Tales From The Drop Box Episode 73 is Part 3 in the occasional series of bands from my past that were influential in more than just a blast of good sounding music. Hüsker Dü represented both a discernible change in the shape of punk to come and a soundtrack to an important transition period in my life from college student to adult.
While it would be fair to say that I was enamored with the first wave of punk rock emerging from England, I was equally interested in the offerings of the New York original variant highlighted by the Ramones, Television, Richard Hell & The Voidoids, etc. However, as the punk movement was dead by the end of ’76 in the U.K and post-punk had collapsed on its own weight by the end ‘81, the aftermath of punk’s alleged demise was producing exciting music in Canada and the U.S.. Variants of punk rock were thriving and a new virulent strain of punk rock was taking hold on the west coast and moving towards middle America. Hardcore.
Living in Vancouver B.C. during this period exposed me to all types of new music and I recall going to tons of shows in various shit holes such as the Smilin’ Buddha, Teamster Local 31 Hall, and a number of other less than attractive rooms around town. I was also lucky to catch glimpses of videos played on Nite Dreems and Soundproof (such as D.O.A.’s “The Prisoner” and the Young Canadians (formerly the K-Tels) “Hawaii”) which provided a glimpse of the chaos experienced at the live shows. During this period, the Vancouver punk rock scene was attracting a number of U.S. punk bands to play in town and these bands had started drifting north of the border. With that drift there was a cross-over of the traditional punk rock/pop punk of the Vancouver scene and an increase in the number of bands playing the harder, faster punk rock variant where “loud fast rules” i.e. where speed was the guiding principle.
While D.O.A. (whose album Hardcore ’81 is the first to name the variant and really is the Rosetta stone for Hardcore), the Subhumans, Stiff Little Fingers and the Dead Kennedys all played a role in my musical education and experience, there were a number of bands from the U.S. including the Minutemen, Germs, The Fartz, The Plugz, The Dils, X, Black Flag and the Avengers, that all played an important role in keeping punk rock from stagnating and dying. These bands were revolutionary.
Where does Hüsker Dü’s fit in? Hüsker Dü’s importance is measured by the band’s impact on the punk rock musical form at a point in the evolution of punk rock where, if a dramatic change in the musical form did not occur, that punk rock’s existence was threatened. This is a pretty dramatic statement. However, looking at the state of punk rock at the time, with a huge number of bands just bashing it out as fast as could be played (including Hüsker Dü), the music was no longer connecting with the core listeners. That is, the mindless commitment of many bands on the scene to “loud fast rules” threatened not only Hüsker Dü’s relevance, but the punk rock scene’s relevance as well. Bands just couldn’t play faster. They also all could not be political. Not all bands could conform to Maximumrocknroll’s (aka MMR) strict guidelines as what it meant to be punk and their self pro-claimed sole arbiter of what it meant to be punk rock. Hüsker Dü’s change in scope and direction with the release of Zen Arcade was a critical and defining moment in punk rock history.
How did it all start for me? I spotted a record by this band with a weird ass name on the wall at Odyssey Imports (although it may have been Collector’s RPM as my memory has dimmed a little with age) and the cover was compelling: U.S. flags draped on top of several coffins. I also noted that it was on Mike Watt of the Minutemen’s label, New Alliance. Land Speed Record has 17 songs and clocks in at 26:35! If you eliminate the last song “Data Control” which clocks in at just over 5 minutes that 16 songs in 21 minutes. Whew!
What the @% was Hüsker Dü? What mattered to me at the time was that the music was loud, fast and ruled because that’s where my interest lay. Buried under layers of noise were Bob Mould and Grant Hart’s wry observations of life and relationships and the human condition. The lyric sheet helped. However, what struck me on Land Speed Record were the brief melodic “pop” moments along the way. There were standout songs, but it wasn’t until I saw Hüsker Dü live at the Smilin’ Buddha in July 1981 that I was hooked. I bought everything I could get my hands on, and as the Dü evolved into a hardcore pop amalgam I was still there. As new bands arrived on the scene and my musical interests began to evolve, I was looking for new sounds in the punk landscape. Then as George Orwell predicted 1984 was politically a charged year but this year also marked a revolution in punk rock. In 1984 there were 3 records that altered the punk rock landscape for me: The Replacements released Let It Be (October 2, 1984), the Minutemen released Double Nickels on a Dime (July 1984) and Hüsker Dü released Zen Arcade (July 1984).
