Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Husker Du- The Story of the Noise Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock by Andrew Earles

(Voyageur Press) (Guest review by the SOUL REBEL) It took a quarter of a century after Husker Du broke up but finally somebody devoted a book to the rise and fall  (the wit and the wisdom) of one of the most beloved and admired punk power trios! While other books captured snatches of the Huskers' story  (see Dance of Days by Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins and Our Band Could Be Your Life by Michael Azerrad),as well as one notable jaundiced mention (see some inaccurate and homophobic statements from Steven Blush in American Hardcore), surprisingly an enthused yet critical overview of the Huskers' 1979-1988 existence--- their past accomplishments, generations of influence on everything from low budget radical DIY bands and labels to bands with starry eyed careerist ambitions, and lesser known interpersonal interactions within and outside the band---never materialized until now. Since its easy for people to blame legal red tape and varying degrees of reluctance over time from Bob, Grant, and Greg, I also feel the task demanded someone who could intellectually and passionately grasp and celebrate the Huskers' wide appeal to seemingly diametrically opposed factions: hardcore kids, 60s counter culture vets open to punk, "college rock" fans and music critics not really down with hardcore, Robert Palmer (the dapper veteran English rock singer covered "New Day Rising" in a live encore medley from a July 1986 San Francisco concert broadcast by Westwood One Radio Network), New York musical iconoclasts like John Zorn and Sonic Youth, Metallica and other open minded headbangers, queer activists, and more.
Husker Du captivated -then and now- a diverse range of souls since they sang about underlying bitter truths common to most humans even when addressing political subjects, they played, especially live, like a full blown electrical storm jolting all with adrenalin rushes of noise/energy/volume/melody/speed/aggression that reached sublime life affirming levels while navigating around and through manic explosions of anger, frustration, fear, and depression, they were honest, even if one didn't agree with a decision or statement you could respect them more than some other highly rated rock bands, and they tried to challenge themselves  (and their supporters and detractors)throughout their existence regardless of cliquish rules and expectations on their music, their sexuality, and their overall outlooks.
So is Andrew Earles up to this task? Yes he does a better than expected job yet it is flawed but then again Husker Du is more complicated than Motley Crue to properly deal with.
It should be noted Bob Mould did not participate with Earles due to his involvement with his autobiography, See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody (Little, Brown, and Company), which came out
this summer and Earles's book came out later in 2010. Bob has yet to read the Husker Du book but probably would approve of much of it.
Some of you might have seen a few online reviews of Andrew's book. I will try to touch on some aspects most of the reviewers avoided or down played. I feel some of the best moments of this book involve, what Earles calls "Husker Du's first and most overlooked legacy," their role in helping creating U.S. hardcore (hardcore itself began simultaneously in Canada, England, Japan, Germany, etc. roughly during 1978-1979 as well as in the U.S. via bands like Middle Class, Bad Brains, F-Word, The Germs, etc. and the use of the term hardcore,originally hardcore punk, was commonly applied to designate a specific punk sub genre during 1982-1983),the Huskers' Reflex Records label, all kinds of great Midwestern contemporaries during 1981-1985 including a bunch of Chicago bands, Husker Du's influence on noise rock,noisecore, grindcore, power violence, etc. and the often underrated contributions of Greg Norton.
I'm skipping around a little bit of their history but after reading Andrew's analysis of their independent label records, what others close to the band, and what Grant and Greg said, Husker Du can be called a genuine hardcore band during 1981-1982, with the Metal Circus EP on SST in 1983 they started to move away from it, and by 1984's Zen Arcade on SST, which I still feel is one of the best 20th century releases, they officially said goodbye to it. The Husker's were inspired to go hardcore in the first place after opening up for Canadians D.O.A. and The Subhumans in early 1981 Minneapolis gigs. They felt they had to step up their game and play faster and louder than others. Earles cites them as one of the first DIY bands to play at ear bleed/air pumping volume in bars and clubs; the Huskers ended up as one of a handful of fastest loudest U.S. bands at the time. As Earles wrote,"It could be argued that the Huskers were merely paying forward the influence that bands like Discharge, The Fartz, and initially, The Dickies, had on them if not for the fact that Husker Du were the DIY pioneers of the Midwest."
