Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock

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.

A Crushingly Glorious Noise

With that in mind, this biography does shed light on a few things. While I was aware that the band formed Reflex Records early in their career as a means to get their product out after Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone Records rejected them, I didn’t know that Mould, Hart and Norton would continue releasing albums by other bands on the label until about 1985, when their own soaring popularity made it unfeasible to focus on two things at once. Earles offers up an entire chapter on the history of Reflex Records, and while it gets in the way of the Hüsker Dü narrative a bit, it is a welcome and vital addition in considering the band’s own goals and aspirations. That they wanted to foster other bands they felt worthy of inclusion in their own music scene, even if no one remembers Rifle Sport or Man Sized Action anymore, is admirable, and really adds to the level of awe to bestow on the Dü, especially considering they put out more or less at least an album’s worth of material between 1981 and 1987, sometimes more. Clearly, these were very busy guys.

Another interesting tidbit that I didn’t know was how Norton was essentially a bit of a go-between between Mould and Hart, and had to often pick sides between the two when they started arguing about the choice of material to go on a record. This biography also makes it clear that Norton was the key partner that got screwed when the band broke up, not being able to record his own material due to the nature of their contract with Warner Bros., and getting shut out of payment from the label thanks to some iffy recording equipment leasing scheme that Mould and Hart had cooked up. Finally, had I been more of a bootleg collector – unofficial live recordings being impossible to come by in my pre-Internet small town – I would have known that Hüsker Dü was a groundbreaking band in that when they played live, they often performed songs not from the album they were about to record, but from the album they planned to release after that! Earles points out that the band was one of the first to treat albums as not recorded documents of their particular sound or songs that would stand the test of time, but as merchandise that was explicitly made for the sole purpose of having something to sell while on tour.

There are a few gaping holes in this biography, though. First and foremost, while Earles was able to secure interviews with both Hart and Norton, Mould declined to participate in the making of this book. There are a few reasons for this: Mould is actually hard at work on his own autobiography with Azerrad, so it’s probably only natural that he wanted to save his stories for his own book. Plus, considering that he was reluctant to play any Hüsker Dü material at his own shows until fairly recently, and considering that he posted his resignation letter from the band on his blog on the 20th anniversary of the break-up by noting it was the best decision he ever made, it’s safe to say that his years with Hüsker Dü is something that he’d rather play down. (Earles does at least try to close the gap by using quotes Mould had given in other published interviews.)

Second, the book focuses primarily on the fledgling years of the group as a hardcore act, with the first seven of 14 chapters covering the period from roughly 1979 to 1983, which are, admittedly, the least interesting years of the band. Additionally, rather than being a fly-on-the-wall account of the songwriting process or how the albums were made, we get lengthy post-mortem “reviews” of each of the singles, EPs and albums that would form the body of Hüsker Dü’s work. Earles’ opinions and takes on the albums are sometimes interesting, but I would have rather had more about the inner-workings of the band, not some rock critic’s opinion. And speaking of his opinion, Earles has a very low one of the band’s Warner Bros.-era output, citing 1986’s Candy Apple Grey as being Hüsker Dü on “auto-pilot”. He also offers no track-by-track dissection of Warehouse, presumably because he feels that the album is really Mould and Hart solo albums pasted together. (The revisionist critical stoning of this excellent album continues, alas.) By this time in the book, Earles relies less on primary sources, and turns ink over to previously published interviews and reviews. Maybe this period was a painful one for the band members considering the break-up, and perhaps nobody wanted to talk about it, but Earles misses the boat on spotlighting what are really some terrific albums by getting exclusive material that goes into detail about the making of those records.

As for further “holes”, if you’ve come to this book expecting a gossipy tome that delves into the band member’s personal drug use, their love lives, or even the supposed rivalry with the Replacements, well, you’re going to be disappointed. “Never was this book envisioned as a lurid tell-all,” writes Earles in his introduction. While it’s admirable that Earles takes the moral high road and focuses on the music, there are a lot of questions that surround the band that have never been answered – the complete circumstances of their break-up being just one of them. It would have been nice if there were a bit more digging done to get to the bottom of what is real about the band and what can be written off as aggravating rumour. What’s more, Earles is guilty of a journalistic no-no: he admits in the introduction that he can become friends to both Hart and Norton. This cozying up to of sources doesn’t bode well for a subjective and honest account.

