For Southern California punk bands, a ritual of acceptance was performing on the L.A.-based New Wave Theatre TV show with host Peter Ivers, from 1981 to 1983. When the Minutemen appeared, Boon played the parts S-style guitar that he
used to record the 1980 Paranoid Time EP. Photo by Spot
The ethos of punk—playing in small clubs, writing songs, and doing it yourself, the scene’s emphasis on community and its acceptance of misfits and outsiders, and even its left-leaning politics—spoke to them. It validated their ambitions. It gave them permission to break rules. It taught them that art was within their grasp. It also exposed them to people who were very different from those in San Pedro. They didn’t immediately become punks, but they soon formed their first band, the Reactionaries (with Hurley on drums), which after a few fits and starts morphed into the Minutemen.
Their big break came when they met Black Flag in a parking lot outside a Clash show. “We opened for Black Flag in February of 1978,” Watt says. “I think it was their second or third gig. It was our first gig.” Some members of Black Flag were handing out fliers for an upcoming show in San Pedro. “We couldn’t believe they were trying to play a gig in Pedro,” he continues. “We said, ‘We’re from Pedro and we’re the only punk rockers in that town.’ They said, ‘There are punk rockers in Pedro? Do you want to open?’ It was fucking like that; we didn’t even know them and they asked us to open.”
In 1980, Greg Ginn, the guitarist in Black Flag and the head of then-nascent SST Records, invited the Minutemen to record their first EP. “I met them at a show,” Spot says. “At that time, D. Boon had a mohawk and was wearing coveralls. They were playing these super-short songs and I thought, ‘Whoa, this is geeky.’ But then I thought, ‘This is really good geeky.’ They didn’t have anything recorded as far as I knew; maybe some practice tapes or something, but that wasn’t even an issue then. It was just, ‘Let’s get these guys in the studio and do something because it will definitely be good.’”
Those first sessions, which resulted in the EP Paranoid Time, featured a band with a large repertoire, a distinctive sound, and low-budget gear. They upgraded their instruments as the years went on, but simple, utilitarian gear was an ideal Boon stayed true to.
“D. Boon had a guitar that by any standards people would consider a piece of junk,” Spot says. “It was a Frankenstein Strat. It had a typical ’70s neck—probably a 3-bolt heel—with maple fretboard, big headstock, and bullet truss rod. The bridge pickup was a normal-looking single-coil. The body may or may not have been Fender. That was the era of third-party DiMarzio, Mighty Mite, Schecter—or whatever was cheapest—stuff. It was a guitar he put together that had been just parts. It had paint splattered over it. It was not a prime-looking instrument any way you looked at it, but it was his instrument and he knew how to make it sound.”
Watt adds, “He also had a single-cutaway Melody Maker and put a Strat pickup in that. He got that from Dezo—Dez Cadena—of Black Flag. He had a buddy make him a pickguard out of sheet aluminum so it wouldn’t break. It just had a volume knob and that one Stratocaster bridge pickup. He played that for a few years until I got him his first Telecaster, because he always wanted a Telecaster.”
Boon’s cheapo guitars were similar to what many other punks were using. High-end gear, as you’d expect, was expensive and beyond the means of most early punk rockers. But they were making an aesthetic statement as well. “Late ’70s and early ’80s punk/trash/noise bands were notorious for gutted pickup wiring, intentional or not,” Spot says. “There was a pride in making the most basic, cheapest system work. By the mid-’80s, attitudes got a bit more urbane or ‘professional.’”
D. Boon’s penchant for low-cost, ad-hoc gear applied to his amps as well. “He had an old blackface Fender Bandmaster head,” Spot says. “At that time, it was considered the low version of a Fender piggyback.” He also had a 2x12 cabinet with mismatched speakers, which were wired out of phase. “I recorded it in stereo. I had each speaker miked separately. When I was mixing the stuff down, I tried to see how everything sounded in mono and the guitar disappeared. That’s when I learned, ‘Whoops, this ain’t going to work.’”
Regardless of the gear he used, Boon always sounded like Boon. His tone was unique—even unusual—and not something most guitarists aspire to. “D. Boon would play all treble,” Watt says. “He would turn down all the tone knobs except for the treble, which would go all the way to the top. It was a total cheese-slicer sound.”
“Thank God I was behind that amp,” drummer Hurley recalls. “He used a Fender Twin Reverb with the treble turned mercilessly high. I remember seeing a few unsuspecting people jump up and run.”
Usually Boon wore his punk ethos on his sleeve, but this time it’s a bit higher. The guitar he’s wearing is the ES-125 he used for overdubs on the band’s magnum opus, Double Nickels on the Dime.
Photo by Bev Davies/Courtesy of Mike Watt
J Mascis, no wallflower when it comes to volume, adds, “It was definitely the most ear-damaging show I ever went to. I stood in front. He had the treble all the way up with bass rolled all the way down. It shredded my ears more than any other gig I ever went to.”
But Boon’s tone, as distinctive as it was, wasn’t just a preference. It was in sync with the band’s political outlook as well. “Watt and D. had very deliberately created sovereign states,” Nels Cline says. “One state was identified as ‘treble’ and the other as ‘bass.’ They stayed out of the way of each other’s frequencies in a way that was ‘political,’ which means—I think—that they had cooperation and respect for each other’s ‘territory.’”
“The political part of the Minutemen wasn’t the words,” Watt says. “D. Boon called those, ‘thinking out loud.’ The political part for D. Boon was how the band was structured. Obviously, we were just a power trio, but he wanted to make room for the drums and the bass. He liked the way the R&B guys restrained themselves—this idea of restraining yourself so you made room for the other guys in the band, instead of this hierarchy.”
Punk promoted independence and rule breaking, and paid lip service to anarchy. But like most movements, it became established and rigid. Hardcore, in particular, had set rules, and bands were expected to sound a certain way.
But that didn’t apply to the Minutemen.
In addition to their classic-rock roots, they borrowed from British post-punk and learned from bands like the Pop Group and Wire. “The Pop Group were basically putting Captain Beefheart together with Parliament-Funkadelic,” Watt says. “We liked that idea, too—the idea that you can do whatever you want. We never saw the movement as a style of music. It was more like permission to try anything. Put Funkadelic with Beefheart? Do it. We thought that was really interesting.”
That same spirit inspired another Minutemen trademark: short songs. Most of their songs were less than two minutes—many were less than one—but their songs weren’t supposed to be stand-alone. They were mini-movements and part of a greater symphony. “A Minutemen gig was to try and make one song out of 30 or 40 parts,” Watt says. “We got the idea from Wire, but we also thought it would purge some of that rock ’n’ roll we learned off the records.”
Purging those influences explains their cavalier attitude toward establishing a musical style as well. “We didn’t think motifs or style,” Watt says. “Those were all devices to help us spell the word ‘Minutemen.’ We didn’t want to be a ska band or a reggae band. We could play anything—that was the idea—and still you could tell it was the Minutemen. During the gigs, there would be three or four times during the set when we’d play free jams for a minute or two. We did a lot of that. But the songwriting—we wanted it short and the songs were concise.”