inspiration from Hüsker Dü/ It's a new generation
of electric white boy blues." From "Gimme
Indie Rock" by Sebadoh
Dü ("do you remember" in Swedish) got
their name from a once popular board game. The Minneapolis-based
trio formed in 1979 around the dual talents of guitarist/vocalist
Bob Mould and drummer/vocalist Grant Hart. They recorded
a series of highly influential albums for the independent
label (run by former members of Black Flag) SST. In
1986 Hüsker Dü became the first band from
the 80s hardcore scene to sign with a major label.
They recorded two albums for Warner Brothers before
splitting up in 1988. Since Hüsker Dü broke
up, Grant Hart and Bob Mould have both worked in other
bands—Hart with Nova Mob and Mould with Sugar—and
now continue to record as solo artists. To reflect
on the tenth anniversary of Hüsker Dü's
demise, Grant Hart was reached at his home in South
St. Paul where he is working on final mixes for a
new album. Bob Mould was in the studio in Austin,
Texas, and unavailable for comment.
saw Hüsker Dü for the first time by accident.
I went for the opening act, McRad, a Philadelphia
band known for mixing hardcore punk with reggae. At
shows over the past few months I'd noticed people
wearing surplus military jackets with the band's cryptic
name, Hüsker Dü, stenciled on the back in
careful white lettering. Also, I'd read about "Diane,"
a song I hadn't heard—a rapist's and killer's
dramatic monologue with the victim's name chanted
as a chorus. Like I said I went for McRad.
show was something of a fiasco. It was a Sunday afternoon,
and there was brilliant sun outside. Even though the
club threw open the doors there were only thirty people
inside. McRad didn't bother to show up. Hüsker
Dü generously (or stupidly) offered their instruments
to anyone in the audience who might want to get up
and play. No one accepted.
the exception of bassist Greg Norton's handlebar mustache
and cowboy boots (but do The Village People count?),
Hüsker Dü didn't look like Rock Stars. Hart,
who played drums barefooted, looked like a rotund
hippy, and he was considered the good looking one!
Bouncing his Flying-V guitar off his gut, Bob Mould
had the dour look of an embittered school librarian.
They might have played "Diane." I couldn't
tell you. To me, from the first song to the last note—a
long one, because when Hüsker Dü left the
stage their instruments were deserted and wailing
feedback—it was all one roar of noise. I left
convinced that this was the ultimate limit of hardcore,
a band with two screaming singers, but no songs; a
band that just made sound.
Dü's double album Zen Arcade is
now on Rolling Stone's list of essential
recordings of the rock era. Although not exactly a
concept album, Zen Arcade's 23 songs
loosely center on the travels and misadventures of
a troubled young man who leaves home searching for
adventure. "There was a fellow we were trying
to interest in illustrating the story line,"
Grant Hart recalls, "I think the record gained
by that never having happened." The sessions
for Zen Arcade have become legendary.
The album was recorded between tours over two marathon
sessions: "It wouldn't make sense to lock yourself
in the studio for 48 hours. So we did 24 hours straight
twice." Among the most famous rumors is that
Hüsker Dü recorded Zen Arcade
on LSD. "I've never known Bob to admit taking
any hallucinogens," Hart says cagily, "So
that is obviously myth." Using jazz jams, punk,
thrash, acoustic folk and straight ahead rock,
Zen Arcade broke free of the dogmatic convention
for hardcore music—louder and faster rules.
Zen Arcade gave notice that Hüsker
Dü, once the heroes of scene purists, were becoming
more adventurous. Even beyond the stylistic variety,
Zen Arcade contains emotional bite due
to the band's two rapidly developing and highly competitive
Grant Hart only wrote two of the songs on their SST
debut, Metal Circus, ("Diane"
and "It's Not Funny Anymore") they were
both embraced by college radio. As a result, his ambition
and confidence exploded on Zen Arcade. Hart contributed five of the album's songs
and co-wrote six others. Blessed with a powerful voice
and a knack for language, Hart's melodies are so durable
that they even survive being buried in distortion
and performed in overdrive by Hüsker Dü.
