Descendents‘ 9th and Walnut is one of the stranger projects to come out of the pandemic lockdown. The legendary punk band got their recorded start in the early ’80s, but the group’s founding dates to 1977. Most of their earliest original songs were never recorded, and after the seminal Milo Goes to College was released in 1982, original guitarist Frank Navetta departed. Bassist Tony Lombardo hung around for one more album before he too moved on.
The group never completely cut ties with the two, however. Follow-up band ALL (which featured the current Descendents lineup with a different singer) got back together in the early ’90s with Lombardo for TonyALL, an entire album of Lombardo’s songs. And when Descendents reconvened in the mid-’90s to record Everything Sucks, Navetta and Lombardo played on “Eunuch Boy”, a leftover from the early days. In 2002, Lombardo, Navetta, and drummer Bill Stevenson got together and recorded the rest of their earlier material.
Then it sat on the shelf for nearly 20 years. But during the lockdown, Stevenson sent the tracks to vocalist Milo Aukerman. Aukerman recorded his vocals, and 9th and Walnut is the result. An album of songs written more than 40 years ago, mostly recorded two decades ago, and sadly released 13 years after Frank Navetta’s untimely death from a diabetic coma.
That’s a shame because 11 of the album’s 18 songs were written by Navetta, and it would have been nice if he had been around to see them released to the public. The record, produced by Stevenson and recorded in his studio, the Blasting Room, sounds excellent. It crackles with energy, and the music is crisp and clean but occasionally scuzzy when it needs to be. Aukerman’s vocals are enthusiastic, with his mature, slightly raspy 2020 voice giving real grit to the songs.
As for whether these songs are good, well, that’s a different question. For fans whose favorite Descendents album is Milo Goes to College, especially those who particularly dig tracks like “Parents”, “M-16”, and “Statue of Liberty”, 9th and Walnut will be like catnip. There is some good stuff here for the rest of us, but this is more of an intriguing artifact than a superb record.
The Lombardo-penned “Nightage”, at 2:22, the LP’s longest song, is a definite highlight. It opens with a melodic bassline, which serves as the song’s main riff and is later picked up in the guitar. The lyrics are typical romantic angst, but Aukerman’s intense delivery really sells it, and Stevenson’s tight snare rolls give it classic Descendents style. Navetta’s “Mohicans” is more melodic than many of his songs, which works in two ways. It draws a direct line to the ’60s rock that influenced the band while also previewing the catchy sing-alongs for which the band would become known. The harmonized chorus, “Last of the Mohicans”, is maybe the biggest hook on the album.
“Baby Doncha Know” and “To Remember” illustrate two sides of young Navetta’s issues with romance. The former is a 55-second kiss-off to a cheating girlfriend. The refrain, “You come up to me / Asking me to assist you / But baby doncha know / I’ve already been told / And I’m really through with you / And I really hate you” pretty much says it all. Meanwhile, “To Remember” begins with a melodic, melancholy guitar riff and starts with recrimination. “Stumbled in last night / My head was still throbbing / Then I remembered / All the things I said to you / I didn’t mean it.” Then he begs for one kiss to remember the way things were, desperately hoping she’ll forgive him.
Of the harder-edged material, “Grudge” is the most impactful. Aukerman gets to shout his way through lyrics like, “Grudge! / It works like a gun / Shoot it at people to make them hurt!” Navetta takes over on vocals mid-song for a spoken-word rant. That includes the lines, “Hey, man / Thanks for turning me on to homophobia and racism / When the only thing He ever said was ‘love’ / Now I’ve got a grudge on you!” That struck me as a tacit apology for the blatant homophobia of Navetta’s Milo Goes to College track “I’m Not a Loser”, a problematic punk classic if there ever was one.
Descendents originally had a second guitarist, David Nolte, who also gets a couple of songwriting credits. “Like the Way I Know” is a short, angry song primarily defined by Lombardo’s active, walking bassline. “It’s My Hair” is an unintentionally funny ’70s era time capsule. Aukerman digs into the lyrics with gusto, but complaints about people who don’t like his hairstyle don’t come off as something to take seriously in the 21st century. At least not from a group of guys whose current lineup features two members who wear their hair extremely short and two who are completely bald.
Longtime fans will appreciate finally getting to hear Aukerman’s vocals on “Ride the Wild” and “It’s a Hectic World”. These two songs made up the debut of Descendents’ 7″ and Navetta and Lombardo, respectively, sang lead vocals. Both tunes are more on the catchy power-pop side of the group’s sound. Getting Aukerman’s confident, intense singing is a significant improvement over the enthusiastic, but thin original takes. It’s also fun to hear the band run through a high-energy cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Glad All Over”, which has powerful harmonies from Lombardo and Navetta. The song, which was a live staple in those early days, has noticeably sweeter lyrics than anything else on this record. That sets the stage nicely for when Stevenson started writing songs, typically with his heart much more on his sleeve than anything Navetta and Lombardo were doing.
The bulk of the remaining songs are fun but not particularly distinctive. Tracks like “You Make Me Sick” and “Yore Disgusting” preview the vitriolic side of the band, while the abstract “Sailor’s Choice” is a starting point for a whole line of early songs about boating and fishing. The remaining handful are full of angst about girls, an always-popular topic for Descendents.
9th and Walnut is ultimately a cool archival project. It’s great that these songs finally get to see the light of day, even if they aren’t a songwriting master class. Many of Descendents’ longtime fans are going to love this record regardless. For the rest of us, it’s a fascinating look at the band’s early days. It’s easy to imagine a situation where Stevenson had, say, unearthed ancient four-track recordings on a dingy cassette and tried to clean it up and put it out. The fact that the songs were recorded in a professional studio by a producer who just happens to be Descendents’ drummer goes a long way towards making this album easy on the ears.