Husker Du: Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton.
The rock and roll biz, as we all know, has always been about selling teen angst to other teens. Subsequently, rock musicians are expected to be at the height of their creative powers at around age 18. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid barely old enough to plug in his Marshal. Sure, there’s the fluke Lennon/McCartney prodigies that can spew pop masterpieces between math classes, but most kids that age don’t know an A chord from their assholes. Pop songs ain’t rocket science, but expecting the average garage band to sound sweet enough for FM is a tall order. There’s a 99% chance your band is excruciatingly shitty.
But that’s where punk rock saved the day. Punk was a collective cultural agreement to forego traditional definitions of quality in favor of creative freedom. It was a return to the early days of rock and roll, when music was dangerous, frightened your parents, spoke to teens directly through their privates and instructed them to mistrust authority. The music was raw, ugly, aggressive, and downright snotty. It invited the incompetent, arrogant youth to make the biggest, nastiest noise they could, oblivious to one’s own shortcomings and fortified against the criticism of others. Punk made it okay to suck.
Husker Du sucked. Loudly. Minneapolis residents who attended their early shows will attest, and their first LP, the live recording, Land Speed Record, testifies the Huskers had speed and volume where songs should have been. But very quickly, in defiance of the punk ethos, something alluring began to rise out of the feedback and rumble. Something that suggested this band, pioneers of angry thrash, knew a thing or two about the Beach Boys and Carol King. If there was any doubt, they threw in a cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” on their first studio album. There was irony in that, sure. But to be truly punk, one had to piss off the punks, and nothing rattled their cages like paying homage to the “straight” world.
The rules are simple if you want to be a cherished rock icon: be a young, untamed musical savant with undisciplined and unrefined energy, and never get any better. Man, they hate that – especially the punk rock crowd. Stay three chords forever, like the Ramones, and they’ll defend your honor eternally. But figure out what you’re doing, add new instruments, refine your studio production and you’re well on your way to VH1.
Husker Du got better. Loudly. The EP, Metal Circus, revealed solid songsmanship amidst the volcanic roar. With the spine-shattering double LP, Zen Arcade, a dense layer of psychedelia was added, increasing the intensity of an already explosive sound. It seemed Bob Mould was continuously powering up his guitar sound to match his atomic screaming. Greg Norton had to do likewise to keep up on bass. More often than not, Grant Hart sounded like he was tossing his drum kit down the stairs…which was perfect. To this day, I can’t listen to “Beyond the Threshold” without literally sweating. (Though my favorite Zen Arcade track has to be “Dreams Reoccurring”, simply a chunk of the “Reoccurring Dreams” recording played backwards.)
But in the middle of that field of noise grew real songs: “Pink Turns Blue”, “Newest Industry”, “Somewhere”, “Never Talking to You Again”. New Day Rising, the follow-up LP showed even greater songwriting skill at work: “Powerline”, “If I Told You”, “Celebrated Summer”, “Terms of Psychic Warfare”. Both Mould and Hart were crafting great pop songs out of the sturm und drang, creating real excitement by hanging hummable pop hooks onto their wall of distortion. Nothing else sounded like it. It was only a matter of time before they fell out of favor with punk purists.
Could Husker Du have ever really “sold out”? Could they have made it as a mainstream pop band? Certainly, the sound was becoming a little more palatable, calmer by Husker standards, anyway. When Warner Brothers signed the band in 1985, the label hoped they would be releasing Flip Your Wig, the album Husker was currently recording. Du gave that one to SST instead. I’m convinced that, had Warners gotten Wig, instead of the comparatively sludgy and ponderous Candy Apple Grey as the band’s major label debut, things would’ve been different. Imagine “Makes No Sense At All” as their first Warner single, instead of “Sorry Somehow”. A world of difference.
The double-LP, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, was great, a solid set of radio-ready rockers with clean production that didn’t jeopardize the signature Husker roar. But by then it was too late. Like the Beatles before them, the band was torn apart after the suicide of their manager, David Savoy. Mould took over the business end of things, further straining relations with the heroin-addicted Hart. Bob cancelled shows on the Warehouse tour after Grant’s methadone supply leaked out of the bottle, leaving the drummer subject to withdrawal. Hart quit the band.
The Huskers always claimed they weren’t a punk band, which is what punk bands always say. They knew they’d have to grow beyond the expectations of the safety pin set, and it’s difficult to imagine the hardcores stage-diving to “Hardly Getting over It”. But still, watching them trying to win over the mainstream on The Joan Rivers Show is high comedy. One look at that farce tells you Husker Du could never be anything but they were. Which, ultimately, may be the lesson punk was trying to teach us.