Shuffle: Now that’s what I call 1984

Credit: Shimelle Laine

Every so often a Minutemen track will turn up on my iPod and it will rekindle my love for the San Pedro trio and I’ll just have to have another listen to ‘Double Nickels on the Dime’ – today it was ‘Jesus & Tequila’ but it doesn’t matter what it was because any tiny spark can reignite this love. I would argue that the Minutemen were a hugely influential band and actually helped the push towards Americana. If you think about the hardcore scene that they grew from which was as regimented and as restrictive as the things that it kicked against. It was remarkable that these three dudes, normal people like you or me, were given their opportunity to make such a contribution to culture. The one revolutionary thing about punk was that it allowed anyone to pick up an instrument and be in a band. Punk was always more of an attitude than a musical style, it was liberating because anyone could do it, ‘Our band could be your life’. If you think that punk is just a style of music then you are wrong.

I’d love to position ‘DNotD’ as a classic Americana record and perhaps I will soon, but what I want to cover is 1984, the year this and several other canonical albums were released. I’m going to concentrate on just five, the aforementioned along with The Meat Puppets ‘II’, Husker Du ‘Zen Arcade’, The Replacements ‘Let it Be’ and REM ‘Reckoning’. These are all records that are still foundation stones for me, and it is astounding that they were all released in the same year. Remember this is the year that we all had to look forward to Orwell’s dystopian nightmare but instead it was as culturally rich a time as I can remember. In film there was ‘Paris, Texas’ (and what a fantastic soundtrack that had), ‘Blood Simple’, ‘Repo Man’, ‘This is Spinal Tap’, ‘Stop Making Sense’, ‘Comfort & Joy’. In other genres there was ‘Run DMC’, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’, ‘Purple Rain’, ‘Like a Virgin’, The Smiths, ‘How Will the Wolf Survive’, ‘I Often Dream of Trains’, ‘Swoon’, ’Ocean Rain’, ‘Hallowed Ground’, ‘Stoneage Romeos’, ‘Spring Hill Fair’, ‘Medicine Show’, The Bats, Tall Dwarfs, The Verlaines and The Chills all put records out on Flying Nun, and on TV there was, ‘Who’s the Boss’.

The Meat Puppets released their first record in 1982 – it was a frazzled baked affair full of short hardcore songs, but even here early in their career a love of Americana was evident, covers of Doc Watson, Fred Neil, Neil Young and the Grateful Dead are available. In common with most of the other bands, 1984 was their great leap forward. ‘Meat Puppets II’ was a whole different kettle of mushrooms – the frantic pace was still evident on a few songs: ‘Split Myself in Two’ is like a headless chicken running around inside a barrel, and quite glorious.

What this record does show is flashes of psychedelic deep fried country music – the classic ‘Lost’ (later covered by The Minutemen on ‘Three Way Tie for Last’) and the molten lava of ‘Lake of Fire’ (this along with ‘Plateau’ were covered by Nirvana in their legendary MTV Unplugged session). This is an album by a band finding its voice: the vocals are sketchy, but it doesn’t matter. The rhythm section provides a reliable base, and the guitars and melodies skitter like spooked foals and at times reaches right down to some elemental level where it connects with the part of us that you might call a soul. At the time ‘cowpunk’ was an epithet for this kind of thing – it might be at the extremes of Americana but by 1985 and ‘Up on the Sun’ with a cleaned-up sound, they started to stake out vast swathes of Americana territory, not exactly in the John Fahey camp but somewhere close by. The genesis of this was there to see in ‘II’ – it’s just that it was a blur, an impressionist version of Americana. In ‘I’m a Mindless Idiot’ you can hear Steve Gunn, William Tyler, The Gun Outfit and any number of others.

Husker Du also started in the hardcore scene – their early records whilst not being quite straight up hardcore, were predicated on speed and noise. Their first full length ‘Everything Falls Apart’ from 1983 was seemingly fuelled by rage but right in the middle was a cover of ‘Sunshine Superman’: it’s a record that has a visceral power. By the release of ‘Zen Arcade’ everything came together, the same fierceness was there, the songs though were able to breathe. Then bam, track 3 ‘Never Talking to You Again’ acoustic guitars, a reverse Dylan moment, what was going on? Then ‘Dreams Reoccuring’ a near ten-minute psychedelic freak-out. You could never doubt that the Huskers meant it – to see them live was to experience a sonic assault, leavened with nagging melodies that broke through the wall of noise and thumped you in the amygdala. But what to make of these piano interludes, what’s that got to do with hardcore? These records are about breaking out of the generic straightjackets and creating something: giving validity to self-expression that wasn’t limited to one channel, it was liberating. Things didn’t have to be one thing or the other, it could be many things at once – isn’t that the ethos of Americana?

