Tag Archives: Grant Hart

In a Free Land – Hüsker Dü

When I was around 15 or 16, in 1997 and 1998, I was constantly on the lookout for records by bands I’d read about and never heard. I’d read whatever American guitar magazines I could get my hands on (never passing a newsagent when I was out cycling around town without going in to see what they had) and any book about rock music in any of the libraries in the borough. Through the interviews I read in guitar magazines and books, I learned about Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr, the Minutemen, as well as a host of big-in-the-US acts that never made it over here.

One article in one of these magazines (a sort-of history of alternative rock that I really wish I’d kept. Talk about a time capsule!) was a retrospective of the Minneapolis music scene in the 1980s, which is where I found out all about Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, the Jayhawks and Soul Asylum*. So when I saw an expanded edition of Hüsker Dü’s debut studio album, Everything Falls Apart, in Southend Library, I picked it up right away, barely pausing to ask how such an aggressive, low-budget artefact ended up in a public library, 4000 miles from where it was released on the band’s own label in 1982, when I was less than a year old. Frankly, I still don’t know who on earth was acquiring the records for Essex Libraries’ CD catalogue, but I’m mighty glad that said catalogue included Hüsker Dü.

Everything Falls Apart is a hardcore album, with several songs less than a minute long, and a total running time of around 25 minutes. So the label in charge of the reissue, Rhino, filled it out with the band’s early 7-inch singles and B-sides. One of which was In a Free Land, a track that hinted at what the band would go on to do as a more focused melodic force, rather than three guys playing so fast and screaming so hard the music was a barely coherent blur.

Hardcore was by its very nature political. All the bands were anti-government, some out of leftist convictions (they were appalled the country was now run by Reagan), some because of anarchist sympathies. In a Free Land, a rant against the education system and the wider society that it serves, was more in tune with the latter strain of hardcore (the hard-to-hear last line of the verse is “The only freedom worth fighting for is what you think”). Mould would revisit some of these themes later in his work (as on Copper Blue‘s The Slim, Mould’s response to losing someone to Aids), but his solo songs and those he recorded with Sugar were on the whole more concerned with his emotional life than the ones he wrote for Hüsker Dü.

In a Free Land, like Grant Hart’s Turn on the News from Zen Arcade, exists in a strange state. Familiar only to Hüsker diehards, it should be a standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it would be. So it was an enormous treat when I saw Mould play the Electric Ballroom in Camden a couple of months ago that In a Free Land was one of the Hüsker Dü songs he performed that night, alongside New Day Rising, Makes No Sense at All, I Apologise and Never Talking to You Again. It deserves its place in that elevated company.

In a Free Land

*Actually, I knew Soul Asylum via Runaway Train and owned Grave Dancers Union already, but had no idea they’d once been a hardcore band mentored and produced by Bob Mould.

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Grant Hart RIP

It’s not just that Turn on the News deserves to have been heard by a bigger audience than it has by virtue of its sheer quality. It’s that it, like other songs I can think of, doesn’t make sense as a cult song. It’s just bigger than that.

If it had been written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for Born in the USA rather than by Hüsker Dü for Zen Arcade, it would now be a rock ‘n’ roll standard. If it had been recorded by the Clash, it’d be up there in the band’s catalogue with London Calling. It’s Rockin’ in the Free World, five years early, and Neil Young would have been mighty happy to have written that riff and that chorus. It has the melody, the power, the drama and the timelessness of any classic rock warhorse you care to name.

Turn on the News was written by Hüsker Dü’s drummer, Grant Hart, who died yesterday of cancer. Hart wrote a huge number of the band’s greatest songs (Pink Turns to Blue, Keep Hanging On, Green Eyes, Sorry Somehow and Don’t Want to Know if You Are Lonely – just to name the first five that come to mind), and his songs are just as treasured by the band’s fans as those by Bob Mould, even if Grant never got the mainstream exposure in the years since Hüsker Dü broke up that Bob enjoyed with Sugar.

He recorded less prolifically than Mould and his records tended to only turn up on little indies without any promotional budget, but from the EP version of 2541 (a song covered by Marshall Crenshaw and Robert Forster, who both know a thing or two about writing good alterna-pop) to the rather bonkers but occasionally inspired The Argument from 2013, an album based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, he never lost his way with a melody.

Ultimately though, it’s his time in Hüsker Dü that he’ll be remembered for, and that’s only natural; to say that rock music wouldn’t be the same today without Hüsker Dü is such a commonplace observation as to be a cliche. But if you want proof, just take a look at social media today and see your favourite musicians talking about what the band’s music, and Grant Hart, meant to them.

The sound of Hüsker Dü

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.

Huskers
The Dü: l-r Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould