It was a novel idea.
Instead of simply recording one of its shows for a live album, the Minutemen decided to let its fans select the songs for the LP. It was part of the San Pedro trio’s continuing search for ways to subvert the predictability of the rock ‘n’ roll process .
So the group’s record company, SST, put ballots in copies of the Minutemen’s 1985 album, “3-Way Tie (For Last).” The punk-aligned group planned to record a concert using the 30 tunes that got the most votes.
Only the Minutemen never had the chance to follow through.
Shortly after “3-Way Tie” was released in December of 1985, singer-guitarist D. Boon was killed in an auto accident in Arizona.
Bassist Mike Watt, who co-founded the group with Boon in 1980, was so distraught over his friend’s death that he couldn’t even go to the funeral, much less think about continuing the band.
Gradually, however, Watt, now 29, became fascinated with the stacks of ballots that had been mailed in by fans. He began to look at the “live album” project as a way to salute Boon and the band’s fans.
Since recording the songs with new musicians was out of the question, Watt and drummer George Hurley began listening to tapes from past Minutemen performances of the 30 songs.
That slow process led to the release of the new “Ballot Result” album, a poignant and inspiring two-record collection drawn from such varied sources as live radio appearances and rehearsal sessions. The sound quality is quite uneven--some of the tracks were recorded on cassettes brought to the shows by members of the audience. But that primitiveness is somehow appropriate.
A smooth, carefully recorded selection of songs would have been too tidy a farewell from a band that was a leader in the independent and inventive L.A. underground rock scene that also included X and Black Flag.
About the album, Watt said in an interview this week, “It was for D. Boon. . . . I felt I owed it to him. The problem (with putting together the album) was that we didn’t really have much good-quality stuff. That was the thing about us. We just played all the time and we didn’t concern ourself with documenting it, which was probably a mistake.
“Listening to the tapes that we did have was hard emotionally, especially when D. Boon talks. . . . It sounds like he’s almost there in the room with you. The main thing for me was to make sure the album sounded very personal. I didn’t care about some fancy, studio package. I’ve got too much respect for D. Boon to do that. I wanted the album to reflect his spirit.”
And what Minutemen song finished first in the fan balloting? “This Ain’t No Picnic,” a biting look at socioeconomic alienation that was the basis of a terrific video that employed clips from an old Hollywood war film--with bombardier Ronald Reagan attacking the Minutemen.
In view of Boon’s death, the “Ballot Result” album is a strange mixture of sadness and triumph, and it would have made a nice ending to the Minutemen’s chapter in American rock.
But Watt and Hurley eventually did put together a new band last year with singer-guitarist Ed Crawford. That band--Firehose--has also released an album on SST Records that is worth attention.
Without appearing to simply mirror the style of the Minutemen, Firehose’s album--"Ragin’, Full-On"--is a most powerful and affecting extension of that group’s spirit.
There is clearly a different voice at work in the Firehose album--both in Crawford’s less exercised vocal approach and in his less cryptic writing approach. But there is a sense of kinship.
The music on “Ragin’, Full-On” is surprisingly varied, extending the Minutemen’s evolution from the frantic assault of its early compositions to a band that experimented with longer song forms and a strikingly original, if often jarring mix of jazz, funk, folk and punk sensibilities.
Firehose’s songs are generally less polemic than the bulk of the Minutemen tunes, but they share a suspicion of authority and “conventional wisdom.” Though the three band members and former Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler wrote the songs in different pairings, there is a surprising cohesiveness of vision.
The album is characterized by an escalating tension that invites you to ask questions and raise doubts about assumptions and leaders--until you are convinced of the need to think for yourself.
“Captain, there is talk regarding your ability to lead . . . " is the opening line of the album--a remark that could be addressed to the President of the United States or your boss at work.
Musically, the album builds upon the accessible traces of the final Minutemen albums, adding even more of the airy folk ingredients associated with bands like the Meat Puppets and R.E.M.--and a touch of the folk-oriented introspection you expect from Leonard Cohen.
“Ragin’, Full-On” is a frequently remarkable LP that indeed keeps alive the spirit of D. Boon without ever exploiting it.
Speaking about Firehose and Crawford, his new colleague, Watt explained, “Ed picked up the electric guitar a year and a half ago after seeing D. Boon, so there is certainly the fire of D. Boon in him. Ed was influenced by D. Boon, where I grew up with him and learned to play music with him. We are approaching it from different ways, but there is a connection.”
CD DIGEST: The first four Beatles albums (in mono sound) aren’t due on compact disc until Feb. 26, but the Music Plus record chain is already taking advance orders at $49.99 for the four or $12.99 each. Meanwhile, Capitol has announced that the next batch of Beatles CDs (all in stereo) will be released in April. They are: “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” and “Help!”
New arrivals: Capitol’s first four Frank Sinatra packages . . . Kate Bush’s “The Whole Story” . . . the sound track from “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” and Ennio Morricone’s score for “The Mission.”
LIVE ACTION: Genesis will be joined by Paul Young on May 22 at Dodger Stadium--the first pop attraction at the ball park since the Jacksons in 1984. Tickets go on sale Sunday. . . . Paul Simon has added a fifth night (March 3) to his Universal Amphitheatre engagement. Tickets go on sale Monday.