Monday, March 17, 2008

Husker Du

(The first in what threatens to be a series on me reminiscing about bands from my youth, unless it's not).
One of the few band shirts that I still own is a Husker Du shirt. It features the cover of their Land Speed Record album. It is a black and white picture of soldiers accompanying the flag-clad coffins back of the first eight soldiers to die in Vietnam. I got it when I was fifteen through a catalogue I ordered from the back of a Rolling Stone. I was attracted to the jagged logo of the band, the harshness of the photo, and the fact that it seemed both a critique of the horrors of war, and in a weird way a tribute to my father, who was a Vietnam vet.

The album came out on SST in 1981, and is from a live show. It is 26 minutes of blistering hardcore punk. It took me about ten listens before I could discern things like melodies and song breaks. They did the songs one after another, Ramones style, and they blend into a deafening blur. There are tracks that deal with Stooges-esque teenage boredom and angst (“All Tensed Up,” “Don’t Try to Call,” “I’m Not Interested”), songs that deal with the violence and paranoia of the era (“Push the Button,” “Guns at My School,” “Data Control,”) and even some humor (their cover of Gilligan’s Island features the line “I wanna fuck Ginger under a tree”). In short, it’s fucking awesome.

Husker Du formed in Minneapolis in the late seventies, and were comprised of Bob Mould on vocals and guitar, Grant Hart on drums and guitar, and Greg Norton on bass and mustache. Mould and Hart shared songwriting duties, and typically didn’t collaborate – Hart sang the songs he wrote, and Mould sang his contributions. They had several heavy, melodic hardcore albums in the early 80s, before toning down their hardcore sound into something that became the archetype of grunge, and later, emo. They were one of the originators of the melodic punk, loud/quiet/loud sound perfected by the Pixies and Nirvana and capitalized on by thousands of imitators.

In 1984 they released Zen Arcade, a double album punk rock opera that told the story of a runaway who joins the hari krishnas. Fans were pissed that they were writing acoustic songs, but the album remains seminal and revered. It taught a lot of young punk and indie musicians to think big, and helped inspire other classic double albums like the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Zen Arcade also contains one of my favorite Husker Du songs, the abrasive, chaotic “I Will Never Forget You,” an out of control rant at a former friend (or lover?).

Zen Arcade and its follow up New Day Rising got a lot of critical acclaim, and major label attention. Husker Du ended up signing to Warner Brothers and releasing Candy Apple Grey in 1986. This is my favorite album by the trio, and to me it sounds like a punk rock Beatles. It starts of with the harsh “Crystal,” in which Mould sings “Crystal glass lined up in a row/ Watched over by the GI Joes/ Sugar in your coffee doesn’t feel quite right/ Feeling the effects for a hundred thousand nights.” It also has the single “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely,” the psychadelic pop of Eiffel Tower High”, and the deeply depressing “Too Far Down” and “Hardly Getting Over It.” It’s the perfect realization of their punk background and pop leanings, and I like it better than the meandering Zen Arcade.

By this time the band was at each other’s throats, and after recording 1987’s “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” they broke up. Warehouse is yet another double album, but this time the punk sheen was gone, replaced by pop songs that I never found very interesting.

Part of it has to do with Husker Du’s two biggest problems, in my eyes: for one, I don’t like the drum sound on their recordings. There is no bottom end, and instead it suffers from that eighties disease of sounding almost digital, but in a bad way. Second, while Mould and Hart wrote some great songs, they are a few steps from genius, and as a result they could also veer into Bad Rock territory (a constant failing of punk songwriters). I’ve been listening to parts of Zen Arcade this past week, and it doesn’t completely hold up. It’s one of those albums that you need to know the context of to truly appreciate. Incidently, I never liked Sugar, his post-husker side project, either, and I haven’t been blown away by the tracks from his new album that I’ve heard. Maybe I’m just not meant to be a Mould lifer. We had a moment 18 years ago, and should leave it at that. I still have the t-shirt.

No comments:

Blog Archive