Sacred Cow Saturday: “Double Nickels on the Dime”

Sacred Cow Saturday: “Double Nickels on the Dime”

Punk rock has been around long enough  to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is the Minutemen‘s “Double Nickel on the Dimes.” Does the 1976 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Jason Stone will be defending and Carson Winter will be attacking.

Let the battle begin!

The Defense

“Our band could be your life
Real names’d be proof
Me and Mike Watt played for years
Punk rock changed our lives
We learned punk rock in Hollywood
Drove up from pedro
We were fucking corndogs
We’d go drink and pogo…
Our band is scientist rock
But I was E. Bloom and Richard Hell
Joe Strummer, and John Doe
Me and Mike Watt, playing guitar”
-“History Lesson Part 2”

It would have probably shown a bit more journalistic flair to just excerpt the now-classic “punk rock changed our lives” line as a means to set the appropriate stage for the paragraphs to come. It’s arguably the most important line from any punk rock song by any band (at least since “hey, ho, let’s go” kicked off the genre). If you’re reading this now, there’s a good chance that punk rock changed, or at least greatly influenced, your life. But to me, excerpting that line and only that line does a disservice to the rest of the song and, by extension, to the legacy of the Minutemen.

Buried roughly halfway through the Minutemen’s seminal 1984 album Double Nickels on the Dime, “History Lesson Part 2” almost perfectly sums up what it meant to grow up punk in the 1980s and 90s anyway. By the time Double Nickels debuted in 1984, the punk scene was in sort of a weird space, at least in the States. The first generation punk bands had been around for close to a decade (some had already flamed out years ago). The hardcore wave was the next to come along, and is certainly where the Minutemen took a lot of their early inspiration from. But Double Nickels was different. Billed by bass player and co-songwriter Mike Watt as the band’s “art record,” (that quote comes from the 2006 documentary We Jam Econo, which you really should watch; check Netflix), Double Nickels on the Dime was the synthesis of a lot of different sounds and different ideas that would lay the foundation for legions of crossover bands to build on for the next few decades.

It’s probably (definitely) hyperbole to call Double Nickels on the Dime the most important, quintessential “punk” record of the last thirty years, but I can’t help myself from thinking that at times. In a genre known for its participants lack of interesting in following too many mainstream rules, Minutemen were somehow able to follow even fewer rules, at least from a musical standpoint. (Though, as an interesting side not, the album’s title and cover art are a middle finger to the likes of Sammy Hagar, whose big idea of rock’n’roll rebellion at the time was an inability to drive at the federally-mandated 55 miles per hour speed limit. Thus the ‘double nickels,’ and the fact that Mike Watt can be observed driving at exactly 55mph on the cover. Fun fact!) The “art rock” label that Watt attached to the album was well-deserved, though he could have used “indie rock” or “garage rock” or “avant-garde experimental rock” and it still would have worked at times. The lyrics, like the music, were sometimes well thought out, and sometimes improvised in stream-of-consciousness fashion. That’s not to say that they were gobbledygook, not any more so than any acid jazz artist or beat poet. Sometimes the lyrics were progressive and political (“Viet Nam,” “West Germany”), sometimes self-referential inside jokes (“Take 5, D” contains lyrics taken from a note left by his friend’s landlady).

There is not a whole lot in the way of pretention present on Double Nickels; Mike Watt, George Hurley and the inimitable D Boon didn’t take themselves too seriously, but I’ll be damned if they weren’t incredibly serious musicians. Double Nickels contains elements of acid jazz, hardcore, garage punk, country twang (“Corona”), surf rock and funk. All of it is very much focused on a steady groove held together by the rhythm section of Watt and Hurley. Boon plays his ass off on most of the album as well. Minutemen play theoretically “easy” music; they were a punk band, after all. But the band’s collective level of musicianship allows it to take an unprecedented amount of chances sonically. Lesser musicians have attempted to pull off similar sounds with catastrophic results, often leaving the listener wondering if the band were all playing the same song.

Minutemen have, in my opinion, been largely overlooked by the masses for far too long. An uninitiated listener putting on Double Nickels for the first time in 2013 may feel as though they’ve heard it all before. This is due to the wide reach that the album has had over multiple genres in the nearly three decades since its release. One can easily hear the sounds that would heavily influence bands from Sonic Youth to Sublime, Fugazi to Foo Fighters, NOFX to (early) No Doubt, Phish to Primus, early Red Hot Chili Peppers to…late Red Hot Chili Peppers. Given that the band were somehow able to cram 46 songs into 76 minutes in a way that doesn’t sound stale or repetitive, it stands to reason that the sound was going to be genre-bending, if not genre-breaking. Double Nickels on the Dime is so much more than a traditional punk record, and ultimately, I think therein lies the reason it is such a quintessential “punk” record.

The Attack

Double Nickels on the Dime is an ambitious, musically intriguing album– but to say it’s a great album is deceptive and wishful. Popular opinion colors The Minutemen’s essential release as a masterpiece, but I think the words ‘overlong’ and ‘self-indulgent’ characterize it more efficiently. There’s a reason this album has the tendency to fall through the cracks (albeit never for long, as Double Nickels is forever doomed to be pulled back out of the abyss by a fervent enthusiast with a fetish for excess): it’s an oddity more impressive on paper than practice.

The Minutemen had no real reason to make a forty-something track album, but they substituted ‘why?’ with ‘why not? and for some reason the result was hailed as groundbreaking. But the fact remains, Double Nickels on the Dime wasn’t so much conceived as grinded through with a workman’s competence. It’s not horrendous, and it undoubtedly has some shining moments, but this wasn’t put together as art. It’s the admirable result of bored kids having fun, but proves that length for the sake of length doesn’t translate into quality. Instead of a masterpiece, what we have here is a dash of exciting music in a boiling cauldron of filler unable to transcend its own gimmick.

The Minutemen were without a doubt musicians. They revitalized a genre with the addition of new influences and to this day their sound remains recognizable. But they weren’t songwriters. Looking back on all those classic and essential albums from punk rock past, most every band has a least one song associated with it– a musical calling card universally known as property of that band. The Sex Pistols have “Anarchy in the UK.” The Clash have “London Calling.” Black Flag has “Six Pack.”

But what do The Minutemen have to be remembered by?

“History Lesson Part 2″ offers The Minutemen’s sole claim to longevity with the words “our band could be your life.” With the benefit of historical perspective, the line rings as a hollow, wishful proposition. The Minutemen were an important band, but they never inspired the feverish devotion that The Clash or The Ramones still maintain. The Minutemen were always more interesting in theory, never producing music that fulfilled the suggestion of their greatest lyric.

Double Nickels on the Dime is plagued by one of the most common faults of young artists: the lack of an inner editor. It can be fun to try to do something extraordinarily excessive, but the end result is often forced and formless. Albums aren’t just a collection of songs, a good one needs to be focused and sequenced with the whole in mind. If cut down to a third of it’s size, The Minutemen’s often creative and thrilling music would be allowed to stand on its own and not be suffocated by it’s own silly, self-imposed contrivances. But, sadly, this is not the case and we’re left with an album that does little more than ‘be long.’


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