Hüsker Dü first gained notability as a hardcore punk band, later crossing over into alternative rock. Mould and Hart split the songwriting and singing duties.
Following an EP and three LPs on independent label SST Records, including the critically acclaimed Zen Arcade (1984), the band signed to Warner Bros. Records in 1986 to release their final two studio albums.
Mould released two solo albums before forming Sugar in the early 1990s, while Hart released a solo album on SST and later formed Nova Mob. Norton has been less active musically since Hüsker Dü’s demise and has focused on being a restaurateur.
WHAT’S GOING ON by HUSKER DU
The members of Hüsker Dü first performed together when Grant Hart, Bob Mould, Greg Norton and keyboardist Charlie Pine began playing together in 1979 in a band called Buddy and the Returnables. At the time, Mould was a freshman at Macalester College, and frequented Cheapo Records, a St Paul record store where Hart was a sales clerk. Hart and Norton had originally met while applying for the same job, which Norton eventually got. Hart and Mould bonded over a shared love of Ramones, and soon after enlisted Norton and Pine to form a band. They were soon gigging, playing mostly cover songs, some classic rock, and frequent Ramones tunes. Unbeknownst to Pine, the remaining band members disliked the sound of the band with Pine’s keyboards and began practicing without him, writing a few originals.
The new name originated in a rather sloppy rehearsal of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer”. Unable to recall the French portions sung in the original (“qu’est-ce que c’est”), they instead started shouting any foreign-language words they could remember, including the title of the popular 1970s memory board game Hūsker Dū? (meaning “Do you remember?” in Danish and Norwegian). The name stuck, and they proceeded to add heavy metal umlauts to it. Mould has commented that they liked the somewhat mysterious qualities of the name, and that it set them apart from other hardcore punk groups with names like “Social Red Youth Dynasty Brigade Distortion”. Mould also reported that while Hüsker Dü enjoyed much hardcore punk in general, they never thought of themselves as exclusively a hardcore group, and that their name was an attempt to avoid being pigeonholed. Hart, Mould, and Norton fired Pine during their first official performance, on March 30, 1979, and continued as a trio under the new name. Mould has written that he considers the band’s first “real gig” to have been May 17, 1980, at the renowned punk club Jay’s Longhorn Bar.
By 1980 the band was performing regularly in Minneapolis, and their music evolved into a fast, ferocious, primal sound, making them one of the original hardcore punk bands of the Midwest. Through heavy touring they soon caught the attention of punk trailblazers like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys’ Jello Biafra, which helped introduce Hüsker Dü to new fans. Black Flag guitarist/songwriter Greg Ginn later signed the band to his label, SST Records.
The band started releasing singles on Terry Katzman’s Reflex Records in 1981. Their first two albums, Land Speed Record (a live recording) and Everything Falls Apart, brought much critical praise. Determined touring brought them to the attention of Minutemen, who released their debut and the “In A Free Land” single on their label, New Alliance Records. This, in turn, led to the band signing with SST Records.
The intense, but varied Metal Circus EP/mini-album was released in 1983. Hüsker Dü’s more melodic take on hardcore struck a chord with college students, and various tracks from Metal Circus, particularly Hart’s “Diane,” were put into rotation by dozens of campus radio stations across the US. In addition, on Metal Circus the band showed more invention, skill, and melody than it did over the course of their previous full album Everything Falls Apart. Songs such as “Real World,” with lyrics like, “You want to change the world, by breaking rules and laws; people don’t do things like that in the real world at all,” helped to illustrate that the band was capable of writing songs with a deeper, more personal meaning. This represented a shift from the perceived punk ethos of the time. While some punk rock musicians and fans seemed to embrace an anarchist ideology, Hüsker Dü was experimenting with a more holistic integration of musical styles and genres, as well as a different attitude than their punk rock counterparts.
While the band at this time was still firmly rooted in the loud, fast punk rock style, the trio were beginning to experiment with songs featuring a more melodic, though no less aggressive, sound. “The early Hüsker stuff was all very fast and furious,” Mould reflected in 1997, “as a result of being 18 and not really proficient with the instruments. But I was always writing with an ear to melody.”
