Tag Archives: Hüsker Dü

Trouble Boys – Bob Mehr

I’d been aware of Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys, the biography of the Replacements, but hadn’t read it up till now because, having read Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could be Your Life and Gina Arnold’s On the Road to Nirvana, I felt like I knew the band’s story well enough already. But in a thread on I Love Music the other day (discussing which artists had seen their critic standing improve or decline in the last 10 years), someone brought up this book, and the praise from writers and critics whose opinions I respect was unanimous.

What Mehr’s book does that Azerrad’s doesn’t really (and Arnold’s not at all, because it’s so much her story) is locate the band members’ behaviour – their recklessness, drunkenness and almost pathological oppositional defiance – in their childhoods, particularly in the cases of guitarist Bob Stinson and singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg.

Bob Stinson’s is by far the saddest of the books interweaving narratives, and Mehr does a laudable job of telling it. Stinson was both endearing and infuriating for his band members, and helplessly vulnerable and scarily violent with his partners. Mehr doesn’t look away or gloss over the acts of violence he committed, but he does seek to understand Stinson’s addictions, shattered sense of self-worth and the very real mental illnesses he suffered from: institutionalised in his teens, Stinson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (he was sexually abused and beaten by his stepfather) and late-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Westerberg’s and Tommy Stimson’s behaviour is often harder to understand and excuse. Tommy, six years younger than his elder brother and Westerberg, had an undeniable bratty streak that saw him tweak people just because he could; Peter Jesperson – who was the band’s first true believer and moved heaven and earth to create opportunities for them, even as he knew they’d waste them – found it hard to forgive the younger Stinson for smirking while firing him*. It wouldn’t be until after the band broke up and Stinson was forced to take a job in a call centre that he finally grew up. What Mehr doesn’t quite say, but what does seem to be the case, is that, in working a 9-5, Stinson was forced to understand that actions have consequences, and that most people don’t have personal managers and A&R men who will make them go away.

As the book goes on, Mehr portrays Westerberg’s persistent self-sabotage as more and more located in his drinking and depression. Which were and are real enough, no question, but to ascribe all his behaviour to those things is an insult to those who, similarly afflicted, manage to get through their lives without consciously causing harm to others. Which leaves only one conclusion: gifted as he was (and he really was), Westerberg is also something of a dick.

If you’re not a die-hard, Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life will do you; it’s comprehensive enough on its own, and it tells a wider, ultimately more important, story. Still, I’d recommend Trouble Boys to any deep fans who’ve not read it: Mehr’s writing is engaging and brisk, and given the seven years of research and interviews he put in to the book, it’s obviously a labour of love, one that leaves few questions unanswered**. Anyone willing to wade through the book, though, should be aware that they’re not likely to come away liking the band members as people. However, if your love of the group and Westerberg’s songs can withstand that, the book is pretty much the last word on the Replacements.

29-trouble-boys.w700.h700

*Already lapsing into alcoholism from the stress of working with the band he loved despite everything, Jesperson hit bottom after his firing, and he was lucky to survive an acute case of pancreatitis in 1991. After Bob Stinson’s, Jesperson’s story is the saddest in the book, the more so as he is far and away the nicest guy in the band’s circle, and the only one who was never to do anything cruel or spiteful.

**One thing Mehr doesn’t address that I’d have been very interested in: how did the band, particularly Westerberg react to the huge success of Soul Asylum in 1992, given their debt to the Replacements and status as a kid-brother band to the Mats and Hüsker Dü? Come to that, how did they react to the success of Bob Mould’s post-Hüsker Dü band Sugar, particularly in Europe?

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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.

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.

Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

Lou Barlow @ the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen – review

If you’re wondering why I’m taking time out of our annual contemplation of British folk rock to discuss the new album by king of lo-fi acoustic balladry Lou Barlow, it’s because it’s been a very Barlow-focused few days. Last Friday I picked up the new record in advance of seeing him play at the Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen on Monday night.

A good call as he played eight out of its nine songs.

It was a low-key and intimate show in front of a couple of hundred people, with a solo Barlow playing acoustic guitar, a baritone (?) ukulele and his vintage synth, on which he played some wobbly solos, using a loop pedal to keep the guitar/uke accompaniment going.

