Thursday, May 17, 2012

Minutemen: Double Nickels on the Dime

In the earlier post on Hüsker Dü's mind-blowing Zen Arcade, it was noted that that record was bought along with another phenomenal double album, Double Nickels on the Dime from Minutemen.  Both of these albums signaled a high point for the "do it yourself" atmosphere of American punk (post-punk?  whatever?) rock, epitomized by the underfunded, but overexuberant SST Records label, of the early to mid-1980s.

Whereas Zen Arcade showed a more obvious "hardcore" element, particularly in its paint-peeling speed-fueled side two, Double Nickels on the Dime (a reference to driving 55 mph on Interstate 10, as shown on the album cover below, where band member Mike Watt tools down the freeway at the indicated speed on said highway, while he has a twinkle in his eyes through the rear view mirror and out the windshield is the sign for State Route 11 (now State Route 110) to the band's beloved home base of San Pedro--the title is also evidently a rejoinder to Sammy Hagar's popular tune, "Can't Drive 55," which the Minutemen dudes felt was not much of a protest song.  Jesus, what a long diversion that was!) is a stylistically diverse tour-de-force of political pieces, strange abstractions, covers of Steely Dan, Van Halen, and Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, and tons else.

In fact, the album was intended to be a single disc release with recording commencing in November 1983, until D. Boon (guitar, vocals), Watt (bass, vocals), and George Hurley (drums) found out that their bandmates were releasing a double album.  Joking "take that, Hüskers!" on the liners, Minutemen went back into the studio in April 1984 with quickly-written pieces and hammered out the material for their own double album.  The record was made for only $1,100!  SST responded by delaying the Zen Arcade release, so that the two albums could come out together in July 1984.  This was perfect for some buyers, who took the opportunity to buy both and enjoy a singular experience of enjoying two landmark albums of the day.

The vinyl release included 45 (yup, 45) songs over the four sides, three sequenced by individual band members picking songs by straws and the fourth deemed "chaff," literally leftovers.  Boon's trebly guitar featuring some arresting soloing, Watt's fluid bass, and Hurley's muscular drumming are excellent throughout with the guitarist singing all but two of the pieces, which were performed by Watt.  Political anthems like "Viet Nam," "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing [what a great title!]," "The Big Foist," "West Germany," and "Untitled Song for Latin America," are paced with the covers, like Creedence's "Don't Look Now," which was recorded live, Van Halen's "Ain't Talking 'Bout Love," and Steely Dan's "Dr. Wu," and a variety of off-the-wall pieces like "#1 Hit Song," ""Maybe Partying Will Help," "Toadies," "Take 5, D," which deals with leaking showers and perhaps other topics, "The Road of the Masses Could Be Farts," and "Jesus and Tequila." 

"Viet Nam" is a highlight with its funk-like guitar, buoyant bass, and rock solid drumming providing a solid basis for Boon's political diatribe about the war.  That song is followed by Boon's beautiful and contemplative acoustic piece, "Cohesion."  The powerful "Shit from an Old Notebook," featuring a Boon rant against commercialism has a great Hurley backbeat and Watt's signature bass anchoring the sound perfectly.  The trio's tight interplay also shines on "Nature Without Man," "One Reporter's Opinion," which has a cool lyric about Watt as a mechanistic human being, "The Big Foist," "Nothing Indeed," "This Ain't No Picnic," "Storm in My House," and a host of other pieces.  There is also the great "Corona," written by Boon and which has an extremely catchy twangy guitar riff and a thumping polka beat.  Hurley gets to showcase his drumming best, perhaps, on the under a minute "Martin's Story."  After an intense "The World According to Nouns," the album closes nicely with a relaxed, funky jam called "Love Dance."  There are also little interludes playing up the car theme found in the title and art work by having audio of the band members' cars starting up.

"The Glory of Man," with an awesome bass line from its writer, Watt, and the bassist's sublime (and perhaps the band's overall signature song), "History Lesson—Part II" are probably the two most memorable tracks to YHB, although it's hard to take these pieces out of the context of a uniformly excellent album that moves quickly from song to song in its 80+ minute vinyl and 78-minute CD versions.

With excellent reviews, a heavy touring schedule to support the album, and decent sales, considering its lack of "commerciality," the band was at a creative peak.  After the follow-up, 3-Way Tie (For Last), came out in 1985, D. Boon was tragically killed in a traffic accident in Arizona just before Christmas.  Devastated, Watt and Hurley ended the band, but later formed the excellent fIREHOSE, a very different, but impressive trio with guitarist/vocalist Ed Crawford, that lasted from 1986 to 1994.  Watt has continued with a solo career that has included three "operas," including 2011's brilliant Hyphenated-Man, based on figures found in Hieronymus Bosch's allegorical paintings from the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

It's hard to believe that it is almost thirty years since the landmark Double Nickels on the Dime emerged in tandem with Zen Arcade, marking a high-water point for independent music in the U.S.  and Minutemen remain one of the great bands of its day.

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