Monday, December 27, 2010

Husker Du Book: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock

Husker Du were one of the most influential bands to come from the indie underground in the 1980s. The band got their start in Hardcore, before the term was even used to designate that particular genre. Husker Du: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, covers the career of the band and also briefly describes the bands aftermath, it also includes a detailed discography of the bands musical outputs. There has not been many books written about Husker Du to this extent and it serves as a great source of information for the band. Author Andrew Earles starts the book by stating his intentions for the book. He does not intend to it to be a gossip filled book to add to irrelevant facts and information on the band that aren’t necessary to the story of Husker Du. He also tells us some of the people interviewed for the book which includes Grant Hart and Greg Norton of Husker Du, but not front man Bob Mould. At the time the book was being written it is mentioned that Bob Mould himself is writing an autobiography of his own with the help of Michael Azerrad. That is not to say that Bob does not have an inclusion in the book, there are several quotes from interviews provided that add great detail to this story. Earles states that he hopes that this book will serve as a supplement to Bob’s book, which is due sometime next year. Earles honest tone in the introduction of the book sets a good mood for the reader and at the same time displays his immense interest and passion for the bands music. Prior to writing the book Andrew Earles has had freelance writer experience writing for magazines such as SPIN, Magnet Magazine, Dusted Magazine, Harp, Sound Collector, Vice and Pitchfork Media to name a few. In fact Earles submitted a pitch for a book in the 33 1/3 series for Husker Du’s Flip Your Wig album. It wasn’t accepted, but as a result he was picked up by Voyageur Press to write a book spanning Husker Du’s fascinating career.

The book traces the very beginnings of the band from their formation to them connecting with SST and the LA Hardcore scene along with bands such as The Minute Men, and Black Flag. The book digs deep into the Twin Cities/Minnesota music scene that prior to the Huskers wasn’t as developed. We learn fascinating details and are provided with pictures of the band and old set lists. We are taken through the bands development and before you know it the book is halfway done and Husker Du has several full length albums available. Some interesting facts are provided such as the bands origin. Husker Du was the name of a popular Danish board game during Grant Hart’s childhood. The name Husker Du! was shouted out during one of the bands early practices while playing an improvisational section of a cover song. The name also means “Do you remember?” in English. It is also interesting to learn of the band starting their own label, Reflex Records in which they released some of their music and a few other bands before it dissolved and the band became an important seller on the SST label. After getting through the first few chapters, it is apparent that Husker Du is different. Even early on they were experimenting with several genres such as Post Punk, and there was always a Pop element that would be subtle in their early visceral, Noise driven Punk beginnings.

Throughout the book, the reader is plugged into the underground and conflicts as they arise. Every album is discussed in detail, we learn of all the recordings the band made during their time of existence and little tidbits of information spark through out the chapters of the book. For example, when we learn of the bands album Flip Your Wig, we find out the names origin. The albums title was actually taken from the name of a Beatles board game. It’s no surprise that that album would have Pop elements that made it their catchiest album at the time of its release. The album would eventually lead to their major label record deal, which would in the future help pave the way for other independent underground artists. The book doesn’t end there, Earle establishes the influence the band left after they stopped playing together and brings us right up to today. Reading Husker Du: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is a fascinating tale of a unique prolific band that is still being talked about and still influencing bands today.

The book can be purchased through

the following is an excerpt from Husker Du: The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock:

Zen Arcade is the first Hüsker Dü release to feature a wide variety of songcraft. While each Hüsker Dü album boasts at least one innovation—a “first” that would be honed as the band tore along at its precocious pace— Zen Arcade is packed with more of these creative instances than any album in the trio’s career, before or after. Some succeed; some do not.

The world’s introduction to Zen Arcade, via Hart’s drums and five seconds of Norton’s bass, would become one of the more recognizable sound bites in the entire Hüsker Dü catalog. “Something I Learned Today” is signature Hüsker Dü post-hardcore noise-pop, but it’s also top-shelf, straight-up punk rock that bears more than a passing likeness to hardcore. Mould’s barnburner, “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” follows, applying some of the preceding song’s stylistic innovations but coming off as less catchy.

