Hüsker Dü started as a hardcore punk in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1979, with Bob Mould on guitar and vocals, Grant Hart on drums and vocals, and Greg Norton on bass and occasional vocals. Over their first few albums, they opened out their sound from super fast hardcore punk to more melodic pop-craft, but still kept their punk aggression and edge. It seems logical to label it as pop punk, but it’s a long way from the watered down music that bands like Blink-182 later bought to the mainstream.
All three are excellent musicians – Hart’s drumming is a little jazzy and idiosyncratic, Mould’s Flying-V throws out walls of noise, while Norton’s melodic basslines hold things together, although it’s often difficult to hear the bass on their roughly produced early records. Hart and Mould shared lead vocal and songwriting duties, although Mould always had slightly more songs on each album, Hart was the first to move towards pop-oriented songs, and efforts like ‘The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill’ and ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ are among the band’s best.
I’ve skipped over their first two releases – 1982’s live Land Speed Record and 1983’s Everything Falls Apart – as they’re focused on hardcore punk, and they tend to blur together for me, although the latter’s cover of Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ is a clear signpost to where the band were going. The bulk of their best work is contained on their 1984-1987 studio albums, but it’s worth checking out their b-side covers, especially their version of The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’.
Hüsker Dü split up in 1987, with contributing factors including the suicide of their manager, Hart’s drug addiction and tension between rumoured former lovers Mould and Hart; Mould formed Sugar, Hart formed Nova Mob, and the mustachioed Norton became a restauranteur. Hüsker Dü were arguably the most vital band of their era, particularly between July 1984 and January 1987 when they released an astounding fourteen LP sides of material.
Hüsker Dü Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Zen Arcade
Overlooked Gem: Warehouse: Songs and Stories
Land Speed Record, Everything Falls Apart
I have these, but they all blur together for me. I’m more interested in their later releases as they move beyond lightning speed hardcore punk.
After beginning as a hardcore punk band, Hüsker Dü’s third release shows them expanding their range. It’s only twenty minutes and seven songs, several of which are still basic hardcore punk, but the band are starting to add pop hooks to their intense assault. Drummer Grant Hart leads the way with ‘It’s Not Funny Anymore’, but ‘Diane’ is the most memorable song, a retelling of a gruesome Minnesota murder, with Hart screaming “Die Anne” repeatedly. Bob Mould opens the album with the intense ‘Real World’, and also starts adding pop hooks with ‘First of the Last Calls’. There are encouraging signs on Metal Circus, but it’s more interesting as a document of the band’s expansion from hardcore punk than something I feel like listening to often.
Hüsker Dü underwent one of the most staggering transformations in the history of popular music on Zen Arcade, evolving rapidly from a competent hardcore punk band to a eclectic trio, attempting everything from psychedelic freakouts to acoustic ballads without sacrificing any of their intensity. Zen Arcade is a double album set, recorded and mixed in an astounding 85 hours straight, and all but two of the songs were recorded first take. Unlike the somewhat romanticised version of adolescence on Quadrophenia or Born To Run, the world of Zen Arcade is gritty and realistic. The romantic breakup of ‘Never Talking To You Again’, the family disintegration of ‘Broken Home, Broken Heart’, the sense of political impotence of ‘Turn on the News’ and ‘Newest Industry’, the drug tragedy of ‘Pink Turns To Blue’; the album portrays a disillusionment at events beyond the control of the young narrators.
Hart steals the show with his more direct material; the bitter acoustic ballad ‘Never Talking To You Again’ is the first indication of the surprising diversity of the album, while ‘Pink Turns To Blue’ and ‘Turn On The News’ are two of Zen Arcade’s most accessible entry points. Mould turns in the lo-fi delight ‘Chartered Trips’, with a gorgeous melody that belies the spiky nature of the song, as well as the cartharthic ‘Broken Home, Broken Heart’. The creepy semi-instrumentals, the chanted ‘Hare Krisna’ and ‘The Tooth Fairy and the Princess’, are engrossing in their own right, while the two short linking piano instrumentals are absolutely gorgeous.
It’s not perfect, but Zen Arcade is a stone cold classic on intensity and emotional impact alone.
New Day Rising
Recorded in July 1984, continuing Hüsker Dü’s breakneck schedule by coming only months behind Zen Arcade, New Day Rising takes the style of the most accessible pieces on that album into a cohesive single album statement. The production sounds awful, but generally it works in the album’s favour; the thin guitar sound cuts through and gives the record an edgy quality.
