This post has been a loooong-time coming. Hüsker Dü are one of the most important bands in the history of rock, especially considering their vast influence on many subgenres, including punk, hardcore, pop punk, alternative rock, and indie. The band’s short-lived career spawned an incredibly diverse output that extends from underground hardcore to major-label pop. On a personal anecdote, they were one of the major bands in my musical development, and I’m sure many others share in that sentiment. I haven’t gotten around to posting them for so long due to their large output, and simply not knowing where to start to explain the sheer genius that is Zen Arcade, or Metal Circus, or even New Day Rising (among many others). However and unfortunately, one-third of Hüsker Dü has died. Drummer/singer Grant Hart recently passed away, and thus why I’m now inclined to share this incredible legacy he and they left behind.
Hüsker Dü were a three-piece punk/alternative rock band from Saint Paul, Minnesota that formed in 1979 and broke up in 1988. The band consisted of Bob Mould (vocals/guitar), Greg Norton (bass), and Grant Hart (vocals/drums). They started out playing blisteringly fast hardcore punk, with their debut album coming out in early 1982. This was Land Speed Record, a live album (very MC5). Though not their most celebrated release, it does have a few solid songs (“All Tensed Up”, “Gilligan’s Island”), features some of the fastest punk rock ever, and hints at where the band would later go (with some notable melodic moments, as well as Mould’s lead guitar spasms). If anything, it stands as an interesting document in capturing the band’s foundation.
Their first studio album came in 1983, titled Everything Falls Apart. It was released by Reflex Records, which is a label the band founded themselves. They continued to expand on their hardcore origins, though with a stronger emphasis on songwriting, as well as singing (particularly on the title track and their cover of “Sunshine Superman”). This is a solid album from start to finish, and it’s incredible to hear how refined their sound already was, considering this is technically their “early” work. It would be reissued 10 years later as Everything Falls Apart And More, which included early singles such as In A Free Land and Statues.
Later on in 1983, Metal Circus, an EP, was released. This (in my opinion), is the band’s first “great” record. The band really falls into their sound, featuring some deep, melodic bass lines, pumping drums, and Bob Mould’s classic guitar sound (lots of fuzz, reverb/chorus, open chords and lead shredding). Vocally, Mould’s hardcore bark is more impassioned than ever, blending aggression with melody. The songs on this are incredible, with some more fast-paced cuts such as “Deadly Skies” and “First of The Last Calls” retaining the fast-paced punk sound of their early work, but with a new-found emotional direction and melody. In addition, Hart’s melodic pop songwriting chops emerge in full-force, with his contributions “It’s Not Funny Anymore” and “Diane” being some of the strongest and most haunting songs in all of their catalogue. The last track, “Out On A Limb”, hints at the noise rock experimentation that would come out in full-force on their next record. I can’t recommend this EP enough, and consider it is easily one of the best things to not only come out of this band, but out of the 80’s punk rock underground as a whole.
In 1984, the band released their first album on SST, their magnum opus Zen Arcade. I don’t even know where to begin with this album. Almost every track was recorded in one take, which is almost unbelievable upon listening. It’s an hour-plus exploration of sounds taken from hardcore, jazz, noise, psychedelic rock, and folk, even piano interludes. This is nothing short of an ambitious album, which explores every facet of sonic and emotional dynamics imaginable. The album follows a loose narrative involving a young man who runs away from home. I read a comparison somewhere that essentially claimed Zen Arcade is the punk rock version of “The Catcher In The Rye”, and I couldn’t agree more. There are so many highlights on this thing, and listening to it in its entirety is a trip. “Something I Learned Today” is classic Dü, “Never Talking To You Again” is all acoustic and catchy as hell, “I’ll Never Forget You” rips with anger, “Pink Turns To Blue” has a floating eeriness, “Whatever” has a phenomenal chorus, “Turn On The News” stands the test of time, and closer “Reoccuring Dreams” is a nearly 15-minute noise trip. In my opinion, this is one of the best rock/punk albums ever made, and is definitely a contender for one of my favourite albums of all time. I can’t say enough about this record; it floored me when I first heard it, and it still continues to years later. This is a “classic”, and nothing comparable has come before or after.
Following the experimental intensity of Zen Arcade, the band’s follow-up opened up sunny skies. The strong, catchy melodies that popped up in some of their early songs came full-force on 1985’s New Day Rising. Appropriately titled, this marks a massive change in the band, who have shed most of their hardcore foundations in favour of pop melodies, incredible songwriting, and anthemic choruses. “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” and “Celebrated Summer” both appear on here, and are two of the band’s biggest and most well-known songs. They do get a little experimental in the latter half of the album (in a good way), but the first half is a highlight of their alternative rock phase.
Late in 1985 comes Flip Your Wig, which features clean production and pop songs, which is representative of the latter half of the band’s career. This is also the last album they would release on SST before signing to a major label. This album features the band’s (perhaps) most well-known anthem, “Makes No Sense At All”. Both Mould and Hart’s songwriting is on fire here, and the band play with such earnestness that this change in sound comes off as completely natural. The band’s sonic trajectory is incredible, considering how many phases they’ve gone through, and that the same band that recorded Land Speed Record less than 5 years ago are now recording radio-friendly hits, and are just as good (if not better).
Following the success and accessibility of Flip Your Wig, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that they signed with a major label for their next record. Candy Apple Grey came out on Warner Brothers Records. Instead of the band getting Dear You’d, it spawned some of the band’s most successful singles (“Sorry Somehow”, “I Don’t Want To Know If You’re Lonely”). In addition to their usual fuzzy-guitar pop, they incorporate more acoustic elements on this one. The production is noticeably cleaner, and they’re officially more “college rock” than “mosh pit”. Something incredible about Husker Du is their consistency, even 6 albums of all varying sounds in. Their last album as band was put out in 1987, a double-album titled Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Admittedly, 20 tracks of their “new” sound is a little much to take in, and doesn’t pack quite the same punch as its two shorter predecessors. However, the songwriting is still no less stellar than anything they’ve done before, and is a fantastic way for them to go on while still on a positive note.
Following Warehouse, the band broke up after increasing inner tensions and the suicide of their manager. The three members all went their separate ways. Bob Mould formed Sugar, another band that achieved moderate success in the 90’s. He’s also been performing as a solo artist for a long time, and has put out tons of fantastic albums throughout the years. He still plays Husker Du songs at shows. Grant Hart also put out solo material, however was much more sporadic in releases than Mould’s prolific output. He also formed Nova Mob, who were around in the early 90’s. Sadly, as formerly mentioned, he died on September 14, 2017 of cancer. Greg Norton started his own restaurant, though returned to performing about 10 years ago. Though this band hasn’t been active for years, their relevance has never wavered, with countless artists coming after them celebrating what this band has done, citing them as crucial influences and heralded as one of the “greats”. Enjoy.
Also, on one quick note. Numero Group has a major compilation coming out that includes 3 LP’s of early demos and rarities, in addition to a remastered version of Everything Falls Apart and a new version of Land Speed Record (same set, different show). It’s available for streaming now, and can be purchased here.