Monday, October 25, 2010

Figures of Involvement

Minutemen (L to R: d. boon, George  Hurley, Mike Watt) at the 1984 Los Angeles Street Scene (photo by Eric Stringer) (Source).

While we are on the topic of statistics [1], I only need to remind you of a song verse. It goes something like this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.   Oh here we are in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
Some of you will recognize these as the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” from the Minutemen’s ground-breaking Double Nickels on the Dime (1984).  Released by SST Records the very same year as Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime was a blast of jazz-funk-inflected agitprop that continues to be recognized as one of the most important rock albums of the late 20th century, if not all time.  Combining guitarist d. boon’s slinky, trebly guitar parts, Mike Watt’s muscular and melodic bass playing, and George Hurley’s acrobatic drumming, the Minutemen did much more than just create the definitive sound of America’s music underground during the early 1980s.  They created a template for punk rock’s labors by setting a minimum threshold for band membership and songwriting.  Guitar.  Bass.  Drums.  That was all that was needed to write songs.  With hardly a guitar solo, and with tight compositions that made the most of the band lineup and instrumentation, Minutemen albums were, sonically-speaking, lean affairs.

Top: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) (Featuring cover art by Raymond Pettibon).  Bottom: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)

But that’s only part of it.  Not only could the Minutemen play songs better than most (they were all incredible musicians), but by the time your shitty band finished a song, boon, Watt, and Hurley already played four or five.  This was the Minutemen equation: don’t just play better music, but play more music.  The result was a head spinning catalog of music where almost all songs clocked in somewhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes.  Listen to a Minutemen album, and suddenly the idea of diminishing returns is turned on its head.  Each musical volley leaves you wanting more and more.

Here is some statistical evidence.  Their first full-length, The Punch Line (1981), contained 18 songs.  The longest track from the album, “Tension,” clocked in at 1:20.  The shortest, “Fanatics,” at 0:31.  The album’s total run time is only 15:00, which, by my math, is over 5 minutes shorter than Rush’s epic “2112” (which is somewhere around 20:33).  The Minutemen’s second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) also had 18 songs but ran at a slightly longer 26:39.  The 8 songs from Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence of Heat (1983) could technically qualify their third studio recording as an EP, but it was marketed by SST as a full-length LP (its run time was 15:30).  These songs tended to be longer affairs, a trend that would continue with Double Nickels on The Dime (43 tracks, with a 73:35 running length).  Their last album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) (1985) featured their one of their longest songs, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’sThe Red and The Black” (4:09).  With 16 songs, its run time is 36:11.  Here’s the final tally: 5 albums; 103 songs; and 4 hours, 16 minutes’ worth of recording time.

But back to “Viet Nam.”  The song is a furious, nervous exchange of ascending and descending figures between bass and guitar (a popped bass note marking the transition between each phrase).  Underneath all this, Hurley begins with a crescendo/decrescendo of drum rolls, eventually sliding into a crisp, brillant, breakneck high-hat motif.  The drumming only hints at something that is not-quite-disco, not-quite-funk.  But whatever it is, it is thrilling and propels the song forward like a cannonball, its concussion rattling your tympanum, your brainstem, until something gives, and the very thing within you that resists the urge to get down suddenly, beautifully, gives way.

Detail to back of gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), "Viet Nam" begins on the second line
(Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

The excerpt that introduced this piece contains all of the lyrics to the song.  It is the song “as heard.”  However, if one were to peer at the back of Double Nickels’ gatefold sleeve and look at the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” one would see this:
Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.  These are the figures of our involvement in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.
The difference here, of course, is that the lyrics as written refer to the statistical number as “figures of involvement.”  Never sung in the recording, yet part of the original song, this small clause points to the political nature of much of the Minutemen’s work.  The name "Viet Nam" suggests that this was a song protesting American foreign policy, and if you were—like d. boon, Mike Watt, and George Hurley—in the business of politically-oriented punk music, you would probably be writing songs about the Vietnam war as well as American involvement in Nicaragua or El Salvador (for example, cue the first track, second side, second album of Double Nickels, “Untitled Song for Latin America”).  As Michael Azerrad points out in his definitive Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001), "America was in a catatonic state through the Eighties, and the Minutemen's music—all angular starts and stops, challenging lyrics, and blink-and-you-missed-'em songs—was a metaphor for the kind of alertness needed to fight back against the encroaching mediocrity"[2].

