By Gareth Watkins
Milo Goes to College, the first and best record by Manhattan Beach, California’s Descendents, is rightly considered a classic. The longest song is a stately two minutes and fourteen seconds, a result of the band’s well-documented caffeine addiction. The caricature of singer Milo Aukerman on the cover is as iconic as Mick Jagger’s blood-red lips. The lyrical themes are hardcore staples: parents, society, and fake punks, but there was something there that was unmistakably pop.
The word is used today to describe music for the most casual of listeners, engineered for maximum performance by super-producers, built for the widest possible appeal within the thirteen to thirty demographic. Saying that Milo Goes to College is pop isn’t to say that it shares DNA with Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman – it doesn’t. Pop isn’t in the music as much as it’s in the band’s intent: the decision that everybody can listen, that nobody is excluded. Punk had always been pop, but Milo defined Pop Punk.
Despite being a band for longer than pretty much anyone who writes for or reads this magazine has been alive, their career has been patchy, marked by long stretches of inactivity when Milo did in fact go to college (and got a job), when the remainder of the band kept playing as the significantly less renowned All. In these gaps the whole musical landscape changed: between 1987’s All and 1996’s Everything Sucks grunge flared up and burnt out, between Everything Sucks and 2004’s Cool to be You Green Day and Blink 182 took the blueprint Milo and co. laid down and ran with it. The latter were especially influenced by the Descendents sound: Mark Hoppus called their song “Silly Girl,” “the first song that really altered my life,” his estranged hetero-life-partner Tom DeLonge said that “Blink is absolutely a product of the Descendents,” probably before trying to get people to care about his book about UFOs.
While Milo… had that indefinable pop something that elevated it above other hardcore albums, Hypercaffium is blandly inoffensive. Milo… was hardly Anal Cunt, a few homophobic slurs aside, but it felt real, lived in. Hypercaffium’s lyric sheet details the safest, most pedestrian opinions a person can hold: religious people are kinda hypocrites, right guys? And doesn’t it suck that all the tasty food is bad for you? What’s that all about? And all these kids being prescribed Ritalin, that’s not cool.
On the level of instrumentation it fares no better. It’s cleanly and sharply produced, and that’s acceptable in punk rock, but there’s never the sense, palpable on Milo and even on Cool to be You, that they really did just down half a cup of coffee grounds, half a cup of water and five packets of sugar (their pre-show ritual during their early shows). When punk rock works it’s because it feels a little more intense than other genres, a little faster in every sense of the word. I’m not even going to use the Sonics or the Dead Boys or the Ramones or the Sex Pistols or the Clash or Black Flag or Fugazi or Refused or Fucked Up or Pissed Jeans or Perfect Pussy or G.L.O.S.S to explain this: remember that na-na-Na-na, na-na, na-na-na-na part in “All the Small Things” by Blink 182? Remember how you felt when that kicked in? There’s nothing on Hypercaffium that’ll make you feel like that. The Descendents circa 2016 come off worse than the band that toned down their sound for mass consumption.
After fourteen tracks of mediocrity they cap it off with utter wretchedness. “Beyond the Music” is a song so unbelievably saccharine, so unrepentantly sappy, that it erases what little punk cred the band had. Completely. After this they are no longer a punk rock band. You can read all of the lyrics at Genius.com, but here are some particularly choice cuts: “Still finding ways to share what we feel/For kids with no friends, it doesn’t seem real/And there’s nothing in this world/Not a dollar, dream or girl/That can rival what we have between us/Beyond the music.” Christ. You know when people say “I can’t even?” Well, I can’t. Those lyrics render me unable to do something so thoroughly that I don’t even know what it is that I can’t do.
All the side-project and All the album were named after a concept invented by Descendents guitarist Bill Stevenson, back when hardcore bands were getting really into self-help (see Bad Brains’ Positive Mental Attitude and the Minutemen’s Econo.) All is not settling, going further, achieving everything you can achieve. I’d like to introduce a counter-concept: Nothing. Nothing means being okay with how things are, realising that more expended effort, another album and tour for example, isn’t going to take you anywhere you aren’t already. It’s very Zen. Most of all, it’s realizing that the only constant is change, and when your time is up you need to clear some space for whoever’s next in line. That’s been true of Blink 182 since their self-titled album onwards, true of Green Day from Nimrod on, NOFX part-way through Heavy Petting Zoo, and based on the evidence of Hypercaffium Spazzinate it’s definitely true of the Descendents.Descendents, Hypercaffium Spazzinate