January 15th, 2015
IT WAS DECEMBER 30th, 1984, and Hüsker Dü were in from Minnesota again. They’d just wrapped up a show at a small auditorium in Concord, Massachusetts, and a small group of us were backstage* talking to guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart — the band’s co-vocalists and songwriters. A brand new album was due to hit the stores in only a week or two, and we all wanted to know: what was it going to sound like?
Zen Arcade had come out that past summer, and the indie rock world was still trying to absorb it. “Experimental” isn’t quite the right word, but Zen had played fast and loose with the boundaries of what punk rock, for lack of a better term, was supposed to sound like, bringing in acoustic guitar, piano, and a range of psychedelic effects. The upcoming project, it stood to reason, would take things ever further, would it not? Somebody — maybe it was me — brought this up.
“No way!” laughed Hart.
“Not at all,” added Mould. “This album is more like Land Speed Record than Zen Arcade!”
Land Speed, from way back in 1981, was a thrashy collection of quasi-hardcore songs played at nearly supersonic speed. Mould was being tongue-in-cheek — the album wouldn’t sound anything like Land Speed — but just the same he was on to something: this wouldn’t be a record for the squeamish.
It was called New Day Rising — a remarkable fifteen-song LP that would wake the country from its winter freeze in January of ’85. There is nothing subtle or subdued about this album. There are no touchy-feely instrumentals, no acoustic time-outs — enjoyable as those things were on Zen. Sure, the melodies and catchy choruses are there beneath it all, in typical Hüsker fashion, but New Day Rising is ferocious from start to finish; forty fearless minutes of unstoppable energy.
I’m not going to argue that Zen Arcade isn’t the better or more important album. It’s all the things the pundits have called it from the start: monumental, groundbreaking, a reevaluation of everything we thought punk rock could or should be. It’s a masterpiece. But almost too much of one, moody and broody at times, and a little too — what’s the way to put it? — serious-sounding. New Day is the brasher and looser album, with Mould and Hart clearing out the pipes, with nothing left to prove and absolutely hitting their strides. It is, if nothing else, the most supremely confident-sounding album of all time.
And it’s made all the more so through a daring, some might say controversial sound mix. There’s a very particular sound to this album — a treble-heavy mix that is like nothing before or since, in which every note is enveloped in a fuzzy, fizzing, needles-pegged curtain of sound. Many people — including the band members themselves, reportedly — have always rued this peculiar mix, but to me it’s the ideal vehicle for the group’s sound. Here is the “Hüsker buzz,” as I call it, naked and cranked to eleven. (What I wouldn’t give to hear some of the cuts from Zen Arcade or Flip Your Wig** remixed like this.) The style is “hot” in soundboard lingo, but to me the music has a crystalline, sub-zero quality to it: it sounds like ice. The songs are as melodically solid as any top-40 hits of the time, but all whipped up in a great Minnesota blizzard.
First time listeners will know exactly what I mean within the first ten seconds of the title cut. “New Day Rising,” the song, begins with a lead-in of anxious drumming — Hart pounding away, as if to say “Let’s this this fucking thing started!” — and then comes the crescendo, a guitar-blast crashing over you in a great squalling wave: equally furious and melodic; chaotic yet strangely orchestral. It’s a breathtaking opening and the perfect pace-setter for the rest of the record. (Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer once found it a compelling enough song to cover.)
Next up Hart’s “Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill.” There’s something sour and menacing and vaguely out of tune about this song that for years I could never get past. Until one day it hit me: it’s supposed to be like that. Hart takes the all the nicety and sing-songy pleasures of “It’s Not Funny Anymore” or “Pink Turns to Blue” — songs that are almost too easy to like — and twists and bends and sets fire to it. Between the second and third stanzas, Mould comes in with a guitar solo that tears the rest of it — along with your eardrums — to pieces. It’s a haunting, mesmerizing, and a little bit frightening three minutes.
And we use the term “solo” loosely here, because never is there a single musician, or a single instrument, alone on this record. Every moment of it is layered in overlapping rushes of sound.
