Jun 302011

On the occasion of Bob Mould’s recently published memoir, is it time to reverse Mr. Mod’s critical downgrade on the Huskers? Let’s put aside the muddy-sounding Flying V, the bad drumming, the terrible production values. At a time when so much indie-rock has become marketable,well-kempt, finely polished and polite, is there something especially worthwhile to be gleaned from the legacy of a band that was none of these things? If nothing else, can we put Husker Du at the forefront (along with Eleventh Dream Day) of my invented genre T-Shirt Rock (basically, the music I listen to balance out my love of dandyish fops like Pulp and The Kinks)?


  74 Responses to “Critical Re-upgrade: Husker Du”

  1. misterioso

    On the contrary, if anything, it is time to downgrade them further. They weren’t terrible. But I never, ever got *at the time* what was supposed to be so compelling or riveting about them, and I see no likelihood that I will. But I’m willing to hear the case made. They are a candidate for a “Please Explain,” not for a Critical Re-Upgrade.

  2. RTH is one of the only places I’ve seen these guys NOT praised as gods of “indie rock”. They get way too much respect as it is! I’m with misterioso on this one.

  3. I tried to like them in their time, even standing at the foot of the stage at Trenton’s City Gardens and then falling asleep for a brief spell while they played. My friend and I had been drinking vodka mixed with some kind of diet milk shake prior to the show (why ask why?), but I think the music had something to do with it. There were a couple of high points, and I remember talking to Mould after the show. I can honestly say he seemed like a Good Egg. In the past 5 years I’ve tried listening to a couple of their songs again, and beside the few that I liked the first time around, they still leave me wanting a lot more than the “good intentions” they projected. Times were bad in the ’80s, but not bad enough for me to overlook all that I found lacking in the music of Husker Du.

  4. I like two songs from Warehouse. Other than that, I’ll take the Mats.

  5. bostonhistorian

    If you don’t hear it, you don’t hear it. I’m not even going to try to make the case.

  6. Perhaps it will help if I highlight this sentence:

    At a time when so much indie-rock has become marketable,well-kempt, finely polished and polite, is there something especially worthwhile to be gleaned from the legacy of a band that was none of these things?

    If it helps you, remove the word “indie-“.

  7. BigSteve

    Loved them then, still love them now. Not saying I don’t wish they’d had a more competent knob twirler in the studio. Uneven almost by design. A while back I went through their albums to make a playlist or a CDR or something, and I found it quite easy to pick an hour plus of songs that still turned my crank. I’m a big advocate of Mould’s post-Huskers work too, though there are cultural affinities at play there that might not work for everyone. I just got the book, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

  8. misterioso

    I hate to say cop out, but…there must be some way you can convey what you are hearing. Not saying we have to agree.

  9. Strange that I’ve never really given them a chance. I enjoy the 1st two Bob Mould solo Cds and I was a fan of Sugar back in the day (thought I had some of their Cds but cant find them). HD is a band that I am supposed to like, so that might be a strike against them.

    So HD fans, which Cd should I pick up today to give them a try?

  10. I second misterioso’s request. You’re too articulate, bostonhistorian, to leave us hanging. Thanks.

  11. mockcarr

    I thought their gimmick at the time was that peculiarly hairy, dense, fried guitar sound, and I remember it took a few songs for it to reach the proper intensity when I saw them live in the mid 80s.

    For me, Husker Du’s best songs are about as raw and loose as you can be without losing too much songcraft or structure to have it work. I could see others drawing the line someplace else. But I don’t really have anything besides Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Candy Apple Grey.

  12. Why couldn’t they have paid a modicum of attention to craft and presentation? Their best songs showed signs of sounding like an American Buzzcocks, but they rarely sealed the deal.

  13. misterioso

    Wait wait wait. I basically agree, but is this the same Mr. Moderator who wrote a few hours ago: “We too easily lose focus on THE SONG itself – what is ringing in our ears – when we pay undue attention to the craft that went into a song”? Is the idea that too little craft is a problem and too much focus on it is distracting. Are we looking for that magical in between area of “just enough”? Or am I putting words in your mouth? Huh?

  14. Usually that space between works best, yes.

  15. tonyola

    Ultimately wearing and boring.

