“History Lesson Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles in 1984″: We jam econo with D. Boon & the Minutemen

By on September 1, 2016

In the spring of 1984, teenage punk enthusiast Dave Travis began videotaping some of his favorite L.A. punk bands at their gigs, including the Meat Puppets (from Phoenix, Arizona, actually), the Minutemen, Twisted Roots and Redd Kross, all of which are now collected together and represented in a fascinating and raw video documentary from 2011 called History Lesson Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles in 1984, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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The nearly one-hour documentary is split into four sections, each devoted to one of the bands, and each song performance is presented from start to finish, in starkly raw, unvarnished and unedited sequences which are pure D.I.Y.-style examples of Punk Rock Cinéma vérité.

There’s also a few surprises along the way: For instance, in the Redd Kross section, the Bangles’ Vicki Peterson can be seen on guitar (a rare occurrence!), and the Meat Puppets are seen at a gig of theirs in Pasadena, CA, playing “Lake of Fire,” a song some of you reading this might know from when Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain performed it on acoustic guitar for their classic MTV Unplugged performance.

The documentary also gives us an excuse to ramble on a bit about the Minutemen, an early ’80s punk threesome based out of the harbor city of San Pedro, California, a seaport town south of Los Angeles (called simply “Pedro” by the locals), comprised of singer/guitarist D. Boon (born Dennes Dale Boon), bassist/singer Mike Watt, and drummer George Hurley.

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All three of the band members were from working class backgrounds, but Boon and Watt were particularly close, having grown up together, meeting at age thirteen when Boon dropped out of a tree in Peck Park, saying “you’re not Eskimo” to a startled Mike Watt (a friend of his, “Eskimo,” was expected at the park).

They became fast friends and found out they lived in the same rough Pedro housing project, Park Western, where soon Boon was entertaining Watt with George Carlin routines which Watt thought was hysterical, not knowing at the time that he wasn’t making it all up on the spot (he didn’t own any of Carlin’s albums).

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Their first band, The Bright Orange Band, played classic rock covers, including hits by Blue Öyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Who.

By the time they both became interested in punk rock, circa 1976, they were graduating from San Pedro High (they didn’t meet their drummer, George Hurley, until graduation day, even though all three had gone to the same school).

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Watt left high school at the top of his class and went on to get a degree in electronics at Harbor College, but he never applied it to any job because he and bandmate and best friend D. Boon already knew what they were going to do for a living, and that was playing in a band.

Hurley joined up on drums (he also had a shed where they could practice) in early 1979, the garagey, punk rock-ish three-piece christening themselves the Reactionaries, and for a time they even had a fourth member, a lead vocalist named Martin Tamburovich.

In their song “History Lesson – Part II” (from the Minutemen’s 1984 album Double Nickels on the Dime; there was an earlier song of the band’s, called “History Lesson,” which appeared on their 1981 album ), Watt’s lyrics tell the story of the friendship between the two boys from the Pedro projects, the original version making reference to Boon in the third person (“me and D. Boon, we played for years,” which Boon, because he was the lead singer, changed to “me and Mike Watt, we played for years” for the recording).

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The song’s opening line, though, became something of a punk rock credo — “Our band could be your life” — which author Michael Azerrad chose for the title of his book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.

Yet another stanza of lyrics from the second verse of the song tell even more of Boon’s and Watt’s story: “We learned punk rock in Hollywood/Drove up from Pedro/We were fucking corndogs/We’d go drink and pogo.”

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It was actually at a Clash concert at the Santa Monica Civic in February 1979, and not Hollywood, where they got their first big break, when Gregg Ginn of the L.A. hardcore band Black Flag — who was handing out flyers to his band’s upcoming show in Pedro at a teen center — got to talking to both Boon and Watt and he ended up adding the Reactionaries to the bill (along with the Plugz, the Alley Cats and the Descendants).

It was to be Black Flag’s second gig ever, and the Reactionaries’ first.

