When I started getting into punk a few years back, I felt the need to get all the way back to its roots. I listened to tons of albums, read stacks of books and articles, and watched lots of documentaries. One of the first punk docs I saw was We Jam Econo about the Minutemen, a band I’d never heard of before, and I was transfixed. Who were these guys, and what the hell were they doing? I couldn’t take my eyes away from this bizarre, seemingly un-punk band, and the odd earnestness of Mike Watt as he was interviewed while driving around in his van. These guys from San Pedro weren’t what came to mind when I thought of punk rock, something I had in common with many punk fans in the early 1980s and which made it hard for the band to develop much more than a cult following. The death of co-founder and frontman D. Boon at the much-too-young age of 27 in a car accident ended the band, though bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley continued to play together as fIREHOUSE and other projects over the years.
If there is one word that defines the Minutemen it’s one they themselves embraced – “econo”. Everything about the band was economical. They were poor musicians. They didn’t have any money. They had to do everything as inexpensively as possible, and that econo mindset carried over into their music, which is characterized by raw, loose, and amazingly short songs. The double live outtake album Ballot Result includes 31 songs, and their opus Double Nickels On The Dime (also a double album) packs 45 tracks onto four sides of vinyl, with just 12 lasting more than two minutes and the longest song coming in at exactly 3:00. Straight up econo.
Ballot Result is a collection of songs picked by fans for this 1986 posthumous celebration of the band’s work, and it’s comprised mostly of live recordings – both from shows and radio station in-studio performances, with some demos thrown in for good measure. While most of the songs hold true to the purely econo lifestyle of the band, there are a few notable exceptions on side B. The six-and-a-half minute version of “No One” is a full-blown DJ-style remix, and while not typical of the band’s sound (OK, let’s be clear, it may actually be the antithesis of their sound, given it’s length and extensive post-production and manipulation) it’s an absolutely killer track. That is immediately followed by the nearly eight minute (not econo!) “Mr. Robot’s Holy Orders,” in what is more a free-form jam than an actual song and in which Watt sneaks in a bass part from Madonna’s “Material Girl.” Didn’t see any of that coming. “The Price of Paradise” is the most beautiful song on the record, an ode of sorts to those who sacrificed their lives in war, but also a not-so-thinly criticism of those who start the wars that take these soldiers from us. It’s Boon’s best singing by far.
Side C opens with six songs recorded in October 1985, shortly before Boon’s death, as part of a show taping by KPFK radio in Los Angeles. You can really hear the band’s development here – the songs are still pretty short, though getting longer, and the musicianship has improved from their earlier material. This is an experienced band that knows how to make the most of what they have (very econo) and it gives a glimpse as to what the Minutemen might have become. I wonder how their sound would have developed in the mid to late 1980s as a more grunge style of punk moved to the forefront. I think they would have still maintained their character, but I could see them gaining a broader fan base as well. But it wasn’t meant to be.
While Double Nickels On The Dime will always be considered the band’s masterpiece, the Minutemen were a band meant to be heard live, and that’s where Ballot Result gets its strength. If you want to know what the Minutemen were all about, Ballot Result is where it’s at.