Melody Maker, June 27th 1987
by Simon Reynolds
In Atlanta, Georgia, the Replacements play me a tape of Husker Du’s live appearance on The Joan Rivers Show. It’s more than a little mind-blowing. The band unleash the great grey gust that is ‘Could You Be The One’, then troop over for a ‘chat’ with the lady herself.
It’s one of the most embarrassing pieces of television I’ve ever seen. Rivers is clearly terrified of the band, doesn’t know how to place or approach them, stammers out something to the effect that they used to be kind of radical and underground, but now aren’t quite so radical and underground, isn’t that so?
What’s unnerving her is that the band aren’t selling themselves on any level, either as outrage or as light entertainment, aren’t making anything of this opportunity to project themselves. They’re polite, awkward, somehow not-there. It’s not so much that they’re deliberately aloof as that they’re irretrievably apart. Rivers asks a question and I think she’s saying: "Which one of you is the wild member of the group and which is the commie one?" – turns out she said "calming". Then they traipse off again, to play ‘She’s A Woman’, having left an irreparable crease in the sleek fabric of the show.
It made me wonder whether a group like Husker Du can interact with this thing Pop. The Smiths, at least, make a drama of their exile – their anti-glamour can be consumed as glamour.
But Husker Du refuse to act up – the ‘outrage’ they perpetrated on Joan Rivers was of an altogether quieter, less ostentatious order – they didn’t play up to the role of Misfit, they just failed to connect, to communicate on Pop’s terms at all – an eloquent incoherence. How, then, do they cope with things like videos?
Grant Hart: "The videos are of straight performances of the songs. Seeing as none of our songs are particularly etched in fantasy, they’re best portrayed naturalistically."
Like the other American thinking rock bands I’ve encountered (Throwing Muses and The Replacements) Husker Du loathe the exigencies of presentation and marketing, have a chronic fear of anything that suggests contrivance. American rock has never seen image and packaging as a means of expression in the way that much British rock has.
Perhaps this is because American daily life is more heavily saturated with showbiz glitz and advertising pizazz than British life, and so it seems more urgent to escape the all-pervasive environment of kitsch, escape from the escapist, into the authentic, the Real. Probably, it has a lot to do with the absence in America of the artschool/artrock interface that’s has been so hugely important in British pop history.
Either way, American rock (outside New York) has no notion of glamour as something you can radicalise: Throwing Muses will turn up for photo sessions in their tattiest, most everyday clothes, The Replacements will refuse to throw shapes for the camera and Husker Du will resist anything in the way of video presentation that’s redolent of advertising and its manipulation of the consumer.
Bob Mould: "The problem with videos is that, before they existed, you’d make up your own story, your own mental pictures, to go with a song. That’s what music’s for – attaching your own meanings to."
Somewhere along the way, pop ceased to be something that gave people a heightened sense of their own agency, and became something that programmed desires. What Husker Du hate above all is when things get fixed – they like to leave things open, in a flux. Maybe they’d get on better if they did give people one easy handle, if they weren’t so keen to leave things up to people’s imagination. Maybe the only way to get a hit is to work from the premise that most people’s imaginations are enfeebled, through under-use. As it is, they’re not even let near those kind of people.
Bob: "Our videos don’t get heavy rotation. Our records get played on college radio and on the progressive commercial radio stations. Whereas all the people in here - " (gestures at Billboard) "- get played several times a day on every radio station in America."
Ah, Billboard – whenever I look at magazines like Billboard or Music Week, it does my head in: I think of all the things that music means to me – dissension, speculation, complex pleasures, never-never dreams, the criss-cross currents of making sacred and sacrilege – and then look at how these people discuss pop – crossover between different radio sectors, aggressive marketing, instore promotion... Who knows which kind of talk is more out of touch with the ‘reality’ of pop.
"Well, yes, it all depends on whether your conception of success is related to the outside world or to your own mind. With us, it ‘s the latter, so every song is a ‘hit’."
Quite. What is a ‘hit’ these days? Something that wreaks havoc in the private lives of a few people, or something that resounds widely and weakly across the surfaces of the globe? We’re back with Stubbs’ dichotomy between the small and significant and "huge insignificances" like Alison Moyet or Curiosity Killed The Cat. Two rival definitions of impact – purity of vision or breadth of effect.
All I know is that Husker Du hit me – this feels like the elusive ‘perfect pop’, the swoon and the surge. In one sense (sales) Husker Du are a ‘small’ band – in every other sense they are massive – in the scale and reach of their music, in the way they give a grandeur to mundane tribulations and quandaries – a musical equivalent of the pathetic fallacy (thunder and lightning as the dramatic externalisation of inner turmoil).
What is it about this ‘perfect pop’ that dooms it to be as distant from real Eighties Pop as the moon? That the music is too imposing, while the band, as individuals are too self-effacing, hiding behind the noise? That the music’s too violent, while the feelings that inspire it are too sensitive. That the songs deal with the loose ends of life but refuse to tie things up satisfactorily, instead confronting the listener again and again with the insoluble?
