By 1985, Hüsker Dü reached the point of no return in succumbing to their pop sensibilities
While the original 1970s punk bands retained a wheezing belief they might have a hit, by the time hardcore punk’s brutality and uber-realities really took over the scene by the early ‘80s, it was a joke to even suggest commercial viability, even seeming like a traitorous act.
But along came the Minneapolis scene of that mid-decade, and with it incredibly informed and fertile songwriters whose sheer talent wasn’t going to be contained inside the pit for long.
Paul Westerberg (Replacements), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), John Freeman (Magnolias), and of course Grant Hart and Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü had the mixed fortune of being far from the quickly coalescing hardcore hotbeds (DC, L.A., NYC). They didn’t initially have the kind of DIY support system of those scenes, but neither did they have the increasingly oppressive HC musical rules to restrain them. So if Hüsker Dü wanted to cover the Byrds, Soul Asylum wanted to talk about Hank Williams, or the Replacements really liked the DeFranco Family, so be it. Who cares what you’re doing when five months of your life isn’t spent navigating the mosh pit, but down in a dank basement drinking shit beer ‘cause it’s still snowing outside.
Initially, Hüsker Dü was quite powerfully a party to those early hardcore rules. They declared themselves the fastest band in the world around the time of their pummeling debut LP, Land Speed Record (1981). Their early days were lyrically ladled with mostly violently angry screeds, though you’d be hard-pressed to quote them correctly. Then again, Hart and Mould’s desperate, mammothly wailing vocals would’ve made directions on how to plant marigolds sound like the standard Reagan apocalypse warnings of the time.
As was the want of the bands of that Twin Cities scene, Hüsker Dü quickly got that out of their system (if not the speed that fueled it), and were soon penning songs with grabbable tempos and hooks. And by their third album, Zen Arcade (1984), they’d already leaped to “Important Double-LP Gatefold-Sleeve Concept Album” territory. They must’ve felt they got that out of their system too, as by the next year, the band dove head first into their poppier predilections, and never really looked back.
VIDEO: Hüsker Dü at Love Hall in Philadelphia, PA, 12/16/83
Hardcore then was moving into its set genre phase, while Hüsker Dü was just being a band, getting better as musicians from their endless touring, and honing in on what they did best. Honed in at its height on this mid-period pinnacle – New Day Rising is a perfect blend of the early noise-bleeding energy with the latterday ringing chord comets.
The band’s themes were moving more pointedly into personal relationship terrain (“If I Told You,” “Perfect Example,” “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About”), and away from political affronts, though the band had always showed a more seasoned lyrical compunction. Nevertheless, as in the domestic squabble lament, “I Apologize,” Mould makes a line like, “Take out the garbage maybe, but the dishes don’t get done,” sound like a bull-horned, lookout tower warning of incoming fighter jets.
There was an intriguing songwriting conundrum within the band that points to its ultimate commercial miscommunication – “intriguing” never being a term embraced in music industry marketing offices. Grant Hart’s songwriting – especially evidenced here on “Terms of Psychic Warfare,” “Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill,” and “Books About UFOs” – was classic in its structure and hooks. He is as good a pop-rock songwriter as the decade produced. But on a visceral level, he was a flailing beast. On stage, he was all whipping-around hair, linebacker arms, and near-crying screaming. Then in interviews or bar-bumped into, he was quiet shy or kind of a grouchy jerk.
Whereas, Bob Mould – still intense, but more intermittently aggressive onstage – came across as the more thoughtful, serious one, a somewhat more approachable fellow (check the infamously weird, 1987 Joan Rivers interview below).
VIDEO: Hüsker Dü on The Joan Rivers Show 1987
Conversely, Mould’s songs broke a bit from classic structures. He was the impetus for the band’s odd sonic experiments (here, the droning “Powerline” and the Residents-meets-Flipper, “How to Skin a Cat”). But over it all zoomed his scorched-earth guitar distortion that almost single-handedly crammed and pulled hardcore’s root riff-bludgeoning into a cloud-bound ride that influenced everything from Seattle grunge to British shoegaze going forward – but in 1985 was still just noisy as hell.
Every masterful Mould move was solidified on the album’s apex, “Celebrated Summer.” A stuttered opening, a constantly ascending and descending riff, a solo that beat any heart-tug power pop effort from the recently faded “skinny tie” moment that Hüsker Dü helped decimate, and a yearning vocal joust against its own lyrical deconstruction of late summer fun.
“Do you remember when the first snowfall fell? When summer barely had a snowball’s chance in hell?” For a rust belt kid like me, that line knifed right into your chest. As we all know in the Midwest, it might be sunny and warm today, but it’ll get cold again soon, and then sunny, but cold again for longer…. The summer announced at the top of the tune ends in under four minutes. But god, that solo into the acoustic coda, that races away from you like watching your friend’s car drive into the horizon on a late summer night, still smiling from the day’s fun that you’re already trying to recall…
During Hüsker Dü’s lifetime, they held that unenviable place as being unsolicited trailblazers. Even their aggressively indifferent anti-look – perfectly embodied in bassist Greg Norton’s era-eschewing mustache and short shorts, not to mention his understated, underrated playing – had the band out-shlubbing even its Twin Cities couture-less cohorts.
Hüsker Dü did the work of crafting hardcore punk’s anti-intentions into more accessible production styles (something most fans agree they always struggled with), while remaining a college radio constant. As it turns out though, on punk’s admittedly sliding scale, Hüsker Dü was successful, certainly critically, and they sold more than any SST band ever had. The majors came calling, as usual, just about the time the band was nearly spent from working so hard and on the precipice of breaking up.
Of course Hüsker Dü being Hüsker Dü, they still cranked out three more great albums (including another double-LP) in two years, while touring like crazy before splitting apart like the beautiful, multi-hued starbursts in their last album’s (Warehouse: Songs and Stories, 1987) artwork – burning bright and leaving cool trails, but disintegrating off into the distance anyway. On New Day Rising’s cover, the dirty dogs are just starting to look off into a new sunrise, or is that a sunset…?