Hüsker Dü  
The godfathers of grunge
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly May 1998


"Taking inspiration from Hüsker Dü/ It's a new generation of electric white boy blues." From "Gimme Indie Rock" by Sebadoh

Hüsker 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.

New Jersey, 1983
I 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.

The 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.

With 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.

Hüsker 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 songwriters.

Though 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."

Despite 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 Hüskers: The Twin Cities Replay Zen Arcade.

Philadelphia, 1984
My 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.

Just 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.

Though 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.

Nowadays 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.

"Warner's 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."

Though 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.

Philadelphia, 1986
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.

The 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.

When 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.

Hüsker 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.

"A 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.

Things 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."

There 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," Hart says.

The 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 Bob's vision."

After 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.

Madison, WI December 6, 1987
There 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 encore.

Drugs 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:

When we had our little troubles—when I had my big trouble in Columbia, Missouri, when a bottle of methadone disappeared, I played a show under less than perfect circumstances. It was excruciating.  I have been in the position where other people have done the same sort of thing and nothing is served by authoritative "compassion." If we would have continued on, things would have been cool.  Because they had been cool up until that time.  But a one-time incident, and mind you, while I was trying my damnedest to put it behind me...

Mould canceled the next show in Boise and a benefit the band was to perform at the Beacon Theater.  Hart was furious. The show was for an AIDS charity he'd started.  "Speaking totally pragmatically the show could have gone on. I mean it couldn't be too hard to find some Heroin in New York." Grant Hart quit Hüsker Dü and in January 1988 Bob Mould sent out an official letter in which he too resigned from the band.