DAR: Hüsker Dü Sells Out in ‘Candy Apple Grey’

Guilty Pleasure | Seng Lim | March 20, 2016

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“But even this mighty band could not withstand the withering white glare of the major label spotlight and went down amidst tragedy, recrimination, and despair, and still stubbornly clinging to their own hard-won artistic freedom. Such is the fate of the pioneer.”

— Michael Azerrad

Do you remember there was a memory game called “Hūsker Dū?” where children and adults are challenged to memorize pictures that are placed in holes of the board and match as many relevant pictures as possible to win the game? Of course you do because that help started many memory formatted games like guess who? And Where’s Waldo?

But do you remember the other term Hüsker Dü was a pioneering rock band from the 80s who made pavement for the alternative and indie rock scene, and also made incredible influence up to today? Of course not because you probably never heard of such band name existed in the first place. Perhaps you considered it was another platitude convention of a metal band due to the insertion of metal umlauts.

Hüsker Dü was one of the forgotten rock bands that were extremely important to the music world, alongside with other underrated bands like Big Star and Audioslave. They sounded, loud, noisy, and importantly fast, and were also memorable from their start of the underground scene to sleazy rock clubs to big concert shows where they were rarely rumored all over the nation. But with a blink of an eye, they became ignorant from the world and were never mention again, like a noticeable wind passing by. The only people who continue to care are the very few fans that either saw them live, collected their records, or pass on to tell the younger generation of music listeners.

Mainly because their album release Candy Apple Grey in 1986 was the most people knew about, specifically in the MTV world. It was the fact that the band had signed to the major label that time, where many indie fans call it a major sell out despite of their remarkable status in the indie underground community of the early 80s. It wasn’t the most important album by Hüsker Dü, but it was the one to remember solely for the band’s final run in their career to which fans like to call it ‘The greatest band breakup album’.

Photo by Seng Lim

Fans cited the album waywardly different than their previous albums, but Candy Apple Grey promised the signature tunes of crushing hardcore punk influences from their early days, and their new melodic rock creativity that they created for a changing musical direction. In reality, the band was a major key link between hardcore punk and college rock in the 80s, putting them as one of the important key bands iof the 80s indie scene in America. As music writer Michael Azerrad describes it: “Hüsker Dü played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren’t antithetical…[they were] the first post-hardcore band of its generation to write songs that could withstand the classic acid test of getting played on an acoustic guitar”. Music nerds probably never remember them, but underground rockers reminiscence it vaguely of their old, ferocious punk days.

This series of DAR (Decades of Album Reflection) return to 30 years back on the release of Hüsker Dü’s Candy Apple Grey, an era where the scenes from the American indie underground of the 80s began to deteriorate by the corporate mainstream.

A very early Hüsker Dü live show
A very early Hüsker Dü live show

In case you’re not familiar with, the 80s indie underground scene was a short, phenomenal time for music, as music buffs and punk rockers yearned for something small, new, and excitingly explosive to witness. Underground bands played in garage or small venues consisting of 10 to 40 people (even 0 people if you don’t count friends or managers), recorded in small independent record labels to cut budgets, toured persistently in broken or stuffy vans, and so far never had or made any mainstream success, or perhaps they rebelled to making it big. But the ideal of being an underground band in the 80s became a great deal of influencing the alternative and indie music scene up to today. Numerous bands are deemed incredibly iconic for establishing as a small-time/part-time career as a musician, and they mostly operated in the ethics of DIY stance, where doing-it-yourself was the only way to have your music done at your own, personal manner without having some big corporate music industry controlling you.

The majority of the DIY bands were indie/punk rockers not because of their subjective attitude they wanted to bring or witnessing the rise of punk music in the early 80s, but because of the limited access they have as a rock band: The inadequate acquiring of cheap equipments, low networking, inexpensive recordings, economical earnings in small shows (or nothing at all) and sometimes working in part-time jobs limited them toward as a mainstream band.

From coast to coast, bands are igniting their own creative DIY ways to record in the underground boundaries. But right in the middle of the nation were apparently the less quiet ones than any other regional area rockers, particularly because they weren’t up for any of it. Few favorable states like Minnesota decided to take a chance and went all out in their own unusual way. Two bands were the leading forces of the underground in that state: The Replacements from Minneapolis and Hüsker Dü from Duluth. Both bands were uncharacteristically different of each other, in terms of their direct approach to punk influences.

From top to bottom: Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton

Minnesotans actually beg for a hardcore scene to hang out at, and Hüsker Dü was their answer. founded and fronted by Bob Mould on guitars/vocals, Grant Hart on drums/vocals, and Greg Norton on bass, the band name struck them an inexplicable way, diversifying them from any other hardcore/anarcho band names despite that they wouldn’t label themselves as hardcore. But even so, they play so darn ridiculously fast to the point that they became an unruly, surging hardcore band rather than being just plain hardcore. In fact, they are immediately known to be one of the original hardcore bands of the Midwest and one of the innovative underground bands in the 80s. As Bob and Grant take controls of creating and arranging their songs individually like the rest of their albums, the band can throttle on their career while Greg’s astonishing bass was tagging behind their rhythm watcher.