The third cut is Mould’s “I Apologize.” This is arguably the best song he ever wrote, perhaps outclassed only by “Chartered Trips,” from side one of Zen Arcade.*** Here is the song Green Day and its ilk only wish they could have made: immensely poppy and immensely powerful, without the slightest hint of heavy metal pretension. And is it just me, or you can you almost hear Michael Stipe singing this one? The chorus is uncannily infectious in the style of the old REM songs of this same era. It’s as if you took a song like “South Central Rain” and split every atom of it: all that sweet Georgia lilac exploded into a sort of nuclear ice storm. (Putting Hüsker Dü and REM in the same sentence might seem incongruous, but it’s not by accident that they once toured together.) Listen to “I Apologize” here. Don’t skip the final fifteen seconds, and play it loud!
Further along is one of the great sleepers in the Hüsker Dü canon: Mould’s “Perfect Example.” This is the record’s only true “slow” moment — the band’s idea of a tearjerker. It closes out side one, sung by Mould in a kind of passive-aggressive whisper, with Hart (barefoot no doubt, as he always played) double-thumping the bass drum in perfect synchronicity to a human heartbeat. The song clashes to a close on the word “perfect.” Had the album ended right there, already it’d be a classic. Except that’s only the first side.
Only two of the cuts on side two belong to Hart, but both are unforgettable. These would be “Terms of Psychic Warfare” and “Books About UFOs.” Together with “I Apologize,” they are among the small batch of what I call The Great Lost Pop Songs of the 1980s. Listen to “Terms of Psychic Warfare” here, and don’t be stingy with the volume.
Deafening as it is (Mould’s solo will leave you with a lifelong case of tinnitus), “Books About UFOs” is irresistibly melodic and catchy. The track is backed with piano, and the effect is perfect: almost as if the song were written for piano from the start. “For all the speed and clamor of their music,” the music journalist Michael Azerrad once wrote, “Hüsker Dü was perhaps the first post-hardcore band of its generation to write songs that could withstand the classic acid test of being played on acoustic guitar.” That’s an excellent point, but the heck with that, I want to hear Grant playing an all piano version of “Books About UFOs.”
“I’d also recorded a slide guitar on ‘Girl Who lives on Heaven Hill,'” Grant Hart tells us. “But when I showed up after that session, Spot [the album’s co-engineer] and Bob issued an ultimatum: either the piano goes from ‘UFOs’ or the guitar goes from ‘Heaven Hill.’ After stating my case, which was ‘what does one have to do with the other?’ I relented and said if one had to go, let it be the slide guitar. Bob responded,’we already erased it.'”
To this day Grant holds some strong resentment against the way Spot, who’d been sent to Minneapolis from Los Angeles by SST Records to oversee the project, handled his duties. Spot shared the engineering tasks with the band members and their longtime collaborator Steve Fjelstad, but as Hart puts it, “SST decided that we were not to be the masters of our own destiny, and sent Spot to babysit-spy-sabotage our record. For example he did not give Steve Fjelstad the respect he deserved, treating him as an assistant.”
“Another thing I remember,” says Hart, “was not being allowed to make my own choices as far as re-doing vocals that I thought I could better. On ‘Heaven Hill’ you could hear the sound of some lumber, that had in been in the booth during remodeling, falling to the floor!”
Well, all of that aside, it’s tough to have too much issue with the finished product.
The album comes to an end with the charging, spiraling, sonic immolation of Bob Mould’s “Plans I Make.” Fasten your seatbelts for this one. It’s not the jammy, psychedelic marathon of “Reoccurring Dreams,” the 17-minute instrumental that closes Zen Arcade, but it’s a wringer, an earsplitter that, when it finally crunches to its conclusion, leaves the listener with no choice but to sit spellbound for a time.
If it seems like only yesterday that I was writing about the 30th anniversary of Zen Arcade, which had been released in June of 1984. It’s fascinating testament to Hüsker Dü’s talent and tireless work ethic that two such brilliant albums could have been released within a mere seven months of each other. And these were bookended, I should add, by two other highly impressive records — Metal Circus and Flip Your Wig, from October of ’83 and September of ’85 respectively. A spectacular four-record punch in a span of under two years.
