Hüsker Dü emerged from the punk rock scene; vast improvements in songwriting over the years may have changed the shape of their music, but they never lost their firm attachment to bracing, loud guitar rock. Although failing to achieve the mainstream success of R.E.M. or even the Replacements, the often exhilarating Minneapolis trio was hugely popular and influential (and has grown legendary) in certain circles, maintaining its vision, integrity and dedication to independent music to the end. With Bob Mould’s impassioned talk-shout-singing and masterful guitar overlaid with feedback and amplifier distortion, Greg Norton’s straight-ahead driving bass and Grant Hart’s only slightly less demented singing and excessive drumming, the Hüskers piled on the pop hooks in their songs to the point of explosion, creating a startling rush of momentum.
The live Land Speed Record is basically a tour document from a year in which they covered a lot of land and took a lot of speed — a cheap recording that only hints at any juice the performance may have contained. In those days, the group was naturally sloppy, and this disc captures the mess but not the overkill power.
Released in January 1983, Everything Falls Apart puts everything back together. While the band hadn’t yet mastered the studio, this is a great improvement over the live record. And it offers the first taste of pop-oriented things to come: a cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.”
Metal Circus marks a giant leap forward. With this brief seven-song disc, Hüsker Dü began to reach for a broader audience. The often misconstrued title refers not to heavy metal (an area of exploration for many hardcore bands), but to the flat gray solidity of alloys, which fairly describes the record. Metal Circus is a collection of anthems, slow and fast, with twisted, abrasive guitar licks and twisted lyrics. The rousing Mission of Burma-ish “It’s Not Funny Anymore” is the most potent track, but “Diane” is the most haunting, a Hart-penned power dirge about rape and murder. When he screams the title over and over, it sounds like “dying.” A monster song from a heavy record.
After Metal Circus, Hüsker Dü released a 7-inch statement of purpose, the totally gonzoid cover of “Eight Miles High.” The single brings together Mould’s love of jangly ’60s pop with the band’s adrenaline charge. Punk covers of ’60s songs generally devolve into camp, but this one retains the flavor of the original without compromising the sonic blitz.
Zen Arcade, an ambitious double-record concept album about the strange adventures of a kid leaving home, covers more ground than Greyhound and is successful a surprisingly high percentage of the time. The band plays acoustic, psychedelic and unabashedly poppy songs; when it’s good, the material is among their best. A straight rocker, “Turn on the News,” deserves to be a classic. Unfortunately, there’s also some over-reaching and self-indulgent dross, possibly related to the one-take production technique. As on Sandinista!, it isn’t really filler; still, backwards tape loops and extended drones dilute the effect.
By contrast, New Day Rising is as tight as a duck’s behind, and that’s waterproof. The band flails the hell out of the kind of loping melodies currently ringing out of the New South. The album is LOUD, intense, funny, accessible and downright catchy. From the opening cut, in which Mould just screams “new day rising” over and over above a rising tide of triumphant sound, to the elliptical closer, “Plans I Make,” they do the Dü with nary a false step. Seldom have hooks been this powerful, nor full-throttle punk this melodic.
The Hüskers’ final SST release, Flip Your Wig, is positively brilliant — fourteen unforgettable pop tunes played like armageddon were nigh. The production is taut and claustrophobic, pushing the busy, anechoic drums right into your head, competing with Mould’s precise stun-assault guitar wash and vocals. Besides the compressed, efficient Top 40 sound of “Makes No Sense at All” (one of 1985’s best 45s), the LP boasts such classic fare as the loving, fragile “Green Eyes,” the boppy, bubblegummy “Hate Paper Doll” and the somberly psychedelic (complete with backwards guitar) of “Don’t Know Yet,” which closes things out in appropriately enigmatic fashion.
