Friday, October 2, 2015

Minutemen – "History Lesson – Part II" (1984)

Me and Mike Watt, we played for years
Punk rock changed our lives

Michael Azerrad's 2001 book about American indie music in the eighties, Our Band Could Be Your Life, takes its title from the first line of today's featured song.

That book has chapters about 13 bands – Black Flag, the Minutemen, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Mudhoney, and Beat Happening – all of whom made a name for themselves despite the fact that they didn't have deals with major record labels.

I was very familiar with some of those bands (e.g., Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Mission of Burma, Fugazi) prior to reading Azerrad's book, but completely unfamiliar with several others (e.g., Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., and Beat Happening).

The Minutemen fell between those two extremes.  I own their best-known album – the 45-song double album, Double Nickels on the Dime, which was released in 1984 – but I hadn't listened to it in years, and I knew nothing about the band's history or its individual members.

The Minutemen: Boon, Watt, Hurley
The band's guitarist, Dennes Boon (who called himself D. Boon) and bassist Mike Watt met in San Pedro, California – a working-class community that encompasses the Port of Los Angeles – when they were 14 years old.  They met their future drummer, George Hurley, in high school.

Like a lot of eighties punk groups, the Minutemen's lyrics were often very political.  They all came from blue-collar families, and were big fans of Creedence Clearwater Revival, whose "Fortunate Son" boils over with working-class resentment.  (Today's featured song lists several of the Minutemen's other favorite musicians.  Several of the musicians mentioned – punk icons Richard Hell of the Voidoids, Joe Strummer of the Clash, and John Doe of X – come as no surprise.  The one who is a bit of a surprise is the fabulous Eric Bloom of the fabulous Blue Öyster Cult.)

Where the Minutemen differed from other hardcore punk bands was their innovative musical style.  

Poster for a Minutemen show
Azerrad described the Minutemen's music as "wordy and gnarled . . . [and] full of confounding breaks and leaps," with "funk, jazz, and Captain Beefheart sounds." 

As Mike Watt said:

We throw all this soft music, folk music, jazz, etc., not only to avoid getting caught in just one style, but also to show [hardcore punk audiences] that, "See, you didn't want any rules . . . this is what you wanted.  You didn't want to be told what to listen to."

In December 1985, D. Boon was killed when his girlfriend fell asleep at the wheel of the band's tour van, which ran off the road and flipped.  Boon was 27 when he died.

The "Double Nickels on the Dime" album cover
Watt in particular was devastated by Boon's death, and thought about quitting music altogether.  But eventually he and George Hurley formed the band fIREHOSE, which released five albums before disbanding in 1994.  Since then, Watt has collaborated with Sonic Youth and the Stooges, put together a half dozen or so side projects, and released four solo albums.

A documentary about the Minutemen was released in 2005.  It was titled We Jam Econo, a reference to the Minutemen's philosophy of doing everything as cheaply and efficiently as possible.  ("Econo" is San Pedro slang for inexpensive.)

Mike Watt still drives a white Econoline van
The band toured in a Ford Econoline van, and were their own tech crew – they set up their own equipment and packed it away after shows.  They booked studio time after midnight, when the hourly rates were lower, and recorded songs in the order they would appear on an album to minimize editing expenses.  (The 45-song Double Nickels on the Dime album cost only $1100 to record, and was mixed in a single night.) 

Click here if you'd like to explore Mike Watt's personal website.  (According to his home page, he still lives in Pedro . . . and he still jams econo.)

Here's the autobiographical "History Lesson – Part II," which was written by Mike Watt: 

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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