Zen and the art of Hüsker Dü

By Ted Harwood

Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton knew they were on to something in late 1983. The reluctant indie kids had released that year’s Metal Circus EP on the southern California hardcore label SST (home of fellow hardcore devotees Black Flag and Minutemen), but both Mould and Hart were writing songs at such a furious pace that another release was imminent. Walking into Total Access Studios in Redondo Beach that October with 25 tracks and about three days of studio time in which to record them presented what would normally be an impossible situation.

Not for Hüsker Dü.

You see, they played their music really fast, even by most hardcore standards. They had a reputation for being gifted players who liked to challenge themselves by trying to play faster and faster (listen to their 1982 live effort Land Speed Record if you want to get a sense of just how fast this really was). And despite the fact that the album they were about to make was going to blast apart the relatively stagnant boundaries of what hardcore could be, they still had to record a good deal of songs with very little time. So with the aid of some trucker’s speed and the engineering of Spot, they got to work. Like, hard hats and lunch pails. Zen Arcade, a 71-minute double album, was born.

As the album’s liner notes read, “Everything on the record is first-take, except for ‘Something I Learned Today’ and ‘Newest Industry,’ which started too fast.” The idea that a song could be too fast already marked a step forward for both the band and the genre, but aside from that, the fact that this record took a total of 85 hours of work (40 for mixing) is a feat in and of itself.

But speed, while impressive, isn’t the issue on Zen Arcade. This record is so sprawling, so diverse, as to be really difficult to pigeonhole. It’s not a pure hardcore record, that’s for sure. Zen Arcade is a concept album, which makes one think of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (or maybe the Beatles), but not really of circa-1983 hardcore. Nonetheless, there it is: an album about the trials of youth and running away from home on a voyage of self-discovery.

Of course, this is not new territory for rock, or literature, or film, in general. The Who, for example, covered similar ground on Quadrophenia 10 years earlier. On the Road and Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider had blazed similar ground. What makes Zen Arcade different than these earlier cultural products lies in two things. First, Reagan was in the White House. Needless to say, an independent hardcore band with just enough cash to eat bread and cheese once a day and to sleep under desks in their record label’s office weren’t part of “Morning in America”—and neither were most of the kids going to their shows.

But second, and just as importantly, there was hardcore as a form. Musically, there is no genre quite like it for expressing primal anger. (Metal fans may disagree, but hardcore has a touch of reckless abandon about it that the exacting self-control and darkness of metal hasn’t. Hardcore is like manslaughter; metal is like pre-meditated, cold-blooded killing, if you want a clumsy analogy).

The album’s opening track, “Something I Learned Today,” opens with rolling drums and then the familiar trebly hardcore bass. The song progresses at breakneck speeds, although the track isn’t all that fast by hardcore standards (one wonders, though, about that aborted first track). Then Bob Mould’s guitar—that unmistakable over-distorted wall of white noise—comes in, and you’ve got punk rock. Mould begins to scream at the top of his lungs. The lyrics hint at a disagreement: “Someone else’s rules, not mine.”

After this two-minute blast of fury, the band lurches into “Broken Home, Broken Heart.” The title tells it all. The album’s “character,” the first-person subject of the lyrics, looks at a home where the kid has to cry himself to sleep: “Now you know just how it feels,” he says. Already, with Mould’s definitive guitar sound and complex chord changes, plus his melodic sense (there’s a difference between minor and major modalities here), Zen Arcade begins to distance itself from the core of hardcore. Then something really interesting happens. The third track, “Never Talking to You Again,” is played on a solitary acoustic guitar.

All of this indicates sensitivity to the possibilities of hardcore that no other band displayed at the time. On Zen Arcade, Mould, Hart, and Norton begin to ask what would happen if you brought melody, pianos, and modality into hardcore, while retaining its ludicrous speed and unbridled fury. The concept is a new touch, too, and on “Chartered Trips,” the record’s protagonist decides to run. “I looked at the pictures, imagine where they lay away, on a beach, by the sand, where their clothes all lay away,” sings Mould, in what can only be described as a bridge (another pop structure injected into hardcore here). And run he does. He meets girls, Hare Krishnas, aspiring bands, and drugs. He tries out alternative sexual practices on “Masochism World,” one of the most transcendent and wonderful songs on the record, with its triumphal and exhilarating middle section (complete with backup harmonies).

Eventually, though, our hero returns home, but still unwilling to communicate. Zen Arcade’s musical high point, “Whatever,” fades in after a sparse but lovely piano interlude. As on “Something I Learned Today,” Mould’s guitar wall drives the words (“Mom and Dad, I’m sorry/ Mom and Dad, don’t worry/ I’m not the son you wanted”). Hüsker Dü’s success on this track—and on the record—lies in their ability to be complex and to present ambiguous situations, while losing none of the fury and directness of hardcore. After Zen Arcade, hardcore and American music could look to be complex without fear once again.