After the Reactionaries disbanded, Boon and Watt formed the Minutemen in January 1980. Watt has said their name had nothing at all to do with the brevity of their songs; rather, it was derived partly from the fabled minutemen militia of colonial times and partly to lampoon a right-wing reactionary group of the 1960s that went by that name. In the documentary We Jam Econo, Watt also states that the name was a play on "minute". After a month with no drummer — during which Boon and Watt wrote their first songs, the band rehearsed and played a couple of early gigs with local welder Frank Tonche on drums. The group had originally wanted George Hurley to join, but he had joined a new wave band called Hey Taxi after the Reactionaries disbanded. Tonche quit the group, citing a dislike of the audience the band initially drew, and Hurley took over as drummer in June 1980. Their first live gig was as an opening band for Black Flag.
Early on, the band avoided "mersh" affectations such as guitar solos, choruses, and fade-outs. But by the time of their second LP What Makes a Man Start Fires?, which gained considerable attention from the alternative and underground press, they were a part of the band's sound, despite maintaining their experimental and punk roots. They continued their hectic touring schedule, which included their longest tour yet; a double bill with Black Flag in Europe. The long tour strengthened their place as one of most well known acts in the hardcore scene. Later in 1983, they released their third LP, Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat. It was one of the first hardcore albums to include a horn (trumpet on "The Product").
The Minutemen's eclectic influences were perhaps the best exemplified on 1984's double-album, Double Nickels on the Dime. Though still somewhat obscure to mainstream audiences, Double Nickels has been cited as one of the more innovative and enduring albums of the 1980s American rock underground. On Double Nickels, they co-wrote some songs with other musicians, notably Henry Rollins, Chuck Dukowski and Joe Baiza. In 1985, they released their most commercial-sounding recording, ("Mersh" being the Minutemen's slang for "commercial"). Though the album sounded more mainstream, it sold poorly compared to "Double Nickels," due largely to the negative reaction to such a commercial album from within the underground community. They continued touring and by the time of their final album, 3-Way Tie (For Last), they decided to take a small break. They played their last tour with another emerging band, REM. Their final concert was in Charlotte, North Carolina on December 13, 1985.
On December 22, 1985, Boon was killed in a van accident, putting an end to the Minutemen. Watt fell into a deep depression, but was convinced to continue performing by Sonic Youth. Every form of media that Watt makes or takes part in is dedicated to Boon.
Watt has created three acclaimed solo albums, recorded three others as part of the jazz/punk jam band Banyan with Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction), Nels Cline (Wilco), and Money Mark Nishita (Beastie Boys), contributed on 3 songs off Sonic Youth's classic Daydream Nation, toured briefly as a member of Porno for Pyros in 1996 and J Mascis and The Fog in 2000 and 2001, and became the bassist for The Stooges in 2003. George Hurley has produced work with Vida, Mayo Thompson and Red Crayola, further indulging the free-form and off-the-wall leanings showcased on Double Nickels. Hurley and Watt have also continued to make music together both live and in the studio since fIREHOSE's splitting in 1994, starting with a track for the NORML benefit album Hempilation II in 1998. (See Legacy below for further Hurley/Watt projects.)
Double Nickels On The Dime showed that the band were highly influenced by funk music; D. Boon used the cat-scratch technique and quick solos almost all the time, Mike Watt demonstrated highly skilled bass-playing, and Hurley's drumming was tight throughout.
Boon and Watt split songwriting fairly evenly (and Hurley made many contributions as well), though Watt rarely sang, and Hurley even less so. Boon's songs were typically more direct and progressively political in nature, while Watt's were often abstract, self-referential "spiels". Lyrics and themes would thus often veer from surreal humor, as in "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" and "One Reporter's Opinion", to the frustrations of blue collar life in California, as in the enduring "This Ain't No Picnic". While many contemporaries rarely displayed a sense of humor, the Minutemen were generally more light-hearted and whimsical. One example of this can be found in the title of their legendary album Double Nickels on the Dime, which poked fun at Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" by implying that the Minutemen preferred to take risks with their music rather than behind the wheel of a car.
The Minutemen were fans of Captain Beefheart, and echoes of his distinctive music can be heard in their songs, especially their early output. Through most of their career they ignored standard verse-chorus-verse song structures, in favor of experimenting with musical dynamics, rhythm and noise. Later in their career they blended in more traditional song elements they had initially avoided. They also played covers of classic rock songs by bands such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Steely Dan, and Blue Öyster Cult.
