“Punk wasn’t a style of music, it was a state of mind, and the style of music was up to each band doing it.”
30 years ago this summer, The Minutemen — D. Boon (guitar, vocals), Mike Watt (bass, vocals) & George Hurley (drums, percussion, vocals) — released Double Nickels On The Dime, the greatest album in their way-too-short career (1980-85), and in my opinion the greatest album Los Angeles ever produced. Look, I get why someone would vote for Pet Sounds (1966), The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969), Under The Big Black Sun (1982), or a dozen other albums, but I’ve heard nothing else that explodes with ideas, creativity, cojones, humor, joy, and humanity like Double Nickels. It was as epic as any Zappa album, but instead of being smug, heartless dicks looking down on everybody else, The Minutemen saw themselves as corndogs who wanted other corndogs to be part of the scene.
“Our band could be your life.”
“Start your own band, paint your own picture, write your own book.”
As Michael Azerrad notes perceptively in his book called, what else, Our Band Could Be Your Life, “The Minutemen from San Pedro, California, were paragons of the subversive idea that you didn’t have to be a star to be a success” (p. 61). This sense of inclusiveness is endearing, subversively political, and gives the album, if not their entire catalog, an Everyman feel. Even the flaws don’t necessarily distract or subtract from the experience, but rather humanize and gives spirit to the whole. Double Nickels isn’t highly polished major label jive. It wasn’t created to get played on KMET, KLOS, or even KROQ. It’s first take DIY punk and the apotheosis of everything The Minutemen stood for, which is to say, taking rock from the arena and giving it, warts and all, back to the people.
Furthermore, in a medium — rock ‘n’ roll — where everything eventually gets co-opted, diluted, and assimilated, it says something that no one really sounded like The Minutemen before they emerged, and no one really sounded like them after they ended. Sure, they had stylistic antecedents (Wire, Creedence, The Pop Group, Blue Öyster Cult), but they were only reference points in the same way impressionism informed Van Gogh‘s painting, yet he may as well have been painting on another planet. Even fIREHOSE, the band formed by Watt and Hurley following Boon’s tragic death, only tangentially echoes The Minutemen — and I say that as a huge fIREHOSE fan.
The Minutemen were just three dudes from Pedro and I think this was the key to the organic, sui generis* nature of their music. They spoke their own dialect, a combination of English, SoCal, and Pedro that involved spiels and mersh, ballhogs and tugboats, and jamming econo. It was as if they learned the existing rules for verbal and rock music communication and purposefully turned them inside-out to create a homegrown vocabulary, both language AND music. This obsession with communication manifests itself throughout Double Nickels, in “The World According to Nouns,” “Anxious Mo-Fo,” and best of all, “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?” (which we’ll get to in short order). Joe Carducci, their boss at SST Records, even acknowledges this sense of self-creation in his dissertation on the aesthetics of rock music and rock criticism, Rock And The Pop Narcotic.
* That’s right. Throwin’ down Latin like I’m the fucking Pope.
“As bassist Mike Watt explained a million times, early on in a sudden cultural revolution they purged all their rock ephemera: solos, choruses, harmonies, fans. The purge was bloody, costing decadent lead singer Martin Tamburovich his musical career and untold numbers of blowjobs. The name changed from The Reactionaries to The Minutemen and then what? I’ll tell you, then what: a goddamned three-ring circus with a clown under each spotlight! Drummer George Hurley hit everything but a simple 4/4 and syncopated his syncopations. Bassist Watt turned up his treble and tried to knock guitarist D. Boon out of the box for alleged crimes relating to guitar tyranny. But, D. weighed about 20 stone (280 lbs) and wasn’t exactly unarmed. He had a guitar and Fender Twin with treble on 10.
What resulted was a torrent of shards and fragments signifying our common rock/R&B/metal/C&W/schmaltz inheritance, fused together in the rock combustion of its execution, signifying nothing but enormous entertainment. Then, either D. or Mike would babble some San Pedro shuck over the top of the sculpture. And then the masses would roar and light their farts.”
–Joe Carducci, Rock And The Pop Narcotic, 1990, pp. 358-59
From an ambition standpoint, the biggest influence on Double Nickels was Hüsker Dü. When the Hüskers came to town in October 1983 to record the songs for their upcoming album, Zen Arcade, Boon, Watt, and Hurley learned that Zen was going to be a double album concept record. This blew them away and they immediately set out to match their Minneapolitan brothers. They cut an album’s worth of songs in November at Radio Tokyo Studios with new producer Ethan James. But, in April 1984, they cut a whole ‘nother batch of songs, some of them written with or by friends of the band (including Henry Rollins and Carducci himself).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Ethan James has been given enough historical credit for his role in Double Nickels. While there is little doubt that the band came loaded for bear and were at the peak of their powers, James captured their genius in a way that Spot had previously only hinted at. Nothing wrong with Spot, in fact I think his econo DIY production aesthetic was a critical element to the SST modus operandi. But, James’ work simply sounds better than anything Spot recorded and I feel like that’s worth mentioning, if not outright celebrating.
