Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hüsker Dü: Zen Arcade

That was a great record-buying day way back when, going to the record store (remember those?) and picking up two double-LPs from the standouts of the local independent "punk" (well, mostly) label SST.  One, to be covered here soon, was Minutemen's awesome Double Nickels on the Dime and the other was Hüsker Dü's staggering Zen Arcade

The record is a concept album about a young man from a troubled home life trying to make sense of a confusing world as he ventures out on his own and some of its most intense songs directly reference the struggles at home, with titles like "Broken Home, Broken Heart," "Indecision Time," "Beyond the Threshold," "Pride," "I'll Never Forget You,"The Biggest Lie," and "What's Going On."  Side Two of the LP is the most powerful with some of the above songs blasting through in roughly two-minute bursts of rage punctuated by guitarist Bob Mould's anguished, tortured vocals and blistering solos.  Drummer Grant Hart provided a milder touch with such songs as "Never Talking to You Again," which has acoustic guitar from Mould rather than his trademark electric work, "Standing by the Sea" which juxtaposes ocean sounds with lyrics of alienation and isolation, and "The Tooth Fairy and the Princess," which has to be the most unlikeliest title of a song from a "punk" band.

That's part of the great success of Hüsker Dü, though, in that the songwriting differences between Mould and Hart provided a balance and widened the band's appeal.  While eventually those differences led to acrimony and a bitter breakup, the yin and yang aspect of their relationship proved to be really effective on Zen Arcade and the few albums that followed.

But, to this listener, the key to the band was just as often the very solid, effective and grounding bass of Greg Norton.  He didn't write many songs, do many vocals, or solo, but Norton's steady anchoring was essential to Hüsker Dü's impressive run through some of the best music of the Eighties.  Now, a restaurant owner and part-time musician, Norton's presence only grew as subsequent albums were produced, engineered, and mixed in a way that presented his work better.  Mould and Hart were justifiably lionized for their songwriting, but Norton was just as essential in making it all come together.

Zen Arcade garnered so much attention and interest that SST struggled to produce enough records to keep up with the demand, an issue that eventually led the band to sign with major Warner Brothers.  Complaints were uttered about the production quality and sound, but it is worth noting that the band proudly proclaimed on the liners that "everything on the record is first take," excepting two songs.  Moreover, "the whole thing took 85 hours, the last 40 hours straight for mixing."

The "punk" ethos is there in the lightning fast production of this low-budget album on a small label operating on a shoestring, but that explains a lot of what makes this record so great.  The Hüskers were coming into their own, churning out powerful songs (with a little piano and acoustic guitar along with the heavier, faster pieces) that showed the growth of Mould and Hart's songwriting, as well as Norton's important contributions, and they were on a roll that lasted a few more great years. 

They had been an underground hardcore band from Minneapolis, but this album made by the shore at Redondo Beach turned them into nationally and internationally-known figures in short order.  More than a quarter century later, it doesn't sound dated and its power and passion remain undimmed.  Zen Arcade is an essential document from the mid-1980s.

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