  16. Ditto — I do like Warehouse — and a critical un-favorite — Candy Apple Grey.

    Growing up in the Twin Cities, I was more of Mats (& Soul Aslyum) guy than a Husker Du guy.

  17. underthefloat

    I’d vote for “Warehouse: Songs and Stories”.

    Like some other things I was into back in the day, I can’t honestly say I listen to them much anymore.
    Unlike a few here..I liked HD back in the day but I didn’t like Mould’s solo work at all.

  18. pudman13

    OK, let me throw this out there. What people praised so much about them was that they were this ultra-heavy punk band who were, at heart, a pop (or folk-rock) band, and their melodies proved it. But I never liked their melodies! I always thought well-regarded songs like “Ice Cold Ice” and “Could You Be the One” and “Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely” were mediocre (or annoying) by my pop standards. I liked them best when they let themselves just be abrasive (i.e. my favorite song of theirs is the willfully difficult “Crystal.”) I think ZEN ARCADE is mostly great, in part because it’s more “rock” and less “pop” (keep in mind–I’m a pop guy, so I rarely react this way to any band. Heck, LOADED is my favorite Velvet Underground album), while each subsequent album failed in a slightly different way. There would always be a few melodies that won me over (“Books About UFOs” and “Dead Set On Destruction” come to mind), but when I get to an album like WAREHOUSE, my first reaction is that the horrible production gives me a headache if I try to listen to it more than a side at a time and my second impression, after I do listen to it enough times for the songs to sink in, is that I just don’t like most of the songs very much.

  19. mockcarr

    Because that would be artifice, and they weren’t poseurs? Because it might spotlight the weaknesses of the band rather than the strengths? Because they didn’t have the money to pick and choose producers who would know how to help them achieve a better product?

  20. Oh, come on, it doesn’t take an amazing producer and kick-ass studio to at least find a way to arrange and record a song in a way that at least emulates or aspires to how a certain style of record typically sounds. Their records often sound as if they’d never listened to a rehearsed band making a studio recording before!

  21. mockcarr

    Arrangements? Very funny. How many hardcore bands have better production? That’s the space they occupied with a punk ethos and better songs You ask them to be the kind of band they aren’t

  22. OK, that’s a good point, although I would argue that Black Flag and Meat Puppets (a strange band, admittedly, and not really “hardcore”) found ways to make cool-sounding records with the same limited SST means.

  23. mockcarr

    I might be looking at it the opposite way, they dressed up some of that hardcore sound in some songs I could listen to, without it having to be as cartoonish as the few Black Flag songs or other hardcore stuff I could like. I didn’t start off thinking they had to be the Buzzcocks and be disappointed.

  24. See, I learn stuff here. Really. I’m probably stuck being the dogmatic, moralistic guy I am, but I hear what you people are saying and some of it eventually sinks in. Those who knew me well long ago can attest to how much mellower and nonjudgmental I am today… Right?

  25. tonyola

    I think it’s Greg Norton’s WWI-flying-ace mustache. I can see ironic hipsters loving it. Makes up for a lot of musical inadequacies.

  26. tonyola

    Ahh, the famous “Emperor’s New Music” argument. That’s how people justify their praise for Trout Mask Replica.

  27. bostonhistorian

    No. Just a realization that music is based on an emotional connection, not a rational dissection. Still, I’ll go back and listen to the Husker Du catalog again and write something up.

  28. hrrundivbakshi

    New question for the Big Choice Poll:

    Husker Du or the Dickies?

    Answers to this question will say much about us.

  29. tonyola

    The Dickies get my vote between the two because the’re willfully dumb and silly enough to be almost a novelty band. Anyone who covers the Banana Splits theme in thrash mode complete with high-pitched “tra-la-laaa”s has my attention.

  30. I was and remain on Team Minutemen.

  31. bostonhistorian

    Hey, aren’t you the guy who said he wasn’t going list the great Clash songs because the guy who was asking for the list wouldn’t get it anyway? Pot, kettle. That being said, I’m preparing for Husker Du blowout listening session, including downloading the complete Husker Du “Zen Arcade” outtakes.

  32. ladymisskirroyale

    Just don’t call them clever.

