An absolute masterpiece in every sense...
'Zen Arcade'

Hüsker Dü always stood apart from the American hardcore punk scene they initially inhabited.

The name alone marked out them as different. Look at the names of some of their contemporaries; Black Flag, Minor Threat, Agnostic Front. Great bands, but when you hear their names, you pretty much know exactly what they’re going to sound like. Angry, confrontational. But if you hear Hüsker Dü’s name, without having heard them before, you probably have no idea what kind of band they are. Could be prog, could be folk, could be just about anything. Naming themselves obliquely after a Scandinavian board game, while their contemporaries went for more direct names, Bob Mould, Grant Hart and Greg Norton’s power trio stood out from the start.

Musically, however, there wasn't initially a lot to distinguish them from these other bands. Although their debut single, the self-released double A-side ‘Statues/Amusement’ was closer to the post-punk, new-wavey sounds of bands like Public Image Ltd, their first album, ‘Land Speed Record’ fitted right into the nascent American hardcore sound. Recorded live, the album is 26 minutes and 17 songs of attrition all noise. Songs are over in half a minute, before launching right onto the next one. Guitars and drums meld together into an almost indistinguishable wall of sound, Mould and Hart’s vocals at times completely lost on the mix, with the exception of the occasional detectable slogan like “it’s all lies anyway.”

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Debut studio album 'Everything Falls Apart' toned things down a tad, a couple of tracks from 'Land Speed Record' ending up on there in a more audible form, but the album hinted at a larger songwriting talent which was realised further by follow up mini-album 'Metal Circus'. The maturing song craft hinted at on 'Everything Falls Apart' was developed with tracks like 'Real World', 'Diane' and 'It’s Not Funny Anymore'. There was still anger, energy, aggressive vocals, but there was also melody, introspection, a far wider emotional spectrum and what became Moulds signature ‘swarm of bees’ guitar sound. With these seven songs, Husker Du had signalled their intent to broaden the horizons of punk rock, and their refusal to be inhibited by the narrow parameters of any ‘scene’.

The level of ambition they had was barely hinted at by Metal Circus, but few could have anticipated what Hüsker Dü would dü next. In an interview with Steve Albini in 1983, Bob Mould hinted at what the band were planning next, telling Albini that their next work would attempt to extend beyond the realms of what people thought punk rock, or rock and roll, was capable of. What may have sounded like grandstanding and bravado didn’t come close to describing what would come next.

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Thirty two years ago this month, on SST records, Hüsker Dü released what to my mind is still the greatest album of all time. In keeping with Mould's statement, Zen Arcade restructured the parameters of punk rock, of rock and roll, of indie. First of all, it was a double album. Not only that, but a double CONCEPT album, an idea only previously associated with pretentious stadium prog bands. Thematically telling the tale of a young man running away from an abusive home, joining the army, falling in love before losing his girlfriend to a heroin overdose, the album begins fairly conventionally with the one-two punch of 'Something I Learned Today' and 'Broken Home, Broke Heart';. But this is followed with the acoustic ballad 'Never Taking To You' again, perhaps the first time an acoustic guitar had been heard on an American punk rock album.

From there, stylistically, the album is all over the place. From the searing hardcore of 'Pride', to the experimental psychedelia of 'Hare Krishna', to the instrumentals 'Monday Will Never Be The Same' and 'One Step At A Time'. The album even finishes with twelve-minute jazz odyssey 'Reoccurring Dreams'. And amognst all this, plenty of Husker Du's trademark mix of extreme noise and melody, exemplified by one of the stand-out tracks on the album, 'Chartered Trips', a song which, when broken down, reveals itself to essentially be a folk song sped up, and ploughed through Mould's MXR Distortion Plus fuzz pedal.

The recording of the album has become the stuff of punk legend. Just as 'Metal Circus' was hitting the stores, the band entered Total Access studios in California with 25 songs that had been rehearsed in an old abandoned church in Minneapolis, and proceeded to record every song in one take (with the exception of 'Something I Learned Today' and 'Newest Industry', both of which started too fast and required an indulgent two takes). Everything was recorded in less than 40 drug fuelled hours. Another solid 40 hour session completed all the mixing. In just 80-odd hours, Hüsker Dü had crammed in more ideas, more craft, and more genre-busting artistry to one album than the entire American punk movement had collectively managed before or since.

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Listening to the album as I write this piece, its power remains completely undiminished. By turns claustrophobic and expansive, violent and sensitive, melancholic and euphoric, experimental and focussed, it captures a band breaking through the glass ceiling of genre music, and discovering what they were capable of.

It serves as a blueprint not just for any musician, but for any artist of any kind; refusal to be constrained by boundaries, rules or conventions, even within the context of your chosen genre or medium, it’s an album that challenged both the listener and the artists themselves.

After two more albums with SST Records, Hüsker Dü did another thing that seemed unthinkable in indie/punk circles; they signed with a major label, specifically Warner Bros. But, in true Hüsker Dü style, even this was done in a groundbreaking way, the band managing to retain full artistic control over all their output, in return for agreeing to keep production costs down. Although there were, unsurprisingly, some shouts of 'sell-out', the contract the band negotiated with Warners became a template for other indie bands crossing from the underground to major labels, Sonic Youth in particular seeking out the band's advice when they signed to Geffen.

Spiralling inner-band tensions, drug addiction and the suicide of the bands manager led to the eventual break-up of Hüsker Dü in 1988. Greg Norton is now a restaurateur, Grant Hart released several albums as a solo artist and with Nova Mob, and Bob Mould continues to grow as a songwriter, through his incredible post-Hüsker Dü solo 'Workbook', second power-trio Sugar, to his current solo incarnation, releasing his best work in years, 'Patch The Sky', this year.

Hüsker Dü burned briefly but intensely, leaving a legacy that has shaped guitar music as we know it. They released a prolific eight albums in six years, two of them doubles. But, consistently superb as their output is, their greatest work remains 'Zen Arcade'.

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Words: Nathan O'Hagan

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