Audrey takes a look at the darker side of the 70’s music scene with Manson family connection, Jimmy Page, and more, all connected to a strange rock and roll album…
From the beginning, there were always connections between the Manson family and music. The obvious story was the one of Charlie’s own failed music career, and the horrible crimes that were committed because of that. I’m not going to talk about that today, though: there was another member of the Manson family was also creating interesting music before any of the murders happened in ’69. That man is Bobby Beausoleil, and much like Charlie, he is currently serving a life sentence for murder.
Though this article obviously isn’t meant to be about his motives or the details of the crime (this is primarily a music blog, after all), I will divulge a bit of information about what happened: Beausoleil was involved in the murder of Gary Hinman, a music teacher; allegedly, Hinman owed money to the Manson family for a bad batch of mescaline that they had purchased from him and sold to a biker gang, who subsequently demanded their money refunded when they realized the drugs were faulty. On July 27, 1969, Beausoleil (along with family members Susan Atkins and Mary Brunner) showed up at Hinman’s house in an attempt to get their money back. When he refused to pay them, Hinman called Manson to the scene, who arrived at the house and promptly chopped Hinman’s ear off with a sword. When Hinman still insisted that he didn’t have money to give them, Beausoleil stabbed him to death. Afterwards, they wrote “Political Piggy” on the wall in his blood. Alongside that, they also drew a paw print in an attempt to make it appear that the crime was committed by the Black Panthers. This was the first of the string of gruesome murders committed by the Manson Family: a little over a week later, Beausoleil was arrested after he was found driving Hinman’s car.
Before his incarceration, Beausoleil played in several different bands; the most notable of which was Arthur Lee’s Grass Roots (no relation to Creed Bratton’s band of the same name), who later became the very influential Love. He also played in a psychedelic rock band called The Orkustra following the Grass Roots’ dissolution. Not only was Beausoleil involved in music, but he was also an aspiring actor, which is incidentally where his most famous recording Lucifer Rising comes into the picture.
It’s impossible to talk about this album without bringing up yet another important ‘60s icon: Kenneth Anger. If you’re not familiar with the name, Anger made a lot of experimental short films throughout the ‘40s up until recent years, usually blending surrealist imagery with occultist themes. Anger was a follower of Aleister Crowley’s religion of Thelema and made many references to it in his works, including the short film Lucifer Rising, which featured Beausoleil in a major role. The original plan was that Bobby would be the star of the production and that the music would be composed by Jimmy Page. Unfortunately, there were many issues during the production of the film. The actual filming was delayed many times due to a number of problems: Anger claimed that Beausoleil stole the original footage, but the rest of the cast stated that this didn’t happen and that Anger simply ran out of money. Another major issue involved the soundtrack; Page and Anger had a falling out during the creation of the film: one story says that Anger began to question Page’s devotion to the Thelemic way and, because of this, he placed a curse on the Led Zeppelin star. Another, likelier story is that Page wasn’t working as quickly as Anger wanted him to and, in his stead, the filmmaker tapped Beausoleil to compose the score in addition to being involved as an actor. Either way, after an argument with Charlotte Martin – Page’s longtime lover and the mother of his first child – Anger washed his hands of Page.
This wasn’t necessarily a bad decision on Anger’s part considering that Beausoleil is an extremely talented musician in his own right. The most amazing thing about this record is that it was entirely recorded behind bars. Even more remarkable, especially considering the occult and otherwise taboo themes of Anger’s films, Beausoleil was given permission by the warden of Tracy State Prison – where he was incarcerated for his involvement in the Manson crimes – to create this soundtrack. With the help of some incredibly skilled inmates, the record was created in the late ‘70s. I really wish that I could find more information about the recording process of this album: it sounds absolutely incredible given where it was recorded. I can’t imagine that a prison in the 1970s would keep very many (if any) decent musical instruments around, let alone any recording equipment, so the amount of cooperation between the prison and the outside world would have been unprecedented. Despite the locale where it was made, this album sounds as if professional engineers were on hand to record it using somewhat decent studio equipment. While this technical consideration would be quite remarkable if true, I suppose it made sense that they were able to find such great musicians among the inmates given that this was a prison in southern California during the drug-conservative 1970s: there were probably plenty of talented musicians who were incarcerated for narcotics and other minor crimes.