The Minutemen ended up with 45 tunes over 4 sides and all but 2 were recorded by James (CCR’s “Don’t Look Now,” which was recorded at Club Lingerie and “Love Dance,” which was recorded with Ian MacKaye at the Dischord House). When the album was released that summer the inside gatefold included an important message: take that hüskers! Incidentally, I’ve read that SST released Zen Arcade and Double Nickels on the same July day, but I’ve never seen that confirmed. I’d like to believe that’s true, though. And if so, what a day! I’m guessing this happened a few times in the late ’60s and early ’70s, but for the ’80s, I can’t imagine a more significant release day in the entire decade.
As for why the album is called Double Nickels On The Dime, would you believe (he says in Don Adams voice) the impetus was Sammy Hagar??? True story.
There was this guy going around, Sammy Hagar, very talented man. He was “The Red Rocker” and he had this song (that) said he couldn’t drive 55. To wear red leather and say that you can’t drive 55 like that’s the big rebellion thing … to us, the big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin’ songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can’t drive 55 because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we’ll drive 55, but we’ll make crazy music.
—Watt to Michael T. Fournier, January 3, 2006
I find it hilarious that Hagar’s stupid song not only inspired the greatest album Los Angeles ever produced, but it also inspired one of its greatest songs: Thelonious Monster’s “Sammy Hagar Weekend”. To think that something as goofball and inconsequential as “I Can’t Drive 55” would have this impact on the ’80s LA scene is one of those weird influences that no one can possibly predict. For the record — and I can’t believe this hasn’t been pointed out before in relation to the album title — Watt is NOT doing double nickels (driving 55) on “the Dime” (the 10 Freeway). He’s doing double nickels on the 110, aka the Harbor Freeway, which goes from Pedro up through downtown LA and into Pasadena (and obviously, vice versa). To be fair, Double Nickels On The 110 doesn’t have the same flow, so I think the band made the correct decision. But, if’n you need proof, below is a pic of the location where Dirk Vandenberg took the classic cover photo. Please note that the sign has since been changed from the 10 to the 110 because getting on the Dime either takes you west to Santa Monica or east to the San Gabriel Valley. Staying on the Harbor actually gets you to Pedro. Word.
UPDATE 1: A few people have written to me — both below, on Twitter, and via smoke signal — that “on the dime” is a reference to “driving EXACTLY 55.” That makes sense. In my defense, having grown up in SoCal where I heard the 10 called “the Dime,” I totally locked into that reading. Y’all are probably right. It probably means exactly 55. I’d hang my head in shame, but this means I learned yet ANOTHER new thing about Double Nickels, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
UPDATE 2: Pulling this from the comments because I think it’s spot on and relevant to the cover discussion. From my man, Tecumseh: “I think in the picture the sign is still the old state route 11. It became the 110 in 1981, but it took a minute to change the signs, and the pic was probably not taken specifically for the record, but a year or two earlier. So, it says 11 south.”
LET’S SAY I GOT A NUMBER
I was trying to think of a way to properly honor Double Nickels and what I came up with was deceptively simple. I don’t really need to examine each song since Michael T. Fournier was nice enough to do that already on his excellent and comprehensive 33 1/3rd treatise. (If you haven’t already read that book, for the love of D. Boon, man, get on it!) Instead of addressing all 45 songs — 42 on CD — I’m gonna highlight 10 key tracks. Not the “Top 10,” mind you, but rather a solid double nickels (yeah, I went there) that taken together capture the spirit, brilliance, and sheer audacity of this seminal record. My hope is that it appeals to old school Minutemen fans, but also that people who aren’t familiar with The Minutemen can use this as a springboard to purchase the album.
I also wanted to be mindful of and mirror the construction of Double Nickels. If Zen Arcade influenced the album’s ambitious sprawl and Sammy Hagar influenced its title, Pink Floyd influenced its structure. On Side 3 and 4 of Ummagumma (1969) the individual Floyds were each allotted 1 song with no involvement from the other members. Granted, Roger Waters got 2 songs because SHUT YOUR STUPID MOUTH, GILMOUR, IT’S MY BAND! The Minutemen twist on this conceit was to give Boon, Watt, and Hurley their own album side made up of tracks chosen fantasy draft style. In other words, each member picked songs for their side until the 3 sides filled up and the remaining songs were put on Side 4 (aka Side Chaff). I wanted to make sure each side and songwriter were appropriately represented and I think I achieved that. It’s weighted toward Boon and Watt because, duh, they were the principal songwriters. I also list the songs below in sequential order because why fix what ain’t broke? But hey, enough of my spielin’. Whaddaya say? Let’s hell-ride.