Hart continues in the same melodic vein as songs like ‘Pink Turns To Blue’, except this time they’re positive and life-affirming – ‘Terms of Psychic Warfare’ and ‘Books About UFO’ are bouncy and quirky, and he injects ‘The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill’ with venom by playing it at breakneck speed and screaming through the final verse. Mould’s also inching into more melodic territory with songs like ‘Celebrated Summer’ and ‘I Apologise’, although there’s still an abrasive edge to much of his writing: ’59 Times The Pain’ jumps from guttural and cryptic verses to an open and catchy chorus.
It’s amazing that any band could make an album this strong so soon after an exhaustive double set; it’s a highlight even in Hüsker Dü’s strong catalogue. If it wasn’t for the relatively weak ending, New Day Rising would be a contender for the band’s best album.
Flip Your Wig
Another step away from hardcore punk, Flip Your Wig heads into decidedly pop-like territory. When the pop-centric approach works, it’s terrific; there are plenty of searing melodic Mould rockers, while Hart’s still contributing gems as well. This time though, the bad material’s becoming more irritating; Mould’s ugly repetitive ‘Hate Paper Doll’ and Hart’s bizarrely out of context vibraphone instrumental ‘The Baby Song’ are among the spotty material.
The opening title track is among the group’s best songs, utilising the interplay between Mould’s growling and Hart’s boyish voice, a ploy they never explored elsewhere, and withholding the main chorus hook until late in the song. The other standout tracks are the mid-album run of songs from Hart’s ‘Green Eyes’ through Mould’s trio of ‘Divide and Conquer’, ‘Games’ and ‘Find Me’, which all maintain a moody and tuneful intensity.
It’s the most inconsistent and least essential of their SST trio, but Flip Your Wig still has some great songs, and again it’s amazing that they could make an album of this quality so shortly after its predecessor. By this point the mainstream was beckoning, and Hüsker Dü made history by signing with a major, a rarity for an Indie band at the time.
Candy Apple Grey
Major label debut Candy Apple Grey is generally acknowledged as the weakest of Hüsker Dü full length albums, and it’s an understandable conclusion; there are still sparks of brilliance, but it’s more generic than before. This is possibly a result of record company pressure, as there are ten full songs here, and no experimental pieces.
The most interesting development is Mould’s two acoustic tracks in the centre of the album; ‘Too Far Down’ is a little over dramatic, but ‘Hardly Getting Over It’ rides a lovely shimmering chord sequence. Hart also gets on the acoustic bandwagon with his piano ballad ‘No Promise Have I Made’; it’s not an unqualified success, but it’s one of the more entertaining tracks on the album with Hart’s out of control singing. There’s other strong material too; the opener ‘Crystal’ is surprisingly abrasive for Hüsker Dü so late in their career, while Hart’s hooky ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ is arguably the album’s best song.
Candy Apple Grey feels like the band are running out of steam a little, but it’s still a respectable major label debut.
Warehouse: Songs And Stories
Hüsker Dü’s final studio album was another double LP, capping off a very prolific three years. Again they’re more conventional on Warehouse, but if it sounds generic now it’s because they laid the groundwork for the alternative rock that followed them in the 1990s. Warehouse is an appropriate name for the album, as it takes a few listens to sift through the twenty songs to find all the gems.
Hart’s the less consistent writer on Warehouse: Songs And Stories, but he turns in the catchy sea shanty ‘She Floated Away’, the rockabilly of ‘Actual Condition’ and the satisfying closer ‘You Can Live At Home’ (with a funky Norton bass line) while Mould’s highlights include the catchy hooks of ‘It’s Not Peculiar’, ‘Up In The Air’ and ‘Visionary’. Mould’s still raw on ‘Bed of Nails’ and ‘Ice Cold Ice’, but a lot of his material is close to power pop, like the straightforward, emotive ‘Could You Be The One?’.
With its long length and lack of stylistic variation Warehouse: Songs And Stories is far from perfect, but listeners will get plenty of mileage from it regardless.
Bob Mould and Sugar Album Reviews
Workbook – Bob Mould
After the breakup of Hüsker Dü, Bob Mould went in a different direction with his solo debut. According to his biography, he’d been listening to a lot of Richard Thompson, and accordingly, much of Workbook is in a folk-based vein, not unlike the acoustic songs that he’d contributed to 1986’s Candy Apply Grey. Mould recruited Pere Ubu’s rhythm section to help, but otherwise Workbook is stripped down; the only other instrumentalist is Jane Scarpantoni, who contributes some pretty cello parts.
