Husker Du were one of the main underground post-punk bands of the 1980s and contempories of bands like the Replacements, Black Flag and the Minutemen. However, unlike many of them, Husker Du's music was less wedded to stereotypical ideas of punk music and lyrics.
In 1979 Grant Hart and Greg Norton were both working as clerks in a record shop in Minneapolis, USA. At this time, Bob Mould, a student from New York was studying at the local college in St. Paul, Minnesota. At some point during that year he frequented the record shop and came to know Hart and Norton and they decided to start a band together. Thus, Husker Du was created, the name taken from a 1950s board game of the same name, Husker Du being Swedish and Norwegian for “Do you remember?”. Bob Mould played lead guitar and sang vocals, Grant Hart was the drummer and also sang vocals and Greg Norton was the bassist. Both Mould and Hart are gay, although many Husker Du fans are unaware of this (this only relevant in relation to the homophobic sections of the punk audience, that is thankfully small). At the time in the late Seventies, hardcore punk was just taking off. Bands such as the Ramones and Iggy & The Stooges had paved the way in the US in terms of punk, whilst in the UK the Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks had done something similar. Thus, in 1979 when these bands had either already imploded or were just passing their peak, hardcore punk was growing, ready to take it’s place in a faster and more streamlined way.
It was in this climate that Husker Du began and after a year or two of discovery, they made their first recordings: Land Speed Record in 1981 (released on New Alliance) and later Everything Falls Apart in 1983 (released on SST Records). Neither were particularly well-produced and were more than a little rough around the edges. Land Speed Record consisted of 17 songs, but lasted only 26 minutes, giving an average song length of around a minute and a half. These first two recordings appear to have been the band flailing about somewhat in an attempt to find their own style and identity in relation to hardcore and the emerging post-punk and punk-pop. When the band recorded Metal Circus in 1983, progression had been made musically with the introduction of melodies beyond the wall of noise previously created and a greater awareness of tempo and changes in speed. The songs were still far from complex, but the three to four years of work were beginning to bear fruit. One song on the album, ‘Diane’, has been debatably compared to Nirvana’s ‘Polly’, especially as it deals with subjects of murder and rape. This may be a tenious link, but it cannot be denied that Husker Du had a massive influence on later, more successful and famous bands such as the Pixies (who in turn were major influence for Nirvana). Incidentally, Bob Mould set the mould (pardon the pun) for the ironic "anti" lead guitarist in being an overweight, balding guy, very similar to the Pixies' Frank Black.
In 1984, Zen Arcade was recorded and released and one can see this as a significant juncture as the band’s sound evolved to a vastly more professional level. The melodies had now become more prominent and perhaps Metal Circus can be seen as being a dress-rehearsal before this final step. One should note though that on most of the albums, there are times and certain songs where things get either a little self-indulgent or inconsistent, but this is more than tolerable given the songs that are of quality. Furthermore, many of the less great songs are saved by the incredible guitar playing of Bob Mould, who is a truly tremendous guitar player, (his pinky finger must be one of the strongest in the world). Zen Arcade was followed in 1985 by New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig and with these the Husker Du sound had become more assured.
However, in 1986 the band did something more than a little controversial, at that time at least. Having until this point been one of the underground bastions of pop-punk music and deeply uncommercial in pretty much every sense, they signed to Warner Brothers, one of the major record labels. Some of the band fans found this difficult to stomach and it created a degree of confusion amongst some who had held the band as a model of what the genre should be about in relation to commercialism. Nevertheless, the band made the transition with apparent grace, resisting any pressures they may have been put under by Warner to produce two albums whilst with them, Candy Apple Grey in 1986 and Warehouse:Songs and Stories in 1987. These both continued in the same vein and philosophy of the previous albums while also developing on certain aspects. Neither could be described as resembling a “sell-out” or mainstream.
Throughout the eight years or so Husker Du existed, the band was almost constantly touring. Their gigs would be characterised by noise and intensity, with songs merging into each other to create one long noise-scape. As a result, there would be few breaks between songs meaning the interaction between band and audience focused on the music and energy of performance. Their touring was also a integral part of the song-writing process. Much song-writing and experimentation would be done whilst on the road, with new songs tried and altered during gigs, more than likely helping to contribute to the intense feel of many of their songs. Certainly, many songs were played extremely fast, but whereas a lot of post-punk bands relied on this speed as the main feature of their music (and as a possible distraction from lacking lyrics or cliched chord arrangements), for Husker Du the strength lied in much more solid foundations of melody and lyrics. The thrash of some of the songs is an important ingredient, but it is not there to mask any deficiency elsewhere. Lyrically too, Husker Du challenged some stereotypical notions of what a punk band should write about. Instead of the typical kind of anti-establishment anarchistic subject matter most punk bands had (and some still have) become obsessed with to the point of being obnoxious, Husker Du focused on issues that related more to everyday life and individual experiences.
Combined with the dichotomy of thrash vs melody that was had an uneasy balance in Husker Du was the relationship between Bob Mould and Grant Hart. Although all three members wrote material for the band, Mould and Hart are recognised as being the two creative forces in the band. Furthermore, the lead vocalist duties were shared between them. This worked extremely well, as each had their own distinctive style, Mould somewhat more punkish and Hart more idiosyncratic. Undoubtedly this contributed to a tension in the band that was made more acute by a heavy reliance on drugs. Alcohol and speed were favoured choices, but towards the later stages of the band’s life heroin definitely made an appearance. Whereas Mould wanted to quit the drug lifestyle and move on, Hart was still deeply entrenched in it and in being so made it more difficult for Mould to go clean. The relationship soured and things got worse when the band's manager, Dave Savoy, killed himself the night before the Warehouse album tour was due to begin. Nevertheless, the band completed the tour, but in December 1987 Hart was either fired or quit (more likely fired). Usually, Hart is portrayed as the evil party with Mould as the victim. Whether this is fair one cannot say and I would guess that it was much more complicated than that. Regardless, it was definitely not an amicable break-up.
The three members went their own way. Mould has since enjoyed the most success. He released two solo albums after Husker Du and then formed another group, Sugar, who recorded several albums in the early 1990s which again failed to make any commercial impact despite their high quality. He has now returned to solo work and tours. Hart managed to get his addictions under some kind of control and also released a solo album. He then formed a band called Nova Mob in 1989. Greg Norton, the bassist is now believed to be a Head Chef in a restaurant(!).
- Land Speed Record (New Alliance), 1981
- Everything Falls Apart (SST), 1983
- Metal Circus (SST), 1983
- Zen Arcade (SST), 1984
- New Day Rising (SST), 1985
- Flip Your Wig (SST), 1985
- Candy Apple Grey (Warner Bros), 1986
- Warehouse: Songs and Stories (Warner Bros), 1987