Hüsker Dü – Zen Arcade
Released July, 1984
Hüsker Dü had humble beginnings as a four piece in 1979 called Buddy and the Returnables. It didn’t take long for the members of the band to realise that the keyboards didn’t fit with their sound, so they started practicing without the keyboardist. Now comprising of a three piece with Bob Mould on guitar and vocals, Greg Norton on bass and Grant Hart on drums and vocals, they renamed themselves the much cooler Hüsker Dü , named after a Swedish board game. Fun fact, they replaced the macrons with umlauts because they look way cooler \m/. With their feet firmly entrenched in the hardcore punk scene in the Midwest, they has some releases through Reflex Records which were well received by fans and critics alike. As was the way with punk rock bands of the time they toured relentlessly, garnering them the attention of The Minutemen and Black Flag which led to them being signed to SST Records. Here they released the “Metal Circus” E.P. in 1983. It is said that this is where a slightly more poppier and refined songwriting sensibility started to show, which started to divide them from their punk contemporaries. The first thing that comes to my mind is Black Flag’s track ‘TV Party’. Hüsker Dü were definitely more than jumping around singing inane lyrics and it made them stand out.
Which brings us to this week’s album “Zen Arcade”, released in 1984. Brace yourself kids, this one is a concept album. It tells the tale of a young lad who leaves a crap home situation only to find the real world is worse. It was released as a double L.P. and clocks in at a little over 70 minutes. Gone are the straight up punk song, replaced by something that is much more melodic which paved the way for the Alternative Rock genre that followed. You can find elements of folk (‘Never Talking To You Again’), psychedelia (‘Dreams Reoccurring’, ‘Hare Krsna’) and even a piano instrumental (‘Somewhere”). These all serve the album well to break up intensity. The whole thing was recorded pretty much in 40 hours, production took forty hours and all up it only cost them $3200. That’s about as punk rock as it gets. It was well received critically and has gone on to be considered one of the most influential albums of its genre.
Hüsker Dü were one of the first bands to break away from the hardcore punk mould but to still infuse that spirit into what they are doing. It leads to an album which is in parts genius but also in parts kind of infuriating. “Zen Arcade” is not an easy album to listen to and listening to the whole thing in one sitting takes a bit of dedication. In all honesty it took me around 5 or 6 listen to actually get my head around what they were trying to do. The energy of it is immediately apparently, but you have to work to appreciate the subtleties. Originally released as a double L.P., it does help to split it into its 4 side listening order. My picks are Side One and Side Three. Both Mould and Hart share songwriting and vocal duties, although at times it is hard to tell the two apart. My main complaint overall is how terrible the mix is. Part of me thinks that the final sound is quite intentional on the band’s part however. The more I listened to it the more I liked it though.
I was really reminded of Nirvana whilst listening to “Zen Arcade” particularly their more chaotic and heavier tracks, so I wasn’t surprised to read that Kurt Novoselic has said that Nirvana’s sound was “nothing new; Hüsker Dü did it before us.” You can really see how this album went on to influence great bands such as The Pixes, Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Green Day, just to name a few
Bob Mould has said recently of “Zen Arcade”, “that record has a lot of those rites of passage, trying to separate once and for all from your childhood, as we all want to do when we’re 22 or 23, and not realizing that we can never fully separate from it”. As a 36 year old listening to this album, I really felt that and can’t help but think that if maybe I got to listen to is 15 years ago I would feel differently about it. I’m not sure I’ll ever listen to “Zen Arcade” in its entirety again, but there are tracks that will definitely stay with me.
Well, Hüsker Dü were an experience, huh? “Zen Arcade” certainly was a very loud album! Fortunately for us, the average track times were about two minutes (removing the obvious outlier), because I’m not sure I could take it if they were any longer. And to be honest, I’d be surprised if they could play some of these tracks for any longer than two minutes at a time! That would take the fitness and stamina of an elite athlete. Sadly, for me anyway, having this many tracks that are all flat out speed punk makes it real hard to take note of a song in particular. They all kind of mush together. Which is a shame because as far as punk rock goes, I find Hüsker Dü better than other staples, like Black Flag or The Ramones. There actually does seem to be a bit of music under all the screaming and distortion, which is nice. That said, when there is a bit of a switch up, it comes as a welcome change. ‘One Step at a Time’ seems to almost serve as an interlude; 45 seconds of piano, apropos of nothing. ‘Pink Turns to Blue’ is a definite stand out, the actual singing vocal hugely differentiates it from the rest of the track, making it infinitely easier to listen to, even if the content is a little dark.Just when you think you’re coming to the end of the album, they punch you in the face with a 14 minute jam session. It’s almost jazzy, in that it’s a bit of a mess, but still kind of fits to a form. I’m just not really sure why this track is even there. It seems unnecessary to me. Would I Hüsker Dü it again? Maybe a single track here and there…
Aside from Bob Mould’s guest vocals on the Foo Fighters track ‘Dear Rosemary’, this was my first ever experience with Hüsker Dü. “Zen Arcade” was an album that I struggled to listen to, particularly when I used headphones. The production was muddy, the guitars were painfully distorted and I couldn’t decipher much of the mainly-screamed-out lyrics. ‘Never Talking To You Again’ and ‘Pink Turns To Blue’ seemed to be the only cuts that I found semi-enjoyable or listenable. The little piano interludes were nice though, and by the time I got to the fourteen minute closing track ‘Reoccurring Dreams’, I thought I had a grasp on what the album was trying to get across. Essentially a workout around the riff introduced in ‘Dreams Reoccurring’, I appreciated its jazzy touches (and feedback-riddled ending), but did the song really need to be that long? It wasn’t until I read up on the record that I discovered this was a concept album, documenting the story of an angsty teenager who runs away from home only to find things can always get worse. I kept this in mind during my second listen, as I initially thought it was a series of vignettes taking place in and around this “Zen Arcade”, not a story about one central character. By the third listen it was starting to grow on me a little, and I added ‘Turn On The News’ to songs that I liked. Maybe with ten more spins I would have warmed to the record; if only it wasn’t such a chore to get through. You can hear how Hüsker Dü have been quite influential to bands of the nineties, particularly those painted with the grunge or alternative brushes, but this album is just a little loud and overlong for me to really enjoy.