Earles thankfully acknowledges the often forgotten 1974-1979 Minneapolis proto punk band The Suicide Commandos were the first Twin Cities band to "get in the van" and book their own shows across the country predating many Midwestern DIY efforts even though they were briefly signed to Mercury/Phonogram records fake punk subsidiary Blank (also making them the first Twin Cities punk band to sign to a major label which Husker Du would do later generating much controversy...more on the Warner Brothers pact later). Husker Du however, were able to help organize an upper Midwestern network of 80s punk bands, labels, and scenes. "A considerable amount of this credit is due to the 'weekenders' that Mould repeatedly booked beginning in the winter and spring of 1981, before the cross country Children's Crusade tour (the tour that introduced them to Canada and states west of Minnesota and Illinois and in the process built them into aninvincible machine as heard on the legendary Land Speed Record they released after the tour), and in the time between that tour and the next nationwide excursion booked around the recording of Everything Falls Apart in mid 1982."
Chicago, the site of their first out of town gig in March 1981, emerged as one of Husker Du's main stops as they developed into a reliable draw and made many friends and converts. Their friends and colleagues included Oz bands Strike Under, The Effigies, Da, Silver Abuse, and Naked Raygun as well as Articles of Faith, Savage Beliefs, and Rights of the Accused,etc. Chicago bands were able to play in Minneapolis via Husker Du's hospitality. "For a time, Mould was only second to First Avenue and 7th St. Entry's Steve Mc Clellan as the go to guy for a gig and a floor to crash on." Steve Albini is interviewed and quoted often; other Chicagoans like Santiago Durango (if you don't know his band bio: Naked Raygun, The Interceptors, Big Black, and his own Arsenal) and Oz owner and band agent Dem Hopkins get their say too.
One of the more important public services Earles accomplishes with his book is listing the complete Reflex Records discography and describing bands the Huskers released on it. I was delighted to read more about Wisconsin bands Mecht Mensch and The Tar Babies (the latter shared members with the former and became a post hardcore jazz punk funk band), Minneapolis bands Man Sized Action and Rifle Sport that were more post punk rather than hardcore, Ground Zero whom I would like to hear after Andrew's description of their Pink record: "a bizarre and obscenely infectious cluster of skate punk, Dead Milkmen like whimsy and humor, jazz fusion, obligatory post nods to the Pop Group/PiL, plus Minutemen and Zappa/prog rock salutations...",and of course our own Articles of Faith that Bob ended up producing a lot partially because A.O.F.,while generally focused on radical politics, also shared the need to stand out by incorporating folk, funk, and reggae elements even dabbling in proto emo material  (as heard on their posthumous 1988 LP In This Life not on Reflex), among others. Interviews with the youngest Reflex helper, Todlachen, Otto's Chemical Lounge, and Halo of Flies member, and future Amphetamine Reptile Records head Tom Hazelmeyer illuminate the dedication, mutual aid, camaraderie, and sense of purpose behind the scenes at Reflex (as well as countless DIY labels then and now).
When Husker Du is cited as a big influence on bands during and after their existence most mention bands and genres/sub genres that were more commercially successful and/or accessible to mainstream audiences than the Huskers (i.e. bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Pixies, Nirvana, The Foo Fighters, Green Day, etc. and genres/sub genres like pop punk, as if punk since the 70s lacked pop elements via bands like The Buzzcocks, The Boys, Generation X, Blondie, etc., emo, alternative rock, indie rock,etc.); Earles says that a lot of this stems from a focus onFlip Your Wig their last independent LP with more radio friendly production values. I give the maddest props to Andrew Earles for adding to the Huskers' legacy: noise rock, thrash metal, grindcore, power violence, etc.
Husker Du's Land Speed Record receives plenty of attention with Earles claiming it was so mind blowing in 1981 that some were comparing it to fast folk and free jazz; Earles calls it avant garde and argues if were recorded with better sound quality it would be ranked more among top early hardcore lps including Black Flag's Damage and the Bad Brains ROIR cassette. I personally feel the lo-fi cheap recording captures the Huskers' playing intensity, their three part harmonies/yelling (unprecedented for an early hardcore band Earles wrote), and the brief jubilant eruptions of the audience quite effectively! I could spend time comparing their debut LP to the MC5's-Kick Out The Jams but in addition to the past it parallels their then younger Maryland peers Void, whom Bob championed, as both bands cranked out a post No Wave thrashing attack blurring punk and metal. This volatile spirit from the early 80s haunts contemporary noise rock bands like former Chicagoans now Texans Lechuguillas and long running American electronics/tapes noise project The Haters' guitar/drums/electronics noisecore side project Sissy Spacek. Earles also lists tons of Husker Du covers, an odious endeavor in many ways to complete since Husker Du songs were generally brilliant to begin with and doing note for note renditions often does neither them nor those covering the songs justice ( for example,I remember hearing a mediocre version of "Diane" by Coffin Break many moons ago), with more extreme bands included: Italian grindcore vets Cripple Bastards, Swedish death metal pioneers Entombed, Ill-noise 90s power violence and Fireside Bowl vets Charles Bronson, etc.
