Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Minutemen - Project: Mersh

Project: Mersh

Released 1985 on SST
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 20/07/2003ce

1. The Cheerleaders
2. King Of The Hall
3. Hey Lawdy Mama
4. Take Our Test
5. Tour-Spiel
6. More Spiel

The Minutemen were one of the bands that defined the whole "American indie underground" scene in the 1980's, touring relentlessly and recording no-frills DIY records of econo punk-funk fury. A legendary instrumental lineup driven by the heavy-yet-agile rhythm section of Wike Watt (bass) and George Hurley (drums) with d. boon's impassioned everyday-guy vocals and funky-but-not-in-a-stupid-Red-Hot-Chili-Peppers-way guitar skronk throwing a spazz fit over the top.

They called their aesthetic "econo" and in classic punk style made a point of avoiding all the received trappings of rock excess. On their first half dozen or so records (mostly EP's and 7" singles) their song lengths rarely got over 2 minutes and almost never featured any solos or overdubs. In fact, they'd record their songs in sequence to minimize studo time, and made a point of recording on previously used tape to cut costs!

In the early part of the 80's the idea of a band like this "having a hit" seemed ridiculous, but by 1985 SST records had developed quite a bit of cultural cache and the idea of turning the indie label into a "punk Motown" began to seem not-so-crazy (SST began releasing records like mad about this time, which eventually led to the economic collapse of the label -- see Michael Azerad's excellent tome "This Band Could Be Your Life" for more on this whoile era.)

It was in this context that the Minutemen decided to punk-the-punks by recording a BLATANTLY COMMERCIAL album (or "mersh" in Minutemen-speak.) Sounds like a sell out but it's not, because they were always about defying the expectations of the audience -- and as the underground began to bubble under the national consciousness new people started coming to shows and the original "hardcore" audience began to show reactionary tendencies (see also labelmates Husker Du who were inspired to write a lot of "you stupid harcore hypocrite" songs around this time.) So if the crowd expects minute-long songs, give 'em pop song structures, horn charts, guitar solos and vocal harmonies! But of course they realized that "cross over" was still unlikely, and the album art reinforces this (the group is depicted wearing ties holding a business meeting complete with a stack of sales charts -- a caption reads "I got it! We'll have them write hit songs!")

The first track "The Cheerleaders" is a bouncy funk number with a melodic trumpet line that wouldn't sound out of place on a AM pop song from the late 60's / early 70's. Meahwhile d. boon's lyrics ask incongruous musical questions like "Will the nation grow while prosperity may not?" and "Do you have to see the bodybags before you take a stand?"

"King of the Hill" is an uptempo Beefheart/Gang of Four herky-jerk pfunker more in keeping with the usual Minutemen style, with more political lyrics -- and is also I believe the first song of theirs to feature guitar solos!

Next up is a cover of that old warhorse "Hey Lawdy Mama" that veers back and forth between galloping funky verses and a corny dramatic chorus (they just can't do those classic rock poses with a straight face.)

"Take Our Test" is another consciousness-raising political rant with Mike mumbling along behind d.'s vocals -- vocal harmonies! Their "test" isn't spelled out in so many words, but it has something to do with spotting fascists.

Finally Mike Watt takes over vocals for the climactic two-part "Tour-Spiel / More Spiel". The first track is a fuggin RAWK song with a riff that BTO would have killed for and ye oldest lyrical theme in the book: "bein' on the road." But "the road" really was these guys' life so the song totally transcends it's adopted genre with lyrics of sincerest indie cred like: "you got your gitar and your practice amp / you travel the USA in a van / and when the guitars turned off and the gas tank's empty / and the typewriters on and my head is empty / to really find me I've got to look inside me." "We fight at practice / we jam econo" and instruments get smashed and taped back together as they work out "shtick for gigs" and sleep in the back of the van. No song before or since has better captured the romance and the pathos of whole "indie rock" movement.

The melodic chorus riff is then entended out for another 6 minutes of "More Spiel" with spinning psych guitar leads (including some recorded backwards), swirling keyboards that recall the Doors, and more burbling trumpet. Proving once again that the 80's indie thang was as much an extension of the heavy psyche rock of the 60's as the punk economy of the 70's.

"Project: Mersh" stands the test of time as one of the Minutemen's best (though I think it's importance is often overlooked in favor of the more "catholic" early stuff), and is probably a good (if atypical) introduction to one of the key bands of the 1980's. Sadly, before the release of their somewhat disappointing follow up "3 Way Tie For Last" d. boon died (in a car crash, on the road to the end.) Mike and George soldiered on for ahwile as fIREHOSE and proved beyond any doubt that d. boon was such a genius -- fIREHOSE fell prey to all the pitfalls of "a white punk band trying to play funky" while somehow the Minutemen never had this problem.

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