The song does serve as a quasi-introduction to the album’s loose narrative, though it was one of the future Zen songs debuted during the summer of 1983, several months before the probable invention of the narrative. As the double album is examined, it becomes obvious that its oft-claimed conceptual nature could easily have been concocted as the track order was sequenced. The familiar plot line revisits more than it follows a disenchanted teen escaping a tumultuous home life, experiencing the harsh realities of the world, then awakening to find that the whole affair was nothing but a dream. It seems entirely conceivable that Hart, Norton, and Mould were too busy creating music to notice that they’d composed a storyline that had a lot in common with an after-school special.

“My opinion is that it wasn’t envisioned as a concept in the ‘pre’ stage, but the ‘post’ stage,” says Katzman. “The other version is more romantic, but that’s what I think. Then there is the [fact] of it being a double album, but that’s just a long album. I doubt the Beatles even envisioned the White Album to be a double album; it just turned out that way. I think this is a similar metamorphosis for Hüsker Dü.”

Especially notable among Zen Arcade’s twenty-three tracks is Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again,” which appears three songs into the A-side and is the band’s first recorded use of an acoustic track. The style would never dominate Hüsker Dü’s subsequent albums, but it’s not the song’s acoustic nature that qualifies it as prescient; it’s the headlong dive into flagrantly melodic waters. The song’s lyrics supposedly detail a sentiment felt by the protagonist, one aimed squarely at his parents if one buys into the storyline. Bob’s moderately fast and forceful strumming takes the place of percussion, while Hart’s traditional construction and memorable vocal hook have made it one of the more popular songs on the album and even in the band’s entire predominately electric songbook. The song also did wonders to establish Hart as a melodic force. (For all practical purposes, “Diane” was Hart’s last time on record in the minds of most fans, who probably didn’t give the live version of “Masochism World” a second listen.

Grant’s soaring melodies are bolstered by another Hüsker Dü first: a guest musician. Backing vocals are courtesy of former Black Flag guitarist/vocalist Dez Cadena, then a fixture and occasional employee of SST. Departing the ranks of Black Flag earlier in the year, Cadena had tutored his vocal replacement, Henry Rollins, in 1981 before switching to guitar and adding an essential element to the Flag’s most powerful line up. Cadena had recently formed the trio DC3 with drummer Jeff Dahl and keyboardist/bassist Paul Roessler (brother of Kira, future Black Flag bassist).

As the final acoustic downstroke of “Never Talking . . .” is muted after reverberating for a split second, Mould’s Ibanez opens “Chartered Trips” with the type of melodic chord fans would come to know and love. The song is the noise pop of Metal Circus’ “First of the Last Calls” perfected: quintessential Mould-driven Hüsker Dü that helped to cement the band’s reputation. As a “type” of Hüsker Dü track, it would be heard later on Zen Arcade, on almost every New Day Rising track that Mould composed, and in future standouts like Flip Your Wig’s “Private Plane” and “Divide and Conquer.” Lyrically, the song’s wanderlust supposedly answers the separation anxiety of “Never Talking to You Again,” though it does nothing to quell the suspicion that most of Zen Arcade’s songs originated in a mental space removed from the album’s narrative.

The midsection of side one (“Never Talking to You Again,” “Chartered Trips,” and “Dreams Reocurring” [sic]) shows the band making as great a gain in three songs as they did when they followed Everything Falls Apart with Metal Circus—and none of the songs are within the realm of hardcore. At two minutes and seven seconds, “Indecision Time,” the song that follows “Dreams Reocurring,” is hardcore claustrophobia worthy of Everything Falls Apart. Mould incorporates pick slides and other string-torturing tricks into his flailing chaos, the lyrics screamed over this cacophony.