Following the Replacements to Warner Bros., Hüsker Dü self-produced Candy Apple Grey with an equally unselfconscious lack of commercial consideration, sacrificing nary a drop of energy nor an ounce of spirit. (They did, however, cut back to a mere ten songs.) Too many cuts start with the same brief Hart-beat, but the charged, varied music and never-better reflective, adult lyrics on Mould’s six compositions provide a seductive wallop. “Sorry Somehow” (with surprising Deep Purple organ), “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Dead Set on Destruction” are typically staggering rock numbers; “I Don’t Know for Sure” sounds good but resembles “Makes No Sense at All” a tad too much. Two all-acoustic numbers (“Too Far Down” and “Hardly Getting Over It”) demonstrate the band’s flexibility and a casual disregard for punk convention. While more diverse, Candy Apple Grey ultimately falls a bit short of Flip Your Wig in intensity and impact.
The British Sorry Somehow 12-inch contains “All This I’ve Done for You” (also from Candy Apple Grey), acoustic live versions of one track each from the previous two albums and “Fattie,” an all-noise studio recording. The same year, American Warners issued a 12-inch of “Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely” with a terrible live “Helter Skelter” and a numbingly repetitive eight-minute studio track (“All Work and No Play”) on the flipside.
It took wrangling with (and concessions to) Warner Bros., but the group was able to prevail and release the ambitious two-disc Warehouse: Songs and Stories, on which Hart and Mould co-produced and evenly split the songwriting. Neither sprawling nor start-to-finish essential, this 20-song collection breaks no new ground and is short on variety but still quite enjoyable — the thick sound is in itself sensually satisfying. With fine tracks strewn randomly throughout, the album’s strongest side is its third (with the hypnotically swirling “It’s Not Peculiar,” the folky “No Reservations” and the late-’60sish “Tell You Why Tomorrow”); other notable cuts are “She Floated Away,” a rocking sea chantey, “Standing in the Rain” and “Ice Cold Ice.”
After Hart quit or was fired in December 1987 — Hüsker Dü broke up shortly thereafter — popular perceptions cast Mould as the wounded victim and drummer/singer/songwriter Hart as the problem child. Although Mould vented the depths of his disillusion and anger on 1989’s Workbook, Hart got in the first word on the plucky title track of a 1988 three-song 12-inch, painting the split in terms of a couple’s first apartment — the number of which just happened to coincide with the band’s office/studio address. (Hart denied that was his intent but few believed him.) In any case, “2541” is a touchingly sad acoustic folk-rock number with a typically catchy melody.
A moving description of Hart’s pain as well as an assertion of his survival, Intolerance — a simply played one-man-band solo project that avoids familiarity by using ’60s-style organ as the most prominent rhythm instrument — deals with more than one traumatic aspect of his life. The obsessively driven (with strings) “Fanfare in D Major (Come, Come)” (remade from the EP, as was “2541,” which gets a much rockier arrangement with surprisingly Mouldish vocals) and the shambling (complete with dentist drill) “You’re the Victim” are clearly aimed at Mould. In the same vein, the Dylanesque — with wailing harmonica and a killer chorus — “Now That You Know Me” discusses a relationship in vague terms that could apply to the band. But “The Main” is about drug addiction, and the solemn “She Can See the Angels Coming” recalls the band’s manager, Dave Savoy, who committed suicide in 1987.
In late ’89, Hart — now sticking to vocals and guitar — formed Nova Mob, a rock trio with a really good bassist and an inferior drummer. (Nova Mob was also the name of an obscure but historically significant late-’70s Liverpool outfit that included Julian Cope, Budgie and Pete Wylie.) Written and performed as a rock opera, The Last Days of Pompeii is a weirdly produced (and, for the genre, typically oblique) concept album that is part madness and part fascinating ambition. As a vehicle for quixotic lyrics about ancient history and space exploration, the simple music balances Hart’s pop-ulism and sweeping rock ideas with sure strength, if not much ingenuity. (But don’t be too surprised if you find yourself idly humming a tune called “Wernher Von Braun.”)
Released as a preview of the Pompeii LP, Admiral of the Sea contains two mixes of its clunky organ-churning title track (a showcase for drummer Michael Crego’s shortcomings), a single mix of the catchy “The Last Days of Pompeii,” an instrumental mix of a third album track and a live’n’loud “I Just Want to Make to Love to You,” recorded in Switzerland.