On the ballad "Never Talking To You Again"
the lyric's firm commitment to the end of a relationship
("There are things that I'd like to say/ But
I'm never talking to you again") is undercut
by the music's wistful nostalgia. On "Pink Turns
to Blue," a beautiful melody is wed to lyrics
about a woman's heroin addiction and suicide. On Zen
Arcade's final song, "Turn on the
News," Hart hopes for community and love on a
classic rock rave-up which calls for an end to "all
this uptight pushing and shoving/ that keeps us away
from who we're loving."
Hart's influence Zen Arcade is an album
dominated by Bob Mould's songs of frustrated ambition,
suffering, alienation, desolation and emotional desertion.
By dropping out from Macalester College to pursue
music, Bob Mould rejected life in the mainstream.
But Mould also had no desire to live in a squat, call
for anarchy and write paeans to the youthful punk
scene. His disaffectedness from the politics represented
by bands like Washington, D.C.'s Minor Threat, San
Francisco's Dead Kennedy's, and Maximum Rock &
Roll (the musical underground's journal
of record in the 80s) was apparent on "Real World"
from Metal Circus: "People talk about
anarchy/ and taking up a fight./ Well I'm afraid of
things like that/ I lock my doors at night." By Zen Arcade's opening track "Something
I Learned Today" Mould accepts that "black
and white is always grey." Neither attacking
the establishment nor supporting the status quo, in
songs like "Indecision Time," "Pride"
and "The Biggest Lie" Mould's lyrics coalesce
around the equally "grey" conflicts within
individuals. On his final contribution to Zen Arcade
Mould abandons the third person ("He lives in
his imagination, etc...") and forsakes the safe
Rock & Roll pose of hardened rebel in the middle
of "Whatever" to confess "Mom and Dad I'm sorry... I'm not
the son you wanted." Even though the parents
in "Whatever" are neglectful, their son
remains guilt-ridden over his failure to please them.
The power of Zen Arcade (whether in
Mould's songs or Hart's) comes from
conflicts unearthed and examined but left unresolved.
The album's mystique remains so powerful that ten
years after its release a Taiwanese (or so the label
claims) company has released a bootleg of Zen Arcade's
outtakes, and 24 bands from the Twin Cities participated
in a tribute Dü Hüskers:
The Twin Cities Replay Zen Arcade.
friend Chuck and his girlfriend Tamara rent a sound
system and promote all ages shows in an old warehouse
to pay rent. Hanging out before the doors open, Chuck
is nervous because he has guaranteed the band more
than $1000. The last time Hüsker Dü played
Philadelphia it was in local scenester Jeff Jenkin's
basement. Now, however, the word is out on
Hüsker Dü; almost 500 people pack into
a windowless room with almost no ventilation
to see them. Since the day I bought it,
Zen Arcade has been on my turntable. I sit at the
side of the stage working quasi-security: in exchange
for my good view I push back into the audience people
who try to climb up out of the thrash pit in order
to stage dive.
like the first time I saw them Hüsker Dü
go on stage without fanfare. Unlike most bands, Hüsker
Dü always worked out new material on the road.
They opened this show with Hart pounding the intro
to "New Day Rising" on his drums followed
by an eruption of Mould's power chords. The song's
sole lyric was the title, "New Day Rising,"
screamed repeatedly by Hart and Mould. It would be the title track on their next album. Hüsker
Dü's stage presence had changed dramatically.
Norton bounced up and down like the stage was a trampoline;
Mould worked himself into such a frenzy that his eyes
rolled back into his head; and Hart, still playing
barefoot, was earning his reputation (in all sorts
of ways) as punk's Keith Moon. It lasted for close
to two hours and was one of the greatest concerts
I have ever seen. Afterwards, while he was carrying his
equipment out to the van, I told Grant Hart how much
they'd improved from the last time. "Well, I've
become a vegetarian," he said.
controversial at the time, in retrospect it was inevitable
that major labels would woo Hüsker Dü. They
were experienced in the studio, road tested, critically
acclaimed and came with a built-in cult following.
Listening to New Day Rising now, it
is easy to hear all of the elements which a few years
later would bring commercial riches to bands like
Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins.
By the time Hüsker Dü returned to
the studio to record their next album, Flip Your
Wig, Warner Brothers was actively trying
to sign them. Mould had developed into a charismatic
frontman, and with the addition of Hart's pop sensibility
on songs like "Green Eyes" and "Flexible
Flyer" the label could see "Commercial Potential"
written all over the band. Less obvious was what Hüsker
Dü had to gain by signing with Warner Brothers.
indie labels frequently function as a sort of minor
league, giving talent an opportunity to develop and
mature. But when Warner approached Hüsker Dü
this was not the case.
