Album review: Descendents – 9th & Walnut
9th & Walnut is the street intersection in Long Beach, Southern California, at which Descendents wrote their earliest music. Beginning in 1977, the school-aged trio of guitarist Frank Navetta, bassist Tony Lombardo and drummer Bill Stevenson would gather in the garage of Frank’s sister’s house to write and play some of the earliest songs of an LA punk community that was somewhat slow to bloom. In 1980, singer Milo Aukerman joined the group and, following the release of the Fat EP in 1981, unveiled the scene-defining Milo Goes To College the following year. This much is known. What is unknown are the songs the group wrote before anyone had heard their name.
Until now. Recorded in 2002 (the album is completed by four freshly recorded tracks), 9th & Walnut is the first time the world has heard songs that are now more than 40 years old. To release this portrait of the artists as young men, at the point at which Descendents are much older men, is a strange one. The most obvious point to make is that classic early outings by youthful LA punks – one thinks of Group Sex by the Circle Jerks and Bad Religion’s How Good Hell Be Any Worse? – were released in real time, contemporaneously. The second is that Descendents write much better songs today than they did in 1978. They’re more popular than ever before, too, so much so that their most recent album, Hypercaffium Spazzinate, from 2016, actually cracked the U.S. Top 20. Bet your boots that kind of thing didn’t happen to this kind of band 40 years ago.
So is it any good, this weird busman’s holiday release? Um, it’s alright. It ain’t bad. Unlike truly classic “debut” LA punk albums – Los Angeles by X, for example, or Fear’s enduringly problematic The Record – 9th & Walnut sounds like it was written by youngsters who had very little idea what they were doing.
This is understandable: along with the band’s youth, in the ’70s Southern Californian punk rock had yet to develop a definable sound (in a way – a good way – it still hasn’t). Descendents built their wing of the empire by hand, and to their own blueprint; they were leaders rather than followers. But early doors, they were hardly master-craftsmen. On an LP on which only two of 18 songs breaks the two-minute barrier, the promise of brilliance will occasionally emerge. Best of all is the pop-punk-tastic Mohicans, in which the group lay out their melody-hewn future in barely a 100 seconds. A cover version of The Dave Clark Five’s Glad All Over is also a good deal of fun. Elsewhere, 9th & Walnut is a thick slab of high energy enthusiasm and mid-level accomplishments. At no point is it bad, and sometimes it’s rather good, but nothing here is particularly essential. The Descendents’ truly great work would come later, and be released earlier.
For Fans Of: Bad Religion, Circle Jerks, X
9th & Walnut is released on July 23 via Epitaph.
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