The album is completely instrumental and separated into six movements. The music contained within is reminiscent of early Pink Floyd; all the tracks are dreamy psychedelic soundscapes that act as a showcase for Beausoleil’s exquisite compositional skills and guitar work. That’s not to say that Beausoleil’s playing is the most important part of the record; the session musicians are incredibly tight and focused as well – especially the horn player. There are moments in the fifth movement where the trumpet becomes the main focus, and is just as beautiful as the guitar on the rest of the album.
While it isn’t necessary to do so if one merely wishes to enjoy the record as a musical statement, it helps to watch the film to see how the portions of the score that were selected for inclusion (the soundtrack album’s runtime is about 46 minutes to the film’s 29) complement Anger’s visuals. Due to all of the production delays involving the soundtrack’s rather unique circumstances, Lucifer Rising – although completely filmed by 1972 – wasn’t released until 1980. Although it features luminaries such as Anger himself and Marianne Faithful (as well as Mick Jagger’s brother, Chris, in a minor role), there is no dialogue to speak of, giving Beausoleil’s musical contribution an even greater importance. The finished work is loaded with Thelemic symbolism as well as a lot of very dated looking psychedelic effects, which makes for an entertaining watch if you’re in the right mindset (stoned *cough*). Honestly, I would have probably enjoyed Anger’s film a lot more if I were knowledgeable about Crowley and his teachings: as I’m only mildly aware of Crowley’s philosophies, I’m sure that most of the symbolism went straight over my head. Even if I didn’t completely understand what was going on, it’s still cool to have Anger’s cinematography in the back of my head while listening to the album: I can’t hear it now without picturing pyramids and volcanoes.
Since this record was written by a famous murderer and completely performed by inmates, one would think that this album would only hold value as a curiosity for record collectors and outsider music enthusiasts, yet this is not the case at all. It is probably best not to get caught up with that notion since this album doesn’t deserve to be cast aside as simply a novelty: It is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the ostensibly limiting conditions under which it was created. Anyone interested in hearing some really great psychedelic instrumentals and guitar work should check this one out, since – even casting aside its interesting context – it really doesn’t get much better than this.
The world can only contain so much…stuff…there’s only so much room. You cannot cram 50 pounds of horse shit into a 40 pound bag. Buildings can grow taller and we can civilize more and more areas of the world; bulldozing trees, swamps, grasslands, prairies and creating new and bigger parking lots. All our cars need a place to live and all our stuff needs a place to lie.
Sooner, rather than later, we’ll have to ascend into the straosphere and find a place to settle in space. And I know the album I’ll listen to on the way up: Ash Ra Tempel’s debut album.
That’s right: I’m snubbing the obvious choice, Pink Floyd (love them, but too obvious) and even more obscure yet still popular groups like Hawkwind (kick ass but way too cheesy, even if in a good way).
No, I’m sticking with the Ash Ra Tempel debut album. Not because it creates an accurate space sonic sensation (as that would be complete silence so severe your ears would burst) but simply because its one of the best pieces of Early space rock I’ve ever heard.
After all, if one is traveling in space, space rock IS a requirement.
What about this album entices me so much over the non-pedestrian sounds of early Pink Floyd and Hawkwind? Is it simply the fact that is is German?
Not quite though I do obsessively enjoy way too much 70’s German rock. Being German doesn’t automatically make it better but it does serve as a draw for me.
The musicianship on the album is vital to its appeal: the pedigree of the players is unmatched in the space rock genre. I don’t mean to knock early Pink Floyd as Syd Barrett and (eventually) Roger Waters were great songwriters but their musicianship (especially Syd’s) was somewhat…rudimentary sometimes.
Manuel Gottsching is a guitar God (mixing a 70’s hard rock style with near-shred levels of technicality mixed with experimental guitar textures and real emotion) who possesses a nearly unlimited level of intelligence and unmatched imagination.
Drummer Klaus Schulze is another German rock legend, known for his epic synthesizer symphonies that have inspired entire generations of trance and pulse electronic music. Here, he serves primarily as a drummer and he is an even better drummer than he is a synthesist.
The bass player is very solid too (I forget his name) as he holds down the fort, plays Entwistle level runs and who serves as a solid grounding for the rest of the band.
The other reason this stands out so firmly for me is the lack of vocals and vocal melodies. Of course, this is a draw back in many ways: you won’t be singing along to any of the “melodies” on this album. Ever.
