Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

Hüsker Dü
Savage Young Dü
Numero Group 
The Wire, December 2017

by Simon Reynolds

Your memories may differ from mine, but as I recall, 1983 was when postpunk’s energies started to dwindle and the movement splintered into various fruitless and misguided directions. Suddenly it was slim pickings out there for the young music fiend. One coping mechanism to circumvent the excitement-deficit involved turning to the past: particularly, the gathering swarm of Sixties garage compilations.  Another resource was hardcore punk imports from America.  I vividly recall making expeditions to London to scour Rough Trade, Vinyl Solution, and shops on Camden High Street for volumes in the Mindrocker and Back to the Grave series, but also to scoop up LPs by Angry Samoans, Negative Approach, Flipper, and more.  These two kinds of punk will always be linked in my mind as vitalizing blasts of visceral release that helped sustain some of us through the doldrums of the mid-Eighties.

Some of the most galvanising imports gleaned on these trips were SST releases by Black Flag, Descendents, Meat Puppets, Minutemen... and Hüsker Dü.  The blizzard-blend of open-tuned guitar and open-hearted melody on the Metal Circus EP blossomed into the mature furore of Zen Arcade and Flip Your Wig. Dü, by this point, were my favorite group. And for a mid-decade moment,  Minneapolis – more precisely, the Twin Cities, given that two of the Dü  three came from St Paul – felt like the soul-center of Eighties alternative rock, since it had also given the world the wonderfully ragged and achingly tuneful band The Replacements.  Minnesota mystique encouraged certain fledgling music journalists (e.g. me) to overpraise local Hüsker-derivatives like Soul Asylum, who were originally named Loud Fast Rules and made their vinyl debut on the Barefoot and Pregnant comp released on Hüsker Dü’s tiny label Reflex.  

I think of Hüsker Dü and Replacements as core bands of an era that could be called “Years of Exile”. It’s a period bookended, at its 1983-84 start, by the re-election of Reagan and Thatcher, and at its other end by grunge’s breakthrough, Bill Clinton ending 14 years of Republican rule, and Tony Blair’s rise (which signaled if it didn’t yet achieve Labour’s return from the wilderness and pulled down the curtain on an interminable-seeming era of Conservative dominance). “Exile” captures the feeling of absolute alienation from both mainstream politics and mainstream pop culture (the former’s reflection) widespread among youth at that time.  The mood is hard to reconstruct now but you can get a sense of it from the emotional spectrum of alternative rock and indie.  Discernible in groups as diverse as The Smiths and R.E.M., Mekons and Dinosaur Jr, the palette was grey and glum for the most part: despondency, resignation,  blocked idealism, passive-aggressive withdrawal, futile flails of impotent rage, and here and there just the faintest inkling of “hope against hope” (the title of Band of Susans’s defining song). Hüsker Dü paved the way for grunge, but they were also - via intermediary My Bloody Valentine – ancestors of shoegaze, a genre whose dream-dazed sound and fey sighing vocals implicitly proposed an anti-politics of reverie rather than revolution.

In addition to the group’s widespread influence, the Dü-sound directly participated in the alt-rock crossover of the Nineties, through Sugar, the far more successful successor group formed by singer/guitarist Bob Mould (one of  Dü’s two gifted writers, the other being singer/drummer Grant Hart, who died two months ago). Back in the Eighties, though, it had seemed utterly inconceivable that noise-pop of the Hüsker Dü type could ever penetrate mass consciousness. Along with political discontent and personal-existential issues, the imploded anger in Eighties alternative rock stemmed partly from frustration: knowing you were making the crucial music of your time – the next step in the rock dialectic – but would never reach the ears and eyes of the wider public. This revolution would never be televised, even after Hüsker Dü – like some of their peers – signed to major labels. A woefully awkward appearance on the Joan Rivers show, finagled somehow by Warners, and findable on YouTube, demonstrates how ill-equipped the band were to navigate a mainstream governed by image and presentation.   “We don’t want to be stars,” Hart declared in their very first interview, for a 1980 edition of their local alt-weekly Sweet Potato.  As if they would ever have any choice in the matter!

