I have been a rabid fan of Descendents for many, many years, but until I saw them headline Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin a month ago, I had always avoided their live releases. To be fair, when I was younger, I avoided most live releases. I liked the idea of having the record, and the live show – two separate entities. I think it was some sort of OCD thing.
I have a different attitude these days, however – live albums can be the best albums. When done correctly, they offer an easily accessible portal to an amazing live experience without all the “mucky-muck”, as Spinal Tap’s Nigel Tufnel would call it. Liveage! is just such an album. Kiss’ Alive! is also one of my favorite live records, but a distinction should be made between records like Liveage! and records like Alive! Liveage! is a no frills, no bullshit, no additives kind of live record, and the tapes were not altered in any way. On Alive!, everything from certain vocals to crowd noise is overdubbed. And of course, anyone who knows anything about the Descendents should know they would never allow this to happen.
Seeing the Descendents at Fun Fun Fun Fest was cathartic for me. It felt like a big chunk of my childhood that I never really got to experience. I had two opportunities to see them back in high school, and missed out on both. Since those days, I have seen a lot of older bands I used to love come out of the woodwork, reunite, play really lackluster live shows and release poorly conceived, rush-job albums. I did not want the Descendents to fall into this echelon of bands out there. Out of all the bands I loved back then, the Descendents rank as one of the most steadfast and powerful, and I didn’t want anything to ruin that.
Needless to say, after a long set change that only furthered my already seeping anticipation, the band came out full throttle and didn’t let up for a single second. Every song they played was one I had hoped to hear, except for the surprise cover of Devo’s “Uncontrollable Urge”, which was a more than welcome surprise. (Descendents were recruited to play the festival after Devo cancelled.) As soon as the first stick tap came, the crowd was completely overwhelming, immediately reminding me I was no spring chicken anymore. People were getting trampled and swallowed up and near-crushed by this huge, swaying fleshy mass, and everyone fucking loved it. Well, not really, but when seeing a band like Descendents, you have to be ready for anything – literally anything.
After seeing this show, I went out to Love Garden and noticed they had completely re-stocked their Descendents selection on vinyl. It’s almost as if…they KNEW people would want to buy this stuff! (Those record store folk are way smarter than most give them credit for, you know?) They had pretty much every album, but after seeing that amazing show, it just felt right to pick up a live record, and the set list of Liveage! seemed more akin to what I had experienced in Austin than that of their other live album, Hallraker, so Liveage! it was.
I was especially intrigued about the inclusion of certain songs from Enjoy!, the most unique Descendents album. It’s the only album that features Doug Carrion on bass, the only album that features a cover (The Beach Boys’ “Wendy”, which was featured in Austin and on Liveage!), the first album not to use the Milo logo, and the only album with all song writing credited to “the Descendents” instead of to individual members. It’s also pretty famous for its pervasive use of toilet humor, and features recordings of the band members farting into a microphone. And I must say, while the liner notes insist “all farts recorded on this record are real”, some of them sound pretty fake. I have to wonder how much gas four humans are really able to produce. (A lot, actually.)
“Wendy”, “Sour Grapes” and “Get the Time” were so awesome in Austin that it made me second-guess an album which I thought I may have dismissed too quickly as mediocre. But upon revisiting Enjoy! after the show, I realized I had been right – it’s not the best album ever. It does contain a few of the band’s best and most well known songs that have made their way into live sets consistently over the years. One of these is “Get the Time”, one of the most perfect pop punk songs ever written and a true testament to the brilliance of Milo Aukerman. It was one of the highlights of a completely hit-packed set list in Austin, just as it is one of the finest moments on Liveage!.
As I expected, the band opened with the song “Descensdents” (their proverbial theme) in Austin, but on Liveage!, it comes near the end of the first side. I’m not sure if this was a sequencing thing or if it was actually placed like that in the set list, but it works well either way. “Descendents” is the opening track of the second album, I Don’t Want to Grow Up, the first to feature guitarist Ray Cooper. Although the debut Milo Goes to College is seen by many as the greatest Descendents album, many will argue that Grow Up contains most of the classics. Indeed, in the Descendents catalog, it doesn’t get much better than “Can’t Go Back”, a jaded lament the loss of virginity, or the riff-laden punk balladry of “Silly Girl”.