But the lack of vocals dehumanizes the music in a way that makes it starker and more alien than the scraping landscapes of early Floyd or the heavy-metal-thunder of Hawkwind.
No vocals also means no lyrics which were always, always incredibly weak in Hawkwind. It never gets much better than “I got an orgone accumulator…and it makes me feel greater!”
Ash Ra Tempel doesn’t annoy you with trite space themed lyrics or inane fantasy poetry: instead, they just play. For 20 minutes at a time.
The epic lengths of the average Ash Ra Tempel composition will be a problem for many listeners but that’s part of the appeal for me: the band explores various textures, melodic ideas and rhythmic motifs throughout each track in a way that is naturally flowing and never, ever seems forced.
It’s always amazing to hear Gottsching and Schulze play together: they seem to have a near-telepathic ability to read each other’s musical thoughts and to predict where the other is going without fail.
There is always the chance, of course, that these tracks are heavily edited and pieced together. It wasn’t above Miles Davis (in fact, it was his whole fusion aesthetic) but somehow I just don’t sense that same kind of editing here.
The album follows a basic format that many “side long track” albums have in the past: the first side is the hard rocking side, while the second side is the “contemplative” side (Terry Riley influence?).
The first side, “Amboss” is a track that Ash Ra Tempel never really beat: they came close on “Freak N’ Roll” on Join Inn but they never matched this track’s dark, pulsing mood.
It starts out slowly, with some guitar drone and light cymbals and a bass moan but gradually builds up as Gottsching starts to solo and riff like a demented (and dangerous) version of Early Clapton. Schulze smashes and bashes like Keith Moon but generally keeps a better beat.
Describing tracks like this is a fruitless, thankless, nearly impossible endeavor: there are countless build-ups, fall downs, moments of climactic ecstasy and impeccable interplay and musicianship. George Starostin astutely compared it to “Live at Leeds” era Who in its interplay and that’s very accurate. There’s just no Roger Daltrey.
However, the second side is something the Who never would have done: a 20+ minute, nearly ambient tune that simmers at a lower level than “Amboss” but which still has its own sense of intensity and purpose.
Beyond the lower tempo, there isn’t any real way to tell apart the two tracks which is fine: it creates a more unified mood of space exploration that no band (including Ash Ra Tempel) ever topped.
After this album, Schulze left and the band floundered through a solid, but more conventional second album and a collaboration with Timothy Leary that never really caught fire.
The Schulze reunion album “Join Inn” (as previously mentioned) has the same structure and the same basic fire and drive of this album but without the carefully created atmosphere. After Gottsching created the fun, diverse and completely out-of-left-field pop-like album “Starring Rosi” he created a solo album, formed “Ashra” and explored more synthetic textures.
As a result, this album stands somewhat apart from the rest of Gottsching and Schulze’s discography, making it an even more worthy addition to your collection.
Songs to YouTube:
There are two songs. Listen to them both.
1. These Important Years 2. Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope 3. Standing in the Rain 4. Back from Somewhere 5. Ice Cold Ice 6.You’re a Soldier 7. Could You Be The One? 8. Too Much Space 9. Friend, You’ve Got to Fail 10. Visionary 11. She Floated Away 12. Bed of Nails 13. Tell You Why Tomorrow 14. It’s Not Peculiar 15. Actual Condition 16. No Reservations 17. Turn It Around 18. She’s a Woman (And Now He Is A Man) 19. Up in the Air 20. You Can Live At Home Now
Ten out of Ten
After “Candy Apple Grey” the band took a longer time to get to the studio than normal: in fact, most of 1986 passed before they got into the studio in August. It would take them four months to record their last album, the double length “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” named after their rehearsal space and the feel of their new songs. The title wasn’t a vicious call to arms or an aggressive political statement. The name seemed to reflect a newfound maturity that was at arms with their old punk rock past.
Indeed, “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” was much mellower than even “Candy Apple Grey.” Although the band was obviously still a hard hitting rock band, the absolute dedication to speed and hard hitting fuzz was mostly dissipated. In its place, was a slower paced, more textured sound that relied more on pop melodies than ever before. The lyrics had also become much more introverted, personal and rarely anything less than very serious. All of these changes could be seen as serious “problems” or at the very least a complete degradation of the band’s style.