Their first album was a furious live recording titled Land Speed Record, in which all of the songs are literally non-stop, action-paced, speed beat that were rhythmically more than 200 beats per minute, impressing and earning their deal to sign with California independent label SST records, which founder and Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn was a fan of immediately. Soon Hüsker Dü toured with the Californian punkers and releases three studio albums with them, including the amazing double concept album Zen Arcade.

Around their third studio recording, major label Warner Bros. Records approached them with a record contract, promising the band could hit record sales while keeping their creative control of their music. Convincing that it was too good to be true, the band agreed to sign with them after exiting out a distribution dispute from SST records. From there, Hüsker Dü becomes the band that greatly sold out to their fans. It was a big, horrendous deal as they were one of the first underground bands to actually transitioned to the mainstream after agreeing a major label deal, given that most underground bands were too afraid or too sensitive to even think of going mainstream, resulting the lost of their fanbase and their reputable underground status (ironically the other Minnesotan punkers The Replacements followed Hüsker Dü’s route right after at the same time, despite of their wayward, rising popularity).

Some say their first major label album Candy Apple Grey wasn’t the same as they were and some say it was Hüsker Dü at their finest and purest, but notionally the album was the band’s complete changing musicality from hardcore punk to the more melodic, tuneful music which became alternative and college rock, primarily since most in the album had many acoustic tracks. Still, some would suggest another take on Candy Apple Grey, as music journalist and critic Greil Marcus expresses his indistinguishable thought:

“Thuggish hillbilly drunk on books with a half-ton of plains dirt in his mouth shouting from inside a stampede of blue oxen driven by Paul Bunyan, and yet for all its fury the voice is lyri­cal, you can almost hear him thinking as he wails, damning the loss of everything that’s left behind as he presses on to wher­ever it is he has to go”

The mainstream fans politely ask the band to assert their swearing melody punk songs with a few pop accessibility elements that felt ‘alternative’ to rock music. In return, Hüsker Dü answered back with various inspirational songs that felt beautifully deep and somewhat depressing, like challenging teenage rockers to battle against their own isolated society with loud rock music.

The band’s symbolic logo that personifies the three musician. According to Bob Mould: “The circle is the band, the three lines across are the members, and the intersection is the common train of thought.”

The first track started out like any other Hüsker Dü songs: loud and fast, for Bob’s take most importantly. “Crystal” looms out like a passing airplane aerating by like the speed of sound, and ironically Bob did sang about airplanes in a morbid sense “Avalanche looms overhead / Airplane flies overhead / Important man sits by the window / Sucked out of the first class window“. I once heard this track a thousand times and finding myself “shattering your brains in a million thousand pieces” if you stuck two stereo speakers each side of your ears, and the Hüskers certainly aim to explode you with this track’s brutal, alternative rock impression.

I ask my hip, indie friends if they ever heard of Hüsker Dü, and the common preponderance I get was, “I think I heard of them in a tacky teen movie somewhere”. I did not discover “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” the way folks found in films. It’s not that films are a great way to discover great music, but I believe discovering great music is at the outset of picking up an album from elsewhere than the media. Of course the internet is there to know, but realizing how the old days of music discovery like in a record or music store felt so original. Anyway, this second track started like any other of their songs: Emotionally raw and catchy, in accordance of Grant. And the track highlighted as one of the greatest Hüsker Dü songs to know, with its appealing college rock taste and the melodic exchange between Bob’s guitar and Grant’s drum, in addition to both of their vocal harmony as well.

“I Don’t Know For Sure” starts to feel more repetitive enough to understand Hüsker Dü’s rocking perception. Bob lowers his grunting resentment and sung whole-heartedly from his true, honest rock direction. But then again, I don’t know for sure that “I Don’t Know For Sure” was intended to be a reoccurring song that the band wanted their fans to know for sure (see what I did there?).

Bringing back Grant’s voice on the spotlight, “Sorry Somehow” acknowledges as a new style of song by inserting keyboards. It’s still the same band’s cliché, but somehow Bob’s guitar solo expresses his remorseful melody along Greg’s rhythm while Grant pleads along to say sorry. Somehow I wonder why they are sorry to make this song in the first place; was it to say sorry for making an odd song somehow? (This is the last time, I promise).

Early Hüsker Dü flyer in Madison, Wisconsin

“Too Far down” senses the abstract version of the band’s musicality, or perhaps in response to write rock songs more ‘alternatively’. The intro of the song aligned like an oddball on the run for a song somewhere, but conceivably it became Bob’s one of his first take of an acoustic song that help started his solo career, making the song as emotionally effective as ever. Grant employs a softer percussion to underline Bob’s lyrical sense: “I’m too far down / I couldn’t begin to smile / Because I can’t even laugh or cry / ‘Cause I just can’t do it”. Expressively as it may sound, this put Bob in a farther spotlight of being the emotional singer he was, and still is.

