The Curmudgeon: Why Hüsker Dü—Not Nirvana—Were the Real Kings of Punk’s Second Wave
A recent boxed set helps confirm what historians of the future should know: the crucial band of punk’s second wave was Hüsker Dü. Here's why.Photo courtesy Numero Group Music Features Hüsker Dü
Music history is worth arguing about. Not just for the sheer sport of it, but also because these disputes can determine which artists from each generation will be heard by future generations. Whether they take place in the pages of major daily papers, on the beanbags of a Midwestern dorm room, in the peer-reviewed monographs of an academic journal, at the back table of a yeast-drenched ballroom or in the liner notes of a box set, the debates can lift some reputations and sink others. The process often pushes more talented performers up and over the high profiles of more popular performers. That’s why the once-obscure country singer Woody Guthrie is more often heard today than mid-century hitmaker Al Dexter. It’s why the little-known blues singer Robert Johnson has become more famous than Charley Patton. That’s why jazz pianist Thelonious Monk has eclipsed his acclaimed contemporary John Lewis.
It’s not that Dexter, Patton and Lewis were without merit; it’s that Guthrie, Johnson and Monk had markedly more. And it’s because critics, historians and fans prevailed in their arguments for the latter three that the trio’s work has stayed in print to be enjoyed by tens of thousands of listeners born since they died.
Nirvana sold more records and got more coverage, but everything they did musically, Hüsker Dü did earlier, better and longer. Hüsker Dü’s genius was to turn punk’s initial strategy inside out by curdling the guitar sound until it was more oppressive than buoyant, making the guitars represent the stifling reality they were complaining about in their lyrics.
I’d like to pick a similar fight about music history. I’d like to argue that the crucial band of punk-rock’s second wave was not Nirvana but rather Hüsker Dü. Nirvana sold more records and got more press coverage, but everything they did musically, Hüsker Dü did earlier, better and longer. Kurt Cobain was a wonderful musician, but the combination of a best-selling record, a tabloid marriage and a lurid suicide inflated his reputation all out of proportion. For if you scrape away all the celebrity distractions that Cobain hated and you compare him on purely musical terms to Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould, for example, Mould is the more important artist. And Mould is still at it, both making records and burnishing his old band’s legacy. In November, he popped up in Do You Remember? A Podcast About Hüsker Dü, a five-part documentary series exploring the band’s formative years. That same month, Numero Group released Savage Young Dü, a box set chronicling the band’s earliest recordings.
What differentiates punk’s first wave from its second? Several things but most crucially the relationship of the guitar to the vocal. The New York Dolls, The Voidoids and The Dictators were all circling this quarry, but it was The Ramones who grabbed hold of it with both bands by building the songs around lead singer Joey Ramone’s swaggering impatience to see what might happen next. Johnny Ramone’s only response, it seemed, was to blend the garage-rock and surf-rock guitar sounds of the early ‘60s and speed them up mercilessly. This all gave The Ramones’ music a hyperkinetic brattiness that reconnected rock ‘n’ roll to its working-class, high-school roots.
The many variations spun on this formula, from the girl-group swoon of Blondie to the rockabilly of X, from the ska of The Clash to the school-cafeteria amateurism of Patti Smith and The Sex Pistols, all sprang from an unadorned guitar sound that pointed back to the pre-Beatles early days of rock ‘n’ roll. In all these cases, the careening impatience of the vocals dictated the guitar sound, which amplified the pumped-up urgency of the lyrics. Meanwhile, out in the provinces, where the kids weren’t hip enough to grasp the conceptual irony of back-to-the-future guitar, musicians were grafting the speed and concision of punk to a different guitar sound: the reverberating distortion of psychedelia and heavy metal. Many bands were experimenting with this, but Minneapolis’s Hüsker Dü recognized the new sounds’ possibilities and did the most with them.
The genius of Hüsker Dü’s Mould, drummer Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton was to turn punk’s initial strategy inside out. By curdling the guitar sound until it was more oppressive than buoyant, Mould made the guitars represent the stifling reality they were complaining about in their lyrics. In other words, the guitars became the antagonist rather than the ally of the voice and thus allowed a richer drama to be acted out within the song. And because Mould and Hart (one of the 10 best singing drummers in rock history) had such a knack for pop hooks, the conflict between their tuneful voices and those grinding guitars was dramatic indeed. And that led to their other innovation, breaking down rock lyrics into sentence fragments as short and choppy as the musical phrases. These shattered shards of language not only reflected how their peers talked, but also allowed Mould and Hart to imply far more than they actually said.