Side two of Zen Arcade is commonly considered the final resting place for whatever hardcore tendencies remained in the minds of Mould and, to a lesser extent, Hart. Calling this side “hardcore” has always been an easy out for critics and fans who save their superlatives for sides one and three. However, Mould’s four tracks are quite prescient, in retrospect. Mould’s four-song block of musical catharsis that kicks off side two is arresting, to say the least. If layers of terrifying release, aural violence, impenetrable density, and guitar pyrotechnics were shaved from “Beyond the Threshold,” “Pride,” “I’ll Never Forget You,” and “The Biggest Lie,” these four tracks would still annihilate any of the hardcore that dominated Everything Falls Apart, peppered Metal Circus, or defined Land Speed Record. In 1984, there was simply nothing on hardcore’s radar with a comparable wallop. More so than on the aforementioned releases, this is where the influence of Discharge on Mould truly shines through—if Discharge were more enamored with psychedelic noise than with metal, that is.

Lyrically, these songs yet again raise the question that may never be answered: how premeditated was the narrative concept allegedly driving Zen Arcade? Did the band really set out with a narrative in mind, or did they construct it after seeing the body of songs they’d assembled? If one were to swing a bat in a gymnasium filled with early- to mid-’80s hardcore bands, one would never fail to strike the author of several songs concerning teen alienation, frustration, and self-inflicted separation from a constricting family life. When considered in the context of Mould’s homosexuality, which was private throughout Hüsker Dü’s existence, “Pride” offers undiluted angst to a degree the guitarist had never before displayed, and never would again.

Mould goes from angrily screaming a wounded, despondent plea in “Pride” to something else entirely in the song’s follow-up, “I’ll Never Forget You.” Lyrically and vocally unremarkable until after the one-minute mark, the latter song is then thrust into a netherworld of anguish by the repetition of the title, in which Mould assumes a genuinely threatening wail. As a pure communication of pain atop a bludgeoning dirge of down-stroked riffing and circulating noise, the song would have far more in common with the future of the American underground than with anything associated with the year 1984. The real inheritor of the song’s aggro-noise histrionics was Dinosaur Jr, a band that closed its 1988 album, Bug, with the similarly cathartic kiss-off “Don’t” in which bassist Lou Barlow repeatedly wails/roars the question “Why don’t you like me?!” over a plodding rhythm track and J Mascis’ psychedelia-drenched riffing and noodling. (Appropriately, Bug turned out to be Mascis’ kiss-offs to both Barlow and SST.)

Mould’s “The Biggest Lie” brings side two back around to more familiar territory. The song would never make it to the band’s live set, but “Pride” and “I’ll Never Forget You” were both debuted in the summer of 1983. Like “Broken Home. . .” and “Indecision Time,” however, neither lasted very long as live staples after being recorded in October.

The second half of side two (“What’s Going On,” “Masochism World,” and “Standing by the Sea”) best debunks the sometimes stated notion that this section of Zen Arcade was the band’s final stab at hardcore. Hart’s “What’s Going On” is a raging rocker, yes, but it’s not hardcore. The drummer’s more aggressive numbers tend to be longer, and this one is no exception at almost four and a half minutes. Following Mould’s four-song block of terror, “What’s Going On” still fits into side two’s relentless agenda. Cadena returns to provide vocals, a duty that Norton would fulfill in a live situation. “On ‘What’s Going On’ I let [Greg] take over singing duties live, so he’d have something to sing off of Zen Arcade, and also because I thought that he and Dez had similar vocals,” explains Hart.

Closing out side two, “Standing by the Sea” is a thick monster of ascending riffs and Hart’s from-the-edge-of-the-earth vocals, which strike a nice balance between melodic yelling and traditional singing. Used to propel the later claims that the album has a narrative, “Standing by the Sea” tells of the sensory overload suffered by the protagonist. As one of four outtakes from the Metal Circus sessions and a live staple from the same time period, it’s most likely the oldest track on Zen, further supporting the theory that Hart most likely did not originally envision a double album based on a runaway’s coming-of-age story.

On side three, “Somewhere,” “Newest Industry,” and “Whatever” feature Mould in peak form, continuing the sublime, hair-raising power of “Chartered Trips.” Again, along with that track, these songs are the first true examples of Mould songcraft that helped make Hüsker Dü such an influential band.

