My Year in Lists chronicles one blogger's quest to understand why music matters to us and what makes it a lasting aspect of our existence. To facilitate this examination, three music fans have contributed a list of 52 essential albums. Each week this year, one album off of each list will be analyzed in an attempt to understand why some music sticks with us and what it means for our lives.
"Short songs not only reflect a state of dissatisfaction and noncomplacency; they simulate it. The band's very name suggests vigilance."-Michael Azerrad on The Minutemen, in Our Band Could be Your Life
"This Malkmus idiot is a complete songwriting genius."-Gary Young, on Stephen Malkmus
Love makes me think about death. This is because I am (obviously) not currently in love. When you're in love, love makes you think about life. It makes you think about all that you get to do in the coming years. It makes you think about marriage and kids and decades of bliss (and probably some other horse shit happy people think about too). When you are not in love, though (or at least when I'm not in love), love makes you think about death. Love reminds you of absence (the lack of a person for you to love), and from absence you're just a hop, skip, and a logical leap from death.
When you aren't in love, thinking about love makes you think about everything you would have to do in order to be in love again (and when I say "you," I am of course still talking about me). You'd have to get up, go outside, meet people (probably in a loud place with weak drinks) and, worst of all, be reasonably charming. And if all of that goes well, then maybe you go out on a date, and another date and eventually get serious, and then one of you will break the other's heart or, and this is the best case scenario, one of you will die first. And people say I'm a cynic.
Some of you may be wondering why I just spent two hundred words in a music column discussing the relationship between love and death, or at least the way that I perceive said relationship. To those of you I would say two things: first, shut up, and second, because music is rife with meditations on love, death, and on the relationship between the two. And more importantly, because those who make music inevitably experience both of these emotions, not rarely because of the music they make. This is a column about love, life, death, and the soundtrack for each of these moments in the lives of the people who made the music we will discuss this week.The title of Michael Azerrad's opus on the "˜80s underground scene (which I quoted from above) is taken from a lyric by The Minutemen in their song "History Lesson, Part 2." That book (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in that particular period, or in a much more lengthy discussion of several of the bands we have touched on here, including The Minutemen, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, and Dinosaur Jr. is called Our Band Could Be Your Life, and is titled as such not just because that's a great lyric from a band that is discussed, but because much of the "˜80s underground practiced the way they preached, turning their music into an ethical code and a lifestyle that they could embody in their day to day existences.
While many bands of the era pioneered a DIY (do-it-yourself) style of recording and touring, perhaps no band better encapsulated these ideas than The Minutemen, who called their style "jamming econo." The group's inception occurred when 13-year-old Mike Watt met D. Boon, who fell out of a tree in the park Watt was walking through. The two shared a passion for music from the first, and Boon already knew how to play the guitar. Watt quickly decided he would play bass, an effort complicated only by the fact that he did not know the difference between a bass and a standard guitar. After creating and playing in several short-lived bands, Watt and Boon formed the minutemen in January of 1980. The name was taken both from the nickname for the militiamen in the Revolutionary War and from a desire to satirize a right-wing reactionary group from the 1960's who had used the name (contrary to popular belief, it had nothing to do with the brevity of their songs). The duos old friend and former band mate George Hurley came on as drummer, and the band played their first gig opening for Black Flag.
The band released their first EP, and one of Tab's several selections by them this week, Paranoid Time in 1980, becoming only the second release by the soon to be legendary indie label SST (founded by Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag). In an effort to save as much money as possible (a central tenet of the band's "jamming econo" philosophy), the group recorded all seven songs on the EP in one go, in the order in which they appear, with no overdubbing except for backup vocals. The opening track, "Validation" is a scant 41 seconds, a forceful torrent of sound and vocals so rapid and powerful it almost knocks your socks off. Their songs are so short, and their earliest releases so rare, that finding many of their songs on youtube is impossible (so apologies for the dearth of clips in this section).