This was the type of Lou Barlow show I’ve always wanted to see. When I caught the New Folk Implosion playing at Reading 2001, they were great but they stuck to songs from the Dare to Be Surprised and The New Folk Implosion eras, the material from One Part Lullaby being untranslatable to the live stage by a three-piece band. Sebadoh at Dingwalls last year were good but scrappy, long on their more aggressive material and short on the mid-tempo love songs that has been their strongest suit from Bubble & Scrape onwards. It’s arguable, though, that Barlow’s greatest contribution to pop music is all those four-track acoustic records he’s made (Lou B’s Wasted Pieces, Free Sentridoh: Songs from Loobiecore, Most of the Worst & Some of the Rest, The Original Losing Losers, Winning Losers, et al.) – just banging it out quickly and cheaply and meaning it: a parallel, acoustic path to his early post-hardcore heroes Black Flag, Husker Du and the Minutemen. Barlow has always been one of the most plain-spoken of songwriters, and at times his earnestness has been hopelessly out of step with trends in mainstream pop and indie, but it sure seems refreshing to me right now.

His gig on Monday night was in that spirit. There was no support band. He set up his own stuff, manned his merch table before and after, and wandered on to the stage through the audience, briefly ducked behind the curtain then plonked himself on to his stool, hiding all the time behind his big curly mop (I’m sticking with Jerry Garcia rather than Jeff Lynne as my point of visual comparison, but the consensus appears to be hardening behind 1970s-era Lynne).

He played about 20 songs in his 90 minutes, a mix of “Lou Barlow” songs, three or four Sebadoh songs and a couple of Folk Implosion tunes (including Natural One, accompanied by a hilarious story about singing it at a karaoke bar that he went to with Sleater-Kinney). He’s become a pretty useful guitar player down the years, but he remains endearingly unsure of himself, occasionally fumbling intros and starting again (a recurring between-song riff centred on the idea of the Folk Police finding his fingerpicking technique wanting). His work on the synth and loop pedals was, as I say, wobbly, but Lou is not the right guy to expect technical perfection from.

Highlights for me included C + E, which is my favourite from the new record and embodies pretty much everything I’ve loved about Barlow’s music since I picked up my first Sebadoh album (III, bought second-hand from Gumbi’s in Southend in 1998); Boundaries, which really should have been a Sebadoh song; and Too Pure, which actually is a Sebadoh song, and one of the very finest. But the show was compelling all the way through, and it’s a joy to see a guy who’s been doing this a long time still working at the top of his game. I went with Mel, Yo and Kit. Yo, a long-time fan but someone who’s stayed less engaged over the last decade than me, was pretty much blown away. Mel’s a newcomer to Barlow, only being familiar with the new record and a few songs I’ve put on mixes for her, but she really liked it too.

If he could now make a sequel to One Part Lullaby (my push-comes-to-shove favourite Barlow record: 13 doozies, all brilliantly constructed and arranged) with John and Wally, I’d be the happiest long-time fan in London.

Lou & Justin
l-r Justin Pizzoferrato
and Lou Barlow

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

The Replacements @ the Roundhouse, London

Last night I saw the Replacements at the Roundhouse in London.

I never thought I’d write that sentence.

I’m too young for the Replacements to mean to me what they evidently meant to a good few people at the show last night. When the Mats helped to show that not all Midwest rock had to be Chicago or REO Speedwagon in the early 1980s (or rather, that there could be a path between the Speedwagon on one hand and Hüsker Dü on the other), I was toddling around, falling over a lot and picking up things and putting them in my mouth.

By the time I knew about them, the band had been defunct for five years or so, and Paul Westerberg was no longer someone to watch as a potential solo star. He and his career were past tense. Suicaine Gratification (still a dreadful title), Mono, Stereo, Folker – Westerberg/Grandpaboy records came and went and made no impression on me, despite the enthusiasm of my good friend and gig buddy Yo Zushi.

