Hüsker Dü

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
DianeMetal Circus EP
Eight Miles HighSST Records 025
Never Talking to You AgainZen Arcade
Pink Turns To BlueZen Arcade
Celebrated SummerNew Day Rising
Makes No Sense At AllFlip Your Wig
Green EyesFlip Your Wig
Sorry SomehowCandy Apple Grey
Hardly Getting Over ItCandy Apple Grey
Ice Cold IceWarehouse: Songs And Stories

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Contributor: Craig Austin

 

Husker Du photo

Hüsker Dü (l to r): Greg Norton (bass), Grant Hart (drums/vocals), Bob Mould (guitar/vocals)

The first rule of the cover version is seemingly always ‘don’t do the cover version’. And though the second rule of the cover version is likewise ‘don’t do the cover version’, there is a further school of thought that decrees that neither rule applies if the reworked source material achieves something truly innovative.

It’s an initially convincing, yet ultimately fatuous, notion all too often rooted in the musty ‘look, but don’t touch’ straightjacket of ‘classic’ rock/pop deference. Faith No More knew this to be the case when they embarked upon their sublime homage to The Commodores’ Easy; a tender and sincere take on the original that imbued it with a heartfelt righteousness and deftness of touch. Though it alienated the more meat-headed element of the band’s fan-base – despite appearing on the flip of the resplendently monstrous ‘Be Aggressive’ – it shrewdly eschewed the most tiresome of all cover clichés, the exasperating ‘punk version’; one almost exclusively rooted in a humourless and self-righteous faux-hatred of pop music.

I use the word ‘almost’ with good reason. Because Sid’s My Way is truly awe-inspiring in its incendiary irreverence, because The Slits’ scratchy other-worldly take on I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ is borderline futuristic, and because Hüsker Dü’s astonishing aural contortion of The Byrds’ Eight Miles High still has the power to render me both breathless and drained. Its abrasive metallic assault, coupled with the sinew-straining sandpaper bellow of vocalist Bob Mould, an unashamed Byrds super-fan, deconstructs one of the finest instances of psychedelic 60s pop and transforms it into one of the most astonishing examples of 80s alt-rock. It remains to this day a bona fide touchstone of the U.S. hardcore scene.

At this point, and in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s probably only fair to make clear that I came of age in a part of the world wherein a love of Hüsker Dü was almost hard-wired into one’s very being. So much so that when Mike Myers used the character of Wayne Campbell to evoke memories of his suburban Chicago childhood: “Frampton Comes Alive? Everybody in the world has Frampton Comes Alive. If you lived in the suburbs you were issued it. It came in the mail with samples of Tide”, he could as easily be speaking about my own. Except in this scenario, Chicago would swap places with Newport, South Wales, and Frampton Comes Alive with Zen Arcade.

The release of Zen Arcade – a distinctly un-punk double album, no less – in the (celebrated) summer of 1984 is seen as a pivotal moment in the band’s relatively short lifespan; it being the record that’s often been referred to as the hardcore scene’s White Album, and the point at which the major labels first came a-sniffing. Nonetheless, within a five-year streak of staggering artistic progression from 1982’s relentless Land Speed Record to 1987’s fractious major label swansong Warehouse: Songs And Stories, it is the controlled explosion of Eight Miles High that perhaps best embodies the band’s core creative spirit. A recording that at times threatens to fall apart under the weight of its unremitting assault, a victim of its own pounding momentum, yet one that finds ultimate salvation in the arms of its pointedly melodic construct.

With hindsight it’s clear that Zen represented a pivotal stylistic fork in the road, a dignified Hüsker farewell to the scene that had spawned it. Later records would see the twin elements of speed and fury diminish incrementally, to be replaced in equal parts by plaintive melancholy and unashamed pop thrills. A process that reached its pinnacle in the pop-rock magnificence of 1985’s Flip Your Wig. An album that proved to be the band’s creative high point, the definitive college-rock template, and the juncture at which it high-tailed it from the SST fold and into the welcoming major label arms of Warner Brothers. A then somewhat controversial career move that ultimately paved the way for the likes of Nirvana and R.E.M. to embark upon their own respective phases of global domination; a course of events that would eventually culminate in the major label free-for-all of 1991 – ‘the year that punk broke’. “It’s nothing new,” Dave Grohl commented in the same year on the style and sound of Nirvana’s all-conquering alt-rock behemoth Nevermind, “Hüsker Dü did it all before us.”

