For those of you who have been letting me know the mathematical impossibilities of my ever getting to 20,000, this blog's for you. It's also a chance to follow up the Doors post with another band that hasn't been copied or imitated successfully by other bands.
I used to drive to Florida with my mom every year for a week in middle school (and for a few years of high school). Mom felt the need to visit and assuage her guilt of moving away from her own mother, and I got hours of one-on-none basketball on an eight foot hoop and some days at the beach out of the deal. Except for the thirty two hours in the car and a few command performances with my grandmother's racist old friends, it was a decent setup, and I spent most of the time in Walkmanland (or in my case, some awful Walkman knockoff that was six pounds and the size of a photocopier.) When we arrived in Florida, the first trip was always to the mall so mom could buy food and I could spend twenty bucks on some new music for the week. (Mom almost never kicked down bonus cash like that; I think she understood that she was buying my cooperation more than I did.)
By early 1985, I had become obsessed with SST Records. A southern California label begun by Greg Ginn to release albums by his band, Black Flag, by the mid-80s it was in the process of becoming the most important independent label in the US. In those days before the internet, it was hard not just to find information about those bands, but it was hard to find the albums themselves. I would read about a band or hear about an album from an older kid, and it would take sometimes months and two or three different record stores before I could even find it. It was part of the fun, though; it made you feel like an archealogist. I get why my students troll the blogosphere looking for completely unknown bands. Part of the charm is the total underground quality of it. This music was never on the radio, so the only way you'd hear it was to buy it or borrow it from someone. I had picked up some Black Flag, and Husker Du's Metal Circus and Zen Arcade, and had a list in my wallet (a blue and black striped, corduroy, velcro number with "hang ten" feet on it, I believe) of other bands to try to hear.
In March of 1985, I went to the tape rack at the Musicland in Melbourne FL, and to my shock, they had all of the SST releases there, including six or seven I'd never seen before. The label must have just set up a new distribution deal. It was genuinely shocking to see them all for sale in suburban central Florida along with Thriller and Purple Rain. I had been planning on getting two albums, but then I saw that they had the new Minutemen album. I picked it off the rack, and couldn't believe it. It was a double album (like the Zen Arcade I'd just bankrupted myself buying), with what looked like 50 songs on it. They were printed on the front of the cassette flap in about two point font. It cost an obscene $12.98. Before I lost my nerve, I took it to the counter and bought it. That week, in a totally incongruous setting, all I listened to was this album. I'm probably the only person who hears Double Nickels start up and thinks of eating french fries at the Atlantic Ocean.
Since then, I have probably listened to it once a month for the last 25 years. It's one of my five favorite albums of all time, without a doubt. I know Double Nickels shows up on a lot of "Top Whatever Lists," and the band enjoyed a resurgence after the terrific documentary We Jam Econo came out a few years ago, but critical discussion of the band usually focuses on everything but the music. People love to talk about what the band represented politically or sociologically more than they want to talk about the sound of the band itself. Because the songs are short and unpolished and the album only sold a handful of copies, Double Nickels frequently serves as the "weird" album on someone's "Top" list that proves the critic's credentials, like Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica or Joanna Newsom's Ys.
Let me be clear; I don't just admire this album or respect it or think it's good for you or culturally relevant; I truly, deeply love it. It's one of my five favorite records because I'd rather hear it instead of the other 3,000 albums in my collection. The rest of my Top Ten is dreadfully predictable and uncool. I'm not trying to impress you by writing about this album; I'm trying to convince you not to miss out. I can't imagine not listening to this album over and over again. I think it's inexhaustibly entertaining.
If you don't know about the Minutemen or that much about them as a band, great writers have covered that information in lot of other places. I would suggest you head here first: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minutemen_(band) It covers what you need to know. For more information about the album itself, go here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Double_Nickels_on_the_Dime If that whets your appetite, Michael Fournier's book about the album is a solid read as well (he and I have very similar experiences with the record, actually.) Just giving credit where credit is due.
I won't unnecessarily repeat the information from these sites; instead, I'm going to talk about the music and try to make a purely musical case for the record. I urge you to click the first link below and listen along while I write my way through Side One of the album.
What do I love so much about this record? Let's start with the sound. There are precious few overdubs here; the entire thing was recorded and mixed for $1,100, so everything is a first or second take. It sounds like three guys playing live in a room together, which fits this music perfectly. You are basically listening to a decently-recorded live album here. More than anything, though, it sounds like a band's rehearsal studio demo tape. That intimacy is crucial; if this record sounded better, its flaws would be a major detraction. Instead, you feel as if you're there with the band at the moment of creation. Everything sounds so exciting and fresh because it just is.