Zen Arcade was magical in its alteration of not only the Hüsker Dü sound but of what it meant to be punk rock. Here was an anti-punk record played by a band that previously was billed as one of the fastest punk rock bands – ever. Zen Arcade literally destroyed all punk rock barriers. It was clear by this third record that Hüsker Dü was seeking new territory and escaping punk conventions, and like the minutemen were incorporating not only their influences into their work but creating a new sonic force. Zen Arcade is genius only in context of what came before it in the punk rock pantheon. Sure, Hüsker Dü’s records have flaws. Zen Arcade is not a perfect album. However, as a piece of art it is revolutionary.
Bob Mould (g/v), Grant Hart (d/v), and Greg Norton (b), like the Jam, were a three piece band who played with such force and wrote about things that were not part of the punk norm. They wrote about feelings, about people who died, about life. And they, at least on the surface, appeared to be normal. They wore the same clothes I did and had regular haircuts. They were a garage band that had found the sonic switch in Mould’s guitar manipulations and awkward vocals and Hart and Norton were perfect foils in their roles in anchoring the sonic experiments.
As a fan, it was sad to see the breakup of the band on December 11, 1987 following a show at the Blue Note in Columbia, MO. The sixth record, the much maligned Warehouse: Songs And Stories, however was a double length patchwork of good and some terrible songs, but their manager David Savoy’s suicide on the eve of beginning the tour to support the record was according to both Hart and Mould the beginning of the end.
Apparently, Mould & Hart were not getting along….
I saw Hüsker Dü for a second time at the New York Theater in October 1985 with Nomeansno as the opener. That show was as loud as any show I’d ever experienced, it was ragged, and it was awesome. They were at the peak of their power and they player a number of the songs on the list below. They had played Europe for most of the summer and the set list was pretty locked in and the band was tight even though the sound in the New York Theater was terrible.
In keeping with the format of the prior special episodes of Tales From The Dropbox, this episode is not a “best of” list. I have no idea what that list would look like. This episode is truly a compilation of my favorite tracks and, I hope, a good introduction for those of you who didn’t get to experience Hüsker Dü when they were among the best bands in the nation, and for those of you who still do remember, hopefully a chance to revisit those memories anew.
Some of the information below came from a very complete Hüsker Dü discography compiled and curated by Paul. You should really check it out! http://www.thirdav.com/hd_discog/00_intro.html
Finally, I have included some goodies in this episode including some demos, outtakes, and live performances to spice things up a bit. Of all of the podcasts I’ve put out over the past couple of years you really should play this one loud, at full volume, because I think that was how the band intended all of these songs to be heard. They certainly played them loud when they played live.
Here is what you’ll find in Episode #73: (N.B. I put these in order from my favorite to my most favorite!) :
15 “Sorry Somehow” – From Candy Apple Grey, Hüsker Dü’s fifth album (and 4th in two years) released on March 17, 1986. Although Hüsker Dü’s major label debut, it is uncompromising and reveals the continued change in both song writing, structure, and sound that the band first hinted at on Zen Arcade. It is easy to tell that this is a Grant Hart track, because it truly a pop song. It was also released as a single in early November 1986.
14 “Turn It Around” – From Warehouse Songs and Stories released January 19, 1987 on Warner Brothers Records and Hüsker Dü’s 6th and final record. “Turn It Around” is the first track on side 4 and not only reveals the importance of Hüsker Dü’s members record collections to their songwriting but also that Bob Mould was truly transparent in expressing his feelings in the songs he wrote. “Turn It Around” is Mould’s lament about a failing relationship (I wonder which one?):
I may not be anything
And you might be the biggest thing
But the biggest thing to me
Is making this thing work for life
We gotta turn it around
Before it goes into the ground
Apparently, Hart was not listening. This track also reminds me of Stiff Little Fingers in both production and song structure.
13 “Diane (Live)” – Originally on the Metal Circus EP released in October 1983 on SST Records. When I first heard “Diane” I was a little bit overwhelmed by how creepy this track was. The opening lyrics:
Hey little girl, do you need a ride?
Well, I’ve got room in my wagon why don’t you hop inside
We could cruise down Robert Street all night long
But I think I’ll just rape you and kill you instead
Diane, Diane, Diane
This song was compelling. I later found out that the song concerns the abduction, rape and murder of West St. Paul waitress Diane Edwards by Joseph Ture in 1980. This version is from a live performance at the Euphoria Tavern Portland Oregon July 13, 1981.
