The Descendents – Milo Goes To College

Fans and critics have been arguing which punk band has been the most influential for decades, but the decision has yet to be made. Claims have been made that The Clash are the most important group to punk because they made so many crossovers into the mainstream, while others contend that punk rock would not exist in the capacity that it currently does without The Ramones or The Stooges. It could be argued (and has been) that other bands including Nirvana, Green Day, MC5 and Bad Religion have a valid claim to the ultimate title of “importance” to their musical genre too – but the best that all of those bands can hope to do is come second to the Descendents.

The truth is that only the Descendents can rightly claim to have influenced or inspired a list of bands which includes The Offspring, NOFX, Sublime, Propagandhi, Bouncing Souls, Rise Against, Thrush Hermit, Pavement and Dave Grohl (which would rope in Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Them Crooked Vultures, by extension) – and those are just the first names which leap to this writer’s mind, and there are many more; they’ve been so influential to punk that it could rightly be contended that, without the Descendents, punk rock would simply not exist in the form it currently does or have the stature it currently enjoys.

Simply said, the Descendents and their music represent an incredibly large keystone in punk rock. They were not the first punk band (not even close), nor were they the most popular (for context, this is a band which once had the line “couldn’t sell out a phone booth” included prominently in their bio), but their importance to the genre’s endurance is undeniable and, when Milo Goes To College (the Descendents’ debut album) was released in 1982, it featured every essential element with which their music would play thereafter; they’d refine some of it on the albums which would follow, but the roots were all set right from the beginning.

On Milo Goes To College, the Descendents sum up exactly all it means to be a punk kid of a certain age in twenty-two minutes, and the whole thing starts with “Myage” – a perfect introduction which explains who the Descendents are and what they intend to do while they have listeners’ attention, but it’s even better than that too; every damned microtone can inspire interest and curiosity. The song runs along at a rate which was almost like a blur by the punk standards of 1982 which will have listeners running after the band to try and keep up, and that’s how lines like “We all wanna play your game with you/ We know you’re just a starter/ There’s no reason for you to quit/ Just because we try harder” will really ensnare them; lyrics like this are better and smarter than The Ramones (what did they have? “Do ya do ya do ya do ya wanna dance?”) and hook into mind easily because they’re performed with crystal clear sibilance so no one can miss them. It might be the first time in rock history that playing PERFECTLY CLEAR has helped as a hook; unlike “Louie Louie,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Loser,” that it’s possible to understand every word makes “Myage” really easy to love and appreciate.

After that, EVERYONE listening will want to hear more – to say that their curiosity must be piqued would be an understatement – and what follows “Myage” is a veritable treasure trove. “I’m Not A Loser” bravely plays against the slacker punk aesthetic (check out Aukerman’s light growl and earnest delivery of lines which talk about working sixty hours a week and spitting on the image of being a lazy slob as a matter of course) while also abandoning the hardcore tough-guy pose (the impotent “I’m not a loser” refrain plays smarter than “I’m Not A Punk” does later in the side’s running because it loses the toughness right off and rests in great counterpoint to the half-assed and sophomoric fag-baiting which appears toward the song’s close) and so arrives as close to an anti-punk anthem as it’s possible to be on a punk album as well as being a pretty good rock song to boot.

“Parents” continues in the same stripe as it curses the singer’s frustration with his folks (likes like “parents, why won’t they shut up?/ parent’s they’re so fucked up”), but actually exceeds the average teen’s plaint with more thoughtful couplets like “parents…/ they’re so fucking dense/ they look into the past/ for future reference” too. The quality of performances like that continues to feel revolutionary because it does go so far beyond the “I’m the little guy. I’m a nobody” norm found in both pop and punk but doesn’t overshoot or just become a formulaic hardcore number either; it falls between those points and shines as something new, something different and (as history would eventually prove) something very inspiring.

Before the side runs out, the Descendents blast out a couple more incendiary calls to arms (“M-16” hasn’t aged particularly well as an anti-war or anti-violence commentary but still plays well as engaging filler, while “I’m Not A Punk” replays through the spirit of “I’m Not A Loser” very well) before finally settling down a bit for “Catalina” to close the side. Again, with “Catalina,” the rote domestic frustration of high school drudgery owns a significant amount of time in the song, but Descendents keep from getting too formulaic by turning down the volume ever-so-slightly as well as slowing down their tempo as if to imply that the band is taking a collective stand and making a statement which they do – sort of.

On “Catalina” more than anywhere else on Milo Goes To College, the Descendents overtly curse love and confess a love of The Beatles with the words “I’ll steal some gas, fix my motor/ Turn on my Beatles tape/ And get you out of my head.” In those lyrics alone, the Descendents both embrace stereotypical punk rock ideals (theft) and deny them (loving The Beatles) at a speed which feels almost deliberate – it’s beautiful and a perfect way to end the first side of this album.

…And then, as soon as it’s flipped, the B-side cranks up even better than its predecessor. It’s hard to know if, because it is the second side, the songs really are that much better or listeners’ appetite for them was already whetted by the A-side, but one thing’s for certain: the B-side of Milo Goes To College runs hard with raw power and fine songwriting. Immediately on side opener “Suburban Home,” drummer Bill Stevenson really asserts his presence and power as he assaults his kit and forces guitarist Frank Navetta and bassist Tony Lombardo to either step up their game or be left in the dust. It works out that they DO step up, and the power is palpable; the instrumental wall set up on “Suburban Home” is arguably the most polished on Milo Goes To College and sort of foreshadows many of the tones and timbres which would appear on Enjoy! and Everything Sux as well as the lighter moments on ALL (like “Clean Sheets”), without question. 

After “Statue Of Liberty” lets the focus of Milo Goes To College slip for a minute (The Descendents are a great SoCal band and quite a bit of their power lies in the fact that they don’t hide where they’re from – “Statue Of Liberty” looks East in disgust, but it trips over Milo’s acerbic vocal tone which feels a bit like envy for a second), “Marriage” gets back on track with its examination of the perfectly dysfunctional family before “Hope” sets the “songs about girls” template that punk rock would fly high with in the Nineties as well as hinting at the angles that Melodic Hardcore would take only a year or two following Milo’s release.

Even now, echoes of Aukerman’s vocal (especially lines like “Why can’t you see you torture me/ You’re already thinking about someone else/ When he comes home/ You’ll be in his arms and I’ll be gone/ But I know my day will come
I know someday I’ll be the only one”) can be heard in Offspring’s “Self Esteem,” “Rock Show” by blink 182 and even “Hey Thanks” by The Wonder Years. In that particular regard, that the Descendents basically bred an entire form of pop songwriting on their first album demands respect, but that it spread so far and wide and continues to be utilized is positively unbelievable. In that way, somehow the Descendents can actually lay a claim to a place next to The Beatles for what they did on Milo Goes To College.

(SST, 1982)

Bill Adams is Editor-in-Chief of Ground Control Mag.