Yet aside from the music, the notion of Hüsker Dü always held a curious fascination for me. It might have had something to do with the umlauts (from a moniker half-inched from a long-forgotten U.S. board game), or their almost provocatively unfashionable proto-normcore image. A rejection of the hardcore scene’s more cartoonish macho affectations and one that would decades later be given a distinctively English twist by another awkward-looking three-piece, Oxford’s Hüsker-loving The Young Knives. Given the band’s lofty creative aspirations there were unapologetic echoes of The Beatles of course. Not least in the competing creative output of its two main players. An initially straightforward ‘sing what you write’ approach to business that swiftly curdled amidst the increasingly competing agendas and egos of Messrs Mould (guitar) and Hart (drums) – Bob, the insecure permanently depressive agitator, as defined by Hüsker folklore, and Hart, his equally gifted but progressively marginalised foil. It would be a battle that would ultimately, and with a degree of inevitability, be won by Mould. Perhaps, and with some sadness, because towards the end he seemed to be the only one waging it.

Add to this a complicating layer of personal intrigue and innuendo fuelled by the principle songwriters’ sexuality, and you have yourself a combustible rock-n-roll tinderbox of epic proportions; one that burned briefly and furiously brightly, yet one that remains forever dimmed by the suffocating fug of collective fatalism. There were periods of levity of course, how could there not have been given the blissfully uplifting MTV catnip of Mould’s Makes No Sense At All and the sublime Hammond-driven simplicity of Hart’s Sorry Somehow? Nonetheless, the Hüsker Dü oeuvre is invariably tinged by the knowledge that its members, not least Mould, could have been having a much better time if they’d put their minds to it.

On paper at least, Hüsker Dü remain one of the uncoolest bands who ever existed, a notion not helped by Robert Palmer – yes, that one – having briefly and bizarrely included a cover of New Day Rising within his mid-80s live set. An awkward bunch of dysfunctional mid-West misfits whose visual image added little in the way of glamour or mystery to an 80s alt-rock scene that existed almost solely within the margins. Even the whispers that surrounded Mould and Hart’s sexual orientation (though scurrilously tabloid in their nature) were afforded comic flavour by the band’s sole flamboyant ‘scene’ component having resided upon the top lip of its only straight member. Much like the irony of ZZ Top’s only clean-shaven member being called Frank Beard, Greg Norton’s iconic handlebar moustache remains a defining theatrical flourish in defiance of the band’s otherwise Spartan image.

But stripped of the conflict, the resentment, and the glaring aesthetic deficit, there remain these truly inspirational records – a concentrated collection of some of the finest, most furious, and yet most heartbreakingly vulnerable outsider anthems. The timeless bruised fruit of a Mexican standoff that can be traced back to the hardcore punk clubs of downtown Minneapolis. A city whose glacial winter climate ultimately succeeded in permeating the heart of its finest rock’n’roll band.

Maybe Gene Clark put it best when he penned the lyrics to the aforementioned Eight Miles High: Nowhere is there warmth to be found / Among those afraid of losing their ground.

 

 

Grant Hart (1961-2017)

 

Hüsker Dü Database

Bob Mould official website

Grant Hart official website

Live from London (Camden Palace) 1985 UK TV show on DVD

Hüsker Dü – Live in San Francisco 1985, Part 1 of 3

Toppermost #357 Bob Mould

Hüsker Dü biography (iTunes)

Craig Austin (@TheCraigAustin) is an Associate Editor of Wales Arts Review.

TopperPost #460

4 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Jul 24, 2015

    Many thanks Craig, I’ve not thought to explore Husker Du’s music, now I will. I was aware of Bob Mould from his cover of Richard Thompson’s ‘Turning of the Tide’ on the 1994 compilation ‘Beat the Retreat’. And found on YouTube here.

  2. Rob Morgan
    Jul 24, 2015

    A lovely read. I’m pleased you made such a point about Eight Miles High, it was the first Husker Du song I heard on Peel during the summer of 84. I thought it was amazing – clearly they loved the song, but wanted to take it to the limit and beyond. Bob Mould’s vocal starts frayed and just turns into an incoherent roar as it progresses. Absolutely incredible. It still has the power to astound and divide opinion, as I’ve found when I included it on a recent podcast – some listeners loved it, some hated it. A great piece of writing, congratulations.

  3. Calvin Rydbom
    Jul 25, 2015

    Nice job. I never got to see Husker Du, although I have seen Mould many times – not that Hart and Norton clearly contribute to the band, but Mould was just a force. Still is.

  4. Glenn Smith
    Jul 25, 2015

    Ditto on Eight Miles High, absolutely brilliant and the best homage to the genius of Gene Clark. I’m really intrigued by your list and take on the band, I came in on Candy Apple Grey and then Warehouse so I would have a few different choices, but who cares, your list is brilliant. All the good bands have two creative forces coming at each other, and Mould and Hart had it in spades, that contrast is what I love about their albums, Candy Apple in particular.

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