Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
Toward the end of 1983, punk trio the Minutemen had just about wrapped up sessions for their third LP when they heard that their friends and SST Records label-mates Hüsker Dü had finished a double album, Zen Arcade. Taking this as a challenge, the band spent the next couple of months writing enough music to fill out their own double—and given that the average Minutemen song back then ran about 90 seconds, that took a lot of writing. The extra work paid off. Double Nickels On The Dime was released in the summer of 1984, the same month as Zen Arcade, and is routinely and correctly included on lists of the best albums of the 1980s. The record explodes with musical ideas, bouncing confidently between funk, jazz, country, pop, and art-rock, without losing any of the group’s punk energy or firebrand politics.
But Double Nickels On The Dime didn’t come from nowhere. Sometimes in popular music, the album before the all-timer is just as exciting, because that’s where the breakthrough really happened. For the Minutemen, that breakthrough was What Makes A Man Start Fires?
In 1980, after childhood friends Mike Watt and D. Boon dissolved their more conventional hardcore punk band The Reactionaries, they reformed as the Minutemen—eventually adding Reactionaries drummer George Hurley—and came up with a style inspired as much by Captain Beefheart, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the super-short songs of the arty British band Wire than by what was happening elsewhere in Southern California’s punk scene.
In Michael Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life (its title taken from the Minutemen song “History Lesson, Pt. II”), Watt is quoted as saying that when he and Boon started the Minutemen, they had the revelation that songs didn’t have to follow any kind of formula. “You didn’t have to have choruses, you didn’t have to have lead guitar solos, you didn’t have to have anything,” he says. They also realized that shorter songs would be easier to play live, because, “With the short rhythms you’d be out faster; you wouldn’t have to groove on it.” That way, no one would notice that they weren’t the most technically proficient musicians.
The early Minutemen recordings—the debut EP Paranoid Time, the LP The Punch Line, and scattered singles and compilation tracks—have moments of fleeting brilliance, where the chopped-up sloganeering, Boon’s scratchy guitar, Watt’s meaty bass, and Hurley’s dextrous drumming coalesce into catchy, witty, energizing rock ’n’ roll. But early on, the band didn’t put any primacy on the process of making and releasing records, because they saw the EPs and LPs and just another “flyer” to entice people to come to the gigs. Besides, a lot of what they’d learned about punk they got first from reading magazines, before they even heard any of the songs. (Watt has said that when he and Boon first saw pictures of acts like the Ramones, they assumed all these new bands were playing “synthesizers and modern shit,” and were delighted when, “It turned out to be guitar music like The Who!”)
Because all three of the Minutemen grew up in working-class homes in the dockside community of San Pedro—far south of the suburbs and beachfront communities where a lot of Los Angeles punk was born—they prided themselves on their work ethic and their thriftiness. According to Azerrad, “For the Minutemen, ‘jamming econo’ meant parsimonious recording budgets, short songs, and being their own crew. Overdubs were limited to occasional lead guitar lines, studio time was booked for the graveyard shift, and they avoided doing multiple takes, recorded on used tape, and played the songs in the order they were to appear on the album so they didn’t have to spend money on editing the songs into the right sequence.”
By the time they recorded What Makes A Man Start Fires? in the summer of 1982 (for a January 1983 release), Watt, Boon, and Hurley had been the Minutemen for two years, and were starting to find their niche among what later came to be known as post-hardcore. Although West Coast punk had been more visceral and less intellectual than the New York variety, the scene did also find room for eclectic, punk-adjacent acts like The Blasters and The Go-Go’s. As the flagship SST Records artists Black Flag and the Minutemen started pushing beyond the loud-fast-angry confines of hardcore, they attracted like-minded weirdos from around the country—such as Hüsker Dü and the Meat Puppets—who were unafraid to nod to the hoary old-guard likes of The Byrds, Neil Young, and the Grateful Dead.
