Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #54: Hüsker Dü (And Related Artists)

Note: For an index of all articles in this second “Favorite Songs” series, click here. For a summary of all artists covered in the original series, click here.

Who They Were: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Bob Mould, singer-songwriter-drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton were the power trio to end all power trios in the heyday of ’80s independent rock, emerging from Minnesota’s Twin Cities with a ferociously over-amped take on post-punk tropes, styles and sounds. Formed in 1979 after Mould left his Upstate New York home to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, and named after a Scandinavian board game that felt ubiquitous through television commercials in the late 1970s, Hüsker Dü released their first single, “Statues”/”Amusement,” in 1981, and were highly prolific over their short run, finally imploding and dissolving after their 1987 double-album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. After launching their career on a variety of independent record labels (more on that below), Hüsker Dü were one of the first American post-punk bands to sign with a major label (Warner Bros.) in the mid-’80s, after the music industry realized that there was money to be made in creating an “alternative” or “college rock” idiom to add critical cache to their corporate offerings. Mould and Hart were both prolific songwriters, and the group’s demise was tied to conflicts between the pair about creative control of the group, compounded by Hart’s worsening issues with drug addiction. After their break-up, Norton went into the restaurant business, and Hart and Mould continued on as solo artists, with Mould also serving in the Hüsker Dü-reminiscent band Sugar (which featured drummer Malcolm Travis of Human Sexual Response) and Hart also fronting Nova Mob, having shifted from drums to guitar as his primary instrument in his post-Hüsker days. Sadly, Grant Hart died of cancer in 2017, ending any of the long-running speculation (and hopeful thinking) associated with a possible group reunion.

When I First Heard Them: In pre-Internet days, one of the best ways to keep abreast of emergent music that I liked was by forging attractions to specific record labels that offered high-quality releases by bands that I admired and/or adored, presuming that the new and unknown groups on those labels might be as good as the heroes I already worshipped. Two of my favorite labels in those days were SST (home of Black Flag and The Minutemen) and Alternative Tentacles (Dead Kennedys, Tragic Mulatto, etc.), and as it happens, Hüsker Dü released records with both of those labels in their pre-Warner Bros. days. I am pretty sure that the first thing I heard by Hüsker Dü was the song “Real World” on a 1983 SST sampler disc called The Blasting Concept. I liked them enough to explore further, acquiring other early singles, EPs, and albums, but it was their ambitious Summer 1984 double-album release on SST, Zen Arcade, that really pushed me into being a serious fanboy of the group. It remains one of my all-time favorite records.

Why I Love Them: I’m going to reprise lightly-edited text that I wrote after Hart’s death to explain why the Hüskers moved me so much, once upon a time. Here ’tis: When I think of monumental moments in my musical listening career, side one of Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade (1984) was among the most surprising and transformative. I was a hardcore kid and devoted SST Records follower/buyer, and there were certain rules and sound and structures that you expected from bands signed to that label, including the Hüskers. The first two songs on Zen Arcade (“Something I Learned Today” and “Broken Home, Broken Heart,” both composed by co-leader Bob Mould) complied with these expectations as fine examples of the razor thin, trebly, high speed, screaming, all electric onslaught that SST generally delivered to its listeners, platter after platter. But then came Hart’s “Never Talking To You Again,” at which point, everything changed. Acoustic guitars? Melodic vocals? Wistful sentiments? From America’s erstwhile fastest hardcore band? Can they do that?!?! Can I like it?!?!? By the end of that record’s first side, Hart, Mould and Norton also delivered percussion heavy ragas, backtracked guitar meltdowns, chanting, Bo Diddly beats and more . . . and there were three more sides to go after that, including piano interludes, Hart’s balls-to-the-wall rocker “Turn On The News,” and a 14-minute long instrumental freakout to end the experience. Zen Arcade was a critical success, and it could have been a commercial success, except that SST did not have the production capacity to meet the demand for it, which directly contributed to the group’s jump to the big leagues a couple of years later. I wasn’t wild about the over-long Warehouse as the final studio document of the Hüskers’ short, bright career, and as much as I wanted to like Hart’s and Mould’s later solo releases, they frankly didn’t move me as much as their Hüsker Dü work did, with one extremely notable exception: Mould’s 2008 District Line album, which I consider to be a stylistically-brilliant and highly-unique techno-guitar masterpiece. I include a couple of tracks from it in my “Favorite Songs” list below, hence the “And Related Artists” tag in this post’s title.

#10. “Shelter Me,” from District Line (2008), credited to Bob Mould

#9. “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” from Candy Apple Grey (1986)

#8. “Somewhere,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#7. “Diane,” from Metal Circus (1983)

#6. “Makes No Sense At All,” from Flip Your Wig (1985)

#5. “Sorry Somehow,” from Candy Apple Grey (1986)

#4. “Newest Industry,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#3. “Again and Again,” from District Line (2008), credited to Bob Mould

#2. “Never Talking to You Again,” from Zen Arcade (1984)

#1. “Celebrated Summer,” from New Day Rising (1985)

4 thoughts on “Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists (Series Two) #54: Hüsker Dü (And Related Artists)

  1. Pingback: What’s Up in the Neighborhood, October 6, 2021 – Chuck The Writer

  2. The Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” is my favorite album of 2011 primarily due to “Dear Rosemary”, a power-pop gem co-written by Mould. Not even a week after getting that album, I learned why Dave Grohl gushed over Mould and Husker Du and “Zen Arcade” became one of my favorite records ever. I hope Grant Hart’s enjoying some well-deserved teenage adulation up in heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really does blow my mind how very, very, VERY good “Zen Arcade” is all these years on. And how WEIRD it is, too, on some fronts . . . musically, of course, but also just the idea of a hardcore-flavored band on SST at that time attempting a (gasp) CONCEPT RECORD was head-exploding even before I spun the thing!

      Like

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