ARENA ROCK IS THE NEW WAVE: SIDE D.
1. Minutemen – Theatre Is The Life Of You (Boon/Watt)
Into Carducci’s Minutemen formula — “our common rock/R&B/metal/C&W/schmaltz inheritance” — we could certainly add jazz and funk, and not in a horrible, backhatted, early ’90s fratboy kinda way. This was the first album on which Watt played with his fingers instead of a pick and that funky flavor is obvious here. The bassline is straight outta the Book of Bootsy, busy and popping underneath D’s spare, cutting, Fogerty-esque guitar. Structurally speaking, “Theatre” is similar to “Maybe Partying Will Help” (both are Boon/Watt numbers, so that could explain that). This is also one of the many songs establishing the upper echelon Minutemen rhythm section. Hurley matches Watt note for note, constantly shifting tempo and adding unconventional accents. Which, of course, was part of the plan.
Watt: “We didn’t want (George) to be just the backbeat shit. That’s the whole idea of the band, not just economy in the material sense, but makin’ it like a conversation. We’re going to have George in here, man. We’re going to make space for him, he’s going to come in here and speak, spell his name with his fuckin’ fills, so that would take a little of the time. That wasn’t really that traditional, but luckily, Georgie didn’t have reverence for what was tradition.”
–Fournier, 33 1/3rd book, p. 18
2. Minutemen – Viet Nam (Boon)
If 1984 is known for one Vietnam song, it’s the title track to Springsteen‘s Bored In The USA. However, “Viet Nam” is the better song and while there are multiple reasons for this, here are the main two: 1) It’s not Springsteen and 2) It is The Minutemen. “Viet Nam” is a protest song in reverse, calling American foreign policy into question with the benefit of fact-based hindsight. “50,000” represents the number of US troops killed (the number is actually 58,000+) and “500,000” is roughly the number of North Vietnamese military personnel and Viet Cong reported to have died in combat (the number, at least according to this website, is closer to 444,000). As is Boon’s wont, his sympathies are with “the working masses,” consistently manipulated by presidents and members of Congress to support dubious policies (in this case, the so-called “domino theory“). This was true in 1964, 1984, and [checks internet] 2014. My guess is it’ll be true 200 years from now when our robot overlords program our thinkchips for us (Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders?).
Musically, the song pays homage to The Pop Group, a British outfit that combined funk and dub rhythms with serrated guitar cacophony and probably too much dogmatic, Thatcher-era agitprop for its own good. They were part of that generation of avant post-punks like Wire, Public Image Ltd, and The Slits, so maybe sloganeering was unavoidable. According to Watt, their song “Blind Faith” directly influenced “Viet Nam” and as Fournier correctly notes, “The Pop Group’s sonic influence is easily audible in The Minutemen’s recordings — trebly guitar, off-kilter rhythms, bubbling bass” (33 1/3rd book, p. 20). Boon’s guitar, while indeed trebly and of a piece with Pop Group, also betrays the influence of Buck Dharma from BÖC.
Interesting side note: The album from which “Blind Faith” comes is called For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder (1980), which could easily be an alternate title for “Viet Nam.” And since I’m guessing most of you aren’t familiar with The Pop Group, let alone this specific song, BONUS TRACK, Y’ALL!!!
BONUS TRACK: Pop Group – Blind Faith
For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, 1980
3. Minutemen – #1 Hit Song (Boon/Hurley)
That’s Georgie. That’s his parody of mersh. He loved to parody mersh, but we all did. D. Boon set up this one part, smooth, caricature of being smooth. Twinkle twinkle, making fun. Great overdub. D. Boon only used an effect on records. He would overdub with his green Tube Screamer, 909*. Worth a lot of money now, econo shit. He used this hollow body Gibson ES 120 that had to have the cord soldered right into it. He used that to overdub leads. Never played it live, hardly.
—Watt to Michael T. Fournier, January 3, 2006
Love this song. While it’s a parody of a commercial song and the title is a goof in the spirit of Big Star‘s #1 Record, I think it actually IS a hit song in a very cool alternate universe. I mean, who the fuck says Blah Blah Blah and E. T. C. instead of having actual lyrics? George Hurley, that’s who. It’s probably the one song on Double Nickels to appropriate Zappa’s sense of pop music satire. But again, The Minutemen are having fun mocking the form, not joylessly and contemptuously fingerpointing. Anchored by Watt’s funky, lowdown bassline, Hurley pretty much delivers the straight 4/4 (it is meant to be mersh after all), and Boon offers more of his taut Fogertyisms on guitar.
