Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1984-07-03
Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime
Minutemen - Double Nickels on the Dime

“Our band could be your life”, Mike Watt declares in the opening line of his ‘History Lesson - Part II’ on the Minutemen’s finest eighty minutes of Double Nickels on the Dime.  Watt brings history to the personal level from his bandmate’s, D. Boon’s, more sweeping ‘History Lesson’ of a few years prior.  The Minutemen were in fact the life of best friends Watt and Boon along with the slightly younger George Hurley, but the invite was there for all.  The band was there to represent for everyman - for the working class, the oppressed, the punk, the outcast - yet they also were operating within their own microcosm.  The Minutemen had their own unique language, peppered with “spiels”, “econo” and sometimes even “mersh”, and certainly had their own mission.  There was always an ever changing plan on their trajectory forward and everything had its purpose, whether that was dispensing with guitar picks or Boon playing his guitar extra trebly so as to leave the bass end strictly to Watt.  Musically they were off on some other plane.  Punk certainly in their ethos, but mixing in free jazz along with liberally sprinkled in Creedence and Blue Oyster Cult covers, the band certainly didn’t fit any well defined mold.  They took themselves seriously and sang about serious things (the aftermath of Viet Nam, the unification of a yet to be unified Germany) to mosh pits of gobbing teenagers, not about stealing people’s mail or getting drunk off a six pack.  Whether people “got” them in their time or not the band understood themselves and their mission which shows from their earliest works.  

Given Boon’s untimely death in an accident on Interstate 10 (ironically the Dime of the album’s title) eighteen months after Double Nickels’s release we will never know if this would have ultimately been the band’s magnum opus, but given the circumstances it clearly stands as that.  Recorded in a day, direct to tape for $1,100 (not sure if that included the price of lunch) it is an amazing synthesis of the DIY ethic: Boon’s poetry set to playing by self-taught virtuosos.  Hurley’s drumming in particular is something to behold and as he admits in the We Jam Econo documentary he’s not sure how he did it and deems that he never got any better.  Having caught wind that SST label mates Hüsker Dü were working on a double album, the Minutemen cancelled recording plans last minute to write more songs and come up with a double album of their own.  Double Nickels (a reference to the 55 miles per hour national speed limit at the time) surpassed in length their entire recorded output to date and their previous longest album by almost an hour.  Those facts alone would seem to hedge against them putting up their high water mark to date, but au contraire dear reader they did, and they left a testament that thirty plus years on can still be mined for meaning or just listened to slack-jawed in awe of what was hurriedly composed.  And that’s in spite of the band humorously calling the last album side “chaff”.  If side four is the chaff then the wheat harvest of the other three sides was 1984’s finest crop.  While the album has no theme it does have a concept no matter how loose.  Each album side (at least on vinyl) opens and closes with a band member’s car starting and motoring away, respectively, and each member has a solo turn and the most writing credits on their side. 

Side one is attributed by name to Boon, guitarist/singer/poet, and after his car sputters to life Watt’s bass springs forth and is quickly joined by the others as Boon lets you know on ‘Anxious Mo-Fo’ that the band, and he, is “serious as a heart attack”.  Those are the first words uttered on the album and stand as testimony alongside “I mean what I’m trying to say”.  The more expansive or inclusive metaphor to “heart attack” would be “nuclear war”, but here Boon wants you to know where he is coming from at the individual level.  It’s meant to grab attention at the outset and it does.  This hardly over a minute track is also as good a spot as any to note the precision of the band’s performance.  Hurley’s drumming goes from featherlight to heavy as a stone where needed with rolling fills interspersed.  Watt’s bass is insistently plucky in places, like at the beginning, but then sniffles and snuffles into all corners of the song along its course.  Boon places a floaty solo over the top for the final seconds of the song.  With twelve songs in twenty minutes, side one abounds with ideas, themes, and styles just as on the opener.  “Cohesion” is Boon’s solo slot and it's two minutes of deftly played classical guitar that strays from his customary singular leads, as if to say “Yes, I can do this too” - it’s beautifully stark and a highlight of this side.  Musically, the pinnacle is “It’s Expected I’m Gone” with Watt’s bass at its punchiest, Hurley’s drumming at its most precise and Boon’s soloing at its free form jazzy peak.  Here Boon also brags “I can make seconds feel hours” letting the listener know how there is no limit to how many ideas and notes the band can put into a scant two minutes.  There’s also a live version of Creedence’s ‘Don’t Look Now’ sandwiched in here in the producer's preference to a studio recording of the same.  But the centerpiece of the side is ‘#1 Hit Song’ with Hurley leading things off but turning it over to Watt and Boon trading elastic exchanges, the tensional musical equivalent of two big guys jumping on opposite sides of a trampoline.  The brief lyrics show Boon at his most poetic as well as his most mundane:  “love is leaf like” contrasts against “twinkle, twinkle, blah, blah, blah, etc (or stated as "E.T.C." here), as if he can’t be bothered with a budding relationship.  (As an aside, I played this song many years ago on a local morning radio show where I got to pick songs as part of a charity event.  They told me I was probably better suited for the afternoon drive time show.  Oh well, it was time to wake up people!).  The side is a brilliant wide ranging twenty minutes covering as much landscape as most bands would kill to cover in their careers.

