Saturday, February 27, 2010

Oreilles Gauloises (Paradigm Shift Edition) - The Punch Line (The Minutemen)


OK, here's the picture: it's 1991. I'm graduating from college, and I'm musically...well...bored. This is before everyone smelled like teen spirit, and the events behind The Year Punk Broke. I'd been listening to what was then referred to as "alternative" music, or "college radio". Nothing too weird: Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Fugazi, Pavement, etc. I know there are other things going on in the music scene (hardcore, speed metal, goth), but I'm just not that interested in exploring those too deeply. Then, I hear about the Minutemen from a summer roommate who swears they're the real deal, and I quickly get my hands on the SST compilation of the first two albums (1981's The Punch Line and 1982's What Makes a Man Start Fires?). What happened next changed everything for me.

The experience of listening to their debut album for the first time is a little hard to describe and give it justice. The record has 18 songs, and it's a little less than 25 minutes long. It's a sonic assault - nay, a blitzkrieg! - of rhythmic punches, coming one after the other and delivered with brutal speed. I barely had time to start pondering what I had just heard that the next track would start and take me on another whirlwind of funky beats, thick melodic bass lines, and trebly guitar rhythms.

The Minutemen wore their politics on their musical sleeves, and their lyrics were a very clear middle-finger salute raised to the Reagan Revolution. The songs would often have politically-oriented messages, but they would also be very poetic, so you never felt like you were being lectured. It was a little like listening to a Bob Dylan record at 45 instead of 33 rpm, if Dylan wrote songs with only one verse, that is.

This was the most exciting music I had ever heard, and it also introduced me to the genius of mister Mike Watt, bassist-extraordinaire, and overall genuine punk-rock guy. The Minutemen did what they wanted, regardless of trends and fashion of the times, and everything they did had a political dimension to it, all the way down to making sure to have a sharp contrast between the thick low-end sounds of the bass lines and the crisp trebly tones of the guitar. Their music was in many ways a direct reaction to the over-indulgence of 70's prog rock, with its extravagantly-long songs, and ridiculous stage antics. The Minutemen considered guitar solos to be bourgeois, and for them, punk rock was about attitude, rather than a particular music sound, or fashion statement. As a result (and unlike many of their peers), they never painted themselves into a corner, stylistically, and they remained fresh-sounding and innovative until they stopped playing in 1985, after the tragic death of their guitarist and singer D. Boon in a car accident.

I can still put this record on, and it sounds as fresh and exciting as it did when I first heard it 20 years ago. The Punch Line is certainly not The Minutemen's best effort, but it was a revolutionary record for me, and the good news is that they only got better after that!


Jake Miller said...

While The Minutemen may very well be the best band ever, I had a very rocky introduction to them. It was the summer of 85 or 86.

My father was living in Dracut, Mass and once a week I would ride his mountain bike across the river into Lowell to spend some of my wages as a dishwasher at Ronnie's Steakhouse on books or records.

One afternoon I went to the record store and was flipping through the punk section and decided that I liked the look of Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat.

Maybe I'd read about them in MMR or someone from home had talked about them. If I'd known anything about them it would have been an odd choice for my tastes then, musically, as they couldn't have been much further from the east coast hardcore I was so into.

At any rate, I took the record home, put it on the turntable in the basement of my father's townhouse condo and listened to it.

I thought it was about the worst thing I'd ever heard, sludgey growlings, slow, grinding, throbbing music, the words almost unintelligble, the songs seeming to drag on forever even thought they weren't THAT long.

I didn't realize it was a 45 and I was listening to it at 33 rpm.

A year or two later I loaned the record to a friend who returned it, saying it was one of the greatest things he'd ever heard and I finally figured it out.

BTW, the disparity in political vs poetical lyrics is mostly due to the different styles and sensibilities of Boon and Watt. There are a ton of great stories about that and more in We Jam Econo, the Minuteman documentary.

I think that's where I first heard that they didn't realize you were supposed to tune your guitar a certain way before you played.

Karlissimo del Banco said...

Jake - thank you for sharing that great story! Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat is arguably their greatest record (I think). "Cut" was a song I'd play all the time. I just couldn't believe how good they were! I remembered they played this venue one town over from me in '83 or '84, and I didn't go, primarily because I didn't know who they were, but also because these "LA/West Coast bands" were scary to me at the time. I really thought Black Flag was a band that spent most of its shows physically beating up its audience.

I live near Pedro now, and I get to see Watt play once in a while. His radio show is fantastic - check out the podcasts for it on his website if you haven't already (

Jake Miller said...

Rose and I did a big west coast trip ten years ago or so and I made sure that we went through Pedro on our way thru the LA megalopolis.

I went to a Black Flag show in 85 or 86, and the sound was essentially a physical assault on the audience.

I should say I "went" to a Black Flag show, inasmuch as I had tickets, saw a few minutes of the show, and spent the rest of the night skateboarding outside the venue. Most of the bands I discovered back then had already started to suck by the time I found out about them.

I guess that "heavy metal aural assault Black Flag" was cool in a theoretical sense, but I respond much more to the early days stuff you can hear on Everything Went Black.

Like Otto says in Repo Man, "I can't believe I used to be into these guys."

I will definitely check out Watt's podcasts.

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