Economic Hardcore: Remembering the Minutemen Nearly 30 Years Later

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[Editor's Note: For more on punk, hardcore, rap, hip hop, and other ToM music commentary see here]

In 1984, British-born director Alex Cox released the now cult classic Repo Man.  The movie, influenced by punk rock and hardcore, filtered the sensibilities of those musical forms through film, illustrating a stark contrast with the commercialism of early 1980s Reaganite America.  White suburban punk Otto (Emilio Estevez) moves through the city as a newly minted repo man, repossessing vehicles his fellow Angelenos have failed to pay for.  While the movie takes aim at rampant consumerism and pokes fun at the aesthetics and tenets of punk and hardcore, it also left many critics impressed with its fearlessness, as evidenced by Roger Ebert who praised the movie for its unconventional form and satirical humor.

The same year Los Angeles Times’ music critic Richard Cromelin celebrated the rise of Southern California band the Minutemen, describing them as a working class beatnik three piece who through musical innovation and no small amount of elbow grease had become “one of the most admired independent bands in the nation.”  Cromelin suggested that the band had only “just begun to tap their potential.”[1]  Yet, Repo Man’s ascendency to cult status and Cromelin’s praise coincided with the deaths of the very musical genres each represented – figuratively and literally. Fourteen months later, on December 22, 1985 lead singer and guitarist of the Minutemen, Dennes Boon, known as D. Boon died in a tragic car accident.  When D. Boon passed from this life to the next, it not only tragically ended Boon’s life but also meant the end of one of the most influential bands of the 1980s. Much like the fearless Cox and his movie Repo Man, the Minutemen challenged hardcore tenets infusing their sound with an eclectic list of influences: punk, funk, country, rockabilly.   Along with Hermosa Beach’s Black Flag and their SST label, the Minutemen carved out an existence independent from major labels, in the process creating networks and business models that other bands, inside and outside of hardcore and punk, emulated around the nation.

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The Minutemen espoused liberal politics while endorsing the most conservative of economic models in promoting their music: thrift and D.I.Y. In the process, they contributed to the reformation of American music as punk broke down into its post punk Cure variant and the uber aggressiveness of the hardcore scene that the Minutemen inhabited. “So there’s nobody left who’s been doing it since the beginning and doing it all the way right,” wrote legendary producer Steve Albini in his diary after hearing of Boon’s death. “It’s like Buddy Holly or something.   Sure it’s kind of pathetic to get all worked up over it but hell, they meant it, and that means something to me .. Man what do we do now?”[2]

Yet, for all the deserved praise, while the Minutemen occupied a central place in the rise of indie and college music, they also represented one of several constellations of subcultural independence that developed in late 1970s and early 1980s California.  The Minutemen brought their own unique edge and insight to what would come to be described as hardcore, infusing their music with jazz, country, funk, and classic rock leanings that drew praise from the likes of Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Keith Morris (Circle Jerks/Black Flag), and J Mascis (Dinosaur Jr.), among countless other notables.   However, their  sound also drew derision from some corners of hardcore that demanded more uniformity.  The Minutemen’s response? To paraphrase co-founder and bassist  Watt, “Punk rock is an idea not a musical style.”[3]

D.I.Y SoCal Style

“We learned punk rock in Hollywood/ Drove up from Pedro / We were … Corn dogs/ We’d go drink and Pogo.”

- History Lesson Part II from Double Nickels on the Dime

The Minutemen tapped into a vein of Southern California subculture that provided the life blood of indie rock for decades. Though some hardcore (HC) scribes have denounced labels like Posh Boy – HC historian Steven Blush labeled Posh Boy’s Robbie Fields an “old school music scumbag.” – it and others like Frontier, Dangerhouse, and Greenworld, for all their faults, helped bring the D.I.Y. ethos to life. This bubbling matrix of independence hereby enabled the brief but momentous formation of SST records by Hermosa Beach resident and Black Flag founder Greg Ginn.[4] Along with DC’s Dischord Records, SF’s Alternative Tentacles, and Chicago’s Touch and Go, SST crafted the business model, aesthetics, and D.I.Y. philosophy that eventually served as the foundation for the alternative rock explosion of the 1990s. SoCal fanzines like Flipside and Slash carried the message to the HC communities and others as well.

