Saturday, May 8, 2010

Spotlight on Scientist Rock: Minutemen's THE PUNCH LINE (SST 004)

By this late date, I’ve become so familiar with the music of the Minutemen that it's almost part of my DNA. I can still recall quite vividly the first time I played THE PUNCH LINE, dropping needle to vinyl in my basement bedroom and preparing to flail my flabby frame to whatever my modest speakers spat out. This was a common ritual in those anything-but-halcyon high school days; however this occasion culminated with a different result. By the end of side one, I wasn’t all sweaty and puffy but was rather standing completely still, inspecting the album jacket in my hands like it was a piece of Mayan pottery that I'd inexplicably found under my bed during an all too infrequent cleaning session. Instead of flipping the record over, I replayed the first side again, and then a third time. It was a memorable afternoon, to say the least. At that point, I'd heard maybe a dozen or so punk records and a handful of homemade comps from friends where the music of assorted bands basically blended all together like the ingredients in a well-prepared fruit salad. Yum. When something stuck out, I elected to investigate further. First, I scored a copy of the justifiably legendary THE BLASTING CONCEPT compilation LP (SST 13), the contents of which felt like the sonic equivalent of being wailed on by a bunch of thuggish rouges, only to then be helped up, dusted off, and sent home with a playful ass slap. This led me directly to THE PUNCH LINE. One quality that still excites me about the record is how goddamned up-to-the-moment it sounds, specifically because the band's music was so extremely personal and, dare I say it, original. The "Ohh" word is best avoided as a rule when writing/talking about music (because there will almost always be someone ready to pounce and decry claims of originality with scenarios of influence, sometimes overstated and occasionally IMO imagined, though I’m getting submerged in a whole other bucket of guppies), but in this instance I feel it's acceptable to let it slip, mostly due to how it connects with the example of bassist Mike Watt's professed love of Modernist writers like Joyce and Faulkner.

The whole broad scope of Modernism (and 20th Century art in general) was flat-out ass-kicked by old man Ezra's challenge to "Make it new", and the still utterly unique music of these Pedro proles confirms to my ears that they really understood how to pull off that difficult task. In a nutshell, the only way to really, effectively make it new is to soak up and learn from the whole vast avalanche of worthwhile antecedents, and then after appropriate consideration distilling it into a potent brew that can make the receiver feel drunk (but not too drunk) with the liberating possibilities afforded by the freshness of this particular path. History so often repeats itself because too many hambones haven’t done their homework.
If all this sounds somewhat hyperbolic and worshipful, please allow me clarify. Regarding worship; if the story of this band is unfamiliar to you, I'll state that they were not a not a group that were knelt down to, at least not in the bright light of day. They were modest, positive, encouraging guys who in no way attempted to elevate themselves over their fan base, and were in fact vocally uncomfortable with the idea of musician as deity. If any band can be said to have brought the true essence of the punk rock ideal hurling into the indie-rock era and beyond, it was Boon Watt and Hurley. A book about the whole indie-rock explosion was thoughtfully titled from one of Minutemen's blunt lyrics: "Our band could be your life", a direct, level-headed mantra that sits in sharp contrast with some of the "Mascis is God" (new new Claptonism) or "Sonic Youth are geniuses" (new new Beatleism) remarks that I heard in smoky dorm-rooms and during car rides, so I hope you absorb the point that my verbiage is less designed for pedestal placing and is intended instead like the enthusiastic kudos you'd give to family or close friends when you discover that they've managed some particularly righteous feat. As for hyperbolic, I'll surrender guilty as charged, since the success and appeal of Minutemen is intrinsically linked to a workmanlike, kinda ordinary, no-big deal anti-swagger. Get in the studio, get onto tape, get outta there and get heard, and get back to being dudes. Indeed a large friction does exist between the reality of this band and my attempts to give them their due within the context of art and history and the struggle of moving onward (forward!) in the intertwining lives we're handed (i.e. SHIT THAT MATTERS), but if you just (re)consider that basement bedroom remembrance and how it's still hanging on tight after over twenty years of existence (fuggin’ nostalgia, it’ll get you every time), I hope that friction isn't difficult to swallow.