Greg Norton gets his due in Earles's Du assessment. Between the tensions and the harmonies of Bob and Grant, Greg at best gets a few words in an interview and at worst he gets written off by ignorant condescending critics (read the absurd tripe scraped up by Earles from 1985 English reviewers with one putting Greg down for not contributing much creatively and his moustache)! Well Greg did in fact contribute much in his pre moustache days (see some fun 1979-1981 unearthed photos included in the book): providing a free practice space at his mom's house in 1979, along with Grant convincing Bob to not return to his upper state New York family's home for the summer to guarantee the band's 1979 progress they were making wouldn't fizzle out, driving the band around to gigs, writing and singing his own great hardcore songs like "MTC", "Don't Have A Life", "MIC" (Military Industrial Complex), "Blah, Blah, Blah", etc. and of course his distinctive bass playing effectively setting the mood for songs (listen to "Diane", the Jah Wobble meets Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" riff on "Statues, "The Terms of Psychic Warfare", etc.).
Earles also suggests Greg kept Bob and Grant from killing each other when creative, personal, and career tensions intensified especially during New Day Rising til their Warner Brothers lps. Greg was the glue binding the others to keep Husker Du functional.
I found much to appreciate in Andrew's interviews, research, and tastes and I have to agree with two of his conclusions, "Husker Du's music transcends the hardcore, punk, indie, and alternative ghettos, commanding respect from a wider variety of mindsets and holding its own in a class of high quality 'heavy music' for which genre and aesthetic boundaries have little to no bearing...that includes but is not limited to Led Zeppelin, Slayer, Black Sabbath, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Queens of the Stone Age, and Metallica."; Earles thinks the best Husker Du reunion would be for all three to get together as friends somewhere and work out issues including how to reissue their recordings, including all the Reflex releases, as many are out of print and/or not properly mastered to CD.
However, I also agree with two common criticisms other reviewers had: Earle repeats particular quotes and sentences verbatim throughout the book; and earlier material ends up being unnecessarily recapped a few dozen pages later...do we blame him or the editor or both? He contradicts himself as well such as alternately saying their Warehouse: Songs and Stories double LP on Warner Brothers wasn't much compared to the other LPs, certainly not in the same league as Zen Arcade, but then saying some of their catchiest songs are on it and it is worthwhile. I would add he doesn't follow up on some significant moments like what followed Bob Mould's first response to concerns in Maximum Rock N' Roll about their signing to Warner Brothers. After his first response another more upset one followed in the letters section to which Ruth Schwartz, a co founder of MRR when it was a radio show predating the zine and former head of Mordam Records, replied that major label deals might not change exactly a band's music but can change the band as people negatively and that our actions are political. In the early 90s when MRR had an issue with interviews of "Punks Over 30" Bob was interviewed.
He admitted he was wrong about their Warners deal. Grant was also interviewed separately and he had kind words to say about MRR still operating (and of course that what Bob wrote in the past didn't reflect his views).  This oversight misses a sign of growth and reevaluation Bob had that helped him return to his DIY roots and to take more musical risks.
Another bone of contention, the book's subtitle reeks more of hyperbole than historical accuracy. Sure Husker Du can be considered noise pop pioneers, but they were also a part of a continuum of late 70s/80s bands that mixed punk intensity with inventive pop and even psychedelic elements including Mission of Burma, The Wipers, Les Thugs, Naked Raygun, etc. which Andrew mentions, however, calling them the band "who launched modern rock" is off! More than a few music critics have cited 60s bands like The Velvet Underground and The Monks that mixed avant garde and rock elements with darker song subjects, some black humor too, into a more off kilter and confrontational minimalist sound inspiring 70s German kosmiche music (i.e."Kraut rock"), 70s arty glam, 70s punk, 70s/80s post punk, etc. as the first modern rock bands going against pop and rock conventions, and trends like flower power, of the mid-late 60s.
If you can handle such flaws as mentioned, Andrew Earles will impress until another Husker Du book is published correcting some flaws and opening up some possibilities not considered here. I have yet to read Bob's book but look forward to it; I know some will complain his absence and Earles not going deeper into the Huskers lives doesn't make this worthwhile. I did get a better ideal about all three still I don't expect to know them much more unless I became a close friend of them for several years and event then I might not know much more about them than I do now. I do know that I am grateful for Husker Du's influence and inspiration on my own music and other areas of my life. Andrew Earles put a lot of effort into this long over due project provoking further discussion and debate just like the Huskers were able to do in the 80s.

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