The drug death described in the lyrics of “Pink Turns to Blue” supposedly happens to a girlfriend the protagonist meets during his travels, the title referring to the hue of one’s lips when they suffer such demise. Situated amid Mould’s “Somewhere”–“Newest Industry”–“Whatever” trifecta, the song shows Hart matching Mould’s level of songcraft and laying the groundwork for his own future influence.

Interestingly, beginning with Zen Arcade, Mould made the declaration that every Hüsker album would have individual songwriting credits. Allegedly, the decision was based on Hart’s layout of a Man Size Action album, which excluded individual songwriting credits. It’s worth considering, however, that Mould’s decision followed the recording and release of Metal Circus, nearly half of which was written by Hart, and a strong half at that. “It never occurred to me or the guys in Man Sized Action to include individual songwriting credits,” Hart remembers. “It was never mentioned . . . it was never an issue with that band.”

Individual song credits aside, Zen Arcade Hüsker Dü operating as a peerless force, rarely looking over their shoulders at the mindset(s) behind Land Speed Record, In a Free Land, and Everything Falls Apart. The band’s music was reliably turned a notch to the left, cranked through the roof, and played with an intensity that surpassed most of what was happening in the rapidly stagnating hardcore scene. It seems appropriate that the “hardcore” songs on Zen Arcade either never made it into the live set or were scrapped very shortly after the release of the album. Most of them, penned by Mould and featured, were the kinds of expression that Mould would get down on record once and rarely acknowledge again. The progression away from hardcore becomes more obvious when looking at Metal Circus as being roughly half hardcore, then realizing that Zen’s follow-up, New Day Rising, was the first Hüsker Dü album to eschew the genre altogether.

In Steve Waksman’s fantastic revisionist history of post-1970 rock, This Ain’t the Summer of Love: Conflict and Crossover in Metal and Punk, the author writes:

Many performers who assumed a more open or eclectic approach to their music were compelled to announce a break with hardcore as their sound began to diversify. Hüsker Dü generated tension with their move to a more pop-oriented approach to melody in their songwriting and the increased prominence of the band’s neopsychedelic trappings, which also involved Bob Mould playing more extended solo breaks. Alongside the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade—both released at the same time by SST—marked the moment at which the most musically-exploratory elements of hardcore broke away from the form and were reconstituted into the more open-ended style that came to be labeled indie-rock.

Compare this to Michael Azerrad writing in Our Band Could Be Your Life: “Zen Arcade was Hüsker Dü’s most strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy,” and it had “stretched the hardcore format to its most extreme limits; it was the final word on the genre, a scorching of musical earth.” To hear a “scorching of musical earth” in 1984, however, one would do better to seek out the then-current Septic Death, Siege, Corrosion of Conformity, or Deep Wound, rather than the album that has “Never Talking to You Again” and “Pink Turns to Blue” as standouts. Azerrad closes his sentiment with “any hardcore after Zen Arcade would be derivative, retrograde . . . formulaic.”

But Zen Arcade did not destroy the relevance of future hardcore or preclude it from evolving in other directions, nor did it create indie rock. The truth is, hardcore was simply arriving at a point that many genres reach once saturated with mediocrity or unintentional self-parody. In fact, it could be argued that hardcore enjoyed its first developmental heyday from 1980 until 1984, then had a creative heyday beginning in the late ’80s and lasting through the entire ’90s. The latter time period found one of several national home bases in Minneapolis with the Profane Existence and Havoc labels. Instead of negating hardcore—a nervy assessment, indeed—Zen Arcade instead influenced the next quarter-century of hardcore as well as indie rock.


Anonymous said...

Whew, judging by the excerpt, that book is very poorly written. "The drug death described in the lyrics of 'Pink Turns to Blue' supposedly happens to a girlfriend the protagonist meets during his travels, the title referring to the hue of one’s lips when they suffer such demise." Could that sentence be any clumsier? Although it doesn't matter since most people will have fallen asleep by the time they get to there.
Surely such a great band deserves a better book than this!

Dave said...

I think that the book provides a lot of interesting information for the Husker Du fan. Bob Mould is also currently working on an autobigraphy with Michael Azerrad.