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Punk rock fans from all around L.A. came to the gig, Pedro’s first punk show (February 17, 1979), and they ended up trashing trashed the recently-remodeled teen outpost where the gig was being held, spray-painting graffiti in the heavily Hispanic, working class neighborhood, which the Reactionaries’ condemned, siding with the poor residents in the area.

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Watt has said that this night set them apart in their thinking from the destructive nihilism that would end up becoming a sad part of the L.A. punk scene thereafter.

The band went through a few changes, deciding they didn’t need a separate lead vocalist, and in just a few weeks were re-naming themselves the Minutemen, which originally reportedly supposed to be pronounced with an emphasis on “minute” — with a long “I” sound, meaning small, not the measurement of time — although no one got it and thought it was a reference to the length of their songs, few of which broke the 60-second length barrier.

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D. Boon also liked the fact that the original Minutemen of Colonial New England were a badass volunteer militia who were expected to keep their arms and equipment with them at all times, and in the event of an alarm, be ready to march at a minute’s warning.

In addition to both 20th Century art and literary movements, Boon and Watt also were interested in left-leaning politics, turning to local FM station KPFK for inspiration for their first original tunes, which they were finally able to play under their new moniker at the Seahawk Center at Los Angeles Harbor College on May 30, 1980. Also on the bill: The Plugz, The Gears and Red Cross (who would be forced by the charity organization to change the spelling of their name to Redd Kross).

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Black Flag’s Greg Ginn — the proprietor of SST Records — asked the Minutemen if they’d like record an EP for his label, and that release, Paranoid Time, was so-titled because Watt and Boon both felt trapped in a “paranoid time” due to then-President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive Cold War stance and oppressive economic policies.

That debut EP — 7 tracks, 7 minutes total — featured songs that Night Flight contributor Chris Morris would later write “… were appealing because… they were didactic; they dealt with politics in a really impressionistic way.”

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D. Boon’s gruff, howling vocals, along with Mike Watt’s propulsive punk bass riffs and Hurley’s speeded-up funk-style rhythms, made for an interesting combination unlike no other punk outfit in the greater L.A. area.

Their songs — abbreviated to short bursts like many of their English punk rock influences — also combined the angular, irregular rhythms of art punk influences too, bands like Wire and Captain Beefheart & The Magic Band, along with occasional added elements of 70s funk, bebop jazz, 70s FM rock, and even Bakersfield Sound outlaw country.

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Over the next few years, the Minutemen would release more recordings, EP s and LP s both — The Punch Line and Joy(both 1981), and Bean Spill and What Makes a Man Start Fires(both 1982) — which lyrically were dominated by themes about anti-war and anti-capitalism ideas, the plight of the working class dealing with abuse by the ruling class, and typically everything that pitted the rich versus the poor.

One song of theirs, “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs” — the lead-off track to What Makes a Man Start Fires — in fact, pays tribute to the celebrated songwriter and artist that Watt told Flipside fanzine in 1985 was like a “surrogate dad” to him growing up, since his actual dad, a sailor, was frequently gone (we see the song peformed live at the Olympic Auditorium on May 12, 1984, in this documentary).

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D. Boon also — between 1982-1984 — published a political fanzine Prole (for “proletariat”), and booked local underground bands at San Pedro’s Star Theatre, re-naming it Union Theatre, and he and Watt operated their own indie label, New Alliance Records, between 1981-1985, putting out releases by Hüsker Dü and the Descendants.

The Minutemen built up a small, loyal local following during the early 80s — despite being banned at clubs like the Whisky A Go Go simply because they were determined to be a hardcore punk band because their records were released on Black Flag’s label — and expanded their following across the country by playing out-of-town gigs in support of SST bands like Black Flag, Hüsker Dü or the Meat Puppets.

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They even undertook their first European tour in support of Black Flag, where they found audiences were even more hardcore than they were back home in L.A.

The threesome toured regularly and made money on their three and four-month treks across the U.S., traveling in a van they maintained themselves, setting up their equipment without the help of roadies, sleeping on floors, etc. They would proudly declare “we jam econo,” and proclaimed it frequently, and as Michael Azerrad would observe about them, in the greedy cultural climate of the Reagan era, jamming econo itself constituted a rebellious act.

