This is a revised and updated version of a piece I first published in July 2013. Excuse the repost, but it’s been a heavy couple of weeks and I’m fried. Back soon!
The first time I read about Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade was in a column Jawbox’s Bill Barbot wrote for Guitar School in 1996. 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 hurry? Why not go at your own pace? Why not weigh things up over days – or weeks – one element at a time?
In 1984, a punk rock band like Hüsker Dü on a punk rock label like SST 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 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.
Total Access, the studio in Redondo Beach where the album was recorded, was not then, and isn’t now, an amateur facility. But the way the band worked – first takes being used for all but a couple of songs on the album, the whole band tracking live, the use of SST’s house producer/engineer Spot (Glen Lockett) rather than the studio’s own staff – did lead to a record with a somewhat amateurish sound, one that’s certainly had 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.”
The Hüsker Dü sound was at least partly a product of choice not chance, however. When the band left SST and signed with Warner Bros., they didn’t leave their indie-era sonic signature behind them, like their cross-town rivals the Replacements did. The recordings the Hüskers made for Warners were still very spindly, given how crushingly powerful they were live. Hart never had the meaty, powerful drum sound that is the sine qua non of any rock music worth the name. Greg Norton’s bass was always a clanky, indistinct presence in the mix. Candy Apple Grey, the band’s first record for Warner’s, has a little more polish (there’s a more audible echo on the vocals, the hint of a gated reverb on the drums) than Zen Arcade, but compared to the records that Jack Endino would make in a year or so for Sub Pop (to take an example from indie land), it’s still a tame-sounding thing indeed, no matter how ferocious Mould’s guitar sound was.
Ultimately, though, Hüsker Dü were a band that demanded to be taken for what they were. Greg Norton’s bass may have been largely devoid of actual bass frequencies, Grant Hart may have sounded like he was playing the world’s smallest drum kit (and possibly a different song to the one Mould was playing), and Mould’s buzzy, fuzzy guitar was a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing (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.