Now is a good time to talk about Hüsker Dü. Well, I think any time is a good time but they seem especially relevant these days, maybe even more than when they were actually making music. Bob Mould has just released a new solo album that's the best work he's produced in nearly two decades. This follows up his autobiography of last year. The influence of the band on rock music in the years since their demise seems to grow all the time. So why not take a look at what is arguably their masterpiece, 1984's epic, double album, the semi-conceptual Zen Arcade.
The idea of a hardcore punk band doing a double album, much less a concept album, was somewhat revolutionary back in those days, yet it was also inevitable. Punk and hardcore in their purest forms are both fairly simplistic musical styles. In order to stay relevant, artists must push the limits of the genre. The Clash realized this five years previous when they shook up the world with London Calling. Now it was time for the next wave of punks to make the leap. It made sense that it would come from one of the bands on SST Records, the label founded by Greg Ginn of Black Flag. The artists on SST, such as Meat Puppets, The Minutemen, even Black Flag themselves, never tied themselves to punk rock orthodoxy and were always open to experimentation. Hüsker Dü took the lead, for a time anyway, with Zen Arcade. It claims to be a "rock opera" in the mold of Quadrophenia or The Wall, telling an angst-filled personal story. The "plot" is not easily deciphered, something about a computer hacker whose girlfriend OD's, but the amazing collection of songs takes listeners on a journey through their sheer power and creativity.
The main strength of Hüsker Dü is that they had two outstanding songwriters in Bob Mould and Grant Hart. In fact, I believe it's the rivalry between the two that pushed them to such great songwriting heights. Each was always trying to outdo the other and both produced outstanding work as a result. The album kicks off with two Mould classics, "Something I Learned Today" and "Broken Home, Broken Heart" followed by the first real change-up, Hart's acoustic "Never Talking to You Again." This awesome 1-2-3 punch establishes the tone right off the bat. The harder rocking numbers stand with the best hardcore of the era, but there's a lot more going on. Hart's psychedelic "Hare Krishna" closes what was side 1 back in the vinyl days and establishes the band's penchant for being both trippy and noisy at the same time. Side 2 opens with a blast of four Mould short/fast/loud numbers, then Hart's sing-a-long anthem "What's Going On." Album 1 concludes with the haunting "Standing By The Sea," a song anchored by the repetitive bass line of Greg Norton. Norton is often the forgotten member of the band but his musical contributions are just as essential as Mould and Hart's.
Album 2 is a mix of interesting instrumental interludes and classic anthems from both Mould and Hart. Hart delivers "Pink Turns to Blue" and "Turn on the News" while Mould counters with "Newest Industry" and "Whatever." For a band to come up with just one of these amazing tunes is achievement enough. But all four, on top of all the great songs that came before, is truly a remarkable accomplishment. The whole thing concludes with the 14 magical minutes of "Reoccurring Dreams," an instrumental number built on a fairly simple riff, jammed out with intense power. It’s the perfect conclusion to an epic album. Zen Arcade was a very important album to me in my youth and still resonates with me today. More important than the lyrics or concept, it’s the variety and creativity of the music that inspires. It seems various music scenes, already fragmented back in 1984, become moreso every year. Zen Arcade is a reminder to always look beyond labels and genres. When you do, whole new worlds of sound and experience await you.
- Adam Reshotko