Hüsker Dü - Biography
Hüsker Dü gained a reputation as a powerful live band in punk circles in the early 1980s, but today the band’s reputation rests primarily on the recorded catalog it left behind after breaking up in 1988. Never commercially successful but widely acknowledged as one of the best and most influential American bands of the 1980s, Hüsker Dü is perhaps best known for the ambitious double album Zen Arcade (SST 1984).
In St. Paul, Minnesota, drummer Grant Hart and guitarist Bob Mould met in roles similar to those that brought R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Michael Stipe together: Hart was a record store clerk and Mould a college student. One of the great American punk bands of the seventies, the Suicide Commandos (Pere Ubu’s only labelmates at the short-lived Blank Records), came from the Twin Cities, and their guitarist Chris Osgood gave Mould guitar lessons. With Hart’s friend Greg Norton and short-lived keyboardist Charlie Pine, the band formed in March 1979 as a covers band that quickly began to write and play original songs. The band’s early song “Do You Remember?” (the English translation of their name) is a rocker in the style of Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers and the Ramones. 1981’s “Statues,” the band’s self-released first single, is an atonal bum-out with a repetitive bass pattern, waves of Keith Levene-style chorus over Mould’s guitar and a rant against posers (a class of person that would suffer much abuse from Hüsker Dü during the band’s pre-SST days). The b-side, “Amusement,” is recognizable as one of Bob Mould’s more depressive songs, but the single gives no indication of the Hüskers’ sunny side.
Comrades the Minutemen released Hüsker Dü’s first lp, the blaring Land Speed Record, on their New Alliance label in 1981. Recorded live (lo-fi!) on Hüsker Dü’s frenzied, drug-fueled Children’s Crusade tour, the songs on Land Speed Record are the closest in form and lyrical content to hardcore punk in the band’s catalog. Because of the band’s originality, and because hardcore had not yet solidified into a set of rules and expectations, some of Land Speed Record might sound odd to fans of the genre. Mould’s “Bricklayer,” for instance, is a short blast of noise over which Mould screams about a man dropping bricks on pedestrians from a high-rise window. You sense that Mould is furious because he’s powerless to stop it, but that’s all the song says — there is no triumphant resolution, no slogan, moral or helpful suggestion is offered.
Everything Falls Apart (Reflex Records 1983), released on the band’s Reflex Records, slows tempos slightly, and clears up the sound on what turns out to be a very tight punk album. Mould’s songs dominate Everything, and almost all of them are fast, aggressive put-downs. Mould screams at the top of his lungs: against someone who talks too much (“Blah, Blah, Blah”), someone who doesn’t talk enough (“Afraid of Being Wrong”), a hippie stuck in the sixties (“Signals from Above”), a punk stuck in the seventies (“Target”). Hart sings Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Exceptions are “Everything Falls Apart” and “Gravity,” songs that with the 1982 New Alliance single “In A Free Land” would point to the sound most often associated with Hüsker Dü; Mould’s chiming chord voicings and harmonious leads played through heavy distortion at enormous volume, a fast, physical rhythm section, and the increasingly melodic vocals of Hart and Mould (Norton sang fewer and fewer songs as Mould and Hart took over the songwriting). That same year SST issued the Metal Circus ep, which further crystallized the band’s sixties-rock influenced hardcore sound. Hart asserts himself as a songwriter with “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” which with Mould’s “Real World” bid farewell to hardcore orthodoxy, and the dramatic “Diane,” sung by Hart in the persona of Diane’s rapist and murderer. The song is given its sting by Mould’s shrieking lead, which is reminiscent of the solo from a Mould favorite, Discharge’s “State Violence State Control.” After Metal Circus, SST issued a single of Hüsker Dü’s version of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” which is all Mould and no McGuinn.
The 1984 double album Zen Arcade (which goaded the Minutemen to record their own masterful double lp for SST) remains Hüsker Dü’s greatest achievement to some listeners. Zen Arcade may be a concept album, one that tells a story, but it isn’t always easy to tell what the story is; it is up to the listener to make a narrative out of the “I,” “YOU,” “SHE” and “HE” addressed and described in the lyrics. Mould’s signature melancholy but tuneful, ringing sound emerges on side one’s “Something I Learned Today” and “Chartered Trips,” before the band tears through a suite of Mould’s hardcore thrash numbers on side two. Hart gets in a number of originals — the delicate “Pink Turns to Blue,” the classic rocker “Turn on the News,” the Black Flag-inspired pain jam “What’s Going On” — and the wail of Hart’s vocals and his rhythmic bubbliness begin to provide a pleasing contrast to the folky timbre of Mould’s singing and his nonstop attack on guitar. “Reoccuring Dreams,” the unrelenting 13-minute raga improvisation that closes the album, is a dramatic end to the album’s narrative, whatever that narrative may be.
SST released two new albums by Hüsker Dü in 1985: New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. In comparison with Zen Arcade, both are concise pop records with brief, memorable songs. Much of New Day Rising sounds like it was recorded in an oil drum, which gives added pathos to Grant Hart’s “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.” On paper, this song could have been written by the Band; on record, it sounds like Hart is screaming for his life while Mould runs over him with a steamroller. By this point, the only recognizably hardcore feature of the band is the anguish it expresses in the performances of “Heaven Hill” and Mould’s “59 Times the Pain” and “Plans I Make.” Hart’s cheerful “Terms of Psychic Warfare” and “Books about UFOs” brighten the album. SST’s in-house producer Spot had co-produced every Hüsker Dü record since Everything Falls Apart, and his absence from Flip Your Wig may be one reason it is the sunniest record the band had yet released, but the album was also the band’s strongest collection of songs yet. Hart contributions “Keep Hanging On,” “Flexible Flyer” and “Green Eyes” are among the band’s best songs, as are Mould’s “Makes No Sense at All” (the single), “Flip Your Wig” and “Private Plane.” Mould’s “Divide and Conquer” is a rant about technological globalization set to supercharged folk-rock rather than hardcore.
Hüsker Dü then signed to Warner Bros. and released the flawed Candy Apple Grey (1986), an album that sounds muddled and unfinished. The infectious energy that is audible in every Hüsker Dü album from Land Speed Record, on is just barely counterfeited on a few songs — “Dead Set on Destruction,” “Eiffel Tower High” — and hardcore agony is now set to acoustic instrumentation. Mould would pull off stately acoustic performances on his first solo album Workbook, but he doesn’t here. 1987’s Workbook: Songs and Stories, a double album and the band’s final studio release, is a solid record with excellent songwriting and performances, though the band would only really catch fire playing Hart’s “She’s A Woman (And Now He Is A Man)” on The Joan Rivers Show. Tensions between Mould and Hart were exacerbated by Hart’s drug problems; the band’s manager, David Savoy, committed suicide in 1987; and Hüsker Dü broke up in January 1988. Rhino reissued Everything Falls Apart in 1993, supplemented by the “Statues” and “In A Free Land” singles, an unreleased studio version of the early thrash “Let’s Go Die” and a 1980 demo of “Do You Remember?” The Living End (Warner Bros. 1994) is an excellent live album recorded in October 1987 on Hüsker Dü’s last tour. In the absence of a greatest-hits album, the all-out performances of late and classic Hüskers material on The Living End would make a fine introduction to the band.
Greg Norton, who has played and recorded sporadically since Hüsker Dü’s breakup, is reportedly a chef. Grant Hart has continued to record under his own name, and fronted Nova Mob in the early 90s. Bob Mould has also continued as a solo artist, and led the band Sugar in the early 90s; he collaborates with electronic musician Rich Morel in Blowoff.