Rather than having some schlub (i.e., me) pontificate about how brilliant pop/punk/hardcore pioneers the Descendents are and why everyone should see them Friday as part of the MusInk Tattoo Convention & Music Festival, I thought I'd go to the source. And by "source," I mean Descendents guitarist Stephen Egerton.
Egerton doesn't play on the group's first three full-length albums (1982's Milo Goes to College, 1985's I Don't Want To Grow Up and 1986's Enjoy! ) and one EP (1981's Fat). He joined the band during 1987's ALL, so I figured the Oklahoma resident would offer a unique viewpoint on the songs as someone who is a fan of the band and a member. The group has had one drummer (Bill Stevenson) and singer Milo Aukerman is on all releases except the first single (1979's Ride the Wild), so their opinions might be biased. And original bass player Tony Lombardo and his replacement Doug Carrion couldn't talk about the songs that followed their departures. Same with original guitarist Frank Navetta (who passed away in 2008) and his successor Ray Cooper. Yes, I could have included third bassist Karl Alvarez — who joined with Egerton in 1986 — but I don't have his number. I do, however, have Egerton's. Luckily, I was right as the guitarist spoke at length about the difficulty of honoring the legacy of Navetta and Cooper while maintaining his own musical voice.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): You had to learn Frank's stuff, which to my ears sounds like a very difficult thing to do.
Stephen Egerton: I discovered the Descendents just before the Fat EP came out. That EP is a barrage. You can hear that it's bass/guitar/drums and vocals, but it's a blast of information without a lot of detail. So my first understanding of that band transcended the individual instruments. I took it all in and loved it for what it was. Then Milo Goes to College came out and what struck me about Frank's playing was it reflected very reactionary tendencies — all downstrokes, all six strings when he could. He didn't really play solos, per se, and there were open chords and minor chords, which was cool in the context of punk. It was a very different kind of a sound, so the rhythmic intent and pulse, what he was going for, cleaner guitar sound…those were the things that struck me overall. And I loved them. We delve into his guitar playing, but his greater contribution to the band was his songwriting. He was a fantastic songwriter. There was something he brought to it that nobody else ever really could because he had a certain kind of chip on his shoulder about the world and that informed all things he did with a guitar.
Tell me about certain songs that stand out to you.
"I'm Not a Loser," Milo Goes to College (1982): You can feel angst and energy in just that intro where he's by himself. It sets the tone of the whole song. It's powerfully played and had all of that force, yet it had a breed of angst that is born of frustration. His guitar playing is never, at any time, connected to a technical idea. It's connected to the song, the meaning, the lyrics…that's what he's playing. It's probably the shining example of Frank's guitar playing.
"My Dad Sucks," Fat EP (1981): "My Dad Sucks" is a blur, but when I was taught what was actually happening from Bill, it's a very play-able riff. Trying to maintain the language of the downstroke and all six strings becomes this manic blur.
"Statue of Liberty," Milo Goes to College (1982): You can imagine this song in a slower, cleaner context. Open chords and an ambient sort of feel…it's less based in hard rock. There's a stand-out thing that it's clearly Frank. No one else would have done that.
"Parents," Milo Goes to College (1982): It's the extremism of basically hovering on one chord, letting the bass carry the changes and the melody of the song. The decision to do that between Frank and Tony is also very indicative of a broad idea, musically, for punk rock kids in a garage somewhere. I remember reacting to that like, "Whoa. That's trippy." And you could hear the bass, which is a result of that choice they made.
"Sour Grapes," Enjoy! (1982): Ray was strongly influenced by Frank. He plays with great accuracy and consistency. He brought a dimension that impacted the band that's still part of our musical vocabulary.
"Iceman," ALL (1987): When I came to try out, we spent three days jamming. We spent a lot of time on improv and riffs we had lying around. In my case, that was "Iceman." For Karl, that was "Van." "Schizophrenia" was another I had been doing and Bill had "Uranus," which was right up that same path of the oddball things we were doing. Musically speaking, we were pretty broad. We could play whatever, yet our influences stemmed from largely the same stuff that Bill and Milo's did.
"Everything Sux," Everything Sux (1996): I'm not at all a confident songwriter. Not so much with music, but with lyrics. Lyrics have never come easily to me. That was the first song I wrote as a complete thing — lyrics, drum parts, everything. That song was me finally comes to terms with writing a complete idea. The guitar parts themselves are not anything spectacular, but I knew exactly what was supposed to happen on the drums. Every single bit of that drum part I force-fed to poor Bill. Those things stacking on top of one another is something I'm comfortable with and I have very specific ideas about. I was always very malleable — here's my riff, play whatever you feel like. I pushed Karl to play stuff different from me and it was wide open for Bill and whoever was singing.
But in that case, I knew exactly how it was supposed to go in my head and I was right. And everybody agreed. It's feeding the song and the band as a whole and how we work together that makes the song interesting. I was like, "You can't make this the first song on the record," but everyone — and the label — said it should go first. If I hear it now, I think it works in context. I certainly wouldn't have pushed for that, but ultimately I get it. Now I'm happy it worked out the way it did. I wanted to evoke that feeling that you get when you hear (Black Flag's) "Revenge."
"One More Day," Cool to Be You (2004): I didn't write anything on Cool To Be You. I had a bunch of songs, but we didn't have lyrics to any of them, so we went with what we had. Milo seemed to end up with a wealth of songs. The only thing I wrote on the whole record was the little guitar thing at the beginning of "One More Day." It was the vocal melody to one of my other songs. The interesting thing about Cool To Be You is that stuff is one guitar performance. That's basically a live recording. That showed a certain evolution of the band. I'm mostly playing other people's parts. The pride I have in that record has more to do with the live performance aspect of it. That was fun for me.