Sadly (and curiously) this album would be the last Minutemen record to feature Georgie’s lyrics. I’m not sure if he wrote songs and Boon and Watt rejected them or if he flat-out stopped writing, but I do feel like Project: Mersh and 3-Way Tie (For Last) suffered a bit from not including his idiosyncratic vision.
* I wonder if Watt misremembered Boon’s pedals, inadvertently mixing up the Tube Screamer 808 with the Phase Tone 909. I ask because in researching Ibanez’s line of ’80s-era foot pedals, the Tube Screamers were green 808s, while the 909s were blue Phase Tones. Perhaps a minor distinction, but the kind of thing I obsess over.
UPDATE: In the comments section, Hexwrench makes a good point. He says, “On the geek tip, Watt’s gotta be talking about a Tube Screamer TS-9, which was the model after the 808. I can’t recall ever hearing D Boon use a phase shifter, which is what the Phase Tone 909 is.”
4. Minutemen – Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth? (Watt)
[Boon] A word war
[Watt] Will set off the keg
[Boon] “My words are war!”
[Watt] Should a word have two meanings?
[Boon] What the fuck for?
[Watt] Should words serve the truth?
[Boon] I stand for language
[Watt] I speak for truth
[Boon] I shout for history
[Watt] I am the cesspool
[Boon] For all the shit
[Watt] To run down in
For all of the band’s geopolitical concerns (“Viet Nam,” “West Germany,” “Untitled Song For Latin America,” “Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing”), songs like “New Wave” are more meaningfully political and do far more intellectual heavy lifting. The central conceit here is that language defines who we are and informs not just our politics, but everything we experience as reality. Kenneth Burke, the literary theorist who authored Language As Symbolic Action and A Grammar Of Motives, wrote in the latter book, “Men seek for vocabularies that are reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality.” In other words, “Should a word have two meanings? What the fuck for? Should words serve the truth?”
This concern with language manifests itself throughout Double Nickels and it’s usually Watt responsible. At the risk of being overly reductive, if you’re wondering who wrote a song in The Minutemen, the anthems were usually D., the poetics were usually Mike, and Georgie’s lyrical contributions fell somewhere between, though probably closer to Watt. In addition to “New Wave,” linguistics are repped on:
The World According to Nouns (Watt)
The state, the church, the plans, the waste, the dead, what’s the verb behind it all?
The do, the how, the why, the where, the when, the what, can these words find the truth?
I want to give names to our bonds
I need names to play the game
Anxious Mo-Fo (Hurley)
No device to measure
No words can define
I mean, what I’m trying to say is
‘How can I express, let alone possess?’
Watt was actually invested in this subject matter from the very beginning. Dig this big crux from the first Minutemen EP, Paranoid Time (1980).
Let’s say I got a book in my hand
50,000 words, 50,000 translations
Tear up your dictionaries
PUNK ROCK IS THE NEW NOSTALGIA: SIDE WATT
5. Minutemen – Corona (Boon)
The Minutemen spent Fourth of July (1982) in Mexico. The holiday was on the same weekend as the country’s general election. Right before the holiday, they had shaved their heads as part of a performance art piece in which they painted their bald noggins black to look like matches in a book. It didn’t occur to them to apply sunscreen while they swam in the ocean. The results were predictable. The next morning, the three dudes woke to hangovers, huge sunburns, and, in the distance, clanking. There was a woman walking up and down the beach collecting empty Corona bottles to deposit.
The same trip to Mexico was also the catalyst for the song, “I Felt Like A Gringo” on the Minutemen’s 1983 Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat EP (which I linked to in my last post, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts).
–Fournier, 33 1/3rd book, pp. 52-53
True-ass fact. “Corona” is my favorite Minutemen song of all-time and has been since I first spun Double Nickels at KCSC in the fall of 1989. It’s unique in The Minutemen canon for pretty much being their only country song. Well, cowpunk is probably more accurate, but the rhythm section is playing a country backbeat, and to quote H.I. McDonough, that there is what it is.
Of course, the elephant in the room with regard to “Corona” was its use as the Jackass theme song. For some reason, this never really bothered me, though in theory I could see why someone would consider it a sellout move. The way I saw it, MILLIONS of people were probably hearing The Minutemen for the first time and the show’s producers — Spike Jonze, mostly — were smart enough to use my favorite song. Later on, my sentiments were justified when Watt explained that the royalties were directed to Boon’s father, who was battling emphysema.
FYI, I’ve included “Corona” in an Adios Lounge post before — Lydia Loveless and the Blood of the Lamb — but it was The Damnations‘ cover from their 2002 album, Where It Lands. Their guitarist, Rob Bernard, is one of my favorite players ever, a huge D. Boon fan, and if you haven’t heard him in Prescott Curlywolf, get on that.