Savage Young Dü skips the Warners era, which produced two superb albums, Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories, both essentially of a piece with the three preceding SST classics: Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig.  But Numero’s box also steers clear of the SST phase. Instead it’s focused forensically on the first four years of Hüsker Dü’s existence, when they were still shaking off influences (Ramones being the formative one, but Public Image Ltd surprisingly strong circa their debut single “Statues”). Gathering demos, a practice session captured during sound-check, live recordings, a couple of early singles and one whole studio album, the box comes with an exhaustively detailed history and a wealth of cool illustrations:   photos catching  bassist Greg Norton in mid-leap levitating above the stage, flyers for scores of tour dates,  biro-scrawled inlays of cassettes taped by their live soundman.

Driven by a dedicated work ethic that was stoked further by a diet of low-grade speed, blessed with two fertile writing talents, Hüsker Dü wrote songs at a furious pace, then played them live at unflagging full-tilt velocity. The result is a ton of material that is indistinct stylistically (Hüsker Dü still some ways off achieving the “band-voice” detectable with any great group within seconds of hearing them) and muddied further by the production quality. Its loving restoration here only highlights its rudimentary-documentary nature (Dü generally favored a one-take approach). To be blunt, it does all rather merge into an undifferentiated blur of foaming guitar, pummeling bass, and hectic, tripping-over-themselves drum patterns.

Amidst the hoarse roar of songs like “Sore Eyes”, lyric shards leap out that illustrate Mould and Grant’s emerging knack for mundane yet quirky specificities - “I woke up in the middle of a wet dream”, “I read sex manuals in my room” – that make the confessions of loneliness and insecurity sting with a harsh reality that recalls prime Pete Shelley. Whether this vulnerability - radical in the context of hardcore - has something to do with Mould and Hart being (like the Buzzcock vocalist) gay and bi respectively is an intriguing if unanswerable question. Both Dü singer-songwriters grew up in households with abusive and emotionally dominating fathers, and that must surely have complicated their feelings about masculine character armour. Whatever the biographical sources, it’s this characteristic Hüsker aura of wounded frailty that makes you sure that “Diane” - Hart’s first great song, inspired by Twin Cities serial killings – involves identification with the victim rather than the victimizer. Whereas with other Eighties noise-core songs about girl-murder, you’re less confident that the psycho-dynamic is altogether wholesome.

More than personal experience or sexual politics, though, it was a growing infatuation with Sixties music that enabled Hüsker Du to slip past the regimenting strictures of hardcore (“loud fast rules” is meant to be a celebration, but it could also read as a set of regulations). Their cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” could have been a Dickies-like gesture (rampaging over a hippie dippy golden oldie for shits ‘n’ giggles) in another band’s hands. But for Dü it points ahead to their blistering revisions of “Ticket To Ride” and “Eight Miles High”.

The Byrds above all seemed to have opened up Dü’s music, emotionally and harmonically. Gradually the melodies start to soar rather than jabber percussively, ramalama-punk style, like they do on the earliest songs such as “Truth Hurts”. Backing vocals begin to appear.  Mould’s guitar develops a chiming style of jangle-riff that recalls nothing so much as Blue Öyster Cult’s own Byrds homage “Don’t Fear The Reaper”. I thought I was hallucinating the resemblance but in the booklet Mike Watt describes Dü ’s live album Land Speed Record (released on the Minutemen’s little label New Alliance) as striking them on first hearing as “like really fast Blue Öyster Cult.” And hey, the umlaut fetish clinches it, surely! Grant Hart himself talked about a “raga thing” emerging from within the haze of overtones and partials generated by his manic cymbal spray and Mould’s flayed V-neck. He also compared it to “free jazz”. But there are only hints in the early material collected here of the raging abstract majesty of “Reoccurring Dreams”, the 14 minute improvised instrumental that closes Zen Arcade.   

The hurtful truth – and I’ve been delaying saying it, because I love the band and respect the archival rationale – is that if the material in this box set was all Hüsker Dü had ever done, no one would be making a box set of their work. The legend is based on what came next. The box that’s really needed would start with the Metal Circus recording of “Real World” – as opposed to its gnarly prototype on Savage – and finish with the best tracks on Warehouse.  Fans will find things to love here, I’m sure. But Savage Young Dü  won’t be making any converts. 

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