  33. I didn’t post a list of the 99 Clash songs I like, but engaged in a dozen exchanges with Buddy on the topic. I wasn’t even looking for a list but insights into how the band spoke to you. You did make mention of an emotional response, so that tells me something. We are cool as far as i can tell!

  34. cliff sovinsanity

    … but Grand Hart and Bob Mould are/were terrific songwriters. Buried beneath the shoddy production of Zen Arcade and New Day Rising are persuasive hooky songs. They are driven home with 20 pound sledge which seems to be non-starter for some townsmen. Surely songs like Pink Turns To Blue, I Apologize, Makes No Sense At All are easy enough to digest.
    I would go so far as putting the tri-fecta of Zen Arcade, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig on par with the Twin Tone era Mats and the IRS years of REM.

  35. tonyola

    That word seems to have become the kiss of death around here, hasn’t it?

  36. UGH, continued whining over the fact that IN ONE PERSON’S OPINION Squeeze doesn’t deliver much more than “clever” lyrical content – this DESPITE the fact that I freely used the word “brilliant” (occasionally, including through the entire East Side Story album) in conjunction with the band. Double UGH over the fact that I’ve probably written more on Yes than any other Townsperson – and yet I’m the big bad guy who’s squashing the cleverness of our Townspeople. Shoot, you’d think I’m the bad guy in that ‘Til Tuesday video!

  37. bostonhistorian

    I’m just giving you shit. I can’t imagine anyone not liking the Clash. Listening to Zen Arcade outtakes right now. Very very interesting.

  38. I’ll do my part and revisit some Husker Du before I dump on them any more. It’s funny, cliff sovinsanity listed probably the first few songs that come to mind when I think of Husker Du songs that I can dig.

  39. bostonhistorian

    Zen Arcade was released in July of 1984, New Day Rising in January 1985, and Flip Your Wig in September 1985. That’s heroic, in my book.

  40. tonyola

    That worked well. Hook, line, and sinker.

  41. So this is how you want to play?

  42. tonyola

    Of course you’d think that East Side Story is the best Squeeze. That’s when they had Paul Carrack in the group. I bet you loved Ace’s “How Long?” (which Paul wrote and sang) because it’s poppy without being overly clever.

  43. As do I.

  44. tonyola

    OK, I admit my last statement was snarky. However, I am amused by the admission that you actually like Yes. It has a tone like confessing that you’re a secret drinker or something. That’s OK – I have embarrassing faves too. For instance, I think The Other Ones’ “Holiday” is a magnificent piece of pop fluff.

  45. machinery

    Their early hardcore stuff is good. I have their first two albums. But when Double Nickels on the Dime came out Zen Arcade was made irrelevant. And so was the whole band when placed beside the minutement. I remember thinking it at the time. they even had a friendly rivalry. “take that Husker Du” or some such thing was scratched into the vinyl pressings of DDOND.

  46. ladymisskirroyale

    My Pitchfork 500 (Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present) includes Husker Du’s “Pink Turns to Blue.”

    Also on the same page: The Smiths’ “This Charming Man,” Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69,” and Meat Puppet’s “Plateau.”

    I’m not a huge HD fan – “boy rock” – but I can hear their influence on others.

  47. machinery

    see below 🙂

  48. bostonhistorian

    I see the two albums as complementary–the Minutemen heard Zen Arcade before it was released and wrote more songs to make Double Nickels on the Dime a double LP. Zen Arcade and DDOTD were then released simultaneously by SST.

  49. BigSteve

    Yeah, why in the world would I have to choose between them? Classic Wilson choice.

  50. misterioso

    Remember how mad he got at her in that video? It’s because she was clever. He just couldn’t handle that.

  51. The key to East Side Story, I think, is the combination of producer Elvis Costello and engineer/Friend of the Hall Roger Bechirian! Carrack doesn’t hurt. That guy is one of rock’s finest utilitymen.

  52. 2000 Man

    If you ever feel like it, you should expand on your idea of “boy rock.” I’d be interested in that.

  53. Yeah, I smell an RTH Glossary term. Go for it, ladymiss! My wife refers to Hendrix in a similar way.

  54. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqnvmlGeCKk

    i would posit that the greatness of husker du is fully encapsulated in this video. if you can’t feel it, well, there’s always geezer rock. though considering this show was 30 years ago, maybe the huskers are post-geezers.

    earlier this year at the hideout in chicago there was a double-bill featuring econoline, a band formed expressly to present double nickels on the dime live in its entirety, and the husker dudes, who performed new day rising from start to finish. that show rocked.