PINK TURNS TO BLUE by HUSKER DU
The members of Hüsker Dü desired to escape the restrictions of the hardcore genre. In an interview with Steve Albini for his Matter column in 1983, singer and guitarist Bob Mould told Albini: “We’re going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock & roll and the whole puny touring band idea. I don’t know what it’s going to be, we have to work that out, but it’s going to go beyond the whole idea of ‘punk rock’ or whatever.” The following year, Hüsker Dü recorded the double album Zen Arcade in 45 hours for the cost of $3,200. Zen Arcade is a concept album following a boy who leaves home to face a harsh and unforgiving world. Its artistic and conceptual ambitions were a great stretch, given the purist sentiment then prevalent in U.S. punk rock. Zen Arcade received critical praise and significant mainstream music press attention, ending up on several year end best-of lists; it also helped expand the band’s audience beyond the punk community. In his review for Rolling Stone, David Fricke described Zen Arcade as “the closest hardcore will ever get to an opera … a kind of thrash Quadrophenia.” In 1989, Zen Arcade was ranked #33 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest albums of the 1980s. SST erred on the side of caution and initially pressed between 3,500 and 5,000 copies of the album, but the record sold out a few weeks into the band’s tour to support the record. The album remained out of stock for months afterward, which affected sales and frustrated the band.
Hüsker Dü started recording its follow-up album New Day Rising just as Zen Arcade was released. New Day Rising was released six months later in early 1985. Another album, Flip Your Wig, followed later that year. Flip Your Wig became the first album released on an independent record label to top the CMJ album chart, and at year’s end, both New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig ranked in the top ten of the Village Voice annual Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. The swift succession of dynamic albums traces the creative evolution of the band.
During the recordings sessions for Flip Your Wig major label Warner Bros. Records approached Hüsker Dü and offered the group a recording contract. The band felt it had hit a sales ceiling that it could break through only with the help of a major label. The promise of retaining complete creative control over its music convinced the band to sign with the label. Mould also cites the distribution problems with SST as a reason for the move, mentioning that there would sometimes be no records to sign when the band would show up for promotional events. Hüsker Dü was not expected to sell a large amount of records. Rather, Warner Bros. valued the group for its grassroots fanbase and its “hip” status, and by keeping the overhead low the label anticipated the band would turn a profit. Candy Apple Grey was their first major label album, though Warner Bros. had initially lobbied to release Flip Your Wig until the band decided to let SST have it. Candy Apple Grey was the first Hüsker Dü album to chart on the Billboard Top 200, but despite receiving exposure on radio as well as MTV, it could get no higher than No. 140.
Creative and personal tensions between Mould and Hart had become unresolvable and they intensified when Mould began overseeing most of the band’s managerial duties following the suicide of manager David Savoy on the eve of the 1987 tour in support of the new double album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. In September 2006, Hart told Britain’s Q magazine, “I take full responsibility for [David’s] suicide. It was a direct result of the pressure of working for Bob and me, because he was being forced into a two-faced situation.” Mould also called the suicide “the beginning of the end”. The band dissolved after a show at The Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri on the 1987 tour. Hart was trying to quit heroin using a supply of methadone, but the bottle had leaked. Hart played the show, but Mould and Norton were concerned Hart would soon be suffering from withdrawal and thus would be unable to play the next few shows. While Hart insisted he could perform, Mould had already cancelled the dates. Hart quit the band four days later. Mould has said that the breakup was about “three people going their separate ways” at that time, referring to Hart’s drug use and a new relationship, Norton’s recent marriage and starting a new business, and Mould himself having just quit a lifelong drinking habit.
I APOLOGIZE by HUSKER DU
The Living End, a live collection taken from the band’s final tour, was released after the band’s demise. When asked to review the album, Mould asked his guitar tech to do so instead. He says he has never listened to the album.
Mould and Hart have continued making music separately. Both have produced solo albums and formed alternative rock bands, Sugar and Nova Mob, respectively. Mould has also joined Richard Morel in the band Blowoff. In 2005, after several years of eschewing playing shows with an electric band, Mould has returned to touring with one regularly, including Hüsker Dü and Sugar songs in his sets. His most recent album, Silver Age, which came soon after the reissue of Sugar’s two full-length albums in 2012, was widely acclaimed as a return to form. Mould’s backing band currently features Jason Narducy (Verbow/Split Single) and Jon Wurster (Superchunk/The Mountain Goats) on bass and drums, respectively. Norton formed the short-lived band Grey Area, played with Shotgun Rationale, and became a chef. He and his ex-wife Sarah owned a restaurant in Red Wing, Minnesota called “The Nortons” until 2010. In addition to his restaurant duties, in 2006 Norton returned to music as bassist for the Minnesota based band The Gang Font, feat. Interloper. The group released an eponymous album in 2007.