But still, once a fan… I was keen to go to the show, relieved that Yo had got tickets (the day they went on sale, I was ill in bed. Very ill. No-energy-to-even-crawl-to-my-laptop ill) and had been getting increasingly excited over the last few days. But in a low-stakes sort of way. The whole point about the Replacements (as with my beloved Sebadoh) was that they were a chaotic live act, by all accounts capable of jaw-dropping power and buffoonish incompetence within the same show. The same song, even. So if they were terrible, fine – at least I’d know I’d seen a legit Replacements gig. And they might be great.

They were, well, mainly great. The start of the show saw them smashing headlong into their early material, all played at a furious, hardcore-like tempo (they were always too tuneful and interior-looking to be hardcore really, but they did play as quickly as their cross-town rivals the Hüskers in the early days): Takin’ a Ride, I’m in Trouble, Favorite Thing (a thrilling moment, that – the best marriage of melody and heavy riffing during their Twin/Tone era), Tommy gets his Tonsils Out. Bam bam bam. Their drummer, Josh Freese, deserves a lot of credit, for maintaining the energy levels as much as anything.

Achin’ to Be provided a mid-set highlight, but here the limitations of their current approach to their set, and of their touring guitarist Dave Minehan, did start to become apparent. At the moment the Replacements live experience is of a group are plugged in and amped up at all times: an acoustic guitar and some light and shade wouldn’t go amiss occasionally. The ability to move from one to the other, to do Skyway as well as Bastards of Young, was what defined the Replacements. It’s the very thing that made them so great.

Minehan, meanwhile, had been the band’s MVP during the first half of the set, throwing himself around like a man half his age (from my vantage point, the boyish guitarist really did look like a kid who’d won a competition to play on stage with his favourite band) and doing a credible job of filling in for the late Bob Stinson. But he seemed to fade away as the night went on, becoming less and less integral to the songs. On reflection, I wonder whether he simply doesn’t slip as well into Slim Dunlap’s shoes as he does Stinson’s. Dunlap’s single-note lead guitar on a song like Achin’ to Be is simple in effect but tricky to execute: it has to be played absolutely straight, and in the middle of a rock show, with all that adrenaline, it takes a lot of self-discipline to play it that straight (there was more of this to come).

The final third of the set was a victory lap: I’ll Be You, a cover of Maybellene (as sloppy as you could hope from the group that gave us Like a Rolling Pin), Can’t Hardly Wait, Bastards of Young (segueing into My Boy Lollipop), Left of the Dial and finally Alex Chilton. You almost had to pinch yourself. Yeah, that man up there who wrote all these songs is singing all these songs on British soil for the first time in 24 years and we’re watching him do it. It was quite something.

The encore, well, it was a bit of a let-down. I’d hoped they’d play Unsatisfied. When they did, I wished they hadn’t. Michael Hann in The Guardian loved it. For me, the song was spoiled by Minehan’s slide guitar (pedal steel does feature on the recording, but subtly: a few swoops here and there, in the background): Minehan was too loud, too busy and sometimes out of key. Westerberg meanwhile sang the song distractedly, pulling the phrasing around until it felt wrong and missing out the key line (“I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”), possibly because it hasn’t occured to him that it’s the song’s emotional crux. It served as a reminder that, as I’ve said before, the record and Westerberg’s vocal performance are essentially the same thing. A moment like that is unrepeatable and I should have realised it would be.

The rest of the set (just a couple of songs) passed me by. I was now thinking about how and why Unsatisfied hadn’t come off but, more happily, of how great the rest of the show had been. I’d feared a cold-eyed, Pixies-style cash-in, where the band’s cupidity threatens to drown out the damn music. It was a long way from that. They were great, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were clearly having a ball and only the most hardened cynic could have heard I’ll Be You without getting a little bit misty. They may even go on from here to do a Go-Betweens or a Dinosaur Jr and make new music in their second life that’s just as vital as the work they did in their first. I wouldn’t bet against them. Alternatively it may all fall apart tomorrow. They are, after all, the Replacements.

Update: It did all fall apart, the day after I wrote this, after their set at Primavera. Thanks, guys.

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Paul Westerberg @ the Roundhouse, 03/06/15

More bassists to come at the weekend!

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