And if forced to choose, I’d say New Day Rising sits the pinnacle of that run. This is Hüsker Dü at the very peak of its career, and one of the finest moments in the whole history of what used to be called underground rock.
Now, let’s talk about the cover art for a moment. The prior two projects, Zen Arcade and Metal Circus, both had fantastic covers. This time, maybe it could have been better? The concept is a good one, but the black sun-splotch makes no sense, and the negative image of the treeline feels a little forced. (Am I wrong in assuming there are people out there who still take album art seriously?) When the album was new, I remember a local rag here in Boston describing the cover as “ugly.”
Grant Hart was responsible for much of the band’s artwork over the years. He gives us the backstory of New Day Rising photograph:
“One night I pawned Spot off on somebody. He had been staying at my parents house and causing some problems there. I went to buy a bag of pot and when I got to my ‘dealer’s’ house there was a tow-truck stealing a Vespa scooter. I told the people inside what was going on and a pretty woman said it was hers. ‘Oh shit!’ she said, ‘I don’t have enough money to get it out of impound.’ I didn’t know her, but I figured that if I helped her I might get a ride on her Vespa 200e, which was the fastest Vespa at that time. It cost about $150 to free the bike, and we went for a ride. As time and the record went on, I spent a lot of time with this woman, Kristen. She was a habitué of one of Minneapolis’s beaches — a hidden beach on Cedar Lake. She and I eventually shot the photo for the cover there. We also ended up having a son, Karl, who turned 29 on January 10th.”
Now and Zen. The Greatest Album of All Time Turns 30
Asterisks and Additions:
* The greatest concert I ever attended, this was an impromptu show at a place called Harvey Wheeler Hall, in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a last-minute gig arranged by David Savoy, a Concord native who also was the band’s manager at the time (and whose suicide a few years later was partly responsible for its breakup). There was no stage; the band set up on the floor of what, in my memory, was a simple classroom. There were fewer than a hundred people there. We stood or sat cross-legged. The set ended when Grant cut his finger on a cracked drumstick during a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride.” My best friend at the time, Mark McKay (who later became the drummer for the post-hardcore band Slapshot), gave him a band-aid. When it was over we went backstage, as it were, and chatted a while with Grant, Bob, and Greg.
A few years ago, Paul Hilcoff, the curator of the painfully exhaustive Hüsker Dü fan site, mailed me a compact disc recording of that entire concert. I had no idea there was one. What a startling feeling it is to discover, many years on, that an actual recording exists of one of your most cherished memories. Except, the CD still sits on my bookshelf, as yet unlistened-to. One of these days I’ll summon up the courage to actually play it. Listening to that recording, provided I’ve got the emotional muster, will be the closest I ever get to time travel. That’s a sure sign of getting old, I think: a fear of getting too close to your past.
** Don’t get me started on the production of Flip Your Wig. What a fantastic album this could have been, if only Bob’s Ibanez hadn’t been made to sound like a toy lawnmower bubbling up under half a foot of mud.
*** I said of the songs he wrote, not the songs he sang or performed. The single greatest Hüsker Dü song of all, sung by Bob, is the band’s cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” released as a single in the spring of 1984.
And by the way, I used to own one of these. I don’t know what I did with the original, but I spent years trying to track down a replacement, and eventually found this one on sale… for eight-hundred dollars.
