Minutemen

  • Biography:

    The Minutemen were one of the most adventurous hardcore punk bands, taking the music to places no one expected it could go —into funk, free jazz, even folk. Fiercely independent and to the far left politically, the trailblazing power trio delivered brief, angular blasts of formless music at breakneck speeds, though with a gutsy, unaffected groove.

    Mike Watt and D. Boon were childhood friends in the blue-collar town of San Pedro, California, when they formed the Reactionaries, a fairly conventional rock four-piece. With the rise of punk in the late '70s, they renamed themselves the Minutemen (for the new brevity of their songs and the ironic right-wing reference). In honor of his hometown, Watt spray-painted "Pedro" on the body of his bass.

    Minutemen were the second band (behind Black Flag) to release a record on the seminal South Bay independent punk label SST in 1980: Paranoid Time, an EP of short songs and free-form political rants Watt dubbed "spiels." With 1981's The Punch Line, the Minutemen locked in to their signature groove and gained a strong following on the L.A. punk scene. Bean-Spill is a whiplash five-song EP with a six-minute running time. The trio ventured into free-jazz territory on What Makes a Man Start Fires? and Buzz or Howl, its music and politics taking on a near-poetic elegance in tunes like "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" and "I Felt Like a Gringo." The 45-song Double Nickels on the Dime (trucker lingo for 55 mph on Interstate 10) is one of punk's few double-record sets, and stands with Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade as an American punk classic.

    In 1985 the Minutemen released two albums of longer, more accessible songs —Project Mersh (a sarcastic play on the word commercial) and 3-Way Tie (for Last) —that included cover versions (Steppenwolf's "Hey Lawdy Mama" and Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen the Rain") and the most structured original compositions of their career. That year, they toured behind R.E.M.

    In December 1985, at the height of the trio's career, Boon died in a van accident in the Arizona desert following a gig. Watt and Hurley planned to throw in the towel, but re-formed as fIREHOSE when an enthusiastic Minutemen fan, 19-year-old Ed Crawford, called from Ohio and asked to step in on guitar. fIREHOSE continued in the Minutemen vein, but with longer songs and a more folky feel (courtesy of Crawford). (Watt and his wife, former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler, also formed the part-time double-bass duo, Dos, whose two albums, Dos [1986] and Numero Dos [1989], came out on New Alliance.) After the band released three independent albums, Columbia signed fIREHOSE and released flyin' the flannel, The Live Totem Pole EP, and the J Mascis–produced Mr. Machinery Operator. Then, on February 12, 1994, fiREHOSE played a final, unadvertised gig before a small, devoted crowd back where the whole thing started —in downtown San Pedro.

    By June 1994, Mike Watt, who had played with Saccharine Trust in the mid- to late-'80s, had begun work on a solo album with help from Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Frank Black (Pixies), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), the Beastie Boys, Chris Cornell (Soundgarden), Henry Rollins, and nearly 50 other musicians. Released as Ball Hog or Tugboat? (#129, 1995), the album spawned a Modern Rock radio hit in "Against the 70's" (sung by Vedder). A subsequent Watt solo tour featured an all-star backing band (again including Vedder and Grohl). Watt then appeared on Porno for Pyros' Good God's Urge and toured as a member of the band. In 1997 he released a "punk-rock opera" called Contemplating the Engine Room, recorded with drummer Steve Hodges and guitarist Nels Cline, who played one of Boon's old guitars on a track. For the first time, Watt handled all of the singing on the album, which was dedicated to his late father and Boon.

    That same year, Watt joined Cline, keyboardist Money Mark (Beastie Boys), and Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros) in a new improvisational band called Banyan. Watt toured with a new backing band, Pair of Pliers in 1999, but was sidelined by a serious intestinal illness. He returned to the road the next year with his own band and with J Mascis & the Fog. By now, George Hurley was playing as part of Red Krayola, with Mayo Thompson (Pere Ubu) and David Grubbs (Gastr del Sol).

    This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

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