The Over/Under: Hüsker Dü

husker-duoverAh, the mid-’80s … Back when Hüsker Dü guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould was pudgier and hairier, drummer/vocalist Grant Hart was ridin’ the horse, and God knows what bassist Greg Norton had to do to stave off the migraines when Mould and Hart bitched and groused and threw chairs at each other. And somehow, when it came to the records, none of that mattered, because outside of the insect kingdom, Hüsker Dü was the fastest thing on six legs. Even now, when historicizing punk has become a cottage industry all its own, Hüsker Dü remains one of the most unfairly overlooked bands of the Reagan era, overshadowed in Minneapolis legend by the Replacements and among the venerable SST Records roster by more notorious or antic labelmates such as Black Flag and the Minutemen. That’s heavy company, but Mould, Hart and Norton underwent a remarkable and totally unique evolution over the course of seven albums, from the heart-attack pace of 1981’s Land Speed Record to sprawling swan song Warehouse: Songs And Stories just six years later. Hüsker Dü managed feats no other band of the era did—or could. They began as ferocious punks, ended as meditative dreamers and frequently tied both ends together. In the midst of an often hyper-masculine hardcore scene, two-thirds of the band was gay (Mould and Hart) and wrote songs about it, however obliquely phrased. And Hüsker Dü penned smart, articulate lyrics about art films, aging parents, gender politics and other topics that most punk bands couldn’t tackle if they had an entire defensive line. It might seem strange to tap such a generally underrated band for an Over/Under list, but this is one of those cases where if all you’ve heard is the canonical material, brother, are you in for a joy. Push play, and let it knock you down. You’ll dig it. Promise. Read a lot more about Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and the ’80s Minneapolis scene in our extensive 2005 cover story.

:: The Five Most Overrated Hüsker Dü Songs
1. “Never Talking To You Again” (1984)

The Clash had it. And so did Big Star and the Beatles. And Hüsker Dü. Two equally talented singers and songwriters whose differing, sometimes conflicting aesthetics deepened the colors of the band’s entire palette. “Never Talking To You Again,” from career capstone Zen Arcade, is a quick and handy sketch of Hart’s songwriting style: clear, direct and deceptively simple. But outside the context of its historical moment—an acoustic strummer on a punk album? (the skinheads wept)—it’s not anything like Hart’s best moment. Which is a shame, since “Never Talking” is one of those songs that even listeners unfamiliar with Hüsker Dü have likely heard, on a personal mix or a compilation. (It was included on the cheeky SST Acoustic comp in 1991.) And where Hüsker Dü’s best angry songs were creatively nonspecific, “Never Talking” indulges in a lyrical looseness that ends up a vague bleat. As a quick-shot exercise in adolescent bellyaching, it works, but it’s simply criminal that a songwriter as talented as Hart is so often known by one of the least exceptional songs in his catalog.

2. “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill” (1985)
This cut, another Hart composition (from the otherwise excellent New Day Rising), is more problematic. Hüsker Dü tackled any number of genres in its brief lifetime, but this formulaic rocker about a girl, a cabin, a bottle and a bed doesn’t cut the quinine, as it were. On “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill,” for some reason, Hart indulges in the most clichéd vision of hetero-mantic bliss in the pop playbook, and the band pounds through it (complete with an insert-here guitar solo from Mould) as if it were complex (which it ain’t) or conflicted (which it also ain’t). You want a great, complicated, boundary-pushing love song from the Hüskers? Try “Green Eyes” or “She’s A Woman (And Now He Is A Man).” Avoid “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill.” Same address, same old song and dance.

3. “Divide And Conquer” (1985)
A lot of HD fans consider “Divide And Conquer” a high point in the band’s catalog. I can get to that: It’s got a fantastic hook and a great lyric, and heard today, it’s positively prescient in its indexing of worries in the global village, mostly related to superficial connection that masks the true alienation underneath. (Hi, Facebook.) But punk’s healthy mistrust of mass culture always had a tendency to slide into grim paranoia, and “Divide And Conquer” goes tear-assing down that slippery slope. Everything—shopping, communication technology, piped-in music in public places—is seen here as the weaponry of the “bunch of men who played it sick” and now control every facet of daily life. Not that this isn’t a fair gripe, but Mould screams about it as if it’s a done deal, and that sense of sheer futility makes “Divide And Conquer” sound less like a protest, which it’s usually considered to be, than a mewling squeal of defeat. 

4. “Could You Be The One?” (1987)
Like “The Girl Who Lives On Heaven Hill,” this Mould song from the listener-friendly (if somewhat padded) Warehouse: Songs And Stories trades in stock images and easy phrases: “Life is a game that only you can make”; “Does wanting a feeling matter anymore?”; “I’ve given it all, that’s all I can take.” Wait, wait … maybe this is an old Vic Damone tune. No, I checked; it’s the Hüskers. But you sure wouldn’t know it from the simple props and stage-dressing of the song, which sounds more saccharine and flabby than most anything else in their catalog.