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In 1983, the Minutemen recorded a new EP (Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat) for just $50, and later that same year returned to the studio to record forty-five songs for a projected double-album for just $1100, which was mixed in just one night.

That album, 1984’s Double Nickels on the Dime, is now regarded by most of their fans as the band’s highwater mark, and arguably it’s still one of the best independent punk rock records ever made, selling 15,000 copies during its first year of release (not a small amount for a punk double-LP on an indie label).

Double Nickels still ends up on “best-of” lists of various types (Pitchfork ranked it at #17 on their “Top 100 Favorite Records of the 1980s”). Michael Azerrad described the album as “one of the greatest achievements of the indie era — an inspired Whitman’s sampler of left-wing politics, moving autobiographical vignettes, and twisted Beefheartian twang.”

Their video for “This Ain’t No Picnic” — directed by Randall Jahnson and budgeted at just $450 — utilized footage from a young Ronald Reagan acting in the Why We Fight series of U.S. propaganda films dating back to WWII, which the L.A. Times (in an article entitled “Reagan Drops His Bombs on the Minutemen”, from December 9, 1984) ranked higher than high-budget videos released that same week by Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and a handful of other major label acts.

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That same year the Minutemen had openly supported Democratic Party presidential hopeful Walter Mondale, their opposition to Reagan was so strong, and they were only more negatively embittered against Reagan when the candidate lost the election.

1985 was to be the Minutemen’s breakout year, and indeed it was, as the band members were finally able to quit their day jobs and devote themselves fully to the band.

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They were also offered an opening slot on winter tour with R.E.M. and played twenty-four shows to significantly larger audiences, broadening the band’s appeal beyond the L.A. punk scene. On December 13, 1985, the Minutemen played what would be its final show at the Park Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. That night, R.E.M. called the band onstage for its final encore, a cover version of “See No Evil” by Television.

There were even plans to record a new album of songs written by one of their heroes, rock critic and songwriter Richard Meltzer, who had written songs for Blue Öyster Cult when they were still called the Stalk-Forrest Band.

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Alas, everything ended tragically on December 22, 1985, when D. Boon was killed in an auto accident. Boon was headed for a New Mexico vacation following the tour in Boon’s 1979 Dodge van, which was being driven by his girlfriend, Linda Kite, whom he’d planned to marry in 1986. Kite’s sister, Jeanine Garfias, also was in the van.

Boon wasn’t feeling well and was lying down on a blanket in the rear of the van when an axle broke fifty miles east of Quartzsite, Arizona. The van rolled over, and Boon was killed instantly. Kite and Garfias suffered serious injuries. D. Boon was just twenty-seven years old.

The Minutemen ceased to exist as a band from that day onward, although Mike Watt perservered and he and Hurlley formed fIREHOSE, who began releasing records of their on SST in the late ’80s.

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The Minutemen’s recordings remain in print and continue to sell, and should you want to check any of them out we believe you can’t go wrong with the double-LP Double Nickels on the Dime, as good a place to start as any. Also check out the definitive documentary on the band, 2005’s We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen.

Also, do check out our post on Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, the 2016 chronicle of L.A.’s punk scene by John Doe and Tom DeSavia (who we spoke to for the article). Mike Watt’s entry in the book — “Stuff Gets Twisted Up” — is a touching love letter to his fallen Minutemen comrade, D. Boon.

Finally, we recommend that you also check out History Lesson Part 1: Punk Rock in Los Angeles in 1984, which, in addition to live concert footage by the Minutemen and a rare interview with Mike Watt, also presents live footage by the Meat Puppets, Twisted Roots and Redd Kross interspersed with interviews with Jeff and Steve McDonald (Redd Kross), Cris and Curt Kirkwood (Meat Puppets), Paul Roessler (Screamers, Twisted Roots, DC3) and Hellin (Killer) Roessler, the longest-serving bassist in Black Flag’s storied history. See it now on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.