The Replacements have always been on the Americana radar. Again their early records were fuelled by the hardcore punk spirit and for the first few records they were pretty much run of the mill, ‘Hootenanny’ in 1983 saw them starting the metamorphosis from snotty kids to artists, and one of my all-time favourite tracks ‘Color Me Impressed’ adorns this disc. Again, we return to the great leap forward – ‘Let it Be’ takes their scraggly sound and somehow pulls it together into a focused melody rich classic rock. It is the Replacements though so this is all relative – you wouldn’t want them to be squeaky clean, where would the fun in that be? Whilst you get ‘Unsatisfied’ (bloody hell is that a ballad?) there’s still ‘Gary’s Got a Boner’.

The last record we’re going to look at is one better known, though at the time, who knew that REM would be the breakout band? The ‘Chronic Town EP’ and ‘Murmur’ had already softened me up, ready for the ‘Reckoning’. For REM ‘Reckoning’ wasn’t the great leap forward as they seemed to arrive fully formed. ‘Chronic Town’ contains pretty much their blueprint and ‘Murmur’ is chock full of brilliant songs. But ‘Reckoning’ is their masterpiece and it fits nicely with my narrative. From beginning to end, each song is part of me. ‘So. Central Rain’ still makes me melancholy and joyous at the same time and who doesn’t love the honky-tonk stylings of ‘(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville’ – and who doesn’t love Mike Mills?

The world didn’t stop after 1984 but it was a formative year for me and for music. REM never made a better record, and with D Boon’s passing in 1985 we were denied the chance to find out what the Minutemen could have become. Husker Du went on to create a fantastic body of work including another massive double album (‘Warehouse Songs & Stories’) before imploding. The Replacements made some more decent records. But perhaps the thing that I haven’t mentioned is that The Meat Puppets, REM, The Replacements and Husker Du all signed to major labels. The Minutemen (still on SST) came up with ‘Project: Mersh’ as a kind of ironic attempt to garner a larger audience (it failed miserably and sold only around half their usual volume). They used trumpet and synthesiser, and for me it is a total success. On certain platforms you might see ‘Take Our Test’ as my username. It should be noted that fIREHOSE (with Mike Watt and George Hurley) were signed to Colombia. This brief explosion of creativity with these bands and many others being courted by major labels (Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr were also signed up) marked an interesting time; nowadays with the near collapse of the record industry as we knew it, it is hard to believe that such a thing could happen again. I’m just happy that I was there to experience it – spending my dole money on ‘Candy Apple Grey’ may not have been a sensible idea. Then at the time going to gigs was important – there was an excitement, it seemed that every gig was something special and all these great records were coming out. There were underground magazines and fanzines that spread this excitement. Being released on a major label meant that I didn’t have to wait for weeks for an import, I could go to Virgin and pick one up.

These three ordinary dudes from Pedro, picking up instruments and jamming econo embodied the spirit of what punk could be – they could be political, they could be Dada, they could mix Creedence, Funkadelic and jazz. This was music as art, a period of intense creativity with all of these bands pushing each other. Just before D. Boon’s tragic death, The Minutemen supported REM at the end of 1985 with Jason and the Scorchers on the same bill. Earlier that year, REM played the President’s Ball at the University of Warwick with Jonathan Richman, Green on Red and The Bangles – just try to imagine that happening today. I never got to see The Minutemen live, though I did see fIREHOSE. Many people will know them only through ‘Jackass’ where ‘Corona’ was used. This is your opportunity to drink in the full catalogue and remind yourself of when music meant more than just consumption.  ‘Mr Narrator, this is Bob Dylan to me’.

About David Cowling 142 Articles
Punk rock, Go-Betweens, REM, Replacments, Husker Du, Minutemen, Will Oldham, Smog, Whiskeytown, Ass Ponys but probably most of all Howe Gelb, led me on this journey.
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