Another of the new books in the series for Spring (although good god it’s cold here today! and we’re heading down south tomorrow for a week’s holiday – doesn’t look much warmer even there…) is Michael T. Fournier’s ode to Double Nickels on the Dime.
Here’s an extract from the book’s second chapter, “History Lesson (Part II)”.
It’s interesting to note that the songwriting throughout Double Nickels is cohesive despite the time that passed between the first and second recording sessions. The players have no memory of which songs come from which session – the work was simply done. (There are a few songs that I was able to pin down as being products of either the first or second session due to contextual clues. When such hints come up, I’ve made notes in the entries for the tunes in question.)
So, the challenge the Minutemen faced was to create a concept from a seemingly disparate bunch of songs, recorded months apart in two separate sessions.
They rose to the occasion and came up with interlocking concepts. The first was a reaction to the popular music of the time: a pre-Van Halen Sammy Hagar had scored a big pop hit with “I Can’t Drive 55.” The Minutemen thought it would be funny to comment on the nature of Hagar’s little ditty by letting listeners know that driving fast wasn’t terribly defiant. “So to wear red leather and say that you can’t drive 55 like that’s the big rebellion thing…to us, the big rebellion thing was writing your own fuckin’ songs and trying to come up with your own story, your own picture, your own book, whatever. So he can’t drive 55, because that was the national speed limit? Okay, we’ll drive 55, but we’ll make crazy music,” says Watt.
The cover of Double Nickels on the Dime spells it all out: Watt driving his VW Beetle at exactly 55 miles per hour – double nickels, in truckerspeak – on California’s Interstate 10, affectionately known as the Dime. Minutemen buddy/contributor Dirk Vandenberg snapped photos from the backseat as Watt piloted the Dub under a sign for San Pedro, the Minutemen’s hometown. It took three circuits around Los Angeles to get the photo right, but they got it.
“We had to drive all over Los Angeles and whenever we found a San Pedro freeway sign we took a shot,” says Vandenberg. “There were three elements that Mike wanted in the photo: a natural kind of glint in his eyes reflected in the rearview mirror, the speedometer pinned exactly on 55mph, and, of course, the San Pedro sign guiding us home. There were two separate days of shooting with me smashed up in the backseat of his VW. I had to push myself back in the seat as far as possible to get every element needed in the shot. We finally got lucky and nailed it. The big story to me is how we worked pretty hard to get it right and when the shot was finally presented to SST someone botched the cropping and cut off the end of the word Pedro on the album jacket.”
For their second concept, the Minutemen decided all three dudes in their band would have a solo song on their album sides. Their inspiration was Ummagumma, a double album released by Pink Floyd in 1969. Ummagumma featured solo performances by each band member. In keeping with the automotive/driving 55 theme, each side of Double Nickels would be announced by the particular band member’s car starting (and, at the end of the record, the song “Three Car Jam” – all three engines revving at once – would send things off).
The good songs, Watt realized, should be at the beginning of each side, and the ones that weren’t quite up to par should be “hugging label,” on the inside of the record. The solution, then, was to have a kind of fantasy draft, to draw straws and let each member of the band pick songs in turn, and put the leftovers, the “chaff,” on the final side of the album. That way, says Watt, the songs that weren’t on the band’s top shelf wouldn’t “glob up” and each member’s individuality would show through all the more in the songs that they chose as their favorites. “[Y]ou separate the wheat from the chaff,” Watt explains, “‘cuz that was the side that had the songs that nobody picked.”