  55. ladymisskirroyale

    Boy Rock: See Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, a lot of mid-90’s guitar-based stuff that can devolve into the likes of Bush, Pearl Jam, Nickelback and System of a Down. Can border on bombastic. Possibly written up by Michael Azerrad. May have been on the cover of Rolling Stone.

    I admire J Mascis and Bob Mould’s guitar playing, I just don’t really enjoy listening to it. I imagine legions of air guitar players standing by.

  56. bostonhistorian

    My sense is that Husker Du’s “boy rock” tendencies come from having emerged out of the hardcore scene, which was always a guy club. Look at the 1981 Husker Du clip above. Not many women, if any.

  57. That clip and a few others I ended up watching from that show were good to revisit. I still wish they could have had a little finesse or style to what they did, but this confirms my belief that they could have been good – by my weird standards. This 1985 interview also confirms that Mould shared some sensibilities/influences I dig:


  58. misterioso

    You may be right. Looks like a Bad Company Block Party Weekend for me! Here come the jesters, one two three! Woo-hoo!

    ‘Cause this don’t move me, even though it’s obviously (underscore that: obviously) trying Really Hard to do so. It’s funny, because most of my closest friends–certainly my closest “music friends”–loved this stuff to death then and still do. (Ditto the Smiths, by the way.) It’s okay, though, we’re still friends.

    (Even though, secretly, I hate them.)

  59. misterioso

    ladymiss, I admire your understatement! “Can border on bombastic”! Seriously, I think you (or Azerrad or whomever) have your finger on something here, and if it can help explain my near-total distaste for what appears to be a definable genre, I say let’s keep probing that wound or picking that scab, depending on which metaphor is most revolting.

  60. 2000 Man

    Yeah, I’ve tried to like Husker Du, and I’m sure I’ll keep trying, but I don’t like the “buried beneath all this crud is a killer pop hook” thing. Times New Viking is supposed to be super catchy and fun, and I can’t get past the sludge for them, either. Take a cue from Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. If ya got a great hook, put it first and foremost and ride that damned thing as long and loud as you can!

  61. 2000 Man

    That’s funny that you’d mention Dinosaur Jr. The woman that owns my favorite record store didn’t “appreciate” them, and I was telling her she was missing out when Beyond came out. I kind of figured one really good comeback was all you could ask for, but she flipped over whatever the last Dino Jr. album was called. I think it was one of her one or two favorites of last year.

  62. ladymisskirroyale

    Azerrad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” was given to me by a good friend who swore that the book would change my life. Unfortunately, I didn’t really love many of the bands in it before reading it, and the book, although historically interesting about the start of “indie” and “indie cred,” didn’t make me a convert.

    What many of the bands seemed to have in common was a teenage love of the 70’s guitar gods. I even believe that Ted Nugent was mentioned, although “appreciate” and TN should not go in the same sentence.

    Maybe it’s my knee jerk reaction to the 70’s guitar gods but bands that seem to have taken that bombast, distilled it, and played it through crappy amps don’t do much for me.

    And somewhere Guns and Roses must enter into the picture because I hate them too.

    I really want to like Dinosaur Jr, but I’ll take the Lou Barlow side of the equation any day.

  63. ladymisskirroyale

    As for further definition of “boy rock,” it appears to be a total sensory experience. It’s hard for me to put it into words, but Mr. Royale has observed the phenomenon and described it as my instantaneous need to change the radio channel or the cd and it is accompanied by the vocal regurgitation, “Blech, Boy Rock.” During his observations, he has noted that this happens to be most common during crappy derivative, male vocalist, guitar-based, 4/4 time music. Guitar screeching also comes to mind.

    I add that I will even take a 3-rate funk-rock or prog rock band over any of these dudes.

    I could use some assistance here. I just showed this to Mr. Royale and he said I need to clarify. But I explained that this is a sensory/emotional experience much like, as misterioso suggested, examining a pus-filled wound, so very, very difficult.

