Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock
US: Nov 2010
Hüsker Dü is often cited as one of the most influential American bands to rise up from the indie underground in the ‘80s, but it seems in recent years, the melodic punk rock trio haven’t really gotten their due, if you pardon the pun.There’s been no highly publicized reunion tour a la the Pixies, save for a paring of guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart – the songwriting axis of the band – briefly taking to the stage for a benefit concert gig in their hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 2004. This is owing to the fact that the band members (bassist/vocalist Greg Norton rounds out the group) really can’t stand being in the same room as one another anymore for more than a few minutes. Similarly, there has been no deluxe reissuing or remastering of their records, primarily due to the legalities of ironing out deals with the various independent and major record companies involved, not to mention that these three guys agree to disagree over the topic. (And, believe me, it’s about high time that 1985’s New Day Rising got a remastering job, as the tinny-sounding album is probably one of the most horribly produced albums in the history of independent rock, which always leads critics to point out to interested parties that they should really try to pick it up on vinyl, where it allegedly sounds a bit better.)
What’s more, the band has undergone something of a revisionist reappraisal over the years. Hüsker Dü is now usually considered to be one of the very first, if not the first, emo punk bands, for fusing heart-on-your-sleeve confessional lyrics with bombastic melody, even though conjuring up the band with some suburban male teenager applying liberal amounts of eye-liner in his bedroom while writing bad poetry seems to be a bit of a stretch, considering that the Hüskers sort of started out as a loud and fast hardcore punk band. There has also been some re-evaluation of their discography in terms of what’s viewed as being classic parts of their canon. I recall, as a teenager, thumbing through an edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide in a bookstore, curious as to which disc by the band I should buy first, and noted that the sprawling double album Zen Arcade and its follow-up New Day Rising both netted a respectable three-and-a-half stars, while the 1987 swansong Warehouse: Songs and Stories, also a double, was awarded the highest rating possible: five stars.
Recently, I was in another bookstore and spied the most current edition of that album guide for sale, and after pawing my way to the entry on Hüsker Dü in the store, I noticed that Zen Arcade and New Day Rising are now considered to be indispensable five star albums, while Warehouse: Songs and Stories has been criminally and shockingly demoted to a mere three stars. It seems as though with the passage of time, the impact of the band has been muddied and maligned, and Hüsker Dü is now in need of a brand champion of sorts to go to bat for the group and set the record straight. Well, now we have it in the form of music scribe Andrew Earles. Even though the band got a write-up in Michael Azerrad’s seminal history of the ‘80s American underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, there’s been no book-length history on a band that clearly deserves it – until now. And what the world really needs is a straight-up account of one of the most important rock groups of all time. Yes, all time.
For those who aren’t familiar with the band, Hüsker Dü started out in the late ‘70s in the fertile music scene that was Minneapolis, a Midwestern US city which was also responsible for spawning the Replacements and Prince. The group’s funny Scandinavian name, without the heavy metal-style umlauts, actually means “Do you remember?” in Danish and Norwegian, and was the name of a popular children’s board game in the ‘50s. The group certainly had its quirky personality from the start: Mould was the slightly pudgy wrestling fan, Hart was the hippie, as he had long hair and walked around barefoot, and Norton, well, he had a goofy handlebar moustache. Earles’ book charts the trajectory of this disparate group of guys whom initially struggled to find their identity – their first recordings tended to be more straight-up post-punk than anything else – before settling on the fast and furious sounds of what would become hardcore. Earles attempts to make the claim that the band’s first album, the live-recorded Land Speed Record, is an important addition to the genre’s oeuvre, but the truth is that you nearly needed to be a psychic at the time to determine that this was a group that was going to go places.
Yet go places, they did. Each successive release would tone down the velocity but keep the ferocity, and introduce not only melody but disparate musical genres into their act – everything from avant-garde free jazz to ‘60s bubblegum pop to Richard Thompson-inspired acoustic guitar ballads, and all points in-between. Their mid-‘80s signature sound – a cross between Mould’s ear-splitting buzz-saw guitar and Hart’s propulsive, ride-cymbal heavy drumming – can be considered to be the sound of both the angels of Heaven and the demons of Hell tussling on some post-apocalyptic battlefield after the Rapture. From 1984’s Zen Arcade to 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories, Hüsker Dü’s albums were as individual as snowflakes. They all had a trademark noise-pop sheen, but the sound would become more refined as it went along and each album is a little bit different sonically from the one that preceded it.
