The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in the mid-nineties. He was writing about how to make ‘a brilliant recording without spending a military budget and the rest of the decade in the process’. Zen Arcade was his Exhibit A.
Zen Arcade is the kind of album that doesn’t get made now. The most tangible change in record-making wrought by the advent of affordable digital recording gear is the drawn-out, accretive nature of the process as it is engaged in by many (perhaps the majority) of artists. When you have your own gear and in effect your own studio, and when you are your own producer and you’re not footing the bill for an engineer, why not go slowly, at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days, or weeks, one element at a time?
In 1984, Hüsker Dü couldn’t do this. They worked quickly because SST couldn’t afford for them to work slowly. When they decided to make a double album, that meant doing twice the work in the time allotted, not doubling the amount of studio time. Zen Arcade’s 23 tracks were recorded and mixed – at Total Access in Redondo Beach, which wasn’t, and still isn’t, an amateur facility, contrary to what a lot of Hüskers fans have assumed – in 84 hours. The last session comprised 40 straight hours of mixing. The whole enterprise cost $3200 (about $7000 in today’s money), which is not a lot for a double album people still sing hosannas to 30 years on.
However, the sound of Zen Arcade certainly has its detractors – Robert Christgau observed drily, ‘It wouldn’t be too much of a compromise to make sure everyone sings into the mike, for instance, and it’s downright depressing to hear Bob Mould’s axe gather dust on its way from vinyl to speakers.’ But Zen Arcade is an album that demands to be taken for what it is. Greg Norton’s bass may be largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may sound like he’s playing ‘paper drums’ (The Posies – Grant Hart, 1996) and possibly a different song to the one Mould’s playing on guitar, and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar is a real love-it-or-hate-it kind of sound (it’s nothing I’d model my own guitar sound on, but somewhat predictably I love it), but the sound of these guys tearing through their songs with absolute conviction and vein-bulging ferocity is one of the most thrilling experiences in rock’n’roll. Almost everything else sounds effete in comparison.
Hüsker Dü, ©Michael Ochs. Yes, Greg Norton had a handlebar moustache. Yes, I believe he still does.