  64. I think you could narrow it down further to College Boy Rock. “Yeah, I got a D in English Lit, Dad isn’t sending me any more money until next month, and the girls won’t even look at me ’cause I’m a freshman with no car. Screw it all.”

  65. I’ve long dismissed most hardcore as heavy metal played by kids who wouldn’t take the time to really learn how to play their instruments. I’ve also been thinking that the metal/hardcore element of Boy Rock, as you call it, serves as a platform for a certain kind of (possibly) sexually charged male bonding that I probably got out of playing sports and didn’t seek out of music. All that sweaty jostling at hardcore shows, the heavy metal headwhips and fist pumps, the bare chests…I wonder if this is part of some healthy shared behavior that young men desire and need regardless of sexual orientation and all those issues that make guys squirm.

    At the risk of causing further squirms in the Hall, nerdier branches of rock ‘n roll, like power pop, new wave, and psychedelia, offer opportunities for dudes to bond in “softer” but equally intimate ways. I’m not sure that either branch musical male-bonding translated as well as hoped once heterosexual guys tried to apply their “lessons” to women, but the kids are alright.

    I don’t mean to exclude women or deny that rock ‘n roll can be an avenue for them to relate in these ways as well, but historically rock ‘n roll has been such a male-dominated genre. In the ’90s there developed a whole branch of Girl Rock, I’d say. All those Simple Machines-type bands, the whole “boy-girl” band phenomenon that makes up half of indie-rock reviews the past decade. I once wrote a fictional piece on a character who ran an indie label of this kind of music. There was much talk of college girls jumpling on beds in their cotton undies. It was my fantasy of the flipside of the hardcore scene’s Boy Rock. I should see if I can find that piece. I took much delight in writing it, probably too much:)

  66. bostonhistorian

    “I’ve long dismissed most hardcore as heavy metal played by kids who wouldn’t take the time to really learn how to play their instruments.”

    When you’re 16/17/18 years old, exactly how much time have you had to really learn how to play an instrument? Punk, and hardcore, both had very low entry barriers to get to the performing and recording stage, for better or worse.

  67. Plenty of metal bands know how to play their instruments by that age. It’s not like Black Sabbath were 27 when they got started. I’m not against the DIY aspect of any form of punk rock – lord knows if justified my efforts at taking a stage and rocking. I just think hardcore, as a genre, tended to work better when the musicians got good enough to sound like their ’70s hard rock heroes: later Black Flag, Circle Jerks, et al.

  68. You know what really bugs me about Husker Du? The lack of dynamics. They’re full tilt all the time. If they were one of my coworkers, they be the guy who puts the little red exclamation point in every frigging e-mail that he sends out. It’s annoying.

    Also, Mould seems like a nice guy and I’m sure he’s a great guitar player and all, but I’ve mentioned here before that I find his tone really uninteresting and totally lacking in nuance. A big wash of white noise is interesting in small doses or at the right time and place in one’s life but over the long haul, it’s just tedious.

    That said, I really like Back From Somewhere and Floated Away from Warehouse.

  69. There seems to be a strange phenomenon in the hardcore scene. When you’re a musician gigging all the time, you can’t help but get better, and you start thinking of real solos, chord and tempo changes, and generally adding some sophistication to the previous mindless thrash. But you do that at your own peril – that’s a really quick way to lose your old hardcore fans. So either you try for different audiences (like the Ramones in the mid ’80s) or you keep your music deliberately dumbed down.

  70. Husker Du was about the guitar sound and the whirring vibrations of fast, hardcore guitar. That Mould (and Hart, not a bad 2nd banana) could do that over fairly melodic songs really sold it people like me who couldn’t work with straight-up hardcore. I think the Minutemen album and Zen Arcade are a great mismatched pair.

    Strange that I throw in Azerrad over in the REM thread when he is already in play over here.

  71. My wife uses that term. She is not nearly as music-fluent as you, Misskir, but I think you two would have many of the same objections.

  72. Can I say that for a band whose Look never meant much to me, this has always been my favorite band photo of them. Lots of innocent manly bonding in the air!

  73. BigSteve

    I like Mould’s combforward and double chin, when he’s what, 26 at most?

  74. tonyola

    He was competing with XTC’s Andy Partridge and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas for the Alternative Pudge-Boy award.

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