What’s more, while Earles side-steps around some of the thornier aspects surrounding the band, this book still proves that the band members are pretty much only speaking to each other through the press. Hart gets in numerous jabs at Mould throughout the book, which seems a bit unfair considering that the latter, by sheer declination of participation, doesn’t really get a chance to defend himself. Despite his best intentions, Earles makes Mould out to be some kind of controlling megalomaniac – which may be true, based on some of Mould’s snarky behaviour during and after the band was together – but I honestly could have done without some of Hart’s retorts, especially considering a great deal of them – such as Mould’s disdain that Hart was wearing safety pins on his clothes in a punk move – seem petty and trivial, and unimportant to the text.

What really deflates this tome from being a much needed look at a very misunderstood band is the fact that it is riddled with all sorts of factual errors. Granted, to err is to be human, and I’m not above admitting that I’ve made the odd mistake in my own work, but some of the gaffes made in this biography should have been caught by someone doing some simple fact-checking, whether that be the author or someone hired by the publisher to do it for him. (Before illustrating the extent of the erroneous text, I should point out that the copy I obtained for review is a galley, meaning that it is a penultimate version of the book released prior to official publication, and it is entirely possible that some of these mistakes might be fixed in the final copy. I’m not betting on it due to the sheer volume of eyeball-rollers that I found, but it’s a possibility worth pointing out.)

For example, in a concluding chapter about the post-Hüsker Dü legacy, Earles notes that the Sugar song “Company Book” is a Mould composition, when it is, in fact, a rare song written by that band’s bassist, David Barbe. He also gets the name of the song wrong – he calls it “Company Man”. Then, when talking about Zen Arcade being released in 1984 on the same day as crucial albums by the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, he notes that the latter’s album was Up on the Sun, which actually wasn’t released until the following year. What he meant to say was Meat Puppets II. In another section of the book, Earles quotes Norton verbatim as saying, without double-checking, that the band played a Canadian gig early in their history, circa 1981, on Victoria Day, July 1st. I’m a Canadian, and I can vouch that Victoria Day is not July 1st. That’s Canada Day, which was previously known as Dominion Day in the timeframe being discussed by Norton. Victoria Day is actually May 24th, though it is officially observed on the first Monday that falls before the 24th should that date not be a Monday.

In another instance, Earles misspells Twin/Tone Records as being Twin/Toe. This might seem like being particularly scrutinizing, but it does beg the question: If Earles can’t get some simple off-the-cuff facts straight, what else is wrong factually with this book – particularly when it might really matter? It’s sloppy journalism, and Earles, if he wants to make a name for himself as being a meticulous craftsman, should do better in the future to prevent errata that will need to be corrected in the final copy or subsequent editions (if they are, indeed, corrected). While I appreciate Earles’ candour, writing in your introduction that “[t]his book is not perfect” just doesn’t cut it as an excuse. Maybe punks who are used to missed notes in their music won’t care, but this kind of thing undermines the book’s usefulness as a reference source.

Speaking of punks, one of the things that are particularly admirable about this biography is that it certainly has a feel for the Do It Yourself era that Hüsker Dü thrived in. The book is laid out like a ‘zine, with setlists from various portions of the band’s development reprinted in full in the margins and secondary source interviews almost cut-and-pasted into the text in a different sized font. As well, the book comes with a bevy of appendices laying out the official discography of the band, right down to promo copies and compilations. (One thing that Earles neglects to include are bootlegs from the era, which is a bit hypocritical considering that he uses cover art from a well-known live set in plates set aside for pictures.) The author even includes suggestions for making Hüsker Dü mix CDs, which may be of use to the novice fan just getting their feet wet. Earles leaves no stone unturned in compiling an exhaustive selection of end notes that are useful, even if they are perhaps a little overbearing.

All in all, this biography is by no means “perfect”, and there’s certainly a lot that long-time fans of the band will pick apart, as I have. However, it’s a good discussion point for a band that has seemingly been neglected thanks to the relative lack of inactivity on the reissue and reunion front. Perhaps most importantly, for those who came of age with Hüsker Dü, as I did, the book takes you back to simpler times when you were a teenager cranking up the volume in your parent’s basement stereo, living out the dream of pretending to be a part of one of the world’s greatest rock bands.

It’s true that you can’t help but feel as though you’re getting one side of the story with this book; still, it’s a welcome addition to the world of biographical rock journalism and one that hopefully rekindles interest in a much overlooked band. It’s a valuable reference, warts and all, for the hardcore fan and for the neophyte, and should remain that way until we finally get to hear from the other heavyweight associated with Hüsker Dü. That is to say, this book can only serve to whet one’s appetite for Mould’s long overdue autobiography, in order to get his side of what is an amazing and intriguing story of a band that came out of nowhere to produce noise that was, indeed, crushingly glorious.