Side two of the album began to continue where “Too Far Down” left off of. “Hardly Getting Over It” made so much sense of adding Bob as another emotional musician. So it wasn’t just Grant being the lonesome, depressive singer that he is, and fans began to understand Hüsker Dü as a changing band with this nostalgic, heart-felting track. The lyric prepared so much about dealing with grief and not having to find any remedy of it: “Went back to see him next week (old man) / He died of a heart attack and died away… Grandma, she got sick, she is going to die / And grandpa had a seizure, moved into a hotel cell and died away”. With Bob’s acoustic take and Grant’s soft take on the drums, fans can definitely accept the band as a changing matter from being fast to sometimes slow.

Grant’s vocal on “Dead Set on Destruction” sounded much pop traditionally, more cohesive to the 80s pop scene to be exact. You could say the his voice is imitating more on the 70’s influence, but this track really sets the mood of blending alternative with pop elements that the band had promised their fans for.

Greg Norton

“Eiffel Tower High” could be a rowdy resemblance of their cover of The Byrds “Eight Miles High”, but the track continues with its selfish repetition of alternative rock mockery. I’m not denying any of it, but rather find it fascinating and additionally new of them to sing about. Bob and Grant shared vocals, not to mention songwriting credits together, and invade this song with a creative impulse that made quirky fans to refuse to listen over and over.

“No Promises Have I Made” is a big deal for Hüsker Dü. First, Grant singing on a grand Piano regains their fans that he was the solely musician with the emotional talent. As emotionally hard than Bob’s upcoming take, Grant confirmed with this track as a hard-hitting tune with his take on percussion while eloping the band’s hardcore/alternative route to figure his own sense of find a solo career (in which he did). Second, a grand piano was a rarity in Hüsker Dü songs since it was considered ‘alternative’, even if that meant way before the trendy genre you hear in mainstream radios. The track certainly felt like a Grant Hart’s solo song despite of the song is much credited to Grant himself, which exactly prompted his own version of a solo career compared to Bob.

The final track “All This I’ve Done for You” brought back the Hüsker Dü we once remembered throughout this whole album. Bob’s crackling distortion guitar wails at us just like the hardcore days, Grant’s lightning snare rolls and pacing cymbal ride were active as ever, and Greg’s periodic bass lines and his European stache’ was always there in the first place. What a great way to end the track by going back their early base roots.

Promotional photo in 1987 (it’s eerie enough to see the hatred tensions between the members, as well as Grant’s drug addiction appearance)

As I mention before, the album was indeed the breakup matter for the band. Grant’s drug addiction began to spur, Mould’s compulsive attitude for creative control, and the never-ending shows and tour that the band rode on undoubtedly blew their stressful valve out in the air. Creative tensions and argument were stirred uncontrollably between members, and by late 1986 their conflict grew deeper when their tour manager committed suicide, blaming each other’s managerial roles. The result was their final album release of Warehouse: Songs and Stories which no one paid any attention of.

There were other reasons for the band breakup to bring about in the first place. Grant Hart’s discovery of testing positive for HIV, and by not telling any of his band members, raises his self-destructiveness with his heroin addiction and his erratic demand of Bob’s relinquishing his creative songwriting duty in the band. It was not the fact that his heroin addiction was the cause of his HIV test, but because of Grant’s homosexuality lifestyle he stirred into (Bob Mould was also the gay musician in addition, and ironically Greg Norton was not one of them, in spite of speculation of his flamboyant moustache).

Shortly after the band ended, Grant’s HIV test resulted incorrect and overturned as negative. A big relief for Grant still did not convince him to return the band; “Being together for nine years, the amount of touring that we did, the pressures of being on a major label, the more demand for your time, the less time you have for yourself” was the reason of Grant’s leave.

Greg Norton, Mike Watt from Minutemen, and Grant Hart in 2009

Grant continued his solo career as Bob formed the short lived band Sugar before initiating his own solo career, while Greg took things sabbatical and became a restaurateur. Still there are no reunions or one-night shows to make plan for. And even if there were, Grant would assume it would happen “in federal court”.

Hüsker Dü became one of the unknown legendary bands that were unnecessary to see them live ever again. It was like any other bands that were career-ending; The Jimi Hendrix Experience or The Ramones are long gone but not forgotten, and Hüsker Dü became a part of that list. The band’s influential inspiration led to the alternative and indie scenes of the 90s. Boston band Pixies were formed as bassist Kim Deal responded to an ad of a band influenced by “Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary”. Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic quote of his band’s musical style: “Nothing new, Hüsker Dü did it before us”, while Foo Fighter’s Dave Grohl was strongly supportive of Hüsker Dü and Bob Mould’s solo career that he abandoned his own band for awhile only to play along with him.

Bob Mould and Dave Grohl in 2010

So the world isn’t so bad knowing that these guys convey the power of influences among artists today and the decade before, and that is how we can be able to reconcile such great artists like Hüsker Dü in alternative/punk music of today. And with that in mind, let’s refresh my question from the beginning of this article: Do you remember Hüsker Dü?


photo credited by Only the Young Die Young from Tumblr and Husker Du Database