Cobain exploited these developments brilliantly on 1991’s Nevermind, even if the precedents for that breakthrough album could be found on Hüsker Dü’s mid-‘80s work. Nirvana’s big advance in the post-punk formula was allowing producer Butch Vig to make Hüsker Dü-ish songs sound like a Boston record.
Nonetheless, the six full-length Hüsker Dü studio albums—1983’s Everything Falls Apart, 1984’s Zen Arcade, 1985’s New Day Rising, 1985’s Flip Your Wig, 1986’s Candy Apple Grey and 1987’s Warehouse: Stories and Songs—are as good as any records ever to come out of the post-punk/grunge/hardcore/whatever movement. New Day Rising may well be the movement’s peak moment. On those albums, Mould’s anguished, blistering compositions were matched stride for stride by the songs penned by the late Grant Hart, who was able to capture a childlike appreciation for UFOs, sleds and a white dress, all within the pell-mell push of punk. Hart, who died in September at age 56, was the perfect ying for Mould’s bleak yang—a hardcore McCartney for a hardcore Lennon—and their dialogue made the Hüsker albums fascinating. But in 1987, Hart’s heroin habit, Mould’s frustrations and their road manager’s suicide broke up Hüsker Dü.
Savage Young Dü documents the gestation not only of a great band but also of a whole new sound. All the elements were there from the first: the roiling clouds of guitar noise, the pell-mell propulsion, the catchy hooks, the fragmented language, the skepticism toward all assumptions and an irrepressible yearning. Those ingredients didn’t always gel as they would later, but the potential is unmistakable. The box set comes with 66 songs spread across three CDs, a sessionography, a tourography and a 92-page biography by Erin Osmon about the trio’s origins from their first rehearsals in early 1979 through their rapid rise in the Twin Cities’ rock scene to their signing to Southern California’s powerhouse punk-rock indie label SST at the end of 1982. Illustrated by contemporary snapshots, posters and record sleeves, the whole thing is wrapped in a 144-page, hardcover book.
The first song, “Do You Remember?” is the translation from Norwegian into English of Hüsker Dü, a mid-century board game not unlike the Concentration card game. Mould takes the phrase quite literally and asks all the older generations of rock fans, “Do you remember when you were our age?” He demands the same right to invent a new sound for youthful frenzy that Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis had claimed a quarter century earlier. And, remarkably enough, he does invent that new sound.
Like many of the songs here, that one was never released to the public till long after the band ceased to exist. Many such songs got left behind, because the band was so damn prolific. All three members wrote from the start, pouring out songs at an astonishing clip. Norton eventually dropped out of the running, but Mould and Hart never stopped writing, each pushing the other to top the latest creation. This commitment to songwriting was crucial. While so many post-punk bands were playing music, an undifferentiated sound that they generated by the yard, Hüsker Dü were always playing songs, each one distinguished by a signature verse, chorus, riff and catchphrase that separated one tune from the next. They admired songcraft enough to cover such songs as Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and Richard Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights.”
At the end of Savage Young Dü, you can hear Mould sing the title track from Hüsker Dü’s first full-length studio album, Everything Falls Apart. This was the moment when the band’s potential finally clicked into place. Over the galloping momentum of Norton’s bass chasing Hart’s drums, Mould sings the chorus’s graceful, descending melody, “I got nothing to do; you got nothing to say. Everything is so fucked up; I guess it’s natural that way.” Pushing forward and pulling sideways, the instruments reinforce the notion that sooner or later, “everything falls apart.”
But the sad yearning in Mould’s baritone vocal implies that it shouldn’t have to be that way, that one should be able to build a relationship, a band, a community and have it stay together. He can’t deny all the falling apart he sees around him, but he refuses to accept it as inevitable. And in that tension between the creation and destruction of hopes lies the great drama of the best rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a drama that Hüsker Dü would create again and again over its short history—and why the trio deserves to be heard long after the buzz bands of the ‘80s are long forgotten.