6. Minutemen – The Glory Of Man (Watt)
The most overt of the Joyceans, except for “June 16th.” The kinda optimism that (Leopold) Bloom has, you know? Despite all the lame shit, there’s still a goodness about us. Somehow we’ll redeem, come up, and help each other out. That’s kinda what the tune’s about. I can put it with a real trippy fuckin’ disco beat. The best kind of disco. I wanted to dance, but I wanted Georgie to work the shit out of the kick drum. Sorta like a dare. D. Boon, he counters with this totally econo one-note guitar part. Well, two parts. He would do that. Elegant, you know? Econo! Totally econo! Do a two-note verse that stays like that because if he bogarts there you wouldn’t hear that drum, you wouldn’t hear that bass.
—Watt to Michael T. Fournier, January 3, 2006
The perfect follow-up to “Corona,” “Glory” hurtles down the track seemingly out of control, but as usual, the band keeps their shit together. Watt’s rumbling, percolating bass is in the driver’s seat with Hurley riding shotgun, a spasm of kick drum, hi-hat, and a couple of killer, surf music-esque floor tom breaks (1:07-1:17 and 2:03-2:13). Boon’s jagged guitar explosions ride on top and he periodically drops out to let Mike and Georgie do their thing. It’s classic Minutemen in the sense that the song is busy, with a lot of moving parts, but cohesive.
Lyrically, “I live sweat, but I dream light years” is damn near the best summation of the Minutemen ever. Working class dudes that were fearlessly, unapologetically original and innovative. That line is a mission statement.
When Watt says “Joycean” above, he’s referring to James Joyce‘s modernist epic, Ulysses, which Watt read on tour with Black Flag just before writing and recording the second set of Double Nickels songs. The novel chronicles a day in the life — June 16, 1904 — of Dubliner, Leopold Bloom, and it was Joyce’s stream of consciousness literary technique that Watt tried appropriating for his own lyrics.
Knowing this, it’s interesting to reinterpret Watt songs like “The Glory Of Man,” “Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?” and “The World According to Nouns” with Joyce in mind. Watt’s focus on language is a direct response to Ulysses, which is also obsessed with language. In fact, Episode 14 of the novel (“Oxen Of The Sun”) is a chronological history and parody of Western language and literature. Watt was liberated by Joyce — and both men internalized Kenneth Burke’s implicit assertion that “we are what we say” — and he tried to invest his own songs with that same kind of literary and linguistic discipline. Obviously, Mike is a rock dude, not one of the most demanding, challenging authors ever. But, to suggest that Double Nickels is rock music’s Ulysses isn’t that crazy of an assertion. At least that’s what these 12 beers are telling me and alcohol has never lied to me before.
On The Punch Line there’s a song called “History Lesson.” It’s a nightmare song. It’s about human slaughtering over power and money …
BONUS TRACK: Minutemen – History Lesson
… I was thinking, well, maybe there’s another kind of history, too, about this crazy scene. You’ve got to understand, punk in the US in those days was this tiny scene. But, we were so involved in it, it seemed important. So, this was a history lesson. I guess when you write a song, you don’t want it to be too generic. You want to put feeling and something human in it. As a lyric it just came right out. Usually I start with the title and when I got the title, I got the focus. The music track was a little different for me, because I wrote it on the guitar not on bass. Even in those days I didn’t do it that much.
We had just played in Europe with Black Flag for our first tour over there and we were listening to a lot of Velvet Underground. There was a song of theirs called “Here She Comes Now” that influenced the music part. The words don’t have anything to do with the Velvet Underground, though. The words came out of reading the fanzine, Flipside, in the early ’80s, where people would write in letters. From reading some of those letters I got kind of a feeling that Minutemen were in a strange place.
–Watt to Bruce Pollock, Songfacts
7. Minutemen – History Lesson – Part 2 (Watt)
Our band could be your life
Real names’d be proof
Me and Mike Watt, we played for years
Punk rock changed our lives
We learned punk rock in Hollywood
Drove up from Pedro
We were fucking corndogs
We’d go drink and pogo
This is Bob Dylan to me
My story could be his songs
I’m his soldier child
Our band is scientist rock
But I was E. Bloom, Richard Hell
Joe Strummer and John Doe
Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar
While “Corona” is my favorite song because it opened the door and allowed the rest of The Minutemen catalog to walk through, “History Lesson – Part 2” is their single greatest songwriting achievement and I’m not sure this is debatable. For all of the gigs and flyers in this band’s densely-packed 6-year career, this tune reflects the gigantic heart of the band. What did they stand for these Minutemen? Where did they come from? Where did they fit on the rock ‘n’ roll continuum? What will they mean in the future? If Joyce encapsulated the history of the English language in Ulysses, Watt encapsulated the history of punk rock in “History Lesson – Part 2.”
