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

29 replies on “The Over/Under: Hüsker Dü”

“Celebrated Summer” on Bob’s Circle of Friends DVD is worth a listen, as is “I Apologize”. Great stuff.

‘Girl That Lives on Heaven Hill’ and ‘I’m Never Talking To You Again’ are both solid parts of Husker Du’s history. They’re just good songs. That’s it. Stop being over thinking music press geeks trying to find things to write about. Lame.

Heaven Hill is a brand of cheap bourbon. In “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” Grant is singing about a romance with drinking, not a romance with a woman.

“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.”
And that is an historical moment: a punk band admitting the defeat instead of screaming empty slogans.

That been said, Celebrated Summer is a masterpiece, my favourite song in the world ever.

I don’t think it’s possible to overrate Husker Du. I loved The Replacements, Black Flag and Minutemen, too. But Huskers were THE band of the mid 80s. Every song on your list is still great today.

Thank you for acknowledging “Eiffel tower High,” one of my favorite songs of all time.

I always thought “Heaven Hill” was a great example of a seemingly simple lyric given deeper meaning through the emotional performance of the singer. When Hart screams “up there on the hill is where I want to be,” It sounds less like a party animal bragging about his exploits, and more like the last words of someone about to spiral off the tracks.

Listening now to Flip Your Wig (this misguided list can at least be credited with nudging that great album onto the iPod playlist today), I’m stunned to read that “Divide and Conquer” is considered overrated. Worrying over Mould’s vocal delivery? Really? Didn’t notice as the guitars were slashing and burning their way through this absolutely killer track. I love exercises like this and the conversation they spark, but as usual, this is an exercise in revisionist history and purposeful contradiction in the interest of generating comments. Mission accomplished.

I’m with John- Fun exercise, but I always thought the one-two punch of Divide and Conquer and Games that closed out side one of the vinyl Flip Your Wig was the combo that solidified the Huskers’ stature. Too bad it was also their final Capital-G great moment….also, I recall your top two under-rateds as among the biggest (positive) attention getters at the time of their albums’ respective releases.

When are the albums be remastered and re-released? Read somewhere else that it was being discussed 🙂

When WILL the albums be remastered and re-released? Read somewhere else that it was being discussed 🙂

Two of my favourite artists of the 80s were Husker Du and Brian Eno (his ambient stuff) – poles apart musically and yet, for me at least, somehow connected. My favourite mix tape from the 1980s was called “Husker Du vs Eno” in which I followed a Husker song with an Eno one and so on. Schizophrenic for sure, but it worked. And had the benefit of freaking out die-hard fans of either artist!

I’m not sure anything by Husker Du can be considered overrated. This is mainly due to the fact that they are not rated very highly by today’s zeitgeist. Husker Du do not have the same posthumous respect as, say, the Pixies. This may well be due to the lack of reunion tour and/or remastering/re-release of their albums. Generation Pitchfork has never been properly introduced.

However, where I really take umbrage with this list is the exclusion of any songs predating “Zen Arcade.” Where Husker Du is truly UNDERRATED is during their time as a hardcore group. The general gist of the Husker Du story is they the started out playing punk rock and then got good. This ignores the fact that Husker Du were an exceptional hardcore band, one of the best the genre produced, the equal of Minor Threat or Bad Brains and the superior of any of the dozens of three-letter acronym bands scattered across the USA. Using a forum such as this to shed a little light on this would have had more of a purpose than saying that “Eiffel Tower High” is a better song that “Could You Be the One?”

“Divide and Conquer” proves exceptional for a myriad of reasons…a big one is the furious rush of wind and fury it exudes on their pretty mellow major label CANDY APPLE GREY – I always wonder what this same song might have sounded like recorded during the ZEN ARCADE era….as someone mentioned earlier “I Apologize” is easily one of the band’s best . . .”Green Eyes”, “Makes No Sense At All” INCREDIBLE….”Could You Be The One” is also not overrated – it does what all the best pop songs do – treads a thin line on invention and cliche and comes up on the side of victory….I cannot believe how much I miss this band…does anyone know when the Husker Du book might be issued? Perhaps 33 1/2 owes ’em one too . . .

i am so glad i had i chance to see them live twice (86 & 87) at the fillmore in frisco. i would have to say my favorite song is ‘keep hanging on’.
“only angels have wings girl…..”

husker du is the shit.
my band Grub Animal is pushing their sound as best we can.
there is no way to actually mimic husker du, but there’s something silly and rediculous but still totally sincere about their song writing that can be studied and learned from.

Jay B.: Now you do.

Chef Ragoo: Well-stated, sir (or madam). I can absolutely see your point.

roarvis: 100% agreed, and also a nice reading of the song.

PB: Also very cogently put, and anyone who’s dipping into the playlist for the first time should also check HD’s first album, the live _Land Speed Record_, the _Metal Circus_ EP, and the reissue/compilation _Everything Falls Apart And More_, which collects that record as well as contemporary singles. Well played.

Hey Milo, don’t recall seeing you at those SF shows but I was there as well. One of the few advans to being old (being 23 years old in London in 1979 was another one). Thing about this Over/Under thing, is that the dead-brilliant standing classics get necessarily overlooked, so I had to mention SORRY SOMEHOW, as it more or less saved my life, which OK is an exaggeration but it certainly was central to my choosing the right road once. In any case, as I assume it’s just ACCEPTED to be in ‘stone classic’ territory it wouldn’t find its way into an O/U but SOMEbody had to mention it, right? Otherwise, I generally agree with the consensus here regarding CYBTO, HEAVEN HILL and D&C. Takes a nitpicker to pick those nits, I should think…

First off, thanks for writing about Husker Du. Not enough people do. I would say “Celebrated Summer” is not under-rated, all fans love it and it is now probably one of their most famous songs now due to Bob covering every time he plays and the weak version done by Mark Kozelek.

Divide And Conquer and Never Talking are classics, can’t be rated high enough in my book. Great call on Eiffel Tower High and Newest Industry.

“Real World,” “Crystal,” “Pink Turns To Blue,” “Games” and “Up in The Air” are my all-time faves. “Real World” encompasses everything I love about punk in one ferocious 2-minute blast. I got me hooked early on.

I saw them on their last tour in NYC (the band Christmas opened up)… they just ripped through Warehouse in exact album order, no banter, no encore, they seemed very angry and tired, still reeling from David Savoy’s death, I’m sure. Still, they sounded great. I see Bob live all the time still, I really miss Grant. His solo stuff was great too. Again, thanks for the post.

Lynne, supra, is partly correct. TGWLOHH is about being with an alcoholic broad. It’s a great fucking song. Haters blow dick.

I got to agree with you, New Industry get underlooked. But what about Chartered Trips? Terms of Phychic Warfare? Its Not Funny Anymore? Turn it around?

Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.
Grant used to hang out in liquor store where a friend worked. There was a girl who would come there to buy a bottle of Heaven Hill (vodka) every night; she was dying from cancer and vodka was helping her with the pain.
Live and learn.

For god’s sake, Heaven Hill is a bourbon, not vodka. And “Heaven Hill” is probably the band’s finest moment.

I was quickly scanning through this & nearly had a heart attack when I saw “celebrated summer” on the list, but then I realized it was on the “underrated” side. Phew.

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