Tag Archives: hardcore

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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Dead Air – Heatmiser (or, Elliott Smith’s embarrassing baby photos)

Perceptions about Heatmiser have been distorted by comments made about the band by Elliott Smith (one of the band’s singer/guitarists) after the fact: that their first album was an “embarrassment”, that none of them liked the music they were playing, that they were following fashion rather than making the music they wanted to, that Smith was “acting out a role I didn’t even like. I couldn’t come out and show where I was coming from. I was always disguised in this loud rock band.”

Hmm. Maybe.

Missteps that we made in the recent past are of course liable to embarrass us far more than mistakes made years and years ago, so when asked about Heatmiser in 1997 or 1998, Smith was not in the best place to be fair, even-handed or insightful about the group’s accomplishments and limitations. So it seems likely that he wasn’t a prisoner in his own band, as he portrayed himself later, and that he was instead merely trying to distance himself from the group by presenting the McCartney-esque acoustic craftsman as the real Elliott Smith, and not the sneering Elvis Costello-gone-hardcore persona he adopted on the first two Heatmiser records. In fact, both were facets of his creativity, and equal ones; artists do, after all, contain multitudes.

He was worrying more than necessary. While his attempts at Ian McKaye- or Page Hamilton-style bawling are sometimes unintentionally a little comic on Dear Air (due as much to the incongruousness of it all – in light of his later public image – as anything else), what’s most notable about Heatmiser’s first record is its commitment. For a band that supposedly didn’t like what they were doing, they sure played it as if they meant it. Listening to the overlapping vocals of Neil Gust and Smith on, say, Stray, and tell me they’re half-hearted.

Nevertheless, they sometimes come off as callow, like a band that wanted to be Fugazi but didn’t quite have the chops (vocal or arrangemental) to pull it off. While bass player Brandt Peterson might have powered a version of the band that was somewhat lighter on its feet, the recordings the band made in its early days were absolutely buried underneath hugely distorted guitars. Overly distorted, really, even in the context of the era. A couple of cleaner overdubs doubling the main parts would probably have helped with clarity, but these guys were young and inexperienced in the studio and evidently didn’t know this.

There are songs on Dear Air worth persisting with, though. Smith’s lyrical style was pretty close to fully formed from the get-go, and while this may speak more of later artistic arrested development than early precocity, it does mean that there are good lines sprinkled throughout his songs. There’s some good ones, too, in Neil Gust’s tracks. Perhaps the album’s best moments come when Gust and Smith sing at the same time, trading lines in almost a call and response style, egging each other on, as on Bottle Rocket and Dirt. It seems to prompt Smith’s most confident and least self-conscious vocals; there’s an excitement to these performances that gives the lie to Smith’s later claims that no one in the band really liked the music they were playing.

Unfortunately the first half of the record feels a lot stronger than the second. The only dud in the run from Still to Stray is second track Candyland. But things don’t pick up again until the closing three tracks, Lowlife, Buick and Dead Air. Cannibal and Don’t Look Down are about as nondescript as grunge-era rock gets, and the record would actually be improved by their excision.

Let’s stop to think about Lowlife for a second, with its drop-tuned palm mutes and chromatic riffing. The idea floated by many (not least by Smith himself) that the Elliott Smith of early Heatmiser was inauthentic and that his songs went into the band’s meat-grinder and came out grungy and unrecognisable, is revealed by a song like Lowlife (and Stray and Dead Air) as fanciful. Those songs were written to be performed this way; they were not delicate fingerpicked tracks that his grunge-obsessed band mates somehow turned into rock music. Consider, also, how many of Smith’s early solo tracks are built on tense, sometimes outrght aggressive strumming, rather than fingerpicking: Roman Candle, Last Call, Christian Brothers, Needle in the Hay, Alphabet Town. These are rock songs played without a band.

Dead Air, taken as a whole, is actually a qualified success, certainly as strong as follow-up Cop and Speeder, towards which Smith felt more warmly, and maybe stronger. Dear Air has been unfairly maligned (not least by Smith himself), for reasons that go beyond the quality of the songs and whether or not Smith “meant it” at the time.

If Heatmiser are a marginal group (and they are), it’s because they were transparently not as impressive, or as heavy, as their influences. Their decision to turn the guitars up was presumably their own, but it is difficult to write expansive melodies over drop-tuned, palm-muted chromatic riffs (my huge admiration for Jerry Cantrell stems from his ability to do precisely that). An artist’s work will sound most substantial when it is most itself. There’s nothing slight about Smith’s work on Either/Or and XO, no matter how delicate the presentation sometimes is. There’s a weight to it (and an excitement too) because the songs themselves are substantial and animated from within. They sound big and expansive because Smith was confident in his material, and that confidence shines through. Perhaps it was that conviction that’s missing from Heatmiser, replaced by self-consciousness, and it makes the band seem smaller than it was. But Dead Air is very far from a dead loss, and for Elliott Smith fans it’s definitely worth hearing to understand their man’s creative journey. Anyone who appreciates his tense, wracked early songs will recognise those same qualities in much of the band’s work.

heatmiser
Heatmiser in 1993 promo picture. Smith on left in cap

Elliott Smith in concert during Elliott Smith in Concert, 1998 at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Georgia, United States. (Photo by Frank Mullen/WireImage)

Smith in 1998, at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta

Pride – Hüsker Dü

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.

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Hüsker Dü, ©Michael Ochs. Yes, Greg Norton had a handlebar moustache. Yes, I believe he still does.