Publication date: July 2014
Songs and Stories At The Speed of Life: ‘Zen Arcade’
Inspired by the fearsome, take-no-prisoners philosophy of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag, Hüsker Dü initially established a reputation as the fastest, most intense act on the US hardcore punk scene. But the band were determined to break down musical boundaries, forging an identity and sound that was purely their own. Even today, with the almost incalculable influence they’ve had on modern alt rock, it still doesn’t seem right to reduce them down to a simple descriptor such as ‘melodic hardcore punk’. Hüsker Dü were a lot more than that – and it’s on ‘Zen Arcade’, their astonishing double album from 1984, that they make their great leap forward.
Who were Hüsker Dü? Contemporary press shots show a band whose anti-image was a statement in itself: guitarist and singer Bob Mould looks buttoned-up and surly, ready for a fight; drummer and singer Grant Hart is a slightly dazed but friendly-looking stoner; and bassist Greg Norton is the stoic fulcrum of the group who just happens to be wearing a handlebar moustache. They didn’t look like they belonged in the same band, but the strength of their individual personalities belied a shared love of both punk and the classic guitar pop of the Beatles, the Who and the Byrds. Mould and Hart were also prolific songwriters, with Mould taking his cue from the blitzkrieg bop of the Ramones, while Hart’s influences ranged from 50s rock’n’roll to folk – the competition between them to keep bettering each other’s songs was clearly key to Hüsker Dü’s startling evolution.
While the quality of their songwriting is ultimately what the band’s legend is built upon, there’s other reasons why ‘Zen Arcade’ turned out to be the artistic success that it was. For a start, ferocious levels of touring had turned them into an incredibly tight unit, the album’s sleeve notes proudly highlighting that recording and mixing took just 85 hours, with all but two of the songs being first takes (the exceptions having started too fast). Their sound was also different, a visceral onslaught of trebly metallic guitars, rapid fire snare rolls and pumping bass that demands your attention. And both Mould and Hart had appealingly distinctive voices, Mould always halfway between a shout and a confession, while Hart’s nasal but soulful vocals are like a punk Neil Young.
But it’s the sheer ambition of ‘Zen Arcade’ that really impresses. Before recording started, Mould had stated in an interview with Steve Albini that, “We're going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock’n’roll and the whole puny touring band idea”. And as well as being a double, it was also, of all things, a concept album, which must have had the Stalinist punk fans literally spitting with apoplexy. However, the hardcore faithful needn’t have worried, as large parts of ‘Zen Arcade’ deliver a furious assault on the senses that’s even more finely honed than on previous records. But what it also does is throw what feels like the entire history of rock music into the mix, injecting new life into old styles and in the process inventing a whole new strain of extreme psychedelic rock.
It’s all there in the primitive urban fantasia of the sleeve: the three band members wander through a roughly-colourised scrapyard, looking through the debris of crashed machines for parts to salvage and re-imagine. And the title ‘Zen Arcade’ itself seems to speak of a redrawing of the boundaries between rock and pop, where all music exists on a free-flowing continuum rather than broken up into tribal enclaves.
“Something I Learned Today” is an explosive album opener, galloping call-to-arms drums and an irresistible four note bass riff grab the listener by the throat before Mould’s guitar flies in like a blizzard of steel, hyper-adrenalized with righteous fury. It’s hardcore, but as with the album’s other thrash-paced tracks, it displays an acute grasp of the dynamics of what makes a song exciting beyond the louder, faster, harder… (rock) school of thought. And the very first line seems to sum up the band’s rejection of hardcore’s rigid worldview, “Something I learned today, black and white is always grey”, Mould’s voice already raw with an intense desire to communicate. It’s an amazing start which signals that we’re in for a serious treat over the next 70 minutes – frankly, if you’re not jumping up and down and throwing chairs at the wall by this point, what the hell’s wrong with you?!
“Broken Home, Broken Heart” maintains the tempo, and is even angrier and darker. It’s here that the loose concept becomes apparent, of a young man struggling with family life – “Your parents fight, you don't know who's wrong or right” – who leaves home to begin a rites-of-passage journey in the wider world. The lyrics again act as a metaphor for breaking free from a restrictive situation, but Mould has also talked about experiencing a sense of anger during the Reagan years of Republicanism in America, feeling let down and betrayed by the ‘parent’ state’s militarily aggressive and economically divisive policies. There’s a great Dead Kennedys-esque middle eight, but the sheer urgency of the song means we don’t actually get a final verse.
And then the sound starts to change… “Never Talking To You Again” is Grant Hart’s first song on the album, a speed-folk acoustic ballad that Hart delivers like a sweet-voiced, amphetamine-fuelled busker. It’s a classic piece of direct, bare-bones songwriting that sounds like it’s been around forever. “Chartered Trips” steps back into the hurricane, but its heightened sense of melody and inventive arrangement – a clever bass arpeggio over a sustained guitar chord, selected reverb on the vocals – points to the direction that Hüsker Dü would increasingly go in.