In one sense, I’m a bit disappointed that THE PUNCH LINE is no longer available as a standalone work, being currently in print as part of POST MERSH VOL. 1, the first of three collections that do an important job of showcasing the majority of the band’s pre DOUBLE NICKELS ON THE DIME output (though the greatest Minutemen comp will probably always be the gargantuan MY FIRST BELLS cassette (SST 32), an exhaustive road-trip readymade that smartly pulled together nearly everything these guy’s recorded pre-NICKELS and that I somehow stupidly and sadly allowed to slip through my fingers. I blame it on the format: convenient enough to fit in yr shirt pocket, but far easier to lose. It’s probably under the passenger side seat of a grey Chevy Chevette in some skanky junkyard at this very moment. Blah). Minutemen’s original releases are very distinct. While their sound was in constant flux they were also strict and thoughtful documentarians of their music and no-nonsense operators in the studio, the result being LPs and EPs that when lined up and played in something resembling chronological sequence present a thread of artistic progress that’s the equal of any rock band ever. And if you think THAT is hyperbole I simply ask you to shine a light on their betters. That said I don’t want to carp too loudly over how digitization can distort the beauty of a band’s evolution. Who’s to say that my approach to their sound is any more worthy than a sixteen year old skate rat pumping the band on IPod shuffle, anyway? Still, my passion for historical clarity burns.

THE PUNCH LINE is very much a punk rock record, eighteen songs in roughly fifteen minutes spinning at 45 RPM, and the overall hefty brevity is comparable to other get-it-over-and-done-with punk slabs from the same time period such as Circle Jerks’ GROUP SEX and Angry Samoans’ BACK FROM SAMOA (all three from Cali, I’ll add). The weight and shape of the sonics are quite different, of course, since Minutemen were squeezing out compact shards of what’s essentially a brutal and hyper punk/funk that continues to stand apart due to its solid minimalist tendencies, its sheer urgency, and its ultimate lack of egoist flash. They didn’t sound like anybody else, then or now, but this feat was achieved, as detailed above, through the absorption and consideration of precedent and the inspiration of their contemporaries. For instance, the music’s hooky minimalism took cues from the UK art-punk of Wire and marched in solidarity into the 1980s alongside fellow Californians Urinals (who’s “Ack Ack Ack” was covered by the ‘men). Certainly urgency and the avoidance of show-off moves aren’t uncommon traits in punk rock, but on this LP these qualities combine with the stridently political lyrical focus to attain a rare power. Where the words of so many punk bands are their least admirable quality (particularly as the ‘80s marched on), they were integral to what Minutemen were doing. They could say more with one song title than some bands could with an entire lyrical arsenal. THE PUNCH LINE shows them plumbing into the Beat-style word-smithing that later came to dominate their sound (moving away from the tyranny of the rhyme, but not forgetting that they were writing lyrics for instance), but at this early point they were still quite happy to embrace an edgy and well-considered didacticism, and you can feel as the record roars that the trio were fiercely proud to be political (a quality they never lost, in fact). And the ingrained influence of countless hours of pre-punk hard-rock listening (Blue Oyster Cult being the example the band most often championed) provides the record with both an amazing instrumental dexterity (attained through constant practice) and an unfailing balance between tight and loose, which for my ears is crucial due to the funk angle of the music (I’ll confess that when funk gets too tight it almost always loses me). Yet the dominance of punk in the total stew insures that they never succumb to hard rock’s excesses.

The idiosyncratic (though never obscure) nature of the Minutemen sound has gained them a strong following in the long term, but back in the ‘80s it caused many to hold the band at arm’s length: I often heard it spoken that they weren’t appropriately “punk” or “heavy” enough. I thought that sorta talk was crazy (natch), and I’m glad that hearing it has become less frequent than sightings of DRI muscle shirts. Faux Pas! The second hand vinyl of THE PUNCH LINE can’t be too hard to find or expensive when found, so if I’ve stirred yr interest, please don’t hesitate. It’s a very specific part of the Minutemen picture, and I contend that grappling with it alone will bring a sweet reward.


Tim said...

Great post Joey.

Joseph said...

Thank you, Tim!