Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Rise and Fall of Hüsker Dü

Hüsker Dü was my favorite band in high school. I liked other punk bands, and I liked music other than punk rock. But they charted a course that fit better than most everything else. Starting as pure hardcore, moving to post-punk, expanding into psychedelic (heavy) rock territory, bringing in more power-pop power, eventually even acoustic songs, and a final double-album to tie everything together. I got to meet them behind the Maceba on their last tour, and they seemed like genuinely cool guys - although some pretty heinous personality and pharmaceutical clashes had apparently been going on for quite awhile. And they tore it up onstage.

A mighty power trio: Bob Mould (guitar/rounder/angrier), Grant Hart (drums/shaggier/poppier), and Greg Norton (bass/handle-bar mustachioed). To call Mould and Hart the Lennon/McCartney of punk is only a cliche because it's so true. The two were absolutely polar opposites, but balanced each other musically. They formed a great band in a new genre, and took it to places unimaginable at the start.

Land Speed Record (1982) 5/10 - Strangely, not many early hardcore debuts were straight-up concert recordings. This one is 16 songs in 20 minutes, each tumbling over the next, pure hardcore fury - until it runs smack into "Data Control," and things take a sharp left turn. A five-minute epic, slowing down to a chug, freaking out about contemporary multi-national paranoia. It stayed in the live set until the very end.

Everything Falls Apart (1983) 7/10 - They did get into the studio as a hardcore band. Short blasts of power, but the hooks are starting to emerge. Even if they're sometimes Donovan's hooks... Every once in awhile someone will play "Wheels" on a local radio station, which is cool. The cd re-release includes bunches of non-LP stuff that continued to show significant development.

Metal Circus (1983) 8/10 - This EP was a real turning point. Grant Hart decides he's going to slow down some and write pop songs. Mould decides to layer on the distortion into all-new dimensions and live in his natural voice. It's the break from orthodox hardcore that set the stage...

In 14 months, Hüsker Dü released three of the great '80s albums - the first a double! O yeah, and the mind-boggling covers single of "Eight Miles High/Love is All Around"... Damn. These plotted their trajectory away from punk and towards a major label deal (although not quite the mainstream).

Zen Arcade (1984) 10/10 - Although there were a few double-albums in the '80s underground, there was basically only the one double-concept-album. It's your basic boy-runs-away-from-home, boy-meets-girl, girl-OD's, boy-has-life-shattering-vision-of-eternal-beauty. Or something. It has everything: punk rawk, folky strum, backwards-masking, piano interludes, immortal classics, and epic open jams. The apex of "punk" albums.

New Day Rising (1985) 10/10 - I found this one first, in a Spin review that threw together the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello. I was definitely in. Again, it's one classic after another. The songwriting, production, and their performances were all quickly and constantly evolving. Not quite as experimental as Zen Arcade, but a definite all-time rock album.

Flip Your Wig (1985) 9/10 - The tranformation reaches it's logical conclusion. Barely recognizable as "punk," it's really a whole different animal. Even Mould was writing in a full pop vein, and Hart has dived right in the deep end. Often overlooked because of the two previous monoliths of the underground, it's actually a good starting point if you're not a mid-'80s high-school suburban punk.

Candy Apple Grey (1986) 7/10 - One of the first to make The Leap, the Warner Bros. debut was pretty okay. But a lot of lessons were learned too. I'm not sure what they were trying to do, but there's just too much downer acoustic balladry, and not enough of the ol' shock magic. Unfairly despised, but an imperfect record.

Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987) 8/10 - The final album, and another double, Hüsker Dü returned to rockin' out - as close to the old energy as they could muster. There are plenty of good songs, but the songwriting's stretched a little thin for 4 sides. I actually heard "Could You Be The One?" on KLOL one morning driving to school. It was a weird time...

Husker Du
There was one final tour that year (when they played the Maceba Theatre), and then it was over. Eventually, recordings from the tour were released as The Living End (1994), which bookends nicely with the debut - "Data Control" and all...

Since I also learned of Hüsker Dü through Spin (the magazine), I should mention that two albums of theirs are in their Alt Record Guide's Top 100 list.
Zen Arcade at #4
New Day Rising at #64

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