As it was last year, our latest Absolute Classics article was good for stimulating discussion, and I was more than a little pleased to see one comment that Zen Arcade should have made our list. It's one of my favorite albums, and I'll certainly consider it next time around. For now, suffice it that we shine this week's AP.net Remembers spotlight on Hüsker Dü.
Easily one of the most influential band's of the '80s, Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Company produced a dizzying amount of material in their short career, a body of work that not only displayed a remarkable evolution that set the stage for much of the music that would follow but also enabled them to navigate and pioneer the type of career arc that was unheard of at the time but commonplace today, the transformation from indie act to major label band.
Undeniably a hardcore band at heart-- one listen to their intense 1981 live recording Land Speed Record is all it takes to be convinced of this-- Hüsker Dü upped their game in 1984 with Zen Arcade, refusing to be restricted by hardcore's unwritten standards. Drums still galloped and there's no shortage of angry vocals, but guitars often buzzed instead of shredding your face off (their electric guitar tones, whether or not just a result of "low production value," are for me one of the band's defining and most endearing qualities-- they truly sound like no one else), and there's even some acoustic strumming. On one of those acoustic numbers, "Never Talking to You Again", Hart sings, "There are things I'd like to say, but I'm never talking to you again," and "I'm tired of wasting all my time trying to talk to you," hardly fuck-The-Man anthems. Aside from its heavy use of actual melody and the personal nature of its subject matter (which also includes the tragedies of drug addiction on the well-known standout "Pink Turns to Blue"), perhaps Zen Arcade's biggest break from the traditional punk mold was its sprawling expanse, 23 tracks over more than seventy minutes. It's the type of behemoth that's one-of-a-kind, something that won't be replicated.
If Hüsker Dü recorded nothing else in their careers, their names would still have been forever etched in the annals of punk history, but no, they were just getting started. The period between 1984 and 1987 saw them release five outstanding albums. We typically see three year periods between band's releases today and sometimes wonder how the artists got from Point A to Point B, but thankfully, Hüsker Dü left behind a pretty complete map of the sonic trail they blazed. New Day Rising followed in 1985, weighing in at a more concise forty minutes. Songs like "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill" are some of the band's strongest statements in combining relentless agression with unmistakable hooks, but others, like "I Apologize", find them sowing the seeds for pop-punk-- maybe not All Time Low, but Jawbreaker definitely.
Later that same year, they dropped Flip Your Wig, an album whose cleaner production is immediately noticeable. The intensity is still there-- just listen to "Every Everything"-- but the sheen allowed the strong hook on the powerpop gem "Makes No Sense at All" and the psychedelic haze of "Green Eyes" to shine through even more. Listening to Zen Arcade and Flip Your Wig in succession, it's almost impossible to believe they're separated in time by little more than a year, and the incredulity is only slightly remedied by the existence of New Day Rising.
It's not surprising that Hüsker Dü's increasingly pop-friendly sound earned them major label attention (though they did actually sign with Warner Brothers while still in the recording process for Flip Your Wig), and Wig would be their last album to be released on Greg Ginn's SST label. Their major label debut Candy Apple Grey is largely underappreciated, probably because, for the first time, it saw the band in a holding pattern of sorts-- surprising since you'd imagine a deeper exploration of the pop sound. But perhaps to prevent the inevitable "sellout" cries, they made an album that sounded very much like Flip Your Wig.
The evolution was finally complete with Hüsker Dü's final album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, which was pretty much devoid of anything that sounded at all like hardcore, but it added another dimension to their influence. In just a whirlwind three-year span, they made enduring statements in hardcore, laid the groundwork for the next generation of pop-infused punk, and with their last album, crafted a blueprint for the type of music that would reign over college radio playlists and upstart alternative stations in the coming years. That's quite a set of accomplishments for a little band from Minnesota whose name is Danish for "Do you remember?" Here at AP.net, we do.
My favorite Husker record is New Day Rising. Its hard to name just one my favorite but I think that'd have to be it. Its so consistent. Listening to it is so exhilarating. Song after song it just nails it. Celebrated Summer gets me everytime. Nice collection of songs up there by the way. Pink Turns to Blue owns.
I still haven't been able to get into their music yet. And it's particularly strange because some of my favorite bands cite them as a huge influence. Lifetime even covered "It's Not Funny Anymore." I'll keep trying.