12 “Can’t See You Anymore (Demo)” – From the Northern Lights Demos recorded in late 1979, recorded by Paul Mansfield. This is a studio demo and has not been officially released. There is a vinyl version bootleg of these demos including the additional Paul Mansfield demos containing the same material in a different running order called “Savage Young Du.”
11 “Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope (Live)” – On Warehouse, Songs and Stories released January 19, 1987 on Warner Brothers Records. This version is from a bootleg entitled “Up In The Air: Studio Outtakes (1984-1987)” released in 1996 which appears to collect several bootleg with tracks from New Day Rising, Zen Arcade and Warehouse into a single compilation including the “Warehouse Rehearsal” bootleg (which was an audience recording of a rehearsal) and “Warehouse Rough Mixes” onto a single CD.
10 “Do You Remember? (Demo)” – From the Northern Lights Demos, this track also appeared on the reissue of Everything Falls Apart (originally released on Reflex Records in January 1983 and Hüsker Dü’s 1st album) entitled “Everything Falls Apart and More” released in 1993 on Rhino Records.
9 “Terms of Psychic Warfare” – Written by Hart, From New Day Rising released on January 22, 1985 on SST Records and Hüsker Dü’s 3rd studio album. Written by Grant Hart. Now this is not your typical punk rock lyric:
Now all the silver you can steal
Can’t buy a piece of what I feel
It’s sad, but the means, they just don’t justify the ends
To be forever haunted by the ghosts of all your friends
Painful, yeah, that’s the way you’ve chosen it to be
C’mon, babe, can’t you think of anyone besides me?
8 “Statues” – written by Hüsker Dü. This is the full length version running 8:45. The 7” single “Statues” bw “Amusement” was originally released in January 1981 on Reflex Records and is Hüsker Dü’s first official release. The single version was 4:14 in length. 2500 copies were made and originals are selling for over $150.00. It is widely bootlegged. This long version was released “officially” on the Everything Falls Apart and More compilation released on Rhino in 1993.
7 “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” – written by Hart, the original version of this track appeared on Candy Apple Grey released on March 17, 1986 on Warner Brothers Records and Hüsker Dü’s 5th album. This version is from a live performance at the Messepalast Vienna Austria on June 14, 1987.
6 “Turn on The News” – written by Hart this track is from Zen Arcade released in July 1984 on SST records and Hüsker Dü’s 3rd album. This is the second to last track on the record and portends the end of the Zen Arcade story. The next track is a 13:45 jam entitled “Recurring Dreams.”
5 “Eight Miles High” – released as a single on January 21, 1984 this was recorded during the Zen Arcade sessions. This cover of The Byrds 1966 classic thrust Hüsker Dü into the spotlight as they re-wrote this tune into their own image. This was released in advance of Zen Arcade in July, and the recognition the Husker Du was evolving as a band.
4 “Makes No Sense At All” – written by Mould, this is Track 3 on Flip Your Wig released on September 14, 1985 on SST. Hüsker Dü’s 4th record and the first album produced by the band. Flip Your Wig was also SST’s best selling record of all time at time of release selling approximately 50,000 copies in 4 months.
3 “Real World” – written by Mould the track is from the Metal Circus EP released in October 1983 on SST Records. This also appears on SST’s promo of bands The Blasting Concept released in late 1983.
2 “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” – written by Hart appears on New Day Rising. Some people hate this track because of its conventional and somewhat clichéd lyrics, but that’s not why I like it. I love the guitar and the big hooks that give the song an immediacy and likeability that is instantly recognizable – pure pop disguised as punk. This version is from a show at the Fillmore in San Francisco on April 29, 1987.
1 “Pink Turns To Blue” – Track 17 on Zen Arcade, this is also written by Hart about a young woman who becomes addicted to drugs, overdoses and dies. For me, this track captures Hüsker Dü’s genius in one song – emotional, compelling, blending perfectly hardcore and pop. It captures the Buzzcocks blueprint and spins it into a new orbit. It is my favorite Hüsker Dü song.
There’s a girl who lives on heaven hill I go up to her cabin still she keeps a lantern lit for me and a bottle up on her mantelpiece . . . No more rope and too much dope, she’s lying on the bed angels pacing, gently placing roses ’round her head and I don’t know what to do now that pink has turned to blue.