The more upbeat pieces are akin to power pop, like the jangly ‘See A Little Light’ and the pretty ‘Wishing Well’, with its prominent cello parts. Despite the overall acoustic sound, Workbook closes with the ultra-heavy ‘Whichever Way The Wind Blows’, which dispenses with melody altogether and might be the most intense piece that Mould’s ever recorded. There’s also a beautiful opener ‘Sunspots’, and pretty melodic folk material like ‘Brasilia Crossed With Trenton’.
After spending years thrashing his Flying V, Bob Mould was able to immediately establish his solo career with a different musical style, and Workbook contains some of his strongest songs.
Black Sheets of Rain – Bob Mould
1990, not rated
I’ve never heard a note of this, just listing it as I’ve covered every other Bob Mould album between 1983 and 1994.
Copper Blue – Sugar
After releasing a couple of solo albums, Bob Mould formed another power trio. Unlike Hüsker Dü, where Grant Hart was an important songwriter and vocalist and Greg Norton was also central to the band’s sound, Sugar is Mould’s show; his two new recruits, bassist David Barbe and drummer Malcolm Travis, are unobtrusive and stay out of the limelight, although Barbe has gone on to a successful production career with the Drive-By Truckers. Sugar’s albums are better produced than Hüsker Dü’s and can be found in bargain bins everywhere; but I don’t think they’re a match for Hüsker Dü overall, missing the poppy counterpoint that Hart’s songs provided.
The best songs are when Mould steps furthest outside of the early 1990’s alternative conventions that this album is steeped in. Mould’s work in Hüsker Dü was a formative influence on much of the grunge/alternative movement in the early 1990s, so it’s just a natural progression for him to sound like this – but it’s the faux-classical keyboard break of ‘Hoover Dam’, the acoustic ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’, and the big sounding closer ‘Man On The Moon’ that are my favourite moments on Copper Blue.
Copper Blue is a solid album of songs, but it’s too unimaginative to rate among Bob Mould’s strongest output.
Beaster – Sugar
Beaster is where all the energy and anger from Hüsker Dü went. Six Copper Blue outtakes are somehow moulded into an extremely coherent concept EP, creating Sugar’s best and most substantial release. While breakup was a noticeable theme right through Copper Blue, and that album had an undercurrent of pain, this time it’s right on the surface and often downright nasty. Mould uses religious imagery – the title is a reference to Easter – placing himself and his former lover in the roles of Judas and Jesus.
While the central tracks are harrowing, the album is bookended by two gorgeous moments; on ‘Come Around’ the guitars lock into a mesmerising swirl as Mould simply repeats the title, while ‘Walk Away’ is a lovely organ piece that brings the set to a calm conclusion that seems unlikely during the chaotic rock of ‘JC Auto’ or ‘Tilt’. It’s vintage Mould, and it’s far more emotionally convincing than the more commercially oriented Copper Blue, recalling the vintage days of Hüsker Dü. The only real weak point on this release is the overlong coda to the otherwise excellent ‘Getting Better’.
Like all of Sugar’s releases, Beaster should be easy to find cheap, and it’s well worth tracking down.
File Under: Easy Listening – Sugar
After the inspired noise-fest of Beaster, it’s back to Bob Mould by numbers on Sugar’s final album. File Under: Easy Listening is cheerier than previous efforts from Mould; he pulls out the acoustic guitar for ‘Panama City Hotel’, while ‘Gee Angel’ is downright happy. It’s more pleasant sounding than Copper Blue, with a more relaxed overall tone and more textural range, but there’s nothing here that’s particularly revolutionary and it does feel like a retread.
Having said that, ‘Explode And Make Up’ is my favourite Sugar song, with a punchy arrangement that jumps from acoustic balladry to electric bluster within a few seconds. Bassist David Barbe gets a songwriting credit and lead vocal with the pleasant but generic ‘Company Book’. while some of Mould’s material is also uncharacteristically one-dimensional, like the repetitive rocker ‘Granny Cool’.
It’s easy enough to like File Under: Easy Listening, but it’s not compulsive listening like Mould’s best work with Hüsker Dü. The three Sugar albums cost me a grand total of NZ $13; see if you can find them all even more cheaply.
Ten Favourite Hüsker Dü Songs
Flip Your Wig
The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill
Never Talking To You Again
Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely
Could You Be The One?
Eight Miles High
She Floated Away
Hardly Getting Over It