Minutemen – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “What Makes a Man Start Fires?” | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Minutemen – Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “What Makes a Man Start Fires?”

The Album First Came Out in January 1983

Jan 31, 2023 By Mark Moody
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Watt. Hurley. Boon. In some alternate version of how the world has unfolded perhaps these would be household names. First though, an unwinding of Dennes (D.) Boon’s untimely and accidental death on the interstate that claimed him would be necessary. And add to that a public that clamored for feverish bursts of thought forward, chorus-less, punk songs, rather than the power chorded anthems of the arena rock stalwarts that ruled the day and maybe Minutemen would have stood a chance to be everyone’s favorite band. None of those things laid out that way, but the legacy of the legendary band lives on in the heart of its fans, upcoming DIY bands like Chicago’s Horsegirl, and Mike Watt and George Hurley themselves.

Given Minutemen’s short life span, there is not much argument that their ensuing album, Double Nickels On The Dime (1985), was their finest recorded moment, but What Makes a Man Start Fires? makes for a worthy predecessor. Technically their second 12-inch record behind the 18-song, 15-minute The Punch Line (1981), all of the band’s elements gel here for the masterstroke to come. What Makes a Man Start Fires? contains another 18 songs, but the band stretches the length of the album out to nearly 30 minutes and patterns begin to emerge. Boon takes over lead vocal duties on all the tracks here (previously shared with Watt) and the band finds comfortable pockets to perform in.

If you have any inkling of the band, leadoff track “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs,” is likely the track you’ve heard (or heard of). The mantra of the title is interspersed with Boon’s own poetic thoughts to an effective end: “manifestos are my window and my proof.” And some of the elements of the trio’s musicality are showcased here as well: Watt’s rumbly bass, Hurley bashing merrily along, and a typically tangled high wire of a solo from Boon. All that unwind at the song’s end. Setting aside conventional song structure and sing along choruses, if the band had a trademark it was their ability to creatively coil and uncoil, creating a delicious tension that kept the listener hanging (briefly) for the resolve. “Sell or Be Sold” does this best here and is a precursor to the band’s best known song, “Corona,” courtesy of MTV’s Jackass. Watt’s spongy bass line and Boon’s high flying solo take the band into a corner that the somehow nose their way back out of.

Boon’s poetry reaches its peak in the compressed tension of “The Only Minority,” where he posits the poor (from which he clearly came) as the truly oppressed class: “They own the land/We work the land/We fight their wars/They think we’re whores.” “Split Red” is a chaotic mix of an impassioned Boon tirade and scribbled soloing, lined up to a jazz-like scale from Watt and Hurley’s cymbal taps. “The Anchor” shows them at their most composed and at their greatest song length to date, which also finds Watt a moment of patient pacing. While the closing “Polarity” is a mirror for what cemented these three young musicians. Boon starts a solo that begins to careen out into the wilderness, but when Hurley and more clearly, Watt, come in, Boon’s solo truly takes flight to a streamlined and more free place to explore.

Minutemen were one of the early sign-ons for the juggernaut of first-rate bands that would rotate through the doors of Greg Ginn’s SST Records. Ginn’s own band, Black Flag, would be the first, but to reflect on the fact that Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Hüsker Dü shared a label at some point is mind-boggling. Minutemen more than held their own in these ranks and their work remains iconoclastic, challenging, mind expanding, and fresher than most things created some 40 years ago.

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