We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen

By Jonathan Lemon

we-jam-econo-tim-irwin-1.jpgWe Jam Econo, 2005

The concept of “jamming econo” as espoused by The Minutemen, reflects the essence of the early ‘80s underground music scene to which they belonged. In a time of corporate greed, mass-consumerism, and Reagan’s conservative politics, the emergence of young bands and independent record labels with an enthusiasm for exploring and pushing musical boundaries despite limited means allowed the development of this alternative scene, which not only rejected popularist values but made a virtue out of its idiosyncratic minority appeal. These bands were never going to be chart-toppers, play massive stadiums or (and most importantly) sell out. They were at home on small stages being watched by a small but dedicated crowd. Their biggest effect was always going to be on fellow- or aspiring musicians, in part because of the possibilities they represented.

We Jam Econo follows the story of The Minutemen, as one of the earliest influential bands of the underground scene, and explores their development as a band as well as their uneasy relationship to the categorisation of punk. Using interviews with a host of contributors from other seminal bands including Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, and from those behind the scenes at the indie record label SST Records, the documentary builds up a picture of the ambiguous gigging friendships between bands, and the excitement and vigour that were part of belonging to the scene whether as performer or audience.

What holds the film together though, and allows it to transgress beyond being a simple history, is the focus on the incredibly strong central friendship between the three band members. Singer and guitarist D. Boon had met bassist Mike Watt in a chance encounter when they were both 13. Encouraged by their mothers to learn instruments to keep out of trouble, they went on to recruit high school acquaintance George Hurley as their drummer and after a few false starts became The Minutemen.

this-aint-no-picnic-martin-lyon.jpgPhoto taken during the filming of the This Ain’t no Picnic shoot. Photo by Martin Lyon

Their early days are endearingly revealed as Mike Watt drives around San Pedro, the Californian naval town in which they grew up, in particular their fairly hazy youthful grasp upon certain particularities of playing music. Boon and Watt had an intense intellectual spark between them that coupled with their ‘econo’ upbringing resulted in the inevitable political slant to their song writing and playing. ‘Econo’ in this sense refers to the working-class outlook that the band inherited from their fathers, and the thrifty unpretentious attitude that had the band hauling and setting up their own equipment for all of their gigs. It goes further though, and ‘econo’ can be extrapolated to include the skeletal brevity of their songs that belie their wealth of ideas and originality.

The Minutemen presented the idea that this attitude could percolate through all aspects of your life, from the music you listened to and made, to the way you thought and worked and lived. It was a DIY attitude, a refusal to coast or ride on coat-tails, a self-propelling urge to push the boundaries and experiment. The underground scene itself followed on the heels of punk rocks late ‘70s explosion in London and New York and to an extent The Minutemen were tenuously bundled into a kind of punk categorisation. The difficulty was that The Minutemen’s adventurous musical exploration couldn’t be so easily pigeon-holed. Sharp 40-second songs were interspersed with instrumental jazz noodlings, and during American gigs abuse was sometimes vociferously thrown. Things proved worse during a tour of Europe, when European punks thought fit to express their confusion and distaste through the controversial medium of casually lobbed bags of bodily waste.

The band's contrariness was also embodied by their physical appearances. Boon and Watt didn’t especially fit any rock star mould and were often mistaken for roadies. D. Boon in particular possessed a huge bulk and one of the unexpected joys of the film is to watch gig footage of him leaping and bounding around the stage, wearing entirely inappropriate footwear, and generally performing like a man possessed.

Like the recent New York Dolls documentary, which focused on the shy bassist of the New York Dolls, Arthur “Killer” Kane, We Jam Econo also ends in tragedy. In 1985, just as the band were on the cusp of recording another album, D. Boon died in a car accident. So in addition to its informative edge, the film takes on an extra dimension as a tribute to the enduring friendship between the band members and the vibrant personality of its guitarist and singer. It is essentially this added level of heart that gives the film an infectious element of joy along with a tangible tinge of sadness. As a documentary it takes an obscure subject and joins the dots for novices whilst incorporating interesting insights from many of its contributors. As a tribute it is both affectionate and inspiring portrayal of a band that explored the boundaries and had an amazing time doing it.

Jonathan Lemon is a London based freelance writer who has contributed to Vertigo and Kultureflash.