GREATEST HITS, MOULD:
1. Eight Miles High (single)
2. I Apologize (New Day Rising)
3. Chartered Trips (Zen Arcade)
4. Gravity (Everything Falls Apart)
5. Crystal (Candy Apple Grey)
6. Real World (Metal Circus)
7. Makes No Sense at All (Flip Your Wig)
8. Celebrated Summer (New Day Rising)
9. Perfect Example (New Day Rising)
10. All This I’ve Done For You (Candy Apple Grey)
GREATEST HITS, HART:
1. Keep Hanging On (Flip Your Wig)
2. Terms of Psychic Warfare (New Day Rising)
3. Pink Turns to Blue (Zen Arcade)
4. Books About UFOs (New Day Rising)
5. It’s Not Funny Anymore (Metal Circus)
6. She’s a Woman [And Now he is a Man] (Warehouse: Songs and Stories)
7. Standing by the Sea (Zen Arcade)
8. Diane (Metal Circus)
9. The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill (New Day Rising)
10. Sunshine Superman (Everything Falls Apart)
Last year, filmmaker Gorman Bechard released a movie about Grant Hart. “Every Everything” is 93 minutes of Grant — and only Grant — proving himself to be one of the more oddly captivating storytellers you’ll ever have the pleasure of listening to.
Bechard had previously interviewed Grant for “Color Me Obsessed,” his film about The Replacements, and was taken with him. In my book Grant is one of the most influential musicians ever, even to people who might not know who he is. And he’s lived a very full rock & roll life. The good, the bad, the ugly. He’s tasted it all, and is still around to talk about it. Beyond that that he’s as smart and funny as anyone on the planet.” You may not be familiar with him, but Grant Hart is among the most important songwriters of our time, and “Every Everything” is a brave and absolutely necessary tribute to one of the unsung heroes of modern music.
Click the picture for more info…
Now if you’ve stayed with me this far, chances are you’re a pretty big Hüsker fan who won’t mind if I push things an obsessive step further. And for you I present the following addendum. You’ve been warned:
I was looking at some photos of Hüsker Dü in its heyday, circa ’84 or ’85. These guys were, to put it one way, well fed. Greg always kept himself trim and dapper, but Bob and Grant weren’t going hungry, that’s for sure.
It’s only fair, then, that we should revisit the Hüsker discography, making note of various song titles as they should have appeared. That is, with a certain gastronomical theme…
There’s little on Land Speed Record or Everything Falls Apart to cook with, so let’s start with Metal Circus. Here, Bob sets the table with “MEAL WORLD,” then takes his place in the “LUNCHLINE.” Grant tells us “I’M NOT HUNGRY ANYMORE,” but later opts for some delicious “STEAK DIANE.”
Zen Arcade is a veritable buffet line of fatty faves: Bob cooks up some “CHARRED TIPS.” Later he orders some “PRIME” down at the “NEWEST EATERY.” He’s got a sweet tooth for “THE BIGGEST PIE.” Alas, it’s a “BROKEN COOKIE, BROKEN HEART.” Grant warns that he’s “NEVER COOKING FOR YOU AGAIN,” yet later we find him “STANDING BY THE STOVE,” dreaming of that moment when “BEEF TURNS TO STEW” (“…waiters placing, gently placing, napkins round her plate.”) This is a very long album, and indigestion sets in by the end of side four, closing with the epic, flatulent jam, “REOCCURRING BEANS.”
Prior to Zen Arcade, you might remember, came the Huskers’ famous 7-inch single — its cover of the Byrds’ — or is it Birds’ — classic, “EGGS PILED HIGH.”
On New Day Rising, Grant tells us about “THE GIRL WHO WORKS AT THE BAR & GRILL,” followed on side two by the sugary “BOOKS ABOUT OREOS.” Bob serves up a “CELEBRATED SUPPER.”
Flip Your Wig is, let’s just say, a little thin, though Grant gives us a cooking lesson with “FLEXIBLE FRYER.” For dessert we get “CREAM PIES.”
On Candy Apple Pie… er, Gray … again its Grant with the big appetite. His two meaty singles are, “DON’T WANT TO KNOW IF YOU’RE HUNGRY,” and “HUNGRY SOMEHOW.”
The band’s final course is the delectable double LP: Steakhouse: Songs and Stories. Bob sings of “THESE IMPORTED BEERS,” before going gourmet on the plaintive “BED OF SNAILS.” Though me makes “NO DINNER RESERVATIONS.” Grant snacks on some “CHARITY, CHASTITY, PEANUTS AND COKE,” and reminds us that “YOU CAN COOK AT HOME.”