Rear to gatefold sleeve for Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) (Photograph by Francisco Ramirez)

In addition to their music, their look, and their ethos, the Minutemen used their catalog to communicate their message in unique ways.  Along with “Viet Nam,” all of the lyrics to Double Nickels on The Dime—in fact, all Minutemen albums—fit in a compressed space, covering only up to 20% of an LP's 144 square inches of graphic design real estate.  Although this layout reflects the band’s brand of short, urgent songs, it is nevertheless visually compelling.  This is because when printed, the lyrics do not look like lyrics; that is, they are not presented as poem-like verse.  Instead, all lyrics on a Minutemen album  are displayed as a single block of unjustified type, with the titles of songs (usually in italics, bold, or both italic and bold typefaces) separating the songs.  The lyrics to a single song are therefore printed to appear as a single sentence with hardly any punctuation.  The effect is twofold.  On the one hand, the seemingly unconnected song lyrics become part of a single stream-of-consciousness rant.  On the other hand, they mimic the actual listening of the recording.  You can’t just pick up at one point only to go to another.  You read the lyrics in the way you listen to the recording: from beginning to end.

Top: rear sleeve to What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982), also featuring artwork by Pettibon.  Bottom: detail of sleeve (Photographs by Francisco Ramirez)

Such presentation of lyrics rings quite familiar in this day of Facebook status messages and clipped 140-character Twitter bursts.  To be tapped into the constellation of social networking sites requires one to be clipped and to the point.  It is as if one's online existence is reduced to short sentences and paragraphs.  This kind of practice has a visual component: strange as it may seem, you only know if a person has updated their status or Twitter stream when a new sentence, phrase, or clause appear.  Your existence in ætherized, online space is mediated by episodes of smallness: short messages, blips, utterances comprised of few characters that announce your presence to the world.

Top: book of poems by Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell Brontë measuring 2 3/4in x 1 1/2 in (Source).  Bottom: excerpt from Charlotte and Branwell Brontë, The Secret (1833) (with accompanying ruler for scale) (Source)

Robert Walser, "A Will To Shake That Refined Individual," Microscript 215 (Source)

This kind of economy by virtue of size has some important precedents, to be sure.  Emily and Charlotte Brontë (along with their brother, Branwell) wrote miniaturized “books” that were large enough to be held by dolls and often included their own maps and illustrations.  Robert Walser composed thousands of cryptic “microscripts” on the backs of business cards, book covers, and other found paper objects using a special alphabet that was only millimeters high.  For the Minutemen, however, their economy of size was inversely proportional to the influence of their output.  Their shortened songs (with shortened lyrics) amounted to a music that was easily consumed and that delivered a maximum wallop.  The visual presentation of their lyrics in condensed blocks of text was a vital part of this strategy. 



[1] An edited version of this piece appeared in Junk Jet 4, the "Statistics-of-Mystics" issue.  A big "thank you" goes to Asli Serbest and Mona Mahall for letting me publish a version of this piece in their wonderful, offbeat "jetzine."
[2] Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), 71. (Note: this book's name is a reference to "History Lesson, Pt. 2," from Double Nickels on the Dime).


Softwood Timber Suppliers said...

Great looking album, makes me want to find out more about Minutemen.

claus said...

That's an interesting comparison, but I'm not sure that it really holds all the way through. I'd agree that for the Minutemen brevity and abstraction were means of rapid, in-your-face communication. (The single block layout also featured on the albums of Watts' next band fIREHOSE.)

For Walser and the Brontes, however, the miniaturisation of writing seems to be exactly the opposite: a withdrawal from or restriction of communication and its necessities. The Bronte's miniature works may be small in size, but they are intended as parts of an epic superstructure to which only the siblings had access. And Walser created his private "pencil terrain" to overcome his personal struggles with writing and being forced to find publishers (which he gradually gave up anyway). It's more a way of becoming invisible without disappearing completely.

But that's just a thought, and nevertheless this is a great appreciation of a band and writers which mean a lot to me as well.

enrique said...

Hi Claus ... thank you for your comment! I think you made an important point better that I ever could. In the very end, I was trying to distinguish the Minutemen graphic presentation from the Brontë's and Walser's. I was much more interested in linking the Minutemen's song lengths and structures to their album graphics. If I recall correctly, the lyrics to the first fIREHOSE album are presented in a square, and you would read it either outside-in, or inside-out (I don't remember), basically following the shape of the figure ... which I guess is a way to distinguish fIREHOSE albums from Minutemen albums (also, I may be on shaky ground here, but fIREHOSE lyrics always seemed longer to me).

Erik C said...

thanks, these have got to be two of my favorite albums ever.

Those firehose lyrics read outside-in in what looks like a double-spiral (i actually still have the cd). there is definitely a slackness to firehose's recorded work but live performances reminded me more of the minutemen recordings.

anyway, it seemed like the minutemen were always coining semi-private expressions. "Econo" being one of the more famous of them.

I've been thinking about them in slightly related terms- I have a powerpoint that includes them to introduce debates on "performance" and virtuosity. They talk, for example, about Double Nickels on the Dime (55 on the 10) being a direct reaction to Sammy Hagar's Ferrari-driving, rock-soloist badboy hit "I Can't Drive 55."

reversealchemy said...

Nice piece. As an aside: my favorite overlap between architecture and music has always been rhythm. They both unfold through time, with various scales of repetition and variation. I'll never forget the day I explained phenomenal transparency to an intro student by singing as I walked down the studio hallway.