“Dreams Reoccurring” is a jarring segment of backwards jazz rock, the reason for which becomes clear later on, then “Indecision Time” come crashing in like an appalled response to such frippery, its breathless, super-saturated noise packed with detail. It’s the soundtrack to an accelerated world, the speed of life getting ever more hectic and chaotic. While the symbol for anarchy became a badge of belonging in punk circles (much derided by Mould), Hüsker Dü were more about reflecting the state of anomie that the modern world could induce in individuals. Searching for meaning, our protagonist finds himself among the followers of “Hare Krsna”, their saffron robes and varispeeded voices dissolving into a bad trip vision of Haight-Ashbury as the song rumbles along to the jungle rhythms of a Bo Diddley bass riff.
Like hardcore’s last hurrah, next up is a clutch of full-frontal attack tracks which feel like being under fire in a warzone. “Beyond The Threshold” has slurred, dehumanised verses while the screamed chorus sounds like Mould’s trying to hold onto his sanity. Unsuccessfully judging by “Pride”, which represents a complete breakdown in sense and logic, Mould’s words rendered purposefully unintelligible under the song’s incredible velocity. In fact, this track operates at exactly the same intensity as thrash metal, which is interesting given that the next steps in metal’s evolution were happening contemporaneously with ‘Zen Arcade’.
“I’ll Never Forget You” continues the hardcore deluge, with a second guitar noticeably over-dubbed for added oomph and a genuinely threatening vibe in the chorus, while “The Biggest Lie” starts with slow Sabbath-esque power chords (a tendency that would become more pronounced within post-punk) before accelerating to warp speed. In an interview at the time, Mould talks about “breaking somebody’s mental defences down through repetition”, and the cumulative effect of these four songs is a derangement of the senses, emulating the mind-expanding ambitions of psychedelia that wanted people to think for themselves.
Or maybe it’s just derangement, because “What’s Going On” has a queasy discord at its heart that gives it a strange sickly feeling, like all the early Stooges albums combined, complete with “I Wanna Be Your Dog” one note piano (in fact, many of the songs on ‘Zen Arcade’ are subtly underpinned by piano). It’s a brilliant evocation of suddenly realising you’ve had too much to drink, including the final stumble to the toilet… And then “Masochism World” is the determined swagger back into the fray, the sound of bar room boogie in a wind tunnel, full of hold and release riffing. Finally, “Standing By The Sea” is the uncomfortable lurch back to sobriety, its oscillating bassline and oceanic sound effects recalling the more gothic end of 60s psych. (It also features an incredibly prolonged scream from co-producer Spot). It’s a disquieting change of pace and a typically wracked ballad from Hart, his songs featuring a mercurial emotional charge that’s often in contrast to Mould’s more straight forward expression.
Onto the second record (as was), and two songs that would have made great singles. “Somewhere” (a rare Mould/Hart co-write) is a sharp and impassioned rock song, catchy as hell and bolstered by backing vocals on the chorus and some great backwards guitar. It sounds like R.E.M. on steroids and again gives a good indication of where their collective group-mind is heading. There’s a short piano interlude (“One Step At A Time”), and then we get the second of these hits that never were, “Pink Turns To Blue”. Built around a simple but naggingly insistent two chord riff, this is easily one of Hart’s (and Hüsker Dü’s) greatest songs, and practically a blueprint for the emo scene to come. Hart’s melodic sensibilities are on full display here, the folky verses rising to a beautiful falsetto chorus. Despite its bleak theme of drug dependency and death encapsulated by the brutal opening line of “Going out each day to score, she was no whore but for me”, it’s a song that’s impossible not to love.
“Newest Industry” is another aggressive but pop-literate composition from Mould, with a post-apocalyptic, darkly humorous lyric: “They burned and bombed the east and north and there's no place left to go. The sunbelt's overcrowded, so let's annex Mexico”. It rattles along on a hard but upbeat riff and driving saloon bar piano, with a delivery that’s almost reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at full pelt, an intersection with classic rock that becomes more pertinent as Hüsker Dü’s career progresses. “Monday Will Never Be The Same” is a longer piano-based instrumental that could be the intro to a Journey or REO Speedwagon track, then “Whatever” roars into life and hurtles towards the concept’s conclusion, our protagonist retreated into himself and living in his own world now. Mould’s guitar sound here is like sheet metal reverberating, and again would influence future generations as much as his songwriting. And if it wasn’t already clear that Hüsker Dü were no longer towing the hardcore line, side 3 concludes with “The Tooth Fairy And The Princess”, another (near-)instrumental with a chiming, musical box quality that almost verges on prog.