One thing that really fascinated me was that when you saw (a punk) band play, after they played they were always in the audience and you could talk to ’em. That’s something that never really existed in my perception. I mean, shit, you go see one of these really name bands up at The Fleetwood or something, (you have to go) backstage, you need a pass.
–D. Boon to Splat Winger, KXLU, date unknown, interview available at Corndogs.org
I think most of us probably know that by 1979-80, mainstream rock music had long since metastasized into a medieval society of aristocrats (rock stars, major labels, big promoters, and a handful of radio stations) and peasants (everyone else). The shows weren’t held at dive bars and clubs, they were staged in football stadiums and large arenas. But, punk rock changed our lives. It democratized the music. In the Hollywood of this era you could drive to The Masque, Cathay de Grande, The Whisky, or the all-ages Starwood and drink and pogo to homegrown acts like X, Black Flag, Weirdos, Germs, and Screamers or out-of-town bands like Meat Puppets, Ramones, Dead Kennedys, The Damned, and The Jam. It was a cultural upheaval, a peasant revolt, imported from England and New York, but quickly given a makeover in SoCal. It’s also instructive to recall how Carducci described that moment when The Reactionaries became Minutemen, concurrent with this era of punk activity: “In a sudden cultural revolution they purged all their rock ephemera: solos, choruses, harmonies, fans. The purge was bloody.” SERF’S UP!!!
Lots of punk bands could screed. That was the easy part. Rant and rage against whomever (or whatever) you perceived to be authority, be they parents, school, work, cops, Reagan, middle class expectations, the list is fairly endless. By 1983-84, Hüsker Dü rebelled against hardcore punk itself because it had devolved into a circumscribed set of rules, and they emerged from their cocoon with Zen Arcade. The Minutemen, inspired by their example, produced Double Nickels, itself a shot across the hardcore punk bow. These two albums put a lie to the idea that punk was supposed to sound a specific way. Sure, short, angry songs were certainly part of the formula, but that’s not all it HAD TO be. As Watt so eloquently stated at the top of this post, “Punk wasn’t a style of music, it was a state of mind, and the style of music was up to each band doing it.” Therefore, it was a melodic love song about a drug overdose like the Hüskers’ “Pink Turns To Blue” AND it was a mournful celebration about wanting to be E. Bloom (singer and stun guitarist in BÖC), Richard Hell (Voidoids), Joe Strummer (Clash), and John Doe (X). Ultimately, punk was the freedom to express yourself honestly and from the heart without regard to mersh or fashion or even politics.
Musically speaking, “History Lesson – Part 2” is fairly simple, with Boon and Watt weaving that main riff around one another. What really makes the song work, though, is Hurley’s drumming. In the verses he’s laying track with a solid, understated 4/4, although he includes some quick snare rolls between the 2 and 3. Then, during the instrumental sections — for 2 bars, then 4 bars, then back to 2 bars — he kicks in 16th notes on the ride cymbal that gives the song an unexpected swing and actually is a total Ringo move. It’s one of the subtle elements that made Georgie such an inventive drummer and also what made The Minutemen such a versatile band. Lyrically and sentimentally, “History Lesson – Part 2” is as good as punk rock ever got, but God bless tugboat musicianship. Gotta support the song.
Minutemen – History Lesson – Part 2
Original performance from public access TV, 1985
This clip excerpted from We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen, 2005
Director: Tim Irwin
DANCE ROCK IS THE NEW PASTURE: SIDE GEORGE
8. Minutemen – The Politics Of Time (Watt)
This one almost feels like a Who song mauled by punk rock and free jazz. Watt and Hurley are in the Entwistle/Moon roles as the lead instruments, playing insanely fast and busy during the verses. Meanwhile, Boon is the Townshend figure, mostly laying back to showcase the rhythm section, but managing to throw down one of his greatest (and most econo) guitar leads (:10-:15 and again from :41-:46). “Politics” is also unique in that it’s one of the few songs on Double Nickels to feature Mike on the mic, but 2 those songs — this one and “New Wave” — feature him sharing vocals with Boon (Watt takes the first 2 verses and D sings the last verse). Interestingly, The Politics Of Time was a comp that came out in 1984, a few months before Double Nickels, but it did not include the song, “The Politics Of Time.” It’s also the song from where the phrase “jam econo” matriculates.
As far as the lyrics are concerned, it, too, is a bit distinctive (beyond “we jam econo”). Let Watt explain:
I wrote it, it’s all about the band. We’re time Nazis. It’s going to be THIS long! It’s going to have THIS many words! Watches clocks! You know, in some ways, we were pretty hard-nosed about that. I don’t know, it’s just focus. We were very definite about it. D. Boon said no matter what style we’re playing, I want ’em to know it’s Minutemen. I thought maybe that was one of the ways. I don’t know, but that’s the one song on the record that I was writing about the band. The politics of time – we made time a political issue. This is how the power’s going to be distributed in this band, put the clocks on us.