"The Maze," also only 40 seconds long, is a political screed from D. Boon that lasts exactly as long as it needs to in order to get its point across. "Joe McCarthy's Ghost" opens with Watt asking, "You just sing "˜Joe McCarthy,' you want to do that?" The band was so efficient and so meticulous about not wasting time, their discussion in the recording session is just included on the record. Paranoid Time is seven songs long, and runs only 6:31. The Minutemen knew what they wanted to say and didn't waste any time saying it.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TL34fRDhDn4
The band released their second EP, Joy, the next year. Its three songs run 3:18, which by The Minutemen's standards means each song gets a little bit more time to breathe. "Joy" is a takedown of what many people go through to experience joy, decrying those who spend money, time, or hide behind religion to experience happiness. "Black Sheep" is a mission statement of sorts for the band, while "More Joy" ups the melodic complexity from the first track, and also ups its satire of the upper class.http://youtu.be/PKiasFQCPHI
The same year the band released their first full album, The Punch Line, which packs eighteen songs into just 15 minutes. The only album to feature vocal from all three members of the group, with drummer George Hurley doing a lead vocal (which the band called giv(ing) a speech" in the liner notes) on "Ruins". The title track mocks the death of General Custer during the Battle of Little Bighorn, claiming "he didn't die with any honor, any dignity, or any valor." The following track, "Song from El Salvador" is a frenetic instrumental reflecting D. Boon's support of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador. As usual the band sought to be as economical as possible in the recording of their album, recording late at night (when studio time is cheapest) on used tape, recording the songs in exactly the order they appeared to cut down on editing costs, and avoiding almost any overdubs.
The same method, now a tradition for the band, was used to record 1982's Bean Spill EP. The EP is notable as the only release by The Minutemen to feature Mike Watt on vocals in most of the songs. While he was a vocalist on every album the group released, D. Boon generally sang on more songs than Watt. "If Reagan Played Disco" is an abashedly political satire, fitting comfortably into the band's highly opinionated wheelhouse. "Futurism Restated," the final track on the original EP, summarizes what the band has been aiming for over the course of the EP, referencing the previous songs and tying the album together both melodically and thematically.
The band's second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires?, released in 1983 is almost twice the length of the group's previous album, yet still clocks in at only 26:39. The music for the album was written entirely by Mike Watt (though all three members contributed lyrics), which explains the album's bass-centric construction. The band maintained their political subject matter, with songs like "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs," "Mutiny in Jonestown" and "The Only Minority" wearing their messages on their sleeves.
We will continue looking at The Minutemen next week, yet it is important to stress here how much the group loved what they were doing. They made almost no money, spent almost no money, and were always on the brink of starvation throughout their years together. The Minutemen was their life, and they used it to discuss politics and their views on life in general, as well as ensuring they maintained their integrity and lived by their personal codes throughout. And, sadly, for D. Boon The Minutemen was also his death. Boon was killed in a van accident on December 23, 1985 in Arizona near the California border. Sick with fever while on tour, Boon elected to just lay down in the back of the van. The van went off the road and Boon slid out the back, breaking his neck and dying instantly. For The Minutemen, loving how you lived and living the way you thought was right was essential. It isn't too much of a stretch to say that Boon martyred himself for the things he loved, and (while we aren't there quite yet) the band died with him, dissolving immediately upon his death.
Four years after the dissolution of The Minutemen, Pavement formed in Stockton, California in 1989. Originally a studio project of Stephen Malhmus and Scott Kannberg, with Gary Young on drums (Young also provided the group studio space in his home recording studio). In 1992, Pavement became a full-time band (leaving behind their studio only days and adding bassist Mark Ibold) and released their debut album, and Collin's pick this week, Slanted and Enchanted. The opening track, "Summer Babe (Winter Version)" is a slightly remixed version of a single the band released around the same time of the album's release. Clearly Pavement's time in the studio paid off, as "Summer Babe" is an excellent alternative rock song, catchy and full of enough emotions to give it added depth.
"Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17" is another incredibly catchy alt-rock song with a strong bass-line and a fantastic chorus. "Zurich is Stained" is a slighter, more pointed song, sparer in comparison to much of the rest of the album, but no weaker as a result. "Two States" is a classic-rock influenced Civil War anthem with a heavy bass and drums that drive the song.
Read more My Year in Lists here
Next week on My Year in Lists:
The Minutemen Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat while ensuring they drive at Double Nickles on the Dime, we look at Suede's self titled and Nirvana are In Utero.