Along the way, the group would become one of the first underground American bands of the decade that would make the jump from an independent label, SST, up to a major label, Warner Bros., though Earles takes pains to point out in his book that the move was certainly not without precedent. Then, two albums into their major label contract, everything fell apart, to ape one of the band’s album titles. Their manager’s suicide on the eve of their Warehouse tour, rumours that Mould and Hart were lovers (both men are gay) whose relationship had gone sour, and Hart’s appetite for drugs such as heroin are all usually cited as factors in their implosion – either rightly or wrongly. All that’s left are a string of indispensible albums that chart the progression of what would come to be known as college rock.
Any book dealing with the tumultuous history of Hüsker Dü comes with a great deal of scrutiny from yours truly, as the band is tangled up in my personal coming of age – which is the same story for anyone who was turned onto the band in their formative years. I first came to know Hüsker Dü as a teenager in the early ‘90s, long after they had broken up, through reading about the band in magazines such as SPIN and Alternative Press, which were the windows into the rock music world for me, seeing that I was growing up in a small, conservative town in rural Ontario, Canada, with no record store in sight. (I was a huge Rush fan at the time, which is worth mentioning considering that Earles cites a source who knew someone at Mercury Records who considered Hüsker Dü to be the Rush of the ‘80s, which is a fairly apt analogy considering that both bands were power-rock trios who were virtuosos on their instruments.) You have to remember that this was before the Internet took off and things like Amazon.com and iTunes didn’t exist, so getting my curious hands on the actual albums proved to be a bit of a challenge.
I would eventually find copies of Zen Arcade and New Day Rising as pricey imports at an HMV in the city of Belleville, a two hour drive away, when my family went on a shopping excursion there. (I would have to travel to Toronto to get my hands on the rest of the discography.) The timing couldn’t have been better. I latched onto the band when Nirvana was all the rage and my peers were getting into punk bands like Bad Religion and Green Day – the latter of whom would go on to cover “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and cite Hüsker Dü as a songwriting influence. I needed something to prove my masculinity with a form of music that I could essentially call my own. In fact, my Hüsker albums became something of currency between myself and a few high school acquaintances, and these records often got traded around in exchange for punk albums that they were listening to.
Additionally (and this might be somewhat embarrassing), I would come home from school and bop around in the basement to Flip Your Wig, playing air guitar while pretending to be Mould. I honestly thought that the record was the coolest and loudest things I’d ever heard. Taking my basement antics one step further, during one of my high school’s air band contests, I borrowed a beat up acoustic guitar from the school’s music department and shredded along to “Reoccurring Dreams”, the experimental 14-minute instrumental opus that closes Zen Arcade, on stage at an assembly in the high school auditorium. Granted, I got yanked from the stage about 10-minutes into the song, but not before I smashed the bejesus out of that guitar Pete Townsend-style. (Something the regular Hüskers never did, probably because they were an independent band with not a lot of money for equipment.)
I even became such an ardent fan of the band that when it was time to go to university in the nearby city of Ottawa, and Mould’s post-Hüsker band Sugar were releasing their File Under: Easy Listening album during that the first week at school in 1994, I skimped out on frosh week activities and, unfamiliar with the bus routes, chose to walk more than a mile to the nearest record store to get it on its release date. This was despite the fact that I had twisted my left foot while moshing at an all-ages punk show where, as irony would have it, one of the bands there played a deconstructed, barely recognizable, and out-of-tune cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Diane”. All in all, I’ve never gone far without a little Hüsker Dü in my life – particularly Warehouse: Songs and Stories, which is my absolute favourite album of all time, a real desert island disc if there was one. I consider the record the Rosetta Stone of alternative rock as the album fuses such disparate elements such as punk, hard rock, country, pop and psychedelica, among other genres. It’s also an album that showcases the competitive nature of Mould and Hart’s songwriting prowess, which each song in sequence bettering the one that came before it over the course of the entire album, for the most part. It has the ultimate feel of a record with a true dramatic and melodic arc, an album that constantly and continuously raises the bar as it goes along, a feat that hadn’t been matched until the National released High Violet earlier this year. Anyhow, if you’re going to write a history of what’s probably my all-time favourite band, you’d better tell me something I don’t know.