To many of the band's long-time fans, leaving
SST and signing with a major label was, simply, "selling
out." Even though sonically and philosophically
Hüsker Dü had long ago outgrown this "Maximum
Rock & Roll" audience, the band still was
not ready to move into uncharted commercial waters.
After all, in 1985 it wasn't clear to Hüsker
Dü that they could appeal to a broader audience.
Most of what was on the charts was either synthesizer
music or heavy metal played by hair farmers. After years on Sire, the Ramones had no hits. After signing
with Elecktra, the guitar based LA band X had failed
to get attention outside of the college radio stations—which
were already playing Hüsker Dü the way Classic
Rock stations play Led Zeppelin. In the end, the group
decided to issue Flip Your Wig on SST.
was hot on having Flip Your Wig,"
Hart says. "In some respects I was disappointed
with our decision because I think they would have
handled that album fairly well."
still on SST, Flip Your Wig has much
more in common with the two Warner albums that came
after it than with two SST albums which preceded it.
No matter the range of musical styles, Hüsker
Dü's earlier SST albums have a loud and limited
sonic range. Even the most tender ballads are covered
by a sheen of guitar-drenched feedback as produced
by Spot (a regular producer for SST bands) and the
band. On Flip Your Wig as on their later
Warner albums, Spot is gone and production is credited
not to the band but to Grant Hart and Bob Mould. Mould's
guitar sounds less gritty and Hart's drums are thick
with echo. Mould's "Makes No Sense at All"
was the clear single: catchy enough to sing along
with and diffuse enough for the lyric's insouciance
to offend no one ("Walking around with your head
in the clouds/ makes no sense at all"). It provided
the band with their biggest hit to date. They made
their first video, which aired on MTV, and it was
with fresh confidence that they signed a contract
with Warner Brothers Records.
I thought now that Hüsker Dü
were on a major label they would be working in established
venues. But that was not the case. Hüsker Dü
were walking a difficult line. Bob Mould wrote a letter
to Maximum Rock & Roll defending the band's
decision to go corporate by pointing out the unprecedented
creative freedom the band had been granted in their
contract. But many Hüsker Dü fans weren't
buying it, and every action the band took was scrutinized
for signs of The Man's hand. Bob Mould called my friend
Chuck to promote the show. Hüsker Dü was
too big a draw for any of the usual places.
Therefore Chuck rented a soon to be demolished Elks
Lodge in a dilapidated slum in North Philadelphia.
concert was packed and rumors were running through
the audience that local Neo-Nazi skinheads might be
showing up to attack. The Warner people traveling
with Hüsker Dü were being assholes behind
the scenes and Chuck's staff was getting sick of them.
When Philadelphia's thrash legends F.O.D. (immortalized
in songs by the Dead Milkmen and Green Day) opened
the show the Warner's people went ballistic. "We
told you not to put a punk band on the bill. We're
trying to get them away from that," one said.
Another Warner representative tried to confiscate
a soundboard tape, which F.O.D. hoped to use for a
live album. Soul Asylum who at the time was derisively
referred to as Hüsker Dülite was on the
tour. About halfway through their set the power
in the old building went out for an hour.
Hüsker Dü took the stage the restless crowd
surged forward and many broke into wild slam dancing.
Then they literally brought the roof down. It started
out a drizzle, so slight you're not sure if it's raining:
a flake of dust and then a little plaster. Soon, however,
chunks of ceiling tile were landing on the band, the
audience, and on all the Warner Brothers handlers
who were gathered at the bar even though the damage
was worst of all there. Somehow Hüsker Dü
made it through the show. They finished with covers
of "Ticket to Ride" and "Love is All
Around," the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore
show. The Warner's people told Chuck it would be their
last time working with him and it was.
