You probably know already that Minutemen are legendary among indie-rock and hardcore circles. You’ll probably also know that both Mike Watt and George Hurley went on to form fIREHOSE after the Minutemen’s premature demise. Funny how, like so many other bands from this time and scene, their influence and legend is far greater than the actual sales of their recorded output might suggest.
The band’s early EPs were low budget, noisy affairs. The first full length LP, ‘The Punch Line’ showcased fifteen songs in approximately eighteen minutes and while the hooks were not always instant, the tightness between the hard, funky bass parts and sharp drum rhythms showed a band who meant business; a band who’s technical ability was almost unmatched by their peers. The second full-length, ‘What Makes A Man Start Fires?’ showed a slightly more song-based band, and while the tracks were still short and edgy, some of the melodies have a more conventional approach.
1983’s ‘Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat’ follows a similar path. The band have moved on, yet this time around the differences are slight. Some garage rock roots are retained and obviously, the band’s funk edges are ineviatable. ‘The Product’ features aggressive guitar work from D. Boon against aggressive drumming by George Hurley. While the sound levels are much clearer than some of the earlier EP recordings, this is still pretty raw, though songwise, not quite matching the band’s earlier no-frills approach (equalled only by Wire, particularly on their ‘Pink Flag debut). The vocals are primal and almost undecipherable without a lyric sheet. As to why an out of tune jazz trumpet was chosen to flesh out the mix is probably best only known to the band.
‘I Felt Like A Gringo’ is Minutemen at their tightest. D Boon’s guitar playing has a funk that’s only matched in spirit by the earliest Red Hot Chili Peppers performances, perfectly complimented by a quirky time signature and flawless bass playing from Watt. The only down side: in proper Minutemen tradition, it’s over in about a minute and a half. Still, it shows the power of a very intense three-piece outfit. The more garage aspects of their sound are captured on the live recording ‘Cut’, which is centred round D. Boon’s angry guitar sound.
‘Little Man With A Gun In His Hand’ is again tight, but lacking the full-on funk, preferring to focus on the bands jangly rock side, in a similar vein to their contemporaries Husker Du. The upfront bass sound, though, pushes aside any doubt that this is Minutemen. The band’s really tight funk sound returns on ‘Self-Referenced’, where Hurley proves what a superb drummer he can be, with excellent hi-hat and snare work. Mike Watt’s bass is, once again frighteningly good and it’s this style with which he would become hugely influential. Again, like ‘Gringo’, it’s fantastic but all over far too soon.
‘Dream Told By Moto’ is slower, but showcases the potential in this power-trio format. Hearing stuff like this (alongside ‘Self-Referenced’ and ‘Gringo’) it seems like such a shame Minutemen get lumped with the punk tag. Of course, their roots may have been in hardcore, but even this early on in their career, so many other influences are thrown into their sound, ‘Buzz Or Howl’ is really only punk due to its DIY spirit. Even as an eight track EP, ‘Buzz Or Howl’ still contains filler material: ‘Dream Are Free, Motherfucker!’ is just the sound of a band tuning up, with a nod to free jazz, complete with squonks of feedback and ‘The Toe Jam’ feels like a directionless afterthought, albeit brief.
While ‘Buzz Or Howl’ is an interesting snapshot of a band honing their skills, it’s perhaps not the best place for people who are new to Minutemen. For those people, time spent with the following year’s sprawling ‘Double Nickels On The Dime’ may be more beneficial.
[‘Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence Of Heat’ is currently available as part of the Minutemen compilation ‘Post Mersh Vol. 2’ which also contains the ‘Project Mersh’ LP.]