Watt’s side opens with the hard charging ‘Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing’ which purportedly Watt tried to get in the hands of the gloved one for recording consideration. Given the subjects touched upon, including outing himself as a dork and lashing out against Nazi’s (an unfortunate denizen of the punk movement), it was doubtful this was going to make it onto Bad, but it is a highlight here.  It also contains one of the most iconic sets of lines on album:  “If we heard mortar shells, we’d cuss more in our songs, and cut down the guitar solos” which goes straight into a short but pointed Boon solo.  ‘Corona’ being Boon’s only solo writing credit on this side turned into the band’s most identifiable song.  The false start of the song leads into a pogo-inducing elasticity fest which became the theme song for MTV’s Jackass, but that belies the seriousness of the lyric grappling with the poor who are embodied here by a woman clamoring for Boon’s five cent Corona bottle deposit.  Watt’s “solo” on his side is titled ‘Take 5, D.’, and refers to Boon getting a short break as regardless of lyricist, Boon does almost all of the singing.  Here Watt and some punk cohorts put together some meandering, trippy sounds while he intones a note from a landlord about a leaky shower.  A break for Boon and yet another departure from the norm for the record.  The side closer, ‘History Lesson - Part II’, over a Velvets inspired soundtrack, details the band’s and Watt/Boon’s brief trajectory.  Beginning with the best friends’ treks to L.A. from San Pedro for punk shows the song traces their arc from their early musical heroes to carrying the torch as Bob Dylan’s “soldier child”.  The song was written by Watt, but sung by Boon with their names interchanged.  The borderline folkiness of the music coupled with the nostalgia of the lyrics ends up being an unintentional coda for two lifelong friends.  Certainly Watt could have written this after Boon’s passing, but having Boon sing Watt’s words brings forth an empathy between these two that has this song go down as a heartfelt exchange between friends.  If the punk movement had any room for emotional content, even if it was just a sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself, this song encapsulates it perfectly.  

Hurley’s side starts with his solo piece, ‘You Need the Glory’ which is a percussion piece of hammered strings, cans, whatever with Hurley scatting some nonsense grunts, groans, and whistles.  Primarily the track serves as testament that the band was on their own path and not afraid to include a lot of what would be considered well outside their primary genre.  Setting aside what is probably the most straightforward and angry song on the album - ‘This Ain’t No Picnic’ with Boon telling off “the man" - Hurley’s side shows the band at their most improvisational.  ‘West Germany’ shows the band at their tightest with Boon’s extended guitar part being a standout.  Though less than a minute apiece, ‘Themselves’ evidences the band at their most edgily melodic while ‘Please Don’t Be Gentle With Me’ is a free form skronky meltdown in stark contrast.  Watt’s driving bass engine on ‘No Exchange’ shows him at his most adroit, with the chord progression always reminding me of Rogers and Hammerstein’s ‘Getting to Know You’.  In the category of some things never change, ’There Ain’t Shit on T.V. Tonight’ has lines about the media that are as relevant today as ever.  This album side is probably the most difficult to embrace given there aren’t clear standout tracks at first listen, aside from ‘Picnic’.  It takes time to sink in, but is well worth the effort.

The fourth side (or Side Chaff as the band called it) were the songs the members hadn’t chosen for their own sides.  The side does include some tossed off covers with the less than a minute cover of Van Halen’s ‘Ain’t Talkin’ About Love’ not making much impact, but the seemingly odd choice of Steely Dan’s ‘Dr. Wu’ seems to make more sense in hindsight.  It takes one of Steely Dan’s most jazzily ponderous tracks and turns its chorus into something tighter and more listenable while still being reverential to its source.  The opening track ‘Untitled Song for Latin America’ showcases the band at its most political describing big government at its most detached and the band at its most abrasive.  The ominous groove that ‘Jesus and Tequila’ locks into is monstrous and the song even has a traditional bridge (!) before deliciously turning us back to the songs inward tension.  Watt’s beautiful instrumental ‘June 16th’ in homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses of all things shows both topically and operationally that the Minutemen were doing their own thing without regard for anyone else’s ideals.  Closing with the funky backbeat of ‘Love Dance’, the band shows again they can do about anything and the so-called Side Chaff ends up more accessible than Hurley’s because of it.  The stripped gears of the band members’ ‘Three Car Jam’ brings things to a conceptual close as the album ends with a sputter and roar.

The Minutemen may have been the most iconoclastic of bands lumped into the punk, or even hardcore punk, movement but thank God for that.  They pushed boundaries thematically, musically and idealistically.  Was it cool and in context of punk rock to write songs showing empathy for the poor; to play their instruments with jazz like precision; or to cover three Creedence songs over their brief recorded history?  Probably not, but it was certainly “punk-like” to not care what others thought about these moves either. It also makes their music still relevant and interesting today to not be typical of a genre, but rather by setting themselves apart from the same.  If the level of their musical chops were a byproduct of constant playing and touring (along with the dynamic of not being able to hide in a trio) their mantras and thoughts put down on paper were also the result of constant thought.  Not ones to take themselves lightly they recorded what mattered to them and this was noticed by even the stalwarts of the day.  As 1985 came to a close, R.E.M. insisted on having the Minutemen as their opening act over their record label’s objection.  R.E.M. stuck to their guns and ironically the Minutemen’s final show as DIY’s standard bearers was opening for a band on a path to mega stardom.  Given the small band from Pedro’s insistence to march to their own drum, I’m sure this irony would not be lost on them but also met with a shrug as a perfectly normal thing to have happened on the way to the store.  With Boon’s death a few days before Christmas that same year, what further they could have offered us will never be known but what they did leave as their legacy still packs a punch.  Watt described all their songs, as brief as they were, as being part of a larger river of their total output.  So jump in at Double Nickels or any of their prior works and let the band’s eddies against the current take you where they will.

Note:  The album was released as a double vinyl LP in July 1984 with each member's car jam opening and closing each side and all vehicles together on side 4.  Most of these "car jams" were removed on subsequent CD reissues along with a handful of songs in order to fit on a single CD.  It is of little matter as each song stands on its own and as part of the band's total recorded output so don't let that deter you from any version of this you can get your hands on.  I picked the release date as the first Tuesday in July not being able to find the exact date.                         


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