What Makes A Man Start Fires? opens with a tribute—Minutemen-style—to one of the most “establishment” names in rock ’n’ roll. The rumbling, frenetic “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” is Watt’s defense of his own musical activism, and a bold bit of dot-connecting, announcing that the post-hardcore acts would reject no influence. (The Minutemen would later cover Blue Öyster Cult, Steely Dan, and Van Halen.) The song also lays out the plan for the rest of the album. “Manifestos are my windows,” Boon sings, and for the next 17 songs and 25 minutes, the band opens one window after another, making terse, incendiary statements about the ingrained injustices of an exploitative labor market. Even the relatively lyrical “The Anchor”—which describes an erotic dream—ends with the narrator waking up and resuming a life of heavy, unrewarding toil.
What’s particularly radical about What Makes A Man Start Fires? though is the way that it documents Boon and Watt’s dawning understanding that maybe music for and about “the workers” should be something that blue-collar types might actually enjoy. It’s not that Paranoid Time and The Punch Line aren’t entertaining, but there’s very little in the Minutemen’s first two years of songs as hooky as “’99” or “Life As A Rehearsal,” or that feels as fully fleshed-out as “Sell Or Be Sold” or “Fake Contest.” The simple addition of the occasional overdub, extended break, or guitar solo was all it took to make even a minute-long Minutemen song seem “finished.”
The band would get more melodic and even semi-danceable at times on Double Nickels On The Dime, but there’s a focus and concision to What Makes A Man Start Fires? that makes it a truer introduction to the Minutemen. Each of the album’s sides is carefully sequenced, and refreshingly diverse. Before the beatnik jazz of “Beacon Sighted Through Fog” and “Split Red” gets too exhausting, the trio quickly switches over to the righteous funk of “Mutiny In Jonestown” and “Pure Joy,” and the unclassifiable (but kind of pretty) experiments of “Plight” and “Colors.” The album is nothing if not lively.
Yet it also stays true to the Minutemen’s mission. Throughout their careers, Watt and Boon wrote lyrics that cut out the padding, throat-clearing, exposition, and transitions, leaving behind only the key points of their arguments, assembled with their own internal logic. Divorced from their individual contexts, the songs on What Makes A Man Start Fires? end up associating primarily with each other. The lament for indistinguishable military casualties in “Colors” serves as a corollary to the idea that we’re all the same under our clothes, expressed in “Fake Contest.” The redefinition of happiness as simple survival in “Pure Joy” gets spun even more bleakly in “Plight,” which reduces proletarian leisure to “do some hobbies… drink to forget.” There’s very little lightheartedness on this album. It’s a half-hour expansion on another Minutemen song: “Working Men Are Pissed.”
Aa much as Boon in particular tried to make art for the people, the Minutemen were mostly beloved by connoisseurs. Mainstream rock critics didn’t really start noticing what was going on with SST until the year of Zen Arcade and Double Nickels, by which time the label’s heyday was almost over. And even during the years when SST was flowering, it wasn’t exactly easy for curious punk rock kids in the hinterlands to get their hands on Minutemen albums. The big record stores either didn’t stock SST or only ordered one copy at a time (with each one taking weeks to arrive). A fan’s best bet was to take advantage of the order-sheets included with most indie-label products back then—each one listing, often without description, releases that had never been reviewed in Rolling Stone or Spin—and to send a check through the mail, with fingers crossed that something would come back in return. This wasn’t a game that most working-class kids could afford to play.
Perhaps the Minutemen’s fate would’ve been different if Boon hadn’t been killed in a van accident in December of 1985. Within a couple of years, “college rock” became “alternative rock” and then “modern rock,” and at each step some of the musicians who’d started in the early 1980s—or who’d been directly inspired by those bands—gained more access to MTV, radio play, and major-label money. (Even Watt and Hurley moved their post-Minutemen band Firehose from SST to Columbia.) It would’ve been interesting to see how Boon would’ve adjusted to those changes. Would he have demanded that his band stay independent, or would he have relished the opportunity to preach beyond the choir?
It’s tragic that there’s an ellipses instead of a period at the end of the Minutemen story. But playing the “what if” game with the band can be as stirring in its way as listening to What Makes A Man Start Fires? cuts like “One Chapter In The Book” or “This Road,” which start strong and then stop abruptly. By embracing truncation, Boon, Watt, and Hurley let their audience imagine the pieces that were missing from their lyrics and their music—and to decide whether those parts have ever needed to be there. That’s one of the many ways the band encouraged listeners to think, to explore, and to build. For the Minutemen, creativity was always as much about the spark as the blaze.