Former Minutemen Bassist Mike Watt on Why Their Pivotal Album ‘Double Nickels’ Mocked Sammy Hagar
"Double Nickels, even though it came about kind of by accident, is still the most focused statement of the band," says former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. Double Nickels on the Dime influenced virtually any American punk-funk band one can name, but it inspired thousands more bands of all kinds because its message wasn't "be like me" but "do your own thing." "Punk doesn't have a style,” says Watt. “That’s something that record company people and lazy thinkers came up with. It was a movement of people who did not fit in and wanted to create their own thing."
In the gilded age of Prince, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen, the Minutemen championed the revolutionary idea that rock shouldn't be something made by what Watt calls "princelings" in huge, impersonal arenas, it should be an electric populist music. "One thing about that album is opportunity, potential," says Watt. "When me and D. Boon saw our first punk show, the first thing I said to him was, 'We could do this!' And I think that's what the record means to people."
Proudly working-class "corndogs" from the humble LA suburb of San Pedro, the Minutemen -- Watt, singer-guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley -- showed that even corndogs could create powerful art. "I live sweat but I dream light years" Watt sang on "Glory of Man."
When their SST labelmates and friendly rivals Hüsker Dü announced they were recording a double album, the Minutemen vowed to do the same. In November 1983 and April 1984, they recorded in the wee hours, when rates were lowest, on used tape, using only eight tracks. This was an example of "jamming econo," a catchphrase they introduced on this album. It's perhaps the most influential Minutemen concept. "I get told that a lot by younger bands -- for, like, the past 30 years," Watt says. "If you didn't do it yourself, it didn't get done."
Hence the immortal line from "History Lesson, Pt. II": "Our band could be your life." The way the Minutemen conducted their career could apply to anything else: figure out a way to sustain the way you want to live, without compromise. Like so much else about the Minutemen, it's profoundly inspiring.
After recording an astonishing 45 songs, all they needed was a concept for their double album. They came up with two concepts. One came from Pink Floyd's Ummagumma -- each band member curated one album side (with side 4 being the "chaff" side even though it contains some of the best songs) and featured themselves on a solo tune. The other concept came from Sammy Hagar: the album title means driving exactly 55 miles per hour -- a mocking reference to Hagar's quasi-rebellious paean to la vida loca, "I Can't Drive 55." "He said, 'I'll go crazy on the road but I'll make safe music,'" says Watt, "so D. Boon's idea was, 'Let's stay safe on the road and make crazymusic.'"
Hailing from post-punk, Captain Beefheart, and James Brown, the music is a conversation between Hurley's virtuosic, hyperkinetic drumming, Boon's hyper-trebly guitar, and Watt's burly, busy bass. There are few choruses -- as Watt once said, "We don't write songs, we write rivers," and those rivers flowed into an ocean of scrabbling avant-funk, Norteño two-step ("Corona," later the theme music for Jackass), a college radio hit ("This Ain't No Picnic") solo Spanish-style guitar ("Cohesion") and covers of Van Halen, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steely Dan. The lyrics fused Beat poetry, James Joyce, bold leftist broadsides and straightforward autobiography: "Take 5, D" features Watt reading a note from a friend's landlady, asking him not to use the leaky shower. "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing" was aptly titled: "I sent that song to Michael Jackson's management," Watt says. "I figured if Michael Jackson sang a Minutemen song, people would understand what we were about."
When it was all done, Watt wrote in the liner notes, "Take that, Hüskers!"
An edited version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of Billboard.