Double Nickels on the Dime is a landmark post-punk album that was reportedly inspired by another brilliant two record set, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade, recorded earlier that year. The Minutemen, a trio that proudly hailed from the working-class San Pedro area of Los Angeles, were an aptly named group—-both for the brevity of their songs and their readiness to confront the forces of oppression with the chosen weapons of their day. On Double Nickels, singer/guitarist D. Boon rails against government malfeasance and media brainwashing as if on a set schedule. But the group’s dry sense of humor never abandons them through these four dynamic sides and the overall feel is more conspiratorial than preachy. This is an album treasured by a considerable number of 1980s indie/underground rock fans and is essential for younger listeners of a similar bent. Besides, it’s hard not to love a record with such song titles as “There Ain’t Shit on TV Tonight”, “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing”, “The Roar of the Masses Could be Farts” and “Do You Want New Wave or Do You Want the Truth?”
The Minutemen directly followed the first column of punk rockers and they give shout-outs to Joe Strummer, Richard Hell and X’s John Doe in “History Lesson-Part II,” perhaps the most well-known song here. But they are no back-to-basics purists. Boon’s fleet-fingered fretwork is as skillful as many of the Sixties’ axe heroes and the versatile rhythm section of bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley are as adept at swinging as they are at pile driving.
There were forty-five tracks on the original vinyl, though CD editions usually omit a couple to shoehorn it onto one disc. Only one cut was more than three minutes long and most were under two, meaning more than the usual amount of opportunities for double-album stretching out. There’s a countryish song, an acoustic guitar interlude, passages that resemble free-form jazz and several numbers of slam-poetry-with-musical-backing featuring acute social commentary, often emanating from the pen of Mike Watt.
The album’s much-loved cover photo (and its title) was a snarky reference to the recent Sammy Hagar hit “I Can’t Drive 55.” It shows Mike Watt driving his VW Beetles at exactly 55 MPH, heading for the San Pedro off-ramp.
Casual listeners may be put off by what seems more like underdeveloped sketches than full-bodied songs. But the Minutemen’s minimalist mindset reveals its skewed genius gradually, whether it is the hazardous intersection of romance, religion and workplace politics depicted in “Jesus and Tequila” or the great deadpan cover of Steely Dan’s “Doctor Wu.” The symbolically charged year of 1984 saw President Ronald Reagan get reelected and the deep discontent of the creative underclass with that topdog-loving society infuses much of the material here. This is made crystal clear in the fantastic video the band did for the fist-pumping anthem “This Ain’t No Picnic.” Footage of Reagan the actor as a World War II fighter pilot is used to make it look like he’s strafing the band with machine-gun fire. He finally resorts to bombing but our rock heroes emerge from the rubble, little the worse for wear and still shouting the chorus.
“Our band could be your life,” the opening line from the autobiographical “History Lesson-Part II” (and later used by author Michael Azerrad as the title for his great book about that musical era), at first pass sounds like a boast but stands as a message of solidarity to all those who would come after them. And though the Minutemen would prove to be influential, their own career would come to an end with the tragic death of D. Boon in a van accident just before Christmas 1985. A depressed Watt and Hurley thought about leaving music but were encouraged to return, forming the well-regarded fIREHOSE. Mike Watt in particular has remained active over the next two decades and eventually joined the re-united Stooges in 2003. He’s dedicated every project he’s been involved with to the memory of his childhood friend from San Pedro, where he still resides.
For those who want to see the story of the Minutemen on film, I would recommend the excellent documentary We Jam Econo. I also would, as usual, recommend my own book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above to see a 30-page excerpt.