May 192007

Is it time we give Husker Du a critical downgrade? Does anyone listen to their albums anymore, whether old heads or young? It seems they’ve gone from being this all-important band in underground rock in the ‘80s to a mere footnote to more influential bands that would follow in their wake: Nirvana and The Pixies. The Pixies, for cryin’ out loud, seem to have eclipsed Husker Du in critical acclaim and influence on indie rock bands! Bob Mould spinning techno records at a DC disco these days has eclipsed his hard-earned legacy in Husker Du! Now, non-fan that I’ve always been, I thought even the best Husker Du songs sounded like well-intentioned punk-pop mush, but come on, these guys ruled the roost! Now they’re a footnote to the history of The Pixies? Let’s examine.

Husker Du, of course, stormed out of the quickly overrated Minneapolis punk scene alongside The Replacements. (The Replacements – now there’s a band that isn’t so much forgotten by its initial fans but perhaps left behind for more grown-up things. Do Today’s Kids even buy Replacements records? Townsman Kpdexter, when’s the last time they even spun a Replacements record in that coffee shop we frequent?) Soul Asylum was part of that scene too, playing kid brother to The Replacements and eventually eclipsing big brother’s level of success to the consternation of all those bands’ fans. It hurt like hell when your underdog from the Twin Cities cranked out hits that would have sounded right on a Britt Ecklund-era Rod Stewart album, didn’t it?

Getting back to the subject at hand, remember the artistic credibility that Husker Du had? They weren’t just punks trying to make music that sounded like outtakes from Atlantic Crossing; they had an almost British punk/art rock approach that I found appealing…in concept. Their big double album – I’m blanking on the title as I fly somewhere over the midwest, but I recall a really bad cover – was accompanied by tales of them dropping acid and telling the engineer to simply hit RECORD while they bounced off the walls and let it all hang the fuck out! The album’s centerpiece, I’d read in initial reviews at the time, was some 17-minute long song that supposedly went where no punk band of that era had yet gone. I remember borrowing that album from a friend and being tempted to go right to that song. “They took handfuls of acid and then let it rip!” my young, excitable self thought. Instead, I dropped the needle on track 1, side 1 and waited for the great moments of insight. The long song came and went, and I was not getting what all the fuss was about. The best songs sounded a bit like the Buzzcocks, in structure and melody, but where the Buzzcocks created a tight, vibrant burst of sound that I could almost touch, Husker Du sounded like they recorded inside an empty aluminum beer can. Bob Mould played open chords (ie, “cowboy chords”) on that Marshall-amplified Gibson Flying V. Who wants to drop acid to play open chords on a Flying V? The mustachioed bassist, Greg Norton, and babyfaced drummer Grant Hart, a real waste of long hair, hammered away as aimlessly. They dropped acid for this? I dropped acid for this?!?!?

Shortly thereafter Husker Du, like REM and The Replacements, would become among the first wave of American “college rock” bands to sign with a major label. The bigger budget afforded to them did not help in either their production or their album cover design. Few bands turned out such a string of mushy, aimless album covers – to the point that maybe you could judge a book by its cover. The Replacements were quickly exposed. REM was able to navigate its new opportunities better than anyone could have imagined. Poor Husker Du just fizzled. Then Bob Mould put out the austere Workbook album, which recast his rebel yell in a Richard Thompson setting. Grant Hart faded away with his demons and Greg Norton, the one stereotypically gay-looking guy in the band would turn out to be the lone straight member and a chef to boot! But you know all this.

What I want to know is, what happened to all the folks who cared so passionately about Husker Du?


  18 Responses to “Critical Downgrade: Husker Du”

  1. I still care about Husker Du/Bob Mould! Maybe not with a passion rivaling others of my university radio dj days, but mostly, Zen Arcade, and their 18 Miles High ep is still on random rotation for me. Standing By the Sea, The Biggest Lie, What’s Going On, Pink Turns to Blue… I also dig other HD tracks like Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill, Could You Be the One and Celebrated Summer that still make it onto mix tapes every so often… Remember the story about my friend’s ear bleeding in his sleep? He was a hardcore Husker Du/Bob fan, and made sure we all heard as much of them as we could muster – whenever he visited my show he would pick out tracks (I did the 2-6am shift for a year or two when I first started dj’ing, so that’s a lot of time to pick out vinyl from the library archives), as well, any new Sugar releases. Copper Blue and Beaster were boasted about regularly. Bob Mould was his guitar hero.

