A GUEST POSTING FROM SWISS ADAM
Husker Du ‘You Gotta Keep Hanging On’ (An Imaginary Compilation Album)
Husker Du are arguably the most essential band that came out of the USA’s independent punk scene. They wrote the most open, affecting and human songs of that scene, blazed the trail for groups going from an indie (SST) to a major and were determined not to be hemmed in by U.S. hardcore punk’s rules.
They had two natural songwriters, Bob Mould and Grant Hart, who took tunes and cues from the 60’s and married them with punk’s energy, filtered through a wall of distortion pedals and fired themselves into the air, eventually splitting up in horrible circumstances. Like The Smiths, whose story can become overshadowed by the breakup and the court case, Husker Du need to be remembered for their songs and their impact, not for Bob and Grant’s fallout and the ending.
You don’t go to Husker Du for laughs or light relief- what you get is a searing, white light focus on, excuse me here please, the human condition. Bob and Grant both wrote lyrics that were conversational and economic, their hearts on their sleeves, about the real world and the internal emotional world. In a sometimes very masculine world (both 80s America and the punk scene) both writers were grappling with their sexuality (Bob is gay, Grant is bi) and it comes through in their songs. Bob’s guitar playing is a wave of shards of notes and chords, splintering and shattering out of the speakers. Like The Smiths (again) people who cast that band as miserable were missing the point. Husker Du were often an intense listen, sometimes an uneasy listen, but the energy of the music, the tunes coming through the noise, the honesty and empathy of the words and the singing and the direct emotional impact of the tunes hit home hard.
Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton met at college and the surrounding band scene in Minneapolis, formed a trio quickly and slotted into the growing underground scene of gigs, fanzines and community in Reagan’s America. They then burst out of Minneapolis and the hardcore scene, criss-crossing the States touring and recording.
Early singles like Statues show they’d been listening to British post-punk and the album Land Speed Record is a ferocious rush through umpteen songs in two sides of vinyl. By 1983’s Metal Circus they were rejecting hardcore’s conformity lyrically (see Real World) and musically (see It’s Not Funny Anymore and Diane) but could still strip paint where needed.
The big breakthrough came with 1984’s Zen Arcade, a double album and a concept album to the horror of the purist hardcore, recorded and mixed in just 85 hours. Incredibly prolific by this point they followed Zen Arcade with two further albums within the next year, both absolute highpoints and both released in 1985, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. You can’t go wrong with either.
Sonically Flip Your Wig is a kinder on the ears. New Day Rising was the last one produced by SST’s in house producer Spot and was recently described by Bob Mould as sounding like a man pressure washing a metal shed. Thin, brittle and trebly. On Flip Your Wig they produced themselves, and Bob had changed guitar pedal, to create a clearer and more accessible sound but no less passionate or committed.
Following this they signed to Warner Brothers and put out 1986’s Candy Apple Grey and then 1987’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories (another double album). Candy Apple Grey is where along with REM alternative rock gets invented- acoustic guitars and organ are added to a slower tempo and introspection. Warehouse is the sound of a band splitting up- it has some good songs, a couple of great ones, but by this point Bob and Grant were at loggerheads, Bob pulling rank and insisting that his songs took up 55% of the album. Drugs and whatever else took their toll, especially on Grant. On the eve of a 1987 tour manager David Savoy took his own life. Bob cancelled some shows without Grant’s knowledge. Everyone walked away not long after.
Picking just ten songs is difficult. In Husker Du tradition this should really be a double and I thought about a ten track Bob Mould Husker Du compilation and a ten track Grant Hart one but that’s just falling into the trap they fell into themselves. I’m sure there’ll be people who would pick a different ten and on another day I might too. It’s testament to the sheer quality and quantity of the group’s back catalogue. So to songs like Real World, New Day Rising, Sorry Somehow, Ice Cold Ice, You Can Live At Home, Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill, Never Talking To You Again, Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely, Too Far Down and I Apologise…. I apologise. Another day, another ICA.
Eight Miles High – a 1984 single and a cover of 60s group The Byrds, this is essential Husker Du. A searing acid-punk guitar tour de force, Bob tears ferociously through the chords and vocals, Greg and Grant blasting their way through the rhythm. The breakdown section alone is worth the price of entry. This is the cover version against which all other covers must be judged.
Celebrated Summer – one of Bob’s key tunes from New Day Rising, a look back at the summers of youth and the pain that doing so brings and the questioning it provokes. The breakdown and ending with the finger picking on a 12 string acoustic shows them breaking out of the hardcore scene and moving elsewhere.
Something I Learned Today – Zen Arcade’s opener. Double pace drum and bass intro and then whoosh, we’re off. Bob’s lyrics discuss growing up and trust in people (or lack of it).
Green Eyes – from Flip Your Wig, a Grant Hart love song. Grant Hart, a songwriting, singing drummer who grew his hair long, wore love beads and tie dye and drummed barefoot wrote some beautiful love songs.
Makes No Sense At All – a 1985 single and Flip Your Wig track and an out and out pop song. Bob Mould always had melodies buried beneath the noise. More and more the melodies began to break out.
It’s Not Funny Anymore – on Metal Circus Husker Du were making a statement. A seven song ep, with plenty of throat-shredding singing and finger-slicing playing, but here the tempo slows a little, the verse-chorus is potentially radio friendly and Grant shows his pop song influences. For this compilation it was a real toss up between this and Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely, Grant’s kiss off to an ex. It’s Not Funny Makes It because it’s earlier.
Turn On The News – another Grant Hart song, from Zen Arcade this time. A single piano note, a sound collage from the radio and TV news, and then three chords on distorted guitar, Grant bewailing the news cycle and its effects on people.
Divide and Conquer – a Bob Mould masterpiece from Flip Your Wig. The guitar riff is a killer. The band are right on it. The lyrics skewer government, phone tapping, the politics of division and globalisation.
Pink Turns To Blue – another Zen Arcade highlight, recorded in one take. Grant Hart sings of a girl’s drug addiction and subsequent overdose, as pink turns to blue.
Keep Hanging On – there are so many songs I could or maybe should have closed this album with but this one always hits me right there. From Flip You Wig, buried away towards the end of side 2, the guitars are deliciously distorted, Greg’s bass builds, the drums thump and Grant sings his heart out. His voice sounds like he is just about hanging on but ultimately this is uplifting, life affirming stuff.
Only angels have wings, girl
And poets have all the words
The earth belongs to the two of us
And the sky belongs to the birds
You’ve given me so much happiness
That I’ll wrap up and give you this song
You gotta grab it with both hands
You gotta keep hanging on’