San Pedro, California’s greatest musical export clearly understood the concept of brevity. The trio’s albums and EPs pack an astonishing number of songs, most of which (on the early releases, at least) clock in at under a minute. In that brief time, they took apart rock, jazz and funk and put the pieces back together in a jagged collage. Although the Minutemen refused to write verses and choruses, based on their belief that rock’n’roll as we know it is a lethargic dinosaur, each of their songs is a satisfying composition.
The Minutemen saga began in 1980 as a four-piece called the Reactionaries that played regular-length songs. Later that year, they slimmed down (numerically speaking) and adopted their new name and radical modus operandi. They stuck to that twisted idea of dada with a groove until the end, and with one out-of-chronology exception, their records kept getting more ambitious and better.
The 7-inch Paranoid Time EP offers dogmatic politics redeemed by idiosyncratic Wire-type songs. Kicked along by drummer George Hurley, each abbreviated blurt of rhythm serves as a backdrop for the rants of bassist Mike Watt and guitarist D. Boon. The best is the apocalyptic “Paranoid Chant,” in which Boon screams, “I don’t even worry about crime anymore.”
The Punch Line is more complex, musically and lyrically. The band loosens up with more funk, off-kilter rhythms and enigmatic twists in which songs seem to fall apart but don’t quite. As proof of the musicians’ seriousness, the 12-inch 45 includes an insert entitled Fundamentals of Design, which waxes philosophic about “The Order of Harmony,” “The Order of Balance” and “The Order of Rhythm.” Actually, the record is evidence enough, as it reveals three imaginative musicians capable of playing music that holds together without a center. A subsequent 7-inch, Bean-Spill, contains five songs (total running time: six minutes) and a vulgar genitalia drawing by Raymond Pettibone on the label, over the legend “(We need the money).”
What Makes a Man Start Fires? throws jazz and blues elements into the blender, and features the Minutemen’s first semi-dramatic song ending — that is, the first on which they do something other than just stop playing. The songs tend towards near-epic length — only one of eighteen is under a minute. On this album, the Minutemen show their instrumental depth, shifting effortlessly from one fragmentary clash of styles to another. On the trio’s most poetic record, the eight-song Buzz or Howl, they don’t try to make the pieces add up, crafting the loosest improvisations over which Boon and (on one song) Watt scream their lyrics.
Double Nickels on the Dime slaps 45 numbers onto four sides of vinyl. The unifying concept is driving in a car, but the record is really held together by the band’s unflagging commitment to idiosyncrasy. The quirky songs are about Michael Jackson, Minutemen history, WW III and virtually everything else under the sun. Each is different and somehow good. With this much room to work, the Minutemen don’t attempt to bludgeon listeners with lyrics, and deliver terse gems like “If we heard mortar shells we’d cuss more in our songs and cut down the guitar solos.”
As if their abundant output left unjustifiable gaps, the trio issued The Politics of Time, a collection of unused tracks that vary widely in recording and performance quality. The 7-inch Tour-Spiel — drawn from a live-in-the-studio performance done for a Tucson radio broadcast — offers the trio’s takes on Van Halen (“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”), Blue Öyster Cult (“The Red & the Black”), Creedence (“Green River”) and the Meat Puppets (“Lost”). Like all of the group’s records no matter what shape they take, this sounds above all like the Minutemen. (In a weird footnote, the Arizona DJ who organized the 1984 session took umbrage at its appearance on Tour-Spiel and released the entire broadcast as Just a Minute Men, defending his dubious action in the album’s self-righteous liner notes.)
My First Bells is a retrospective cassette: 62 cuts, including the group’s first two albums and EPs, plus singles and compilation contributions from the same era. Essential.
Project: Mersh (the title is a sardonic reference to commercialism — “I got it! We’ll have them write hit songs,” says Boon’s cover painting) consists of six lengthy tracks, including Watt’s autobiographical “Tour-Spiel” as well as the endlessly looped, psychedelicized “More Spiel” and a cover of Steppenwolf’s “Hey Lawdy Mama.” Half employ guest trumpet; one even has synth. Typically brilliant and intelligent? Yes. Better presented and more accessible? Somewhat. A compromise of any sort? Hardly. A fine record.
Taking time out from both bands’ busy schedules, the Minutemen and Black Flag recorded a one-day-studio-party EP in March 1985 under the spliced name of Minuteflag. In an odd tontine, the participants reportedly agreed not to issue the results until at least one of the bands had broken up. They could have waited: the four rambling song-jams are long on bonhomie but short on cohesion. Minuteflag is an ill-advised outing that was undoubtedly fun to record but unwise to release.
3-Way Tie (for Last) ironically appeared the same week (in December 1985) Boon’s tragic death in an Arizona car crash ended the Minutemen. Indicating now-moot artistic independence or divergence, the sides are marked “D.” and “Mike.” Boon’s collection combines three of his tunes (including the gripping Vietnam veteran tribute, “The Price of Paradise,” and a Nicaragua protest, “The Big Stick”) with straight readings of the Meat Puppets’ “Lost” (again) and John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” plus a composition by Watt and then-Black Flag bassist Kira. Watt’s more diverse ten-track side has two by Boon, a spoken word piece named “Spoken Word Piece,” four more co-written with Kira, Roky Erickson’s “Bermuda” and another killer take on the Cult’s “The Red & the Black.”
The Minutemen had included a mail-in ballot with 3-Way Tie, offering fans the opportunity to select their favorite songs for inclusion on a planned triple-live set. The idea was to do all of the selections in concert for the mooted album, provisionally titled Three Dudes, Six Sides, Half Studio, Half Live. Despite Boon’s death, the votes were tabulated and the Ballot Result was assembled from extant material and released anyway. Drawing on various radio broadcasts, audience and board performance tapes, studio outtakes and rehearsals (with three LP tracks serving as needed ringers), the two discs bulge with almost three dozen representations of the group’s best-loved material. The audio quality varies, but the trio’s vitality and invention never waver. A fine epilogue.
With the exception of Double Nickels and the unauthorized live album, the three Post-Mersh CDs contain the Minutemen’s entire oeuvre up through Project Mersh. Vol. 1 combines The Punch Line and What Makes a Man Start Fires. The second volume pairs Buzz or Howl and Project Mersh. Collecting the rest, Vol. 3 has Paranoid Time, 1981’s three-song “Joy” single, Bean-Spill, The Politics of Time and Tour-Spiel.
Following Boon’s death, Watt and Hurley formed fIREHOSE with singer/guitarist Ed Crawford, a Minutemen fan who badgered them into starting a new group.