—Watt to Michael T. Fournier, January 3, 2006
9. Minutemen – This Ain’t No Picnic (Boon)
“Picnic” is probably the band’s most popular song that was never featured as the theme show of an MTV series. Part of that is because it has a pretty traditional structure — intro/verse/chorus/solo/verse/chorus — with a 4/4 time signature. It also has one of the great fistpumping refrains of its era: “THIS! AIN’T! NO! PICNIC!” D’s solo, from 1:08-1:20, doesn’t “shred” per se, but goddamn he plays that thing like a motherfucker. Such a great guitarist and again maybe some of that Buck Dharma guitar influence is shining through.
As for what inspired the lyrics, D. Boon worked at an auto parts store and was listening to KDAY, the R&B station which was then located at 1580 on the AM dial*. D.’s boss didn’t appreciate, in his words, “that nigger shit,” and made him change the station. So, when Boon sings, “Working on the edge, losing my self-respect,” it’s the guilt of having to earn his paycheck from a dumbshit cracka-ass cracka. It’s also one of the great working class anthems and one I wrote about in conjunction with Superchunk‘s “Slack Mothefucker” back in 2011. Check out This Ain’t No Picnic.
* Fun LA Fact: If D. happened to be listening to KDAY’s “5:00 Traffic Jam” in 1983-84, he would’ve heard a couple of DJs who a few years later would gain fame as founding members of N.W.A.: Dr. Dre and DJ Yella, at the time members of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
Minutemen – This Ain’t No Picnic
The band’s first video, starring a young Ronald Reagan
Director: Randall Jahnson
CHUMP ROCK IS THE NEW COOL: SIDE CHAFF
10. Minutemen – Jesus And Tequila (Boon/Carducci)
D. Boon showed me that song and I thought right away, Crazy Horse, Neil Young. Maybe a little more notes than he’d play, but something with that kind of feel. That’s what I was thinking of. I just played it for the first time in 20 years with Calexico. Joey (Burns) had me come and play that song with them. It was weird — I had hadn’t played it in so long. How’s this one go? But, kind of a blues song. Not a shuffle either. The way D. Boon sings it is like Muddy Waters.
—Watt to Michael T. Fournier, January 3, 2006
One of the great mysteries of Double Nickels is how this powerhouse ended up on Side Chaff. Such a great song and I love the idea of a Neil Young influence on the band. Actually, “Jesus And Tequila” sounds a bit like “L.A.,” the Los Angeles destruction fantasy from Neil’s underrated live album, Time Fades Away (1973), an album fueled, not by Jesus, but certainly by tequila. Like Neil, D’s riffage is simple and yet memorable. Watt tugboats, mostly laying low and letting the guitar and vocal do the heavy lifting. Speaking of that vocal, I totally hear a little “Mannish Boy” in D’s phrasing. And as usual, Hurley is the secret weapon, his incessant ride pushing the song forward and offering quick, Jerry Nolan-esque tom fills on the turnarounds into the verses.
The lyrics for “Jesus And Tequila” were written, not by Boon, Watt, or Hurley, but by Joe Carducci. Interestingly, you could make an argument that the protagonist in this song is the same guy (and same boss) from “This Ain’t No Picnic,” so good job by Carducci linking those 2 songs thematically. Why, though, would the band include outside writers? If there was a drawback to turning a single album into a double album on relatively short notice, it was coming up with enough lyrics for every song. So, The Minutemen outsourced 9 songs on Double Nickels to friends and SST comrades, including Henry Rollins and Chuck Dukowski from Black Flag (though Chuck had left Black Flag by this point), Jack Brewer and Joe Baiza from Saccharine Trust, Dirk Vandenberg, who took the famous Double Nickels cover photo, and even Martin Tamburovich, the ousted lead singer from The Reactionaries.
MR. NARRATOR, THIS IS BOB DYLAN TO ME
After 30 years on this planet — and 25 in my record collection — I can pay Double Nickels no higher compliment than saying that it continues to reveal its secret language to me. I still hear new things, be they guitar figures, syncopations, drum accents, or the way the instruments weave together. I’ve also gaining a richer understanding of the lyrics, which seem to have evolved with time. What I’m really saying, though, is that as I’ve become more sophisticated as a listener, I’ve caught up to this album … somewhat. I doubt I’ll ever catch up to all of it and I’m OK with that. It’s a monufuckingmental achievement and one of the great works of 20th century art: Ulysses, The Beatles, Dylan, The Simpsons, Citizen Kane. Double Nickels On The Dime belongs in that discussion.