However, the relative calm of the album actually masked serious problems in the band. Grant was a serious heroin addict at the time, a problem which was causing serious friction between Grant, Greg and Bob especially. Bob and Greg had done their fair share of drinking and drugging but had left those days behind for the most part.
Another serious problem was indicated by the length of the album: unlike “Zen Arcade” it was not a double album by choice or by concept by due to the band’s stubbornness. Although Grant was a serious addict, he was contributing more and more songs to the band. In fact, his songs nearly equal Bob’s for the first time on a Husker Du album. However, Mould stated that Grant would “never have more than half the songs on a Husker Du album.”
Grant was not about to stop writing just because Bob told him to stop. Both songwriters kept contributing songs left and right until both had written an album a piece. Neither would let any of their songs get dropped from the play list. Mould later regretted this, saying that if the album had been limited to a single album, it would have been more effective. One assumes he meant his album…but lets not dwell on the negatives.
When it was released, many fans revolted against the mellower sounds while many critics praised it for bringing it a new sound for Husker Du that was diverse, textured, thoughtful and still intense. Guess where I stand on the fence here: I love this album and consider it to be in their top three albums. I place it below “Zen Arcade” and “New Day Rising” simply because that early manic energy that is such a part of Husker Du’s identity is seriously dimmed here.
And besides, what does one get when a band that was previously one of the fastest and most severe bands on the planet slows down a little? You get high quality rock and roll. The band loses some of the speed and some of the intensity here but only some. Slowing things down, stretching out a bit and reveling in the small details let the band achieve a great breakthrough in sound which they were never able to replicate as they broke up after the album was finished.
The album is arranged in an interesting: it’s almost always one Bob song and then one Grant song. Bob has one more song than Grant, so his double up at one point. Otherwise, the album is seemingly arranged as a battle between the two bitter rivals. And what a battle it is! The album starts strong with the uplifting “These Important Years” which finds Bob comforting the listeners and asking them to work hard during the important young years of their lives. The melodies of the song help it stand out as does the guitar overdubs and the careful keyboard parts.
Grant immediately follows suit with “Chasity, Charity, Prudence and Hope” somehow fitting that ungainly statement into a catchy melody. Song after song follows and the band never lets up great songs for a minute. “Ice Cold Ice” has a great descending guitar line during the chorus: “She Floated Away” is a sea shanty that once heard can never be forgotten: and “You Can Live At Home Now” is a simultaneously upbeat, uplifting and depressing song.
I must point out that all of the songs I’ve mentioned were by Hart. This is because Grant enters full on pop songwriter mode here and in the “memorable chorus” competition he beats Bob pretty handily. And since I’m a sucker for a pop chorus, I remember his songs best.
However, Bob is no sucker: his melodies are very memorable and catchy but he tends to focus more on the performance and the lyrics. While Grant shows off a more whimsical (yet still serious) side, Bob offers advice, discusses his pain, comforts the listener, tells difficult stories and lets it all hang out. Bob definitely wins in the “meaningful” side.
If there is a fault with the album, its that the songs tend to run together but that is a fault with Husker Du as a band in general. The arrangements are often fairly uniform and tempos similar. And it is hard to deny that the band has lost a little of the “special” charm by slowing down a little.
The high quality of the songs and the diverse types of genres attempted (all filtered through a guitar rock lens) make this an album that simply cannot be missed by serious Husker fans. In fact, the album has since gone on to influence a wide range of alternative rock in the late 80’s and early 90’s in ways that cannot be under-estimated. The slower, textured approach the band tried here turned into a common approach as old punk bands began to age. In this way, they remained influential even in death.
During the band’s last tour in 1987, a series of tapes were recorded that were eventually turned into a live album called “The Living End” and released in 1994. This was essentially against the band’s will and Bob has stated that he hasn’t even listened to the album. I actually haven’t listened to the album so I won’t rate it but will simply mention that it features 24 songs, many from “Warehouse” a cover of “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” and “Everytime” a song written by Greg Norton. The album has been highly praised by a wide variety of sources as being a solid representation of the band’s live powers during this period.