  2. general slocum

    I always thought they had something catchy going on somewhere, and, like Mr. Mod, thought they were a great band on paper, but the sound! The production was horrible. I am largely a hedonist, and things have to be pleasurable in an immediate way, for the most part. And those guys were too uncomfortable sounding for me to gain access. I appreciated their Let ‘Er Rip aesthetic, their joyful abandon, but I could never hear their music without developing a headache… It’s my opinion that production values are the main reason for the Replacements downgrade as well. You can’t engage that sound out of its native cultural era. At least without the tongue ion the cheek. And that just kills the bands of the New Sincerity movement, leaving it paradoxically easier to hear a Flock of Seagulls or Wang Chung than the Replacements.

  3. Mr Mod, I was just thinking about this very topic the other day. I pulled out my copy of Warehouse, for my yearly reality check, and sure enough, it still sucks.

    you’re right it’s the poor production values that really sink this ship. I think banging out a record in a weekend really didn’t help much either.

    I can totally imagine them being a powerhouse live though.

    I listen to Sugar more than Husker Du, and have always thought they were better. I’m probably in the minority there though.

    I did hear that Westerberg solo album Stereo/Mono at the coffeehouse last week. But yeah, those Mats albums while still great, are in desperate need of a sonic upgrade. dare I say they sound wimpy?

  4. I bought Grant Hart’s Good News For Modern Man cd for a buck last summer. It’s about what you would expect. A pleasant listen, catchy, but ultimately not a classic. worth a listen for a buck though.

  5. saturnismine

    yeah, the production is terrible.

    the first time i heard that bob mould was going to “produce” someone else’s album i really thought my world had turned upside down: how on EARTH could someone responsible for those shitty sounding records be enlisted to produce???

    but production isn’t the end-all for me (if it was, i’d have to give the early Who a critical downgrade). and i don’t think it’s entirely their fault. the hüskers weren’t exactly recording under optimal circumstances. it was an era when studios capable of producing high-fi were expensive and were run by people who had an almost fascistic control over the controls. so, finding an affordable, quality place to record where the owner / engineer was sympathetic to a punk aeshtetic was not easy.

    i know that the last few albums are on warner, and therefore one would expect them to sound better. however, when the hüskers were in town for the ‘warehouse’ tour, they told me that they spent the same amount of money recording each of the warner albums as they spent on Zen Arcade; warner had no budget for them. they were a guinea pig for warner. they also said that the thinness of their albums was not “their aesthetic” but was a result of recording in bad studios, trying to achieve clarity, and miscalculating in their attempts to avoid sounding muddy.

    so, yeah, their records aint easy on the ears, but that’s not enough reason for me to give them a critical downgrade.

    as kevin points out, let’s not forget the live aspect. they were one of the most exciting, intense bands on the planet.

  6. Mr. Moderator

    I saw them live. They were OK, but Mould’s guitar sound was Mould’s guitar sound. He was playing a open chords on a Flying V. Put im in the finest studio with the most sympathetic producer and engineer and the best they could do is document that atrocity.

    THe Sugar albums actually sounded a lot better; did he finally play some barre chords?

  7. BigSteve

    I don’t think the production is bad so much as the drum sound is bad. It’s consistently bad no matter who recorded them and where, and that’s because Hart is just not a very good drummer. He’s a good example of the Henley Principle — if you’re starting a songwriters band, don’t assign one of the writers to the drum chair by default.

    I always liked that smeared guitar sound Mould used back then. It was doubled/delayed or something, kind of monolithic and unvarying, but effective at embodying a fractured state of mind. He plays a strat now, but when I saw him a couple of years ago his hands were still doing things I couldn’t understand. I assume he uses alternate tuning(s).

