This record, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat, was my life in high school.
If asked who my favorite band was, I didn’t even stutter before saying “Minutemen.” There are about a million reasons why, and over time I acquired all of their albums and EPs, and the occasional compilation, too. Here are a few reasons why they were the best:
The bass lines were badass and distinctive and drove the structure of the song. I had played tuba and sousaphone in the junior high school band (you probably remember me dancing around while playing “Another One Bites The Dust” – I couldn’t help myself). After seeing Peter Gabriel (and Tony Levin) at the Austin Coliseum my freshmen year, I asked for a bass guitar for Christmas (thanks, mom and dad!) So bass was my primary instrument. As much fun as the other “punk rock” bass players were having, Mike Watt owned his domain – way more like Gang of Four than Sex Pistols.
The drumming was superb and energetic, and again gave clues to the structure of the song. It was mystifying how he could remember all of the nooks and crannies. I remember sitting behind Terry Lynch’s kit during practice, and trying to play whatever drum part I could imagine – “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” say. Those 80s beats were fun and enigmatic and challenging, but I could never even conceive of playing a George Hurley part. Even when he was grooving, he was playing the song. And his hands were so fast! If you don’t know about the podcast The Trap Set with Joe Wong you should check out the episode where he interviews George – it’s amazing. I mean we hear a lot from Watt – he does his 3 hours from Pedro every week – but haven’t heard much from Hurley. (Joe Wong interviews DJ Bonebrake, also).
Even though I was a bass player, I would naturally moonlight on the guitar – there were so many lying around the school. (Also, I had my dad’s Epiphone.) I know I drove everyone nuts with my endless looping of The Psychedelic Furs’ “India.” Anyways, D. Boon was a force of nature – a full-on tsunami of musical enthusiasm. He shredded the guitar – way more so than the Meat Puppets or (later) Dinosaur Jr or any of the other “punk guitar gods” – D. Boon would attack every single moment, rhythm or lead, with an ecstatic energy. Jam Econo, indeed – no overblown BS here.
I have the set list from their 1984 show at Liberty Lunch!
To me, this record is a perfect summation of all of the above spirit and fire – it’s not too short, like the Joy EP or quite as slick as Double Nickels on the Dime (which is also perfect, just not my #1). Each song is Econo, each side is Econo, and the record is Econo. The fantastic human being and musician Spot produced most of the tracks (for a total cost of $50), and Ethan James (who later produced Double Nickels) produced a few.
So here we go:
Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat by Minutemen
“Self-Referenced” – 1:23 (Watt)
So the first significant figure here has an aggressively disjointed riff played by the band interspersed with tribal tom-toms and guitar chatter (and the recorder which reminds me of “If Six Was Nine”). I love the intensity of that Telecaster tone. After a couple of those, they drop into a spastic high-hat space with trebly guitar nonsense and a climbing jazz-ish bass line as the narrator tells us “a burned out wreck spotted on the beach a symbol for my life” BAM back into the first riff “How can I believe in books when my heart lies to me?” the narrator asks us “I’m full of shit!” he cries back into jazzy nonsense space for a moment of repose then “Bumming real hard on cold steel facts – I’m full of shit!” then back to the tribal figure for more talkative Telecaster then the first riff and we’re done. A minute twenty-three and more thoughtful, original, energetic, free and structured than a million hours of other bands. They play with light and dark lyrically and musically and sound nothing like any other band before or since. On the vinyl, the song has barely ended when then next comes cutting in.
“Cut” – 2:02 (Watt)
“Cut” was apparently written as a reaction to Greg Ginn’s guitar style, which by 1983 was branching out a bit from the more straight ahead punk rock of Damaged and veer into the freer and jammier My War and Slip It In phase with Rollins, Dukowski, and Stevenson. This is my favorite track on the album. I think D. Boon’s playing shows what an absolute badass he is, Mike Watt’s bass line is a case study in perfection and timing – especially the way it drops an octave to emphasize the jam at the end, and every one of Hurley’s fills is breathtaking. A staggering amount of music happens in just 2 minutes. Apparently, my friends in Brown Whornet covered this tune at some point, which further confirms that it is exceptional.
“Dream Told by Moto” – 1:45 (Watt)
Creepy lyrics for sure. In high school, I may have giggled, but now I find them horrifying. I will say this, to me Minutemen more than any other band embraced the actual ethos of anarchy and explored all viewpoints and all sides all of the time. And in this creepy dream told by some creepy mofo, we are exposed to the underbelly of humanity. Musically, the bass line drives the song, with rocking punches from Hurley, and then in the second half, we can almost see the radiation cascading around us.
“Dreams Are Free, Motherfucker!” – 1:09 (Boon/Watt/Hurley/Crane)
A warm up jam with the tape rolling. I listen to and take part in a lot of experimental and free music (check out my band Wank Tribe for a taste of some), and this minute or so of unstructured improv packs a lot of emotional peaks and valleys that I find inspiring and aspirational.
“The Toe Jam” – 0:40 (Cooper/Vandenberg/Crane/Hurley/Boon/Watt)
“The Toe Jam” is more improv from the same day. It is a little less interesting to me, but apparently that is Hurley on the trumpet. Which reminds me that I play trumpet on one song on Baby Got Bacteria’s Boo (“Wild Flower“) in a style that is very much inspired by this record.
“I Felt Like a Gringo” – 1:57 (Watt)
The first track on side two is a real burner. Fantastic little groove after that nice little unison lick. “‘Who won,’ I said, ‘the election?'” is a line that has stuck with me forever – in fact, I spent several months last year trying to write a song that included narrative continuances like “he said,” and “she said” and then gave up when I recalled that it had already been done perfectly.
“The Product” – 2:44 (Boon)
Difficult to believe this is the only D. Boon penned track on the record, but it is an astonishing piece. In most of my experience in three piece bands, we had a lot of trouble laying out – “don’t let the noise stop” was our mantra – but these guys prove that philosophy a lie. I love the freak-out guitar that comes in at the end of the trumpet solo.
“Little Man With a Gun in His Hand” – 3:10 (Dukowski/Boon)
What a great riff! This song starts off tighter and poppier than all the other tunes but then builds into an almost Creedence Clearwater atmosphere jam. And those hits are staggering. Apparently written with some words by Chuck Dukowski, the message is pretty resonant today, given our current Cheeto situation.
If you like Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat you might like most of the Lick Lick records and even the Baby Got Bacteria record. They don’t sound anything like Minutemen – nothing does – but both bands spent a lot of time worshipping at the altar.
Also, if you love Minutemen and want to know more there’s a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that has a great chapter on the band. (The name of the book is lifted from “History Lesson – Part II” on Double Nickels).
Also also, here is my “punk rock” band, Pinkie Sworn, if you have 6 minutes to spare. Me on Guitar, Julien Petersen on bass, Sean Powell on vocals, and Cameron Page on drums.