Unfortunately, the tension in the band grew too strong and they split up. Bob almost never plays Husker Du songs and refers to his time and the band with disdain: he has released multiple solo albums, starting with the all acoustic “Workbook.” He then formed the solid “Sugar” which released two albums, an EP and a B-sides collection. Later albums focused on electronic textures as Bob tried to stay abreast of musical trends. While these albums have fans, it’s hard to deny that his strengths lie in guitar rock.
Grant Hart released a few solo albums and formed an alternative rock band called “Nova Mob” which I’ve never heard. His albums are supposed to be very solid and more Husker Du than Bob’s solo work. Due to his infamous heroin addiction, Grant has been sidelined for years and his career has never gotten much attention. Greg Norton, the talented by quiet bass player retired to open a restaurant.
This is the last entry in the “Husker Du” series. Stay tuned for reviews on the output of Amon Duul, Amon Duul II and Amon Duul III otherwise known as Amon Duul UK.
1. Crystal 2. Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely 3. I Don’t Know For Sure 4. Sorry Somehow 5. Too Far Down 6. Hardly Getting Over It 7. Dead Set On Destruction 8. Eiffel Tower High 9. No Promises Have I Made 10. All This I’ve Done For You
Eight Out of Ten
With “Flip Of The Wig,” Husker Du had begun to slightly repeat their past. For a single album this was okay: the songs were of the highest possible quality given the circumstances. A less talented band would have continued mining the exact same sound and style for a dozen more albums of decreasing worth that would please the devoted but serve as nothing more than careerist contract fillers, designed to fill seats at arenas for decades.
However, Husker Du wasn’t that kind of band. They obviously understood that they were mining musical ground that they had all ready trodden over to its fullest potential. It was time to change again, at least a little: the band did not want to betray their identity and their style. But they were too confident and full of pride to repeat themselves again but without betraying their past.
So, four months after recording “Flip Your Wig”, (and recording for major label, Warner Brothers) the band mellowed out. They added more acoustic guitars to their songs than ever before. Pianos actually became the center point of a few songs, as opposed to an embellishing instrument. The songs were more personal than ever with lyrics that cut to the bone. And the production was their cleanest ever, even featuring an odd “gated” drum sound that was common to mainstream bands of the 80’s.
Some fans accused the band of selling out: they figured a new major label required the band to simplify their sound and become less fast, less intense and less worthwhile. Is this the case? Did the band really simplify their sound simply to sell more records? Did they commit the ultimate underground artist act of betrayal by laying down and sucking up to the man?
In this reviewer’s opinion, that is highly unlikely. Warner Brother’s has a good reputation as an “artist friendly” label that allows their artists to do a wide range of potential noncommercial things. Remember, they released the ridiculous (and awesome) four disc album “Zaireeka” by the Flaming Lips, an album that is much more difficult to comprehend than even the harshest of Husker Du albums.
Besides, both Mould and Hart have shown, through their own meandering, inconsistent solo careers, that they both have a singular vision that they aren’t likely to betray. Bob has followed a wide range of underground trends in an attempt to stay “underground” and “relevant” while Grant Hart simply sells no records. However, the album did climb higher than any of their previous albums (all the way to 140 on the charts!) but didn’t generate any hit singles. Many fans still complain about the cleaner production, the gated drum sound and the mellowing of the bands sound. Are these legitimate complaints to make or are they bellyaching fans that simply want a band to retreat their style forever?
To put it simply, yes and no. The band does seem to lose a little intensity on this album and for a band that thrived on intensity, it can be a bit hard to adapt to the times. The band is definitely becoming more mellow and is running the risk of losing their identity. Even the harder, faster songs seem to lack a certain edge that earlier songs possessed. The clearer production and gated drum sounds tend to make the album sound “thin” as if Bob’s guitar didn’t possess the sheer wall of noise that it had before. This makes the album feel incredibly compromised during the fast moments.
However, if the listener removes themselves from the expectation of “quicker, faster, harder” it becomes clear that the best songs on the album are, paradoxically, the slower, mellower songs. Songs like Hart’s “No Promises Have I Made” and Mould’s “Hardly Getting Over It” extensively feature keyboards and acoustic guitars in a way previous Husker Du songs did not. But Bob and Grant were getting better at these types of songs. They progress in more interesting ways, layering on new sounds and dynamics in ways the band had never tried before. The more mellow sounds suited the more introspective material the band was writing. In fact, both Bob and Grant released mellow solo albums after the band broke up that mirrors the styles they began farming here.