    Sugar gets the critical/semi-popular acclaim that eludes the Huskers because their records are readily available. The Huskers will never reap the rewards the Pixies have; they can’t even get along well enough to agree on how and whether to re-issue their back catalog, much less do the ATM tour thing.

    I’m a big fan of Mould’s current style of mixing guitar rock with electro. The Blowoff album he released last year seems to have sunk without a trace, but it was quite good.

    Back when I had all the Husker Du LPs on CDR, I was surprised at how much throwaway material was buried there, but I had no problem finding 4 or 5 good songs on every album. And I like Warehouse pretty much all the way through. But that snare sound … oy….

  8. sammymaudlin

    I think time has already critically downgraded them a notch. Like Sanford & Son, they were important and influential and entertaining during their time but don’t stand the test.

    Given that, if I have access to the “next” button, I still listen to the poppy songs on: Zen Arcade, Metal Circus and New Day Rising with regularity.

    But then again, I just watched Sanford & Son, the other night too… and laughed.

  9. I don’t do the Duh. Never did and never wanted tuh.

    E. Pluribus Gergeley

  10. I think Zen Arcade and New Day Rising remain classics of their decade, and are still eminently listenable for me. I like a few songs on earlier records, and parts of Flip Your Wig. All that material still makes them one of the best bands of the 80s.

    The muddiness of their sound is undeniable, but it doesn’t create any huge problem for me in terms of liking what they do. Energy, insight, anger, even a measure of originality.

    If the Minutemen remain my favorite 80s band by far, the Huskers still outpace for me most of the other contenders of the era; I like them better than REM, the Meat Puppets, and certainly the Pixies, who I dig for a few songs at most. So no critical downgrade will come to them from me: at their best, they brought the news and rocked while doing it.

  11. I don’t get the hang up with cowboy chords. I’d much rather play an open E or D than the bar chord.

    Husker Du may have lost favor with me, I still go back to the Replacements’ Let It Be. A great singer songwriter record by a guy too scared to own up to the title in front of his punk rock peers.

  12. BigSteve

    Btw in the first song in third video occasionally you can see Mould playing what look like barre chords.

  13. I’ll tell ya one thing. Husker Du might not stand the test of time, but The Specials definitely hold up. I’m listening to their first Elvis Costeelo produced LP (just picked it up from a sale) and can’t believe how thoroughly entertaining it is. Gotta dig out “More Specials” and see how that one holds up.

    Anyone listen to either of the aforementioned LPs within the last couple of months?

    Delighted with today’s finds,
    E. Pluribus

  14. sammymaudlin

    That Specials album is one of my faves from beginning to end. For what they set out to do I find it amazingly well done.

    I just listened to it last week. They opened for The Clash on some tour way back when and were mentioned in that Riot of Our Own as “solid blokes” or some shite.

    I don’t have More Specials. I know it won’t be as good and I don’t want to spend hard earned cash on what will likely be a let-down.

    I have toyed with getting the Ghost Town EP though as I loved that song on MTV as a kid.

  15. Mr. Moderator

    Dr. John wrote:

    I don’t get the hang up with cowboy chords. I’d much rather play an open E or D than the bar chord.

    Cowboy chords in and of themselves are fine. Powered through the mud of Flying V and Marshall don’t do it for me, especially when strummed fast, prohibiting the mud to disperse in any way. This is not to suggest that any cowboy chord played in this configuration is bad; a song might have a place for one now and then.

    Epluribie, that first Specials album gets better with time, the further it moves awy from charges of being “fake” ska, as if a person like myself was ever qualified to level that charge in the first place (and don’t think I didn’t). More Specials is really good too, but on the strength of the less-Specials-like songs. Only over the course of time do the songs that sound more like the first album hold up on their own merits. At least that was my experience.

  16. Maudlin,

    All that’s fair. Where do ya stand on the Special AKA? They never did anything for me. Am I missing anything?

    Hope to hear from you soon,
    E. Pluribus

  17. sammymaudlin

    Special AKA

    blech! In fact, unless someone here knows otherwise, anything and everything those guys went on to do was blech.

  18. husker du stinks
    copper blue by sugar is still pretty great
    black sheets of rain(?) was ok when it happened but now 15 years later…
    it stinks

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