5. “Hate Paper Doll” (1985)
Flip Your Wig is usually considered the album on which Hüsker Dü’s pop sensibilities came to the fore, shaking up its hardcore fans and confusing the career punks. On most of the tracks, that sweeter melodic approach works, but on Mould’s “Hate Paper Doll”—a great title, but musically speaking, a five-finger exercise—it does little but underscore the simplicity of the song. Simple isn’t necessarily bad, of course, and a basic hook is the very heart of pop’s catchiness. But this cut, running just under two minutes, doesn’t do much but stand there and be catchy. As a result, it’s one of Flip Your Wig’s least memorable offerings.

:: The Five Most Underrated Hüsker Dü Songs
1. “Celebrated Summer” (1985)

Arriving a year after the expansive Zen Arcade, New Day Rising is as tight an album as Hüsker Dü ever recorded, and Mould’s “Celebrated Summer” is one of the cleanest summations of the band’s skill at blending the hard and the soft. Black Flag may have been heavier and the Minutemen may have been equally unafraid of sentiment, but neither of those estimable groups could have pulled off a hardcore barn-burner that fades not once but twice into delicate 12-string fingerpicking and proposes to recall the glory of misspent youth from the middle of that youth: “Getting drunk out on the beach or playing in a band/And getting out of school meant getting out of hand.” And always, that wistful question at the heart of the song: “Was this your celebrated summer?” This was the reason Hüsker Dü hit so many kids so hard—that articulate understanding of how being young can seem bacchanal and banal all at once. I never understood how this track didn’t make it onto every mix tape assembled by every weird little boy in America.

2. “Books About UFOs” (1985)
And, of course, every weird little boy needs a companion. Also from New Day Rising, Hart’s “Books About UFOs” is a straight goof: an unabashed pop song, complete with slap-back vocal echo and tinkling barrelhouse piano, about a weird little girl whose idea of a great afternoon is hitting the library and the fruit stand, then returning to her room to read the day away. As a statement of purpose for nerds, bookworms and oddballs, the good-natured, thoroughly non-aggressive “Books About UFOs” is unlike most anything else in Hüsker Dü’s recorded work, and it’s unlike everything else in the standard punk canon. Also check Hart’s impromptu “Yeah!” at the end of the tune. What’s not to love about guys—or girls—getting a kick out of doing something they dig?

3. “Eiffel Tower High” (1986)
Remember back in the intro, when I mentioned songs about art films? That’s “Eiffel Tower High,” a strange, outstanding song about a young woman who stumbles into a movie theater on a whim, but also a moving story about those times in life when, for whatever reason, we’d rather watch than participate. The clue, as always in Hüsker Dü’s best songs, is right there in front of us: “Is it a film or is it real?/She went into the movies/She’s been there ever since/She walked out to the lobby/For a box of Junior Mints.” Stumbling between the theater and the concession stand, she doesn’t even hear when the narrator tries to get her attention: “And I scream, I scream, I scream, I scream … ” It’s one of Mould’s craftiest, most evocative performances, and its perfect combination of poetry and noise prefigures the best work he’d do in his post-Hüsker Dü outfit Sugar.

4. “She’s A Woman (And Now He Is A Man)” (1987)
This is one of Hart’s best moments, a dry-eyed, utterly unsentimental overview of how love falls apart for this reason or that reason or no good reason either of us can name. Mould’s guitar holds a single power chord for nearly the entirety of the song, cutting like a bandsaw through Hart’s unflinching narration of the load-out and the final drive away. “Well, things didn’t go exactly as they planned,” he sings, with an understatement that, for all its dryness, sounds more shattering than a full-throated cry. Hart’s best songs are marked by an empathy for even their most broken characters, and it’s a rare breakup song that manages to sustain understanding for both people; Hart pulls it off flawlessly here. (Of note for historians: Hüsker Dü performed a feral version of “She’s A Woman,” along with “Could You Be The One?” on The Late Show With Joan Rivers in 1987. Rivers looks slightly uncomfortable; Mould looks very. YouTube it. You’re welcome.)

5. “Newest Industry” (1984)
It’s tucked into the middle of side three of Zen Arcade, but “Newest Industry” is in many ways the heart of the record: a snarl of confusion, anger and frustration over progress unchecked by concerns of environmental or social impact. An often-overlooked element of Hüsker Dü’s music (and another aspect that made it unique among hardcore bands) is Mould’s tirelessly pro-green agenda. On “Newest Industry,” he links the pillaging of natural resources with political colonizing (“The Sun Belt’s overcrowded so let’s annex Mexico/The peso’s only worth a dime, but they’ve got all that land/No need for a civil war, we know they’ll understand/Right?”) in a manner that would do a latter-day green punk proud. But there’s a punch line, too: “I’ll sit around and smoke cigarettes and babble, ‘What the fuck?’” Like few of its contemporaries, Hüsker Dü kept a sense of humor in the music, if not in its personal interactions. It’s that latter ugliness that finally ran the group to ground. But few punk bands left a footprint as heavy as Hüsker Dü, and somewhere, there’s a kid who’s about to hear the group for the first time. I envy that kid.

—Eric Waggoner

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