Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I'd Love to Turn You On #42 - Minutemen – Double Nickels on the Dime

I was watching a documentary about the Minutemen on Netflix the other night (We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen) and toward the end of it a guy said Double Nickels on the Dime is “the greatest record of all time,” and I was kind of taken aback because that’s a bold, borderline ridiculous statement for any album, much less a double LP that was recorded for next to nothing over the span of a few weeks during the height of the Reagan years. But the comment stuck with me like a challenge. So I played it a few dozen times, listening closely and giving the matter a lot of thought, and I have to say I think he’s right.
My case for the greatness of the Minutemen’s third LP is based on a simple logical conclusion: If rock and roll is the art of the young, and the greatest rock records tend to be made early in artists’ careers, then the greatest example of youthful rock and roll brilliance must be, in turn, the greatest album of all time. And I can’t think of a better example of youthful rock and roll brilliance than Double Nickels. It came about as a kind of a dare. The band was in the middle of making an album when they learned that their label mates Hüsker Dü were about to release a double record. Not to be outdone, the three-man band from San Pedro, California, knuckled down and wrote 20+ new songs in a matter of days, ordered up a second disk, and wrote in the liner notes, “Take that, Hüskers!” And the songs are all fantastic. They’re short and catchy, full of energy, but weird, too -- off-kilter arrangements, and pithy, naïve and idealistic lyrics about everything from Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson to Central American politics and control-freak roommates. They’re songs that give the finger to the notion that the song is a limited art form, that you can’t really do anything new with it, because here are 40 or so numbers that are completely unlike any song that’s been written before or since. Yet they’re very much songs, not just noise or a bunch of strange sounds -- they have choruses and bridges and guitar solos, and you can dance to them and sing along.  
If I were forced to name a “sounds like,” I’d have to say Creedence Clearwater Revival, a la “Up Around the Bend.” Most of the tunes on Double Nickels are built like that: a unique, punchy riff broken up with a pounding bridge and a shoutable chorus. Indeed, the band idolized Creedence; side one even has a cover of “Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me).” And D. Boon’s guitar work is reminiscent of Fogerty’s at times – bright and sassy. But from there the comparisons drop off. The Minutemen were a punk band, not major-label hitmakers, so they’re a lot rougher around the edges. (“We jam econo!” Boon declares in “The Politics of Time.”) But they don’t exactly sound punk, either; they’re not your prototypical one-chord, spastic-drum slam-dance band. At any given point, Double Nickels sounds funky, jazzy, folksy, bluesy, metalish, chaotic, Martian, you name it. This eclecticness is due largely to the fact that these guys could really play; bassist Mike Watt is all over the fretboard and George Hurley could hold his own with the best jazz ensembles. But even more so, it’s about attitude. In 1984, this band was utterly ignorant and/or defiant of constraint – like youth and the best of what it means to be young. 
In the documentary, Hurley says of Double Nickels, “You do things when you’re young that sometimes you look back and it’s kind of amazing. I don’t think I‘ve gotten any better.” 
I don’t think rock and roll has either. 

- Joe Miller

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