Dü's Warner Brother's debut, Candy Apple Grey,
is among their best albums, and the logical successor
to Flip Your Wig. But it also contains
evidence of the internal and external forces, which
finally undid the band: the group's fear of being
seen as selling out and the increasingly serious division
among the band members.
woman came up to me and ran her hand through my recently
cut hair and said, 'I like your new Warner Brother
haircut,'" Hart recalls. "If I had lost
a foot at the time it would have been my Warner Brother
limp." Still, Hart wasn't satisfied by the band's
response, which was to open their major label debut
with Bob Mould's "Crystal," a bile-filled
purge of loud thrash. Hart felt Hüsker Dü were being
too defensive. "I think that the initial sounds
on the record say, 'Hey, we didn't sell out.'
But it is the ugliest noise we'd put on record
in years." The band ceased to collaborate,
and the competition between Hart and Mould became
a power struggle. On Candy Apple Grey Mould
continued to write the strict majority of songs. But
both of the album's singles ("Don't Want to Know
if You Are Lonely" and "Sorry Somehow")
were written by Hart.
came to a head with the recording of Hüsker Dü's
final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories,
"Bob used to say that he could write a song a
day," Hart says, "and I felt that if I wanted
to have some composition role in the band I had to
keep up with that."
As a result, Hüsker Dü entered the
studio in the fall of 1986 to record their second
Warner record with far too much material. Since neither
Mould nor Hart were willing to set aside any of their
songs, the band proposed a double album to the label.
When the label balked, Hüsker Dü insisted.
"I didn't want to do Warehouse
as a double album," Hart now admits. "I
think the motivations for the band to do that were
not musical ones. Warner didn't want to do a double album
and we were pushing our weight around for the sake
of pushing our weight around."
is nothing wrong with Warehouse: Songs and Stories,
and that is the album's problem. Its 20 songs—11
by Mould (still demanding the majority) and 9 by Hart—of
similar theme, sound, and length combine to make a
collection of fine midtempo power ballads any one
of which could be a lesser band's proudest moment. But there was no longer any sense of collaboration between
Hart and Mould. A song by one follows a tune from
the other leaving Warehouse sounding
like two solo albums that were mixed and sequenced
together. "It would have made a lot better single
album if each one of us would have thrown away four
of our songs," Hart agrees. It was the first
time a Hüsker Dü record sounded so staid,
predictable and even meaningless. "There is something
to be said for getting out while the getting's good,"
band began the Warehouse tour, and fans
were shocked to discover that Hüsker Dü
were playing the entire album in order each night
on stage. Not only weren't there any more new songs,
at first they didn't even play any of their old songs.
"One day Bob announced that was the obvious thing
to do," Hart remembers. "He told us this
was what was going to happen and you don't fuck with
a tour of Europe, Hüsker Dü went into the
studio in the fall of 1987. The band lacked enough
new material for a follow-up to Warehouse,
and Warner was lobbying hard for them to use an outside
producer. As they had in the past, Hüsker Dü
took to the road in order to sort out their problems.
While the idea was to work out new material, instead,
audiences were treated to a retrospective with some
songs that pre-dated even the SST recordings.
WI December 6, 1987
are only three people in the club more bored than
me and their names are Bob, Greg and Grant. They slug
through a familiar set. On the surface nothing has
changed: Grant plays his drums with flawless abandon,
Bob's brilliant guitar playing which uses blunt force
to substitute for finesse pours out of the sound system
and hopping Greg Norton, quite frankly, is so outclassed
that he has to attempt the performance of his life
just to keep up. Still, many of the earlier songs
are handled in a hurried and indifferent way. The
beautiful melding of Mould's piercing
scream and Hart's tuneful, sentimental voice is mostly
absent. In the studio and at many earlier concerts
"New Day Rising" could blunt all feeling
through its equal evocations of despair and optimism.
Now the song has taken on an unbecoming and cheery
pop cast. Worst of all, songs like "Target,"
and "In a Free Land" seem like an awkward
attempt to court nostalgia for the droll 80s hardcore
that Hüsker Dü so successfully moved beyond.
There are no new songs, and I leave before the final
had always been part of Hüsker Dü's image.
Some associated the title of their first album Land
Speed Record with amphetamines, and there
were the stories about recording Zen Arcade.
On stage the band sometimes pulled out a celebratory
novelty number called "Drug Party." But
now Grant Hart's heroin habit acquired during the
SST years became one problem too many. On December
11, 1987 Hüsker Dü unexpectedly played their
final show in Columbia, Missouri. Hart recalls: