Hüsker Dü

March 6, 2012 at 10:45 pm 6 comments

Husker Du (l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart & Bob Mould)

Husker Du (l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart & Bob Mould)

The 80s revival is pretty much over, right? The hip and not-so-hip retro-mongers all seem to have their sights set squarely upon the early 90s, at this point. So what’s left? Mainly the impression that the 80s was an era of synthetic textures and vapid consumerism/body-image obsession (so unlike our own time – ha!) From electroclash to hypnagogic pop, 80s revivalism has painted a pretty one-dimensional picture of the era.

But how about what this here blog likes to call The Earnest 80s? There certainly was a major obsession with organic earthiness, spiritual soulfulness and workmanlike authenticity during that decade. Think how huge Springsteen and U2 got.

Well, one element of the Earnest 80s has certainly been revived, in the mainstream at least – the faux-sophisticated faux-soul of The Style Council, Simply Red etc. People will try to tell you that the success of Adele and Amy Winehouse has something to do with a 60s soul revival but it doesn’t. This kind of earnest-white-person take on 60s soul is definitively 80s. In the 80s, this sound was tied to what Simon Reynolds called “designer soul-cialism”. This was essentially a watered-down take on Scritti Politti’s mixture of leftist ideology and knowing soul revivalism. The 21st-century revival-of-a-revival version rather predictably drops the politics and intellectual pretensions in favour of pure nostalgia-for-nostalgia.

But what about the relatively hip indie sector? Well, the equivalent of the Adele phenomenon would be the mild interest among some committed retro rockers for the paisley underground. And there’s certainly a few bands out there with a distinct whiff of The Replacements (who were, perhaps, the indie E Street Band). It’s significant that Husker Du’s boozy Minneapolis neighbours seem to have the greater share of the cred with youngsters – it sort of mirrors the pop mainstream’s party-hard dogma . The Du…. well, that’s a thornier, more complex proposition altogether.

And so, Hukser Du languishes in relative obscurity. Relative, certainly, compared to the centrality to – one might even say hegemony over –  the alt music scene this band enjoyed during its heyday. It’s hard to imagine now how massively critically acclaimed earnest-80s rockers like Husker Du and The Go Betweens used to be. Who listens to The Go Betweens these days? Make no mistake, though: In the mid 80s, Bob Mould (guitar/vocals), Grant Hart (drums/vocals) and Greg Norton (bass) were The Saviours of Rock, at least according to the British music press.

But ask a music connoisseur – even one who lived through and was intimately involved with that period – about Husker Du and you’ll probably be greeted with a blank stare. Flick through a book about the alt 80s and you’ll certainly find a few mentions of the Du (especially in Reynolds’ Blissed Out and Bring the Noise) but nothing even remotely in proportion to how important the band was considered to be at the time. The same might be said of The Cure but while Fat Bob Smith and co were always popular, they were never nearly as critically acclaimed as Fat Bob Mould and co. So, why has Husker Du fallen so far out of favour?

Perhaps because Mould, Hart and Norton esquires don’t fit in. They don’t fit in with our view of the 80s, they don’t fit in with our view of “interesting” music, they don’t really fit in anywhere. In their early days, they may have stuck out like a sore thumb – a distinctly non-funky hardcore trio who dug The Mamas & the Papas – but they did so in a way that was useful or interesting for music critics, precisely because they were a massive affront to designer soul-cialism etc. Mould and Hart were, in many ways, the ultimate 80s outsiders – chubby, scruffy, gay, Midwestern punks who declared a love of 60s folk-pop a few years before it came back into fashion.

In his book Husker Du: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, Andrew Earles insists that their sexuality was irrelevant to their music. But this simply isn’t true – these were guys who were equally out-of-place in the gay and straight communities. In Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s indispensable book on US indie rock in the 80s, Hart is quoted as saying that being gay “just served to be even one more thing that we were bad-ass about”. In other words, they were forced to accept and channel their outsider status from the get-go – and sexuality was a not insignificant aspect of this. (Another was geography. As Azerrad notes, they weren’t even actually from Minneapolis. Norton again: “We were St. Paul people, which was like East Germans. So we even had to live that down”.)

So, for many 80s music critics, raised on the 70s underground (i.e. the hipper end of prog), punk and post-punk punk, Husker Du  must have seemed like just the right kind of misfits. In his review of the band’s underrated swansong album Warehouse: Songs & Stories (1987, “Friend, You’ve Got to Fall” might be just be the #besthuskerdusong), Reynolds notoriously concluded: “My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in rock noise… The return of ROCK.” In other words, Husker Du’s wall of impassioned sound was the perfect antidote to second-generation/depoliticized new pop, white funk and designer soul-cialism.

But wasn’t it just the other side of the same coin; another example of why the Earnest 80s basically sucked? Maybe not. In the same review, Reynolds noted: “Husker Du don’t belong with the new authentics… there’s no intimacy, no sweat, nothing earthy. Husker Du are making a monument, a mountain, a glacier, out of rock again, rather than burrowing along at the grass roots.” With Husker Du, adolescent anomie and Regan-era despair were pushed as far as they would go; to the point of becoming psychedelic . As Reynolds said: “Noise as metaphor for inner turmoil and its transfiguration.” This is why the 60s/psych influence was crucial and it found it’s ultimate expression not only on the double concept album Zen Arcade (1984) but even more tellingly on the legendary cover of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High”.

The key was excess. Shrieking in the face of sub-Springsteen rootedness and white-funk tastefulness, Flip Your Wig (1985), in particular, rammed everything into the red. The only album with the production values really necessary to truly communicate Mould’s virtuosic shower-of-sparks guitar style (live videos suggest he could play hell-for-leather solos and ear-strafing power chords at the same time), Flip Your Wig is pretty overwhelming: almost every song is insanely catchy; just hearing the guitar is like staring directly at the sun; surplus reverb floods the vocals, clotting the frequency range for good and filling every void with life-affirming NOISE.

Even at their catchiest, Husker Du’s songs were astoundingly cathartic. Of the band’s two songwriters, Hart seemed like the hippy-dippy character – Mould came across a lot angrier and more hard-bitten. But boy could Grant Hart ever shriek when he wanted to. On one of the band’s best, most anthemic songs, “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” from New Day Rising (1985), Hart’s vocals get increasingly raw and crazed with each verse, ending up as an insane barrage of seemingly wordless vocalizing.

Basically, this music is fucking great. But next to nobody seems to care anymore. That is, in and of itself, a shame. But there’s more to it than that because the world actually needs Husker Du right now – or, at least, it needs a Husker Du. Contemporary electronic dance-pop has achieved complete mainstream global domination – a sound as sterile and vacuous as anything the 80s turned out. And the only alternative would appear to be Adele or whoever. Meanwhile, the smarter critics continue to confuse process with aesthetics, sticking rigidly to the dogmatic belief that electronics = future, guitars = equal past. In fact, most of the best and most innovative music of the past 20 years has been based on channeling rock ends through electronic (specifically, digital) means – My Bloody Valentine and Fennesz providing the obvious high points.

So, this here blog isn’t proposing another Return to Rock, particularly in the mainstream. Indeed, we should be glad that pop radio and video music stations have finally rid themselves of the blight that was corporate emo rock – a style of music that is fundamentally sub-Du. It’s worth pointing out at this stage, though, that while “emotional hardcore” is a decent-enough partial description of the band’s sound, Husker Du was not emocore per se. Emo was (quite self-consciously) started in Washington DC, around the time that HD was at its peak, by acts like Embrace and Rites of Spring – the bands that became Fugazi. The DC kids seemed to distrust the Du boys for being wannabe rock stars; decadent aesthetes with ideas above their station; fundamentally not earnest enough.

In any case, the Husker Du sound was more expansive (and druggy, frankly) than early emo and certainly more cerebral and experimental than corporate emo. Sure, 21st century emo/screamo was often quite extreme but it was (Is? Are labels still releasing that stuff?) essentially as rigid and airless as the dance-pop that replaced it on the airwaves. Husker Du’s sound, by contrast, was downright oceanic – a swelling, gushing torrent of rage, angst and empathy; majestically incoherent and occasionally pushed to the point of abstraction; a psychedelic head-rush compounded by a hardcore sucker punch. It’s this mixture of bliss and brutality, structure and expansiveness that the likes of MBV and Fennesz took to the next level in the subsequent two decades (something that the members of Husker Du proved unable to achieve in their own later careers.)

The fact remains: Husker Du’s music continues to deserve your attention because it’s an object lesson in the depth, focus and magic missing from music today – and because it’s quite simply bloody brilliant.

Entry filed under: avant rock, MP3s. Tags: , .

Cory Arcangel – Arnold Schoenberg, op. 11 – II – Cute Kittens connect_icut – “Imperial Alabaster (Long Version)” (CSAF) Video

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. CARL  |  March 7, 2012 at 12:28 am

    EXCELLENT STUFF!

    Yeah, I am getting more Du friendly by the year myself, actually, from not being much of a fan at the time.

    any chance of a guest cross-post on the 80s blog Faces on Posters?

    Reply
    • 2. Biggie Samuels  |  March 11, 2012 at 12:10 am

      Yes, I’d like to do that, Carl. Email me, so that we can discuss the details.

      Reply
  • 3. The Duke of Stratosphear  |  March 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    Might I suggest that Hüsker Dü’s slide into relative obscurity is in part down to the record labels? AFAI none of their LPs have ever had more than a bog-standard release on CD; in terms of production values, the post-SST stuff in particular sounds, dare I say it, a bit lame (doubtless better on vinyl!). Surely they must be ripe for remastering and, perhaps more importantly, repromotion?

    Warners may have flogged the Smiths horse dry (mixed metaphor entirely deliberate) but they remain credible and, well, THERE. Reissue, repackage, re-evaluate the songs etc.

    Failing that, maybe HD should do a Pixies and reform…although 4AD had done a pretty good job of making sure their legacy endured…so go figure.

    Reply
    • 4. Biggie Samuels  |  March 11, 2012 at 12:19 am

      SST has done a good job of keeping the stuff in print on vinyl and CD but the material would really benefit from a remasters-with-bonus-tracks treatment. The Du would probably have to wrestle the rights back, to make that happen.

      It is extraordinary how badly recorded Warehouse is, given how accomplished the songwriting is and the fact that it came out on a major label. Not sure how much a remaster would help but they could at least give it a try. It’s also weird that Warner has done a vinyl reissue of Candy Apple Grey but not of Warehouse.

      I think the resurgence of interest would have to come before the reformation. However, Bob and Grant did get back together briefly, at a benefit for that guy from Soul Asylum.

      Reply
  • 5. ponda  |  March 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    Great post. and long overdu! (sorry) husker du was such a great band in so many ways…and zen arcade is a masterpiece, hardcore’s version of the white album. they were outsiders, even in an outsider scene.

    coupla other thoughts….japandroids remind me at times of the du. not in terms of the lyrical psychodramas that the huskers concocted, but more in terms of the sound.

    and talk about synchronicity – i just listened to 16 lovers lane the other night!

    Reply

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