Moreover, the brevity of the songs gives everything such a breathless quality. Tracks begin and end before you realize it. I think it's a mistake to come at the Minutemen one track at a time. When I listen to this band, I treat each side of a record as one song. You shouldn't listen to one or two at a time; listen to side one as if it's one track, a suite of connected tunes. They flow in and out of each other like one great, extended song, and the effect is far more engaging.
Then there's the quality of the playing. I love punk rock, but there comes a point when an amateur approach is just... well... amateur. I also appreciate people who can play. Knowing your scales is not selling out; it's being good. The Minutemen are, without question, the most musically accomplished punk band in history. All three of them are great, great players. If you're a young bassist or drummer, the rhythm section of Mike Watt and George Hurley is one to study closely, and because the album is so spare in instrumentation, you can hear them clearly locking in and inspiring one another. I find Mike Watt's bass playing truly inspirational.
Because the band can play, their version of punk rock sounds completely different from what you might expect. The Minutemen are funky and jazzy as well as an aggressive rock band. What jumped out at me from the first moment I popped in that cassette was the groove the band has. The Minutemen are a mutant dance band.
The one obvious weakness of the band are D. Boon's vocals. Boon was such a likable, good guy that it's easy for me to overlook his limitations, and I've come to hear his voice as an essential part of the mix. For new, 2009 listeners, he's going to sound unskilled. That might be tough to overcome for some; try to imagine that your buddy is singing in this band, and that you're pre-determined to root for him. It helps. I'm also preapred to take some well-deserved flak for slagging Jim Morrison's vocals and suggesting that D. Boon's are somehow "better." In my defense, a key part of this band's appeal is that, unlike so many other bands, they have a great sense of humor, including about themselves, so Boon's "college try" vocals fit the band's ethos.
So here we go-- my notes on Side One. Please hit play.
Anxious Mo-Fo: The album starts with the sound of D. Boon's car starting; as a kid, I imagined that the record was supposed to be the great radio station playing as you drove around. This first song introduces all the pieces of the Minutemen sound: the repeated musical themes, the drum and bass drop-outs, Boon's angular, exploratory guitar solos, and his earnest attempt to talk-sing his way into being a lead vocalist. The opening line "Serious as a heart attack!," would make as good a summary of the album as any other, but the song's title reveals the band's ability to laugh while also being deadly serious.
Theatre Is The Life Of You: Here's where you might start to get the sense of why I think these songs are better in chunks than on their own. This song fits like a glove right after the opener-- when I first listened to the album, because it was on tape, I had no idea sometimes when a song had ended and a new one had begun. I'd suggest the same approach to you. You can't eat one jellybean and decide of you like jellybeans. You need to eat a few handfuls.
Viet Nam: An example of how the band tackled social issues in a way that didn't feel preachy. The song reminds us of the number of casualties in the war on both sides, and then ends by saying, "Not one domino shall fall." It's such a subtle form of social critique, more appealing than something like "Let's Impeach The President."
Cohesion: A total about face-- an acoustic guitar instrumental obviously influenced by the corridas playing on San Pedro, California radio stations when the guys were growing up. After three very similar punk-funk tunes, it's a welcome stylistic stretch.
It's Expected I'm Gone: The band slows it down and comes closer to a traditional punk approach, even though Watt is slapping his bass line. Inspirational line: "No hope / See, that's what gives me guts."
#1 Hit Song: More humor. In an alternate world, this truly would be a hit. The music is catchy, and over it, Boon offers "hit single" lyrics:
On the back of a winged horse / Through the sky pearly grey
Love is leaf-like / You and me, baby
Twinkly, twinkle / Blah Blah Blah
E! T! C!
Then he burns down the house with one of his best solos. What's great is that Boon isn't dismissing pop music as much as he's laughing at his band's inability to make it. The Minutemen loved classic rock, but couldn't write it, so they embraced their own angularity and weirdness. I'll bet D. Boon really did want to ride on the back of a winged horse. Who wouldn't?
Two Beads At The End: Perhaps the most musical moment on side one. All three musical themes in this song would make great songs on their own, and the band plays them brilliantly. If Foreigner had written riffs this good, they'd be in the Hall of Fame.
Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth?: The band slows it down again for some call-and-response beat poetry from D. and Mike. I love the lines: I stand for language / I speak the truth / I shout for history / I am a cesspool
Don't Look Now: Here's the essential clue about the band's inspirations. This tune is an old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, given the Minutemen treatment. It's a live recording of hilariously bad quality. It sounds like they're playing in a cafeteria to about nine people who are half-listening. I think the point here is the everyman quality of the band. These aren't rock stars; they're working musicians playing the gigs they can get. Tons of rock musicians are working class, but few of them had such tiny aspirations to rise out of the middle class as the Minutemen. They're not a band trying to be famous at all, and they're singing to and about other working class folks. Creedence's "Fortunate Son" was a band favorite, and a template for their undertstanding of their place in society.
Sh*t From An Old Notebook: Another hilarious lyric. I think the Minutemen curse exactly the right amount in these tunes. It's not gratuitous or for shock value; they sound like adults talking to one another. If Bill Hicks fronted a band, they'd sound like this.
Nature Without Man: Maybe the most impressive guitar playing on Side One. I always speed up when I'm driving to this song, and I end pounding the snot of my steering wheel.
One Reporter's Opinion: Side One closes with a touching song that shows how close these guys were. (Side Two closes with the band's autobiography, "History Lesson- Part II," which, for anyone who has ever played in a band, will choke you up.) In this song, Boon pokes fun as his best friend and band mate. Most bands try to create a mythology-- instead, these guys are just dorks (a word they use to describe Michael Jackson's inner voice on Side Two). The side ends with Boon mock-crooning "He's a stop siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiign-ah."
Yeah! I could listen to the whole thing again right now.
D. Boon died a year after this album came out in a one car accident when his girlfriend fell asleep at the wheel on a late night interstate drive and went off the road. Boon, sleeping in the back, was thrown from the van and died instantly. I had tickets to see the band opening for R.E.M. that spring. I lament the music we lost from these guys as much as the songs left unwritten by Hendrix or Lennon.
So there's my pitch. Almost all of the album is available to stream below. Hopefully, you'll be moved to check out the whole thing. For those of you who want a more focused introduction, I've bolded the songs I'd start with in the track listing, in case you've got some downloading fever. Either way, enjoy-- like me, and thousands of others, this band could be your life.
LINKS FOR THE WHOLE ALBUM, IN SEQUENCE:
Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LSFOGb0T2Y
Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTy0SRKG5Nw&feature=related
Missing: Political Song For Michael Jackson To Sing
Maybe Partying WIll Help: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeVrfhmwIUk
Missing: The Big Foist
Part 4: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LDj5_niffU&feature=related
Part 5: http://www.youtube.com/user/OurBandCould#p/u/73/HW5-opdQGVk
Part 6: http://www.youtube.com/user/OurBandCould#p/u/74/5pRmQP6FmhI
Part 7: http://www.youtube.com/user/OurBandCould#p/u/75/gCHhSXrLGVM
1. "Anxious Mo-Fo" – 1:19
2. "Theatre Is the Life of You" – 1:30
3. "Viet Nam" – 1:27
4. "Cohesion" – 1:55
5. "It's Expected I'm Gone" – 2:04
6. "#1 Hit Song" – 1:47
7. "Two Beads at the End" – 1:52
8. "Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?" – 1:49
9. "Don't Look Now" – 1:46
10. "Shit from an Old Notebook" – 1:35
11. "Nature Without Man" – 1:45
12. "One Reporter's Opinion" – 1:50
1. "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" – 1:33
2. "Maybe Partying Will Help" – 1:56
3. "Toadies" – 1:38
4. "Retreat" – 2:01
5. "The Big Foist" – 1:29
6. "God Bows to Math" – 1:15
7. "Corona" – 2:24
8. "The Glory of Man" – 2:55
9. "Take 5, D." – 1:40
10. "My Heart and the Real World" – 1:05
11. "History Lesson- Part II" – 2:10
1. "You Need the Glory" – 2:01
2. "The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts" – 1:20
3. "Mr. Robot's Holy Orders" – 3:05
4. "West Germany" – 1:48
5. "The Politics of Time" – 1:10
6. "Themselves" – 1:17
7. "Please Don't Be Gentle with Me" – 0:46
8. "Nothing Indeed" – 1:21
9. "No Exchange" – 1:50
10. "There Ain't Shit on T.V. Tonight" – 1:34
11. "This Ain't No Picnic" – 1:56
12. "Spillage" – 1:51
1. "Untitled Song for Latin America" – 2:03
2. "Jesus and Tequila" – 2:52
3. "June 16th" – 1:48
4. "Storm in My House" – 1:57
5. "Martin's Story" – 0:51
6. "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" – 0:40
7. "Dr. Wu" – 1:44
8. "Little Man with a Gun in His Hand" – 2:53
9. "The World According to Nouns" – 2:05
10. "Love Dance" – 2:00