All these things distance Husker Du from today’s secular pop, with its twin poles of levity and sentimentality. But there are more material reasons why they don’t belong. The very fabric of their sound has no place in pop ’87, a blizzard that makes no appeal to the dancing body, but dances in the head.
Move in close and you see activity too furious for pop – flurry-hurry chords, febrile drumming – step back ten paces and you can take in the sweep and curve of the cloud shapes stirred up by the frenzy. Only AR Kane come close as sublime choreographers of harmonic haze. The stricken voices, the almost unbearable candour of their bewilderment and desolation, jar with Pop’s soul-derived universal voice of self-possession and narcissism.
‘Ice Cold Ice’, the fabulous new single off the Warehouse double, says it all – the chill of awe instead of the fire of passion, frost instead of flesh, the ghost of folk instead of the residue of R&B. Pop ’87’s aerobic humanism can’t take on this kind of enchantment.
But what do they think is the most unique thing they offer?
Grant: "The outlook, I guess... we’re creating music for human beings, not pop idols."
Bob: "I don’t see many people trying to be as honest as we are... I think the lyrics are enlightening without being too philosophical... I don’t think you associate a clothing style or a lifestyle with what we do... in that sense we’re not exclusive to anyone, we don’t exclude."
Do you agree that part of the appeal of being a band is the chance to prolong adolescence, to leave things open a little longer, to avoid the closures of adulthood?
Grant: "Well, there’s growing up and there’s growing boring, and the two are not necessarily inseparable. Generally, though, as a person gets established in their life, and the things that surround them are theirs rather than their parents’, they start to settle down. I see friends that are worrying about their bank overdrafts – all the things I worry about too, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And the next step is that you start playing the game, kissing up to the boss, all to ensure the security you’re afraid to lose. But what you do lose is the ability to live for the moment, because life gets so bound up with planning and providence. People get conservative as they look to preserving their life investment."
One of the first things to go when this settling down sets in, is music, or at least rock of the Husker Du ilk. People cease to be able to take on such music. It’s too demanding – literally, in terms of investment of energy and attention; but also in the sense that rock is like a reproach, can get to be an unwelcome nagging reminder of dreams that have been foregone. It becomes unbearable to listen to music, after a while.
Bob: "Well, almost everyone does give up music, sooner or later – it’s a matter of when..."
Grant: "But there are those who give everything up all the time and right from the start. So even to hold out for a while is not so bad."
Who do they feel are their kindred spirits in rock?
Bob: "Who’s at Number 186 in the Billboard Chart this week, ha ha ha ha! No, there are some like-minded groups about, groups that have abandoned the idea of pop stardom – we’ve even been accused of triggering that off... bands like R.E.M., Meat Puppets, Black Flag... bands who can be widely successful in their own minds because of the psychic rewards of what they do. A band like R.E.M. that has a very internally run programme – they’ve got a manager that’s been with them since day one, they’re very homebase-oriented, having refused to move to New York or L.A. Similarly, we decided to stay in Minneapolis right from the start. Now things are turned around so that a friend of a friend knows a musician who moved from Hollywood to Minneapolis, in order to be discovered!
"I like the fact that we’re self-sufficient, that we look after our own finances, that we don’t have a set regimen dictated by a corporation or anybody. One of the results of the life we lead is that we don’t divide work and play. When I’m not working on music or doing specific administrative tasks, I’m writing or reading or drawing, but all these things have an input into the music."
How do you want people to be affected by the music?
Grant: "This may sound a little overwhelming, but I’d like them to come out a better person than when they came in, as a result of an effort by both audience and the performers. We’re appreciated by a different enough range of people – rednecks, hippies, punks, 50-year-old jazz buffs – that I personally am really satisfied that there’s so much love going down. I’m also proud of the pride we take in what we do... I wish they made drums like that!"
Is there a kind of politics in Husker Du, in that you deal with the discrepancy between the promise of America and most people’s lived reality of deadlock and impasse?
"There’s politics in the sense of people trying to gain control of their own destiny. Life is too short to worry about who’s on top at any given time – politics is like advertising, the basic products beneath the different wrappers are much the same – it’s more important to avoid being stepped on, to find a life that doesn’t involve a giant foot hovering over your head perpetually. The golden rule is: be neither a foot over someone’s head, nor a head under someone’s foot."
And are there ‘spiritual’ concerns, too?
Bob: "I’m a questioning person. I’d like to find out why certain things are the way they are and, if that’s spiritual, then I’m a spiritual person. Things like time interest me. I overheard a guy on the airplane saying that the Japanese are 25 years ahead of us. Now which 25 years did he mean – 1780 to 1805, or 1962 to 1987? How do you qualify time? Is time the same for a guy aged 25 who’s never eaten meat and for a guy of the same age who’s taken speed for the last 10 years..."
Grant: "In hamburgers!"
Bob: "A good question is so much better than a bad answer. If you had all the answers, why go on? There goes all your spirit, your reason for living."
