-surfing seem out of place for this song. Or maybe it was more to do with the scene itself, as it was odd to witness a venue going from watching the Los Angeles Kings lose to the San Jose Sharks one minute and punk club the next.
This dichotomy between an upscale community that has removed nearly all remnants of the book stores, jazz clubs, punk hangouts and record stores that used to define the counter culture-friendly town and the angst so often found in Descendents songs was another example of why the group hasn’t lived in its hometown for nearly three decades. Or maybe it’s the fact that mortgages in Hermosa aren’t affordable for guys in hardcore bands. Whatever the case, Wednesday night was a super fun show, even if the venue and surrounding area was more craft beer-and-IRA-accounts than punk rock.
The band played six new tunes (“Feel This,” “Victim of Me,” “On Paper,” “Testosterone,” “Full Circle,” and “Shameless Halo”), all of which sounded like Descendents songs (which is to say they were catchy, short and full of energy) and announced a new album titled Hypercaffium Spazzinate slated for a July release on Epitaph Records. And, yes, maybe the south bay isn’t the coolest place to live these days, but the crowd danced and bopped its head to the new material with the type of respect you’re supposed to show your elders because even in the yuppie-fied Hermosa of 2016, Descendents are still viewed as local-boys-done-good for more-or-less creating pop punk and, an argument can be made, emo. No amount of yoga studios and gelato shops will ever change that.
Ryan Ritchie doesn't wanna grow up. Follow him on Twitter - @RyanLRitchie