Mould and Hart did a brief, unannounced reunion in 2004 at a benefit concert for ailing Soul Asylum bassist Karl Mueller (who had been receiving treatment for cancer, and has since died). At the end of what had been scheduled as a Bob Mould solo set, he brought Hart out and the duo played two specially-selected Hüsker Dü songs, “Hardly Getting Over It” and “Never Talking to You Again.” Mould wrote on his blog that the performance was an impromptu, last-minute suggestion by Hart and should not kindle any “false hope” for a reunion.
In June 2005, Mould told Billboard magazine in an interview that SST had not given the band an accounting of their record and CD sales in several years, and that plans to regain the master tapes from SST and reissue them elsewhere were being held up by business disputes between the former band members.
Mould has also performed some of the band’s material with No Age at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in New York. Mould picked which songs he would like to play, and the three-piece alternated between material by each band, as part of a special performance for the Flaming Lips-curated event.
Hüsker Dü started as a hardcore punk band known for its speed and intensity. While the band included some slower material earlier in its career, Hüsker Dü developed a fast repertoire as a result of having little time to play as an opening act, and to antagonize its audience when it headlined shows. “There was a point where we were like, ‘Let’s see how fast we can play,'” Norton recalled. “I guess we were just trying to blow people away.” Hüsker Dü was particularly influenced by punk bands like D.O.A., Dead Kennedys, and The Fartz after having seen them play. NME journalist Andy Gill contended that Hüsker Dü’s characteristic sound crystalized on the Metal Circus EP, incorporating “thunderbuck, hiccup” drums, a melodic yet solid bass, and “carillions [sic] of distorted guitar, with shouted vocals rasping hoarsely from deep in the mix”. He argued that what set them apart from other punk bands was “the way they mix those same structural devices in ways that shouldn’t work, combining elements of several genres in one song.”
As the band’s career progressed, Hüsker Dü emphasized melody in its songs. Unlike other hardcore bands, Hüsker Dü did not disavow classic rock. “You know the whole deal with tearing down the old to make room for the new?”, Hart posited. “Well, music isn’t city planning.” The band covered 1960s hits like Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” early in its career. As the band members progressed as musicians, they discovered they were able to play at slower tempos while still maintaining the rhythm, which allowed for extended melodies.
GREEN EYES by HUSKER DU
Hart and Mould were the band’s songwriters. Both wrote their songs separately and at a prodigious pace; in later years Hart accused Mould of making sure his songs comprised no more than 45 percent of the material on an album. Despite the creative friction and their differing individual personalities, the members accommodated each other so that the band could continue to exist. They designed their logo to represent their common train of thought: a circle enclosing three parallel horizontal lines with a vertical line connecting them. The circle symbolized the band, the three lines the individual members, and the intersecting line the common thread of creativity which connected them.
Hüsker Dü is widely regarded as one of the key bands to emerge from the 1980s American indie scene. Music writer Michael Azerrad asserted in his book Our Band Could Be Your Life (2001) that Hüsker Dü was the key link between hardcore punk and the more melodic, diverse music of college rock that emerged. Azerrad wrote, “Hüsker Dü played a huge role in convincing the underground that melody and punk rock weren’t antithetical.”
The band also set an example by being one of the first bands from the American indie scene to sign to a major record label, which helped establish college rock as “a viable commercial enterprise.”
Kim Deal joined Pixies in response to a classified ad placed by Black Francis seeking a female bassist who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü.
Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic has been quoted as saying Nirvana’s musical style was “nothing new; Hüsker Dü did it before us.”
Everything Falls Apart (1983)
Zen Arcade (1984)
New Day Rising (1985)
Flip Your Wig (1985)
Candy Apple Grey (1986)
Warehouse: Songs and Stories (1987)