The Minutemen at their best were pure poetry, propelled by raw power and a funky punk sensibility. Their 1981 release "The Punch Line" is their finest effort.
The band came out of the L.A. punk scene, working class kids chumming around with bands known for blasting noise - crude, loud, and blunt - bands like Black Flag, the Circle Jerks, and Lawndale. But with their ears opened by listening to records by Wire and others, they realized that they needn't fit their music into any genre. And they didn't. The music was loud, and fast, and driving, but often too intricate and much too tight to qualify as hardcore punk.
The lyrics, always spare at first, explored history, politics, and philosophy with remarkable sophistication, and in a way that no other punk band quite matched. Punk music often conveys a political - or anti-political - message, but often in a rather juvenile fashion. Not so the Minutemen - they were existentialist philosopher poets. And they managed to pull it off without even a hint of pretense. The Minutemen were real. They were genuine.
The band's early music wasted no time with the plodding repetition that characterizes most rock music. Each song made its point, both musically and poetically, and the band moved on to the next. It was said that they took the name "Minutemen" because they confined every song to a minute. And on "The Punchline" we find that every one of the 18 songs, on what was originally issued as a 12-inch 45 rpm EP, is indeed under a minute in length.
But oh, what they packed into each song.
In "Disguises," for example, it takes guitarist D. Boon 45 seconds to drive home the point that racism is not merely an external social problem - but something that requires every one of us to look into our own souls. The song is not preachy. It's not annoyingly didactic, as most moralizing songs are. D. Boon simply looks within his own soul, shares what he sees - and the band moves on.
In "Monuments" drummer George Hurley and bassist Mike Watt examine social conditioning and cultural knowledge in a 48-second statement of existentialist epistemology.
With the album's title track, "The Punch Line," bassist Mike Watt recalls General George A. Custer's last stand at the Battle Little Bighorn in a song of just 40 seconds - a song that is both charming and shocking in its austere realism.
"History Lesson" is astounding. Guitarist D. Boon manages to summarize 100,000 years (or more) of human history - spiritual, intellectual, and political - from Stone Age to nation states with nuclear weapons, in a 37-second song of fewer than fifty words. I count 47 words in the lyrics, as they were sung.
No one else - and I mean no one - compacts so much into one song.
Maybe I'm biased. I confess, I loved going to Minutemen shows in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, at the Cathay de Grande, the Stardust Ballroom, the Club Lingerie, the Lhasa, and even on a boat cruising San Pedro harbor with the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, and Lawndale. Their music's cathartic effect and lasting spiritual content helped me to deal with the stresses of three years of law school, and after. I mourned D. Boone's untimely accidental death in December 1985.
But I do believe, most sincerely, that the Minutemen were one of the most remarkable rock bands that ever played. I believe "The Punch Line" is their finest record. And "History Lesson," well, the song still leaves me trembling in awe.
Eric Alan Isaacson