The classic rock connection is made again with “Turn On The News”, its hard pop stylings anticipating socially-engaged, fist-pumping anthems such as Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World”. It’s also another great potential single, and was the track from the album that got the most college radio plays. Hart’s emotive voice works brilliantly on songs like these, and there’s even a Van Halen-esque guitar solo from Mould (a pretty good one at that). But it’s on ‘Zen Arcade’’s last track that Hüsker Dü really outdo themselves.
Last song already? Oh yes – “Reoccurring Dreams” is a 14 minute jazz rock instrumental recorded live to 2-track that suggests there were some Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson records in among those Beatles singles when Mould & co were growing up. It’s a remarkably ambitious piece of music, both in conception and execution, being structured like an electrical storm that keeps blowing itself out and then coming back to life. There’s a frantic central motif that’s both awestruck and slightly cartoonish, Hart’s rollercoaster drumming holding it all together as Mould extemporises over the top, sometimes conjuring little melodies and vamps, but more often than not just thrashing the hell out of his instrument. The storm finally resolves into a long note of pure feedback, then the sound of a massive plug being pulled. This is the end, my hardcore friends…
Hüsker Dü went on to produce a series of brilliant albums in an incredibly short space of time, their star shining brightly before burning out in acrimony and exhaustion by 1988. But 30 years on, ‘Zen Arcade’ remains as their most stunning achievement, functioning as both the de facto starting point of what would rather prosaically become known as post-hardcore (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Bitch Magnet etc) and the foundation stone of modern alt rock (Pixies, Nirvana, Green Day etc). If you enjoy melody and excitement plus passion and intelligence in rock, then this is an album, and band, that you seriously need in your life.
Now and Zen
Bob Mould’s new album – ‘Beauty & Ruin’ – sees a return to the crunching melodic rock that made his name in both Hüsker Dü and Sugar. And similar to ‘Zen Arcade’, he’s also described it as a narrative song cycle. R&F spoke to Bob about both albums:
R&F: Where did the title ‘Zen Arcade’ come from, and what was its meaning for you?
BM: It was a non sequitur that fell out of a band member’s mouth! I guess you can take the words apart for meaning, then put them back together — a “peaceful game” of sorts.
R&F: Why the decision to make a concept album?
BM: The concept is a loose one, almost as if the songs created the narrative. There was no “let’s write a rock opera” moment — it was more about the double album, which was fairly taboo in the hardcore punk world circa fall 1983.
R&F: So this was a conscious kicking against the orthodoxy of hardcore?
BM: My kicking against the hardcore norm started with “Real World” from ‘Metal Circus’. I felt more connected to my own thoughts and less to a herd mentality — not that it was a bad herd, it’s just that those rules and conventions weren’t my thing by the middle of 1983.
R&F: “Reoccurring Dreams” is particularly fascinating – how did this track come about?
BM: It was just a jam session where our engineer (Spot) had the presence of mind to hit “record” on the stereo 2-track machine. If you listen closely, you can hear Spot join in on sax.
R&F: How do you view ‘Zen Arcade’’s legacy?
BM: People have a strong attachment to that album, probably more so than me. I think it was the beginning of a good run of albums (‘Zen Arcade’, ‘New Day Rising’, ‘Flip Your Wig’) that set that band apart from the stereotypical hardcore punk in America.
R&F: Your solo career has ranged widely in musical terms, but ‘Beauty & Ruin’ seems, in part at least, to be a return to your hardcore roots?
BM: ‘Beauty & Ruin’ has a number of short, brisk songs — more than any album I’ve made in years. I think it’s mainly due to the regular revisiting of some of my earlier songs with my current band of bassist/vocalist Jason Narducy and drummer Jon Wurster. We sound pretty good when we play the uptempo stuff, and I kept that in mind as I was writing music for ‘Beauty & Ruin’.
R&F: You started recording this album two days after coming off tour – was this to capture the immediacy of the live experience in the studio?
BM: Partly to capture the immediacy, partly because we were red hot as a band at the time, and partly due to scheduling all around — musicians, engineer, available studios etc.
R&F: As you’ve made explicit again with ‘Beauty & Ruin’, you like the idea of an album being sequenced to tell a story – how important to you is the need to communicate via storytelling and lyrics above and beyond writing music?
BM: A good album should encapsulate a period of time in the writer’s life. With Beauty & Ruin, I was able to identify the four main themes — loss, reflection, acceptance, future — about nine months into the writing cycle. Creating those four sequential “picture frames” helped me choose the “snapshots” that fit into each frame. Again, not a “let’s write a rock opera”, but more of understanding the main themes and arranging the pieces to tell the story. Artwork helps to outline the story as well. The album starts cold, slow, and grey; by the end, it’s warm, fast, and sunny. I’m really proud of the amount of thought that went into this album, and I’m grateful to have a good group of musicians, artists, and business folks around me. They provide encouragement, feedback, and support.