You can say what you want about the music of the Descendents, but if you understand music at all, you’ll at least admit that this band is more focused in their purpose and goals than maybe any band on the face of the planet. On “Descendents”, front man Milo Aukerman sings, “We’re looking for a few good men/Degenerates need not apply/Attitude is a must on our endless quest/To play hard, play fast and sacrifice.” These are some of the best lyrics ever, because they simultaneously sum up the band’s credo while commenting on its own history – the “few good men” lyric, for example, could be seen as a jab at their (at the time) ever-rotating lineup. Until the solid foundation of Stevenson/Alvarez/Egerton was formed, Descendents existed more as a collective than a true band. But thanks to the ideals expressed in the song “Descendents” (ones that were further expanded upon on their 1987 album ALL), they were able to do this while successfully creating a plethora of great music that carried a singular theme, despite the use of several different songwriters.
Unfortunately, the Stevenson/Alvarez/Egerton foundation only existed as Descendents for a short time. In fact, ALL is the only early-era Descendents studio album to feature this lineup, which may explain why a great deal of the set list on Liveage! is made up of tunes from that record. Fine by me – ALL is one of my favorite Descendents records. It contains a good chunk of classics like “Coolidge”, “Cameage”, “Pep Talk”, “Clean Sheets”, and the intimidating, hilarious conceptualism of “All”, “No, All!”, “Van” and “All-O-Gistics”. It also has a really strange and weird side to it, with slower, more progressive tunes like “Impressions”, which showcase more varied guitar styles from co-writer Stephen Egerton and singing range from Milo.
After Milo departed the band to pursue his biochemistry career, Egerton, Alvarez and Stevenson reformed as All with singer Chad Price. In the mid-nineties, Milo rejoined and the ALL-era Descendents and eventually recorded two albums, both of which (1996’s Everything Sucks and 2002’s Cool to be You) being quite good.
In Austin, some of the set highlights were Egerton’s “Everything Sux” and Milo’s “Rotting Out” (both from Everything Sucks), as well as Alvarez’s heartbreaking ode to divorce, “She Don’t Care” (from Cool to be You). The recent-era Descendents songs were a welcome addition, and only helped to further prove the relevance of this band.
Most of the set list on Liveage! is made up of songs from Milo Goes to College, my favorite Descendents album. A good chunk of these songs were also played in Austin, with Aukerman’s “Hope” being a massive set highlight. It’s pretty cool that “Hope” is one of the band’s greatest earlier tunes and also the only song on Milo written fully by Aukerman. Even though he had not yet really found footing as a songwriter, he was still able to create a song like this. Way to go, sir – you pretty much summed up my entire junior high experience with that one.
Other songs on Milo that were featured in Austin as well as on Liveage! – “Myage”, “I Wanna be a Bear”, “I’m Not A Loser” and “Suburban Home” (two of the band’s biggest “hits”). The Milo record, it seems to me, still resonates so well and always will because of its completely raw energy, but it’s really the precision of musicianship and style that makes it hold up. It’s not only one of the 3 most important punk rock albums of the 80’s, it’s one of the greatest rock albums of all time – 27 minutes of melodic, angsty, progressive punk.
One song on Liveage! the band did not play in Austin is “All-O-Gistics”, which summarizes the concept of ALL. I initially didn’t care to hear it at the show, but after hearing Liveage!, I kind of wish they had played it. The Liveage! version has this celebration-of-life vibe about it that really made me understand the song a lot more. During the “kwah” chant section of the song, when the band gets the audience to join in their nonsensical mantra, Milo says, “Isn’t this ridiculous?” Of course, a good portion of the audience can be heard cheering in response. Having that moment on the record actually makes me feel like I am at the show, in a way that Alive! never could. It’s just this intimate moment of band and audience co-existing awesomely. I realize pointing out the intimacy of Liveage! compared to Alive! is more or less stating the obvious – there isn’t much question as to whether First Avenue in Minneapolis is more intimate of a venue than Detroit’s Cobo Hall, where much of Alive! was recorded – but work with me on this one.
It was Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest that gave me the actual experience of seeing Descendents live, though, and I can’t begin to express how much I appreciate it. It was what I had always hoped it would be – a bunch of total nerds playing amazing rock tunes with an unbridled lust for “GCF”…which they didn’t play, but oh well.
(Note: I would like to extend a very special thanks to Stephen Egerton.)
Fat EP ***
Milo Goes to College *****
I Don’t Want To Grow Up ****1/2
Everything Sucks ****
Cool To Be You ****
Here’s a pretty kickass vid of a live St. Louis show in ’87.
Tags: Austin TX, Bill Stevenson, Cobo Hall, Descendents, Devo, Doug Carrion, Epitaph Records, Fat Wreck Chords, First Avenue, Fun Fun Fun Fest, Karl Alvarez, KISS, Love Garden Sounds, Milo Aukerman, New Alliance Music, Ray Cooper, SST Records, Stephen Egerton, The Beach Boys