Candy Apple Grey
Melody Maker, March
by Simon ReynoldsListening to this vast, volatile music, up in its power and space, I suddenly realised that these attributes are the precise opposite of the experiences Husker Du actually sing about — the lived reality of inertia, claustrophobia, isolation. The paradox of transfiguration — Husker Du's music wrenches numbness into fury and exultation. Only the Smiths make an equivalent alchemy of the grey areas of existence.
The Byrdsy harmonies, the desolate purity of Hart and Mould's voices, a discreet trippiness, these are further clues. Husker Du (like the Smiths) use traces of folk, a roots music, to write songs about rootlessness. Both groups look to the ‘60s only to reinvoke what's most positive about the time — doubt about the costs of living a normal life, yearning for an indefinable more.
Husker Du's music trembles with all the nameless longings that ache beneath the skin. Sometimes they remind me of the Jimi Hendrix Experience — another power trio of virtuoso ability who created a rock noise that was spiritual. And I wonder if Husker Du's 'Somewhere' was our lost 'I Don't Live Today'.
But Husker Du have an ascetic quality that contrasts with Hendrix's febrile sensuality — their music rises above the body, refuses to solicit it (says don't dance, flip your wig). Their love songs are chaste devotionals, almost hymnal. Husker Du approach the world, and their loves, with a mixture of pained bewilderment and awe. Their flight from the flesh is the only response to pop's soulless, sweaty sextravaganza.
I think also of another ‘60s-obsessed group. Where the Jesus And Mary Chain make pop fresh again by juxtaposing its sweetness with noise, Husker Du turn pop into noise — flaying these songs into a haze, smudging voice into guitar.
The feared corporate bland-out has not happened. There's a touch more clarity, a few more ballads. But this was coming anyway — Husker Du had taken velocity and noise as far as they could. The only way forward for them is to become gentler. Husker Du's achievement is a musical violence untainted with machismo: a violence that, paradoxically, heals. All they've done is to bring out more clearly the grace and compassion that always did rage at the heart of their ravaged sound.
Besides, these soft songs are the cruellest. No music mangles my heart so completely. The intimacy of 'Hardly Getting Over It' almost destroys. 'Eiffel Tower High' features a sublime loop of melody that will crush the breath out of you.
There's never been anything cultish or difficult about Husker Du — please don't deny yourself this beauty any longer. For I don't know how much longer it can last — already Husker Du repeat themselves, musically and lyrically.
For the moment, though, I live for this pain.
Warehouse: Songs and Stories (WEA)
Melody Maker, July 1987
by Simon Reynolds
This is ROCK. Not rock’n’roll, not swingin’, groovy, lean and compact. Not even raunch. this is ROCK -- powerchords that would crack apart the sky. Husker Du don’t belong with the new authentics, bar bands sweating out a closeknit clinch with their fans. Unlike Springsteen (who by sheer presence can shrink stadiums back to the dimensions of the primal R&B joint), there’s no intimacy, no sweat, nothing earthy. Husker Du are making a monument, a mountain, a glacier, out of rock again, rather than burrowing along at grass roots.
Oblivion. “Nothing changes fast enough/Your hurry worry days/It makes you want to give it up/And drift into a haze”--“These Important Years.” Rock noise is the uptight white adolescent’s release, emptying the mind, then filling it with nothing but its own dancing frenzy. Noise as metaphor for inner turmoil and its transfiguration. Over five LPs (and this is their second double) Husker Du have turned over and over the details of drift and bewilderment, yet still manage to wrest an improbably grandeur from the small squalor of everyday inertia. Fuck the chirpy, unforgiveable “Road to Nowhere”-- this is the true, hurting sound of the spirit chafing against the rut of existence, chafing at the intractable. The “violence” of this music is an attempt to flay past numbness, through dulled senses, to reawaken feeling.
“Think with your hips” has been the message of rock’n’roll, of pop. But this rock says: rise above, kiss the sky. Like U2/REM/J&MC, this music is psychedelia without drugs, a rock that has left behind loins, juice, even heat, and found a new, frosty kind of intensity. A celestial impulse.
This is a new sound. Heavy metal is bastardized R&B, R&B sexuality coarsened and stiffened and blunt. But Husker Du “bastardize” or metallize folk. They strip folk of roots and soil, blast it to the heavens. Imagine the Jimi Hendrix Experience playing The Byrds’ Younger Than Yesterday.
Better than ever. Voices midway between scar and balm, savaging as they soothe. Harmonies that swell, soar, then bleed into the horizon. Divine lullabies like “Up in the Air,” cracked apart by blocks of noise. “No Reservation,” “She’s A Woman,” “You Can Live At Home,” “Friend,” “You’re A Soldier,” “Ice Cold Ice”…classic pop structures, almost borne under by the foaming weight of noise brought to bear.
My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in rock noise. A soulboy’s bad dream. Style, rhetoric, tassled loafers, import 12-inches, blown, scattered to the winds. A million heads, lost in music, in worship. The return of ROCK.