It Began Before the Minutemen

As the late 1970s bled into the 1980s, post industrial dread seeped into California’s popular and political culture. Stagflation, hysterical Prop 13 anti-tax movements, and cultural frictions between ethnic/racial groups seemed to indicate a troubling future that offered California fewer and fewer economic options. In England, few movements utilized this notion of alarm and scarcity like punk rock.  British punks adopted the language of crisis, almost celebrating the collapse of community and institutions. Southern California, though different, demonstrated similar trends. Figures like Dogtown skater Tony Alva and Germs front man Darby Crash epitomized the sunshine state’s response to similar conditions. Skaters and punks engaged in acts and cultural works that never sought to reform society but rather created a “oppositional style fusing consumerist and anticonsumerist principles” that embodied the deadly concoction of boredom, banality, and anger that boiled over in popular culture, argues Michael Nevin Willard.[5] Dogtown Venice and San Pedro, CA served working class backdrops for the groundbreaking Z-Boys and Minutemen.

Critically, observers often exclude Crash’s Germs from narratives when describing the formation of D.I.Y.  Yet, as clearly demonstrated by writers like Michael Azerrad, Willard, and Blush, the Hollywood, Los Angeles band served as a bridge for a dying punk scene that remained tied to major labels and institutions and the rapidly developing hardcore scene that eschewed the corporate backing that brought the Sex Pistols, Ramones, and the Clash to international prominence. The Germs provided an identity for all those Southern California kids who shared attitudes and beliefs regarding the experience of American decline.  “They created punk subcultures by creating their own magazines, hangout, clubs, record labels and stores … and codes of behavior,” Willard argues, “all of which would replace the loss of industry, protective regulations, and social institutions of the welfare state in the shift to a postindustrial world.”[6]  Crash and the Germs inspired Black Flag and Minutemen, not only musically, but in the ways they interacted with the subculture.  Though not as arty as British or New York punks and not as masculine and aggressive as the worst of Orange County hardcore, the Germs gave musicians like Mike Watt, D. Boon, and Greg Ginn a template from which to operate. Connections were not created at stadium shows or hip night clubs, but rather in back alleys, abandoned buildings, and behind institutions of mass entertainment. When Boon and Watt ventured to Los Angeles to catch Germs shows they experienced this emergence of identity and culture among the very symbols of decline that had come to define the 1970s. They created a network of “physical places and cultural spaces” that articulated participants’ interpretation of urban industrial abandonment and a government they saw as more attentive to business interests that citizen’s needs.[7]

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Hollywood at night lacked the sheen of the movies it sold America. Instead, after sunset, it harbored runways and rejects, but the scene drew from a wide swath.  The Germs and others attracted all incomes –  San Pedro working class stiffs like Watt, Boon, and Hurley, middle class scions from Orange County, elite Hollywood Hills kids and desperate runaways from all over.  They all came together to “become punks in Hollywood … these youth found in punk rock a coherent set of images and spaces that matched their experiences of deindustrialization.”  New Right politicians, municipal leaders and social conservatives labeled them “criminal,” exacerbating any sense of “us” versus “them” already present.  Watt concurred years later, saying, “Hollywood was all these LA people who were misfits and the losers from their high schools all coming together … I met artists for the first time.  I got turned onto all this music and culture.”[8] When the Minutemen and Black Flag set out on their own course, they played the most untraditional of spaces: VFW halls, gyms, fraternal lodges and even Bingo Halls.   One would be hard pressed to think of a more asymmetric juxtaposition than one between the average Elk Lodge member and bands like the Minutemen or their fans.  Granted, predominantly white and male, the hardcore movement did lack the greater diversity that followers of X and the Germs demonstrated, but the connection remains fairly clear.

Why the Minutemen?