When The Simpsons first starting gaining traction, I remember reading a Matt Groening interview, and he said something that has always stuck with me. He said, “The Simpsons rewards people for paying attention.” It was a brilliant observation on a couple levels. For one, there was the superficial aspect of paying attention to its many sight gags and pop culture references. But, on a much deeper level, the show was rewarding you for “getting it,” because “getting it” meant that you were on the side of the subversive. The show appealed to imagination, creativity, anti-authoritarianism, and having the balls to discover your own vision. That’s exactly what The Minutemen stood for. “Start your own band, paint your own picture, write your own book.” While their music exists on one level — these are the notes, chords, and lyrics — Double Nickels exists on another level entirely. It’s a beacon for a culture grown accustomed to the safe, boring, and predictable darkness. The album will take even seasoned music lovers out of their comfort zone, but this is a good thing. Embrace that challenge. Your heart and soul will thank you for it. God bless D. Boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley for the gift that keeps on giving.
For those of you who might be interested in such things, here’s a Spotify playlist of every song included in this post, except The Pop Group: Adios Lounge Double Nickeling
Buy Michael T. Fournier’s essential tome on Double Nickels.
Buy Tim Irwin’s fantastic documentary, We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen.
And finally, buy Double Nickels at Amazon or Discogs.
All you mothers and fathers: Create forums in which your children can learn the beauty of the world through the arts, so they can pass it on to their children. That’s what my parents did for me. Make art, not bombs.
Thanks for such a wonderful review of one of my favorite all-time albums. I used to be a music writer, and though I’ve had many of your observations, you put them all much more succinctly than I ever could! Heck, I’d love to read your review of the other 33-37 songs. (Which ones are missing from the CD? I’ll have to go and check the original vinyl and find out!)
Beautifully done, and I agree with every word of it, with one quibble: I’d argue that “On the dime” doesn’t refer to the 10, or the 110 (which was actually called SR11, until 1981). I always took it to mean exactly 55, not one mile over or under.
Thanks David! I appreciate the nice words. First off, I miscalculated like a dummy — math is hard! There are 45, not 47, musical tracks, so I’ve updated the text above. The CD that most people have, pressed in 1989, has 43 tracks, but the last track is a composite of the car jams that open sides 2-4. So, the CD actually has 42 songs. Missing are “Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” and “Little Man With a Gun in His Hand.”
A couple other people have suggested that “on the dime” means a variation of what you said, and you might be right. I think this might be a problem of growing up in SoCal and being so close to cultural references. I’ve heard the 10 referred to as “the Dime” for so long that I couldn’t imagine anything else being the reference. Funny how your brain locks into something and can’t let go. I should probably just ask Watt to be totally clear.
I think in the picture the sign is still the old state route 11. It became the 110 in 1981, but it took a minute to change the signs, and the pic was probably not taken specifically for the record, but a year or two earlier. So it says 11 south
Wow, thanks for the great article/excuse for me to blast a bunch of Minutemen tunes. On the geek tip, Watt’s gotta be talking about a Tube Screamer TS-9, which was the model after the 808. I can’t recall ever hearing D Boon use a phase shifter, which is what the Phase Tone 909 is.
Thanks Tecumseh. My buddy RJ said the exact same thing as you: “The Harbor Fwy (aka the 110) used to be called the 11, not the 10. The Santa Monica Fwy was always the 10. The 11 turned into the 110 sometime between 1978 and 1981.” Here’s the crazy part. I’m only now seeing that sign on the cover saying 11 South San Pedro. WHAT?!?! Seriously. My eyes and brain have been convinced for 25 years that Watt was driving toward a sign that said 10 South San Pedro. Isn’t it wild how you can lock into an interpretation and not see the obvious. That’s a metaphor for something I think.
Hexwrench: I bet you’re onto something. It just seemed weird I couldn’t find a single pic of an old green Tube Screamer 808. They make repros now, but I couldn’t find a vintage one. I bet that TS-9 is the answer. Found a great pic of one, too. Sweet! Thanks brother!
Hey Lance, another little bit for you… Greg Davis used to take pride in claiming that Watt had told him “Corona” was a specific, deliberate attempt to write a song in the style of SST labelmates Blood on the Saddle. I suppose that can be verified if anyone really cares, but it sounds plausible.
Awesome. Thanks Kev. Yeah, I could totally see Watt deliberately writing a cowpunk song just because. Another color in the tapestry.
Your mentioning the Minutemen hailing from San Pedro brings to mind that old song “Hot Rod Lincoln.” In it the narrator says he “drove out of San Pedro late one night.”
You’re right, totally forgot about that.
“Pulled out of San Pedro late one night
The moon and the stars was shinin’ bright
We was drivin’ up Grapevine Hill
Passing cars like they was standing still”