In 2000, Watt, as administrator of the band's publishing, allowed the auto maker Volvo to use the Boon instrumental "Love Dance" (from Double Nickels...) in a car ad. Watt's motivation for licensing the song was generosity rather than greed: Boon's royalties were being paid to his father, who was suffering from emphysema. Watt simply refers to the decision as a way for Boon to help his father from beyond the grave.
Since 2001, Watt and Hurley have done occasional gigs, mainly in the L.A. area except for two December 2004 shows in England, playing Minutemen songs as a duo with no guitarist. At some of these gigs, Watt would set up one of Boon's old guitars and amps on the side of the stage where Boon used to stand. Rather than cheapen or "vampire" the Minutemen name, these performances, at Watt's insistence, are to be billed strictly as "George Hurley and Mike Watt". They are also now involved in an improvisational music group, Unknown Instructors, with members of Saccharine Trust and Pere Ubu.
The group's career is chronicled in the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, a study of 13 important American underground rock groups by veteran music journalist Michael Azerrad. The title is taken from the lyrics to the Double Nickels track "History Lesson - Part II."
The documentary film We Jam Econo charts the band's history through interviews with Watt, Hurley, Henry Rollins, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other California punk rock contemporaries. The film premiered at the Warner Grand Theatre in the Minutemen's hometown of San Pedro in February 2005. The film was released on DVD in June 2006. In the spring of 2007, the documentary went into a heavy rotation cycle on various Sundance cable television channels.
In 2003, Watt released his own book on the Minutemen, Spiels of a Minuteman, which contains all of Watt's song lyrics from the Minutemen era as well as the tour journal he wrote during the Minutemen's only European tour with Black Flag, essays by former SST co-owner Joe Carducci, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, Blue Öyster Cult lyricist and longtime Watt hero Richard Meltzer, and illustrations by Raymond Pettibon that had been used in all of the Minutemen's album artwork. The book, released by Quebec-based publisher L'Oie de Cravan, is published in English and French.
Also in 2003, Boon was selected as number 89 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Also in 2003, "Double Nickels on the Dime" was selected as number 411 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
Sublime (whose lead singer Bradley Nowell also died prematurely) sampled Boon saying "Punk rock changed our lives" on "History Lesson Part II" from Double Nickels as part of their song "Waiting For My Ruca" from 1992's 40 Oz. to Freedom. On the final track from the same album titled "Thanx", all three Minutemen are mentioned. Watt repaid this salute by appearing in Sublime's video for "Wrong Way" in 1996. Sublime also sampled George Hurley's drum intro from "It's Expected I'm Gone" for their "Get Out! (remix)" on their posthumous release "Second Hand Smoke." On their eponymous debut LP, San Diego-based indie rockers Pinback also used the same drum loop from "It's Expected I'm Gone"; in his honor, the band named the track "Hurley." Also, during a cover of the Sublime song "Get Out!" done by Bargain Music, Josh Fischell sings "Damn I was surprised when I heard 'Punk Rock Changed Our Lives', these kids dug the Minutemen too".
The Unknown Instructors track "Punk Is Whatever We Make It To Be" from their first album The Way Things Work contains interpolations by vocalist Dan McGuire of several lyrics from Double Nickels on the Dime.
In 1994, Little Brother Records released the Minutemen tribute CD and LP Our Band Could Be Your Life. The CD version included 33 tracks by artists covering Minutemen songs, plus a track with a Boon interview and a live version of the Minutemen song Badges. The LP version had 23 tracks, including the interview and Minutemen items.
New Jersey pop punk band The Ergs! wrote and recorded a Minutemen tribute song entitled "Under The Influence of Minutemen (Dork Rock Changed Our Lives)."
Josh Fischel's group Bargain Music covers "#1 Hit Song' at the end of their track "Long Beach Millennium" on their album 77 003.
The Minutemen toured frequently, but usually for only a few weeks at a time — they all held down day jobs. Their "econo" practices helped ensure that their tours were always profitable, unlike some of their SST peers.
Several Minutemen album sleeves and covers, such as the Paranoid Time EP and What Makes a Man Start Fires? LP and the inner gatefold jacket for Double Nickels, feature drawings by noted artist Raymond Pettibon, who was at the time associated with the SST label, providing sleeves for Black Flag. Other album covers, like on The Punch Line, Project: Mersh, and 3-Way Tie (For Last), featured paintings by Boon.