Unlike many of their peers the Minutemen were more in the movement than of it, but like few others they epitomized D.I.Y. “We jam econo!” exclaims Mike Watt near the end of the documentary bearing the same title. They recorded albums for pittance, their songs remain Wire-like odes to efficiency and brevity (many never even reach two minutes), and they toured relentlessly.  The Minutemen, thirty years before file sharing and mp3s, envisioned a business model that seems to be just as relevant today as then: keep expenses low and tour – a lot. When they released their 1984 45 song masterpiece Double Nickels on the Dime, the band played 57 shows in 63 days.  They hauled their own equipment, conducted their own sound checks, and sometimes scheduled shows for early evening so that working people could attend. “We’re trying to show people, hey, we’re not cosmonauts from Planet Jazz, we’re just like you,” Watt told one writer.[9]  Videos were fine; they served as a means to promote the shows.  The band divided the world between gigs and fliers; fliers promoted the gigs and videos served as perhaps the most far reaching flier available.  Shows provided the band not only with the most artistic control over their work but also the most economic benefit. “We didn’t tour to promote records, we made records to promote the tours, because the gig was where you could make the money.”[10]

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Politically, the Minutemen pushed back against the rising conservatism of Southern California. The name, a jab at the right wing and bloated rock gods of the 1970s, often gets misinterpreted as a reference to the brevity of their songs. While many hardcore acts maintained a deadly seriousness, some like San Francisco’s Dead Kennedys demonstrated sharp satire in songs like “Kill the Poor.” Likewise, the Minutemen wrote songs about politics on subjects including U.S. imperialism (“Viet Nam”), racism (“This Ain’t No Picnic”), and ideology (“Political Song for Michael Jackson”), but they threw in lots of humor – like the tongue in cheek “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs”.  With that said, hardcore fans often struggled to wrap their heads around the minimalist but diverse sound the band produced. “We’re doing it on two strings .. is that punk enough for you spittin’,” Watt told one hostile audience in early 1980s.  Their response? Two guys in the front row jumped up and spit in his face.  Nor should one assume that the leftist politics of the Minutemen represent the wider genre, if anything, the politics of hardcore did not neatly align as liberal or conservative, but existed as a confusing muddle. Despite police harassment and a marginal existence, the band pulled no political punches.  Even in the conservative 1980s they saw hope: “I live sweat but I dream light years,” they sing on “The Glory of Man.”

 

The Big Picture

“Mr. narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me. My story could be his songs I’m his soldier child,” sang D. Boon on History Part II. “Our band could be your life,” he intones at the song’s outset and indeed that’s what punk meant to the Minutemen: a means to a different life, one not dictated by rules or regulations from anyone.  Like a 1980s Velvet Underground, the Minutemen sold few records but everyone who bought one happened to be a musician. As a “band’s band,” reflected Azerrad, “[t]he Minutemen’s effect was more like the old metaphor of throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples widen and widen.”[11] Others would agree, as Rolling Stone placed Double Nickels on the Dime in its top 500 rock albums of all time. Placing the album at #413, sitting one spot behind Wire’s Pink Flag and one before the Gos-Gos’ Beauty and the Beast, seems oddly appropriate


[1] Richard Cromelin, Los Angeles Times, “Pop Reviews: Unpredictability Rules L.A.’s Band Scene”, October 8, 1984, G1.

[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981 – 1991, New York: Little Brown and Company, 2001, 92-93.

[3] Ibid, 83.

[4] Steven Blush, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, Los Angeles: Feral House, 2001, 282.

[5] Michael Nevin Willard, “Cutback: Skate and Punk at the Far End of the Century,” in America in the Seventies, Eds. Beth Bailey and David Farber, Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2004, 185.

[6] Ibid, 199.

[7] Ibid, 202.

[8] Steven Blush, American Hardcore, 51.

[9] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life, 87.

[10] Ibid, 84.

[11] Ibid, 75.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Economic Hardcore: Remembering the Minutemen Nearly 30 Years Later […]

  2. […] Ryan riffs on the 1980s, punk, Repo Man, the joys of jamming econo, and the band that could have been (and maybe was) your life. […]

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