This breakthrough into solid mellow material makes much of the rest of the material frustrating. The harder, faster rock sn’t exactly bad: they are well written, intense and even emotionally engaging. After all, a few mellow songs on an album of shitty hardcore wouldn’t earn an album an eight out of ten. No, the fast songs here aren’t written poorly. They simply seem second hand at this point, songs that might have been left overs from previous albums. There aren’t many songs that truly reach out and grab you by the throat in the way “I Apologize” or “Makes No Sense At All” did in the past.
There are some highlights: “I Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” is a solid Hart singalong, while Mould contributes “Crystal” and “Eiffel Tower High” two solid and memorable pop songs. But there are simply not enough songs. “Candy Apple Grey” is one of the “major” Husker Du albums, with only 10 songs clocking in at 37 minutes. The frantic rush of endless great songs that made such past Husker Du albums so exhilarating is simply not available on this album. The great songs do outweigh the less than interesting but not by a heavy enough margin to make this a truly amazing album.
The album also seemed to indicate future problems for the band: Grant Hart wrote four songs out of ten for the album. His confidence and ability as a songwriter was growing by leaps and bounds, spurred on by Bob’s ever increasing abilities. This conflict would come to a head on their last album, which honestly feels like a song by song competition to prove to the other that they were the better songwriters.
1. Flip Your Wig 2. Every Everything 3. Makes No Sense At All 4. Hate Paper Doll 5. Green Eyes 6. Divide and Conquer 7. Games 8. Find Me 9. The Baby Song 10. Flexible Flyer 11. Private Plane 12. Keep Hanging On 13. The Wit and Wisdom 14. Don’t Know Yet
9.5 Out of Ten
Well, eventually all great things finally slow down and end. Husker Du released their two greatest albums in a row. They had peaked after making only three studio albums, one live album and an EP. Where else but the band go but down? Indeed, in spite of Bob Mould’s claim that “Flip Your Wig” is the “greatest album” Husker Du ever released, this simply is not true. Although the band began integrating more instruments, such as piano, vibraphone and even slide whistle into their arrangements, they were simply refining the formula they had created, not truly expanding on it in new and exciting ways.
However, just because a band has peaked and has begun to slip doesn’t mean it’s awful. Indeed, as is obvious by the rating of this album, Husker Du did slip but not by much. “Flip Your Wig” is in fact, very similar to “New Day Rising.” In fact, it can be considered the “adoring little brother” to “New Day Rising”; copying his older brother faithfully, but coming up with variations due to his own unique personality.
The first obvious shift is the lighter tone of the album. This change is both musically and lyrically. The band is still a very serious band at times but weird moments such as “The Baby Song” pop out and lighten the mood. This may be due to Grant Hart writing five of the 14 songs on the album. He was coming more and more into his own as a writer and contributing more songs than ever.
Bob was also truly mastering the art of songwriting: “Hate Paper Doll” and “Makes No Sense At All” are nearly perfect pop songs from the grumpiest man in hardcore. In fact, the only song Bob regularly plays from his Husker Du days is “Makes No Sense At All.” Song after song flies by the listeners ear giving something new with each song: a melodic twist you hadn’t heard before; a turn of a lyrical phrase; a suddenly prominent bass line; piano suddenly popping up in weird places; or even crystal clear singing.
I have read that while “New Day Rising” is “punk played as pop” then “Flip Your Wig” is “pop played as punk.” I agree with this wholeheartedly. Truly, this is where the album’s unique identity lies. While it is in many ways a minor little brother to the previous album, it plows its own fields and reaps its own rewards. No album by the “Du” is as instantly catchy, light hearted and easy to enjoy.
“Flip Your Wig” is the sound of a band that has reached its peak, found where it excels and which has no intention of letting up. While the band isn’t exactly advancing its sound on this album or changing things up in a big way as they had done in the past, it is still an essential and integral part of their legacy. In fact, it may be a good album to start with when listening to the band: it can easily be listened to by non-hardcore fans and hardcore fans alike and enjoyed.
After releasing this album, Husker Du was finished with SST. They were one of the first underground bands, if not the first, to sign with a major label. The band would release two studio albums with Warner Brothers as well as a live album. Many fans throw accusations of “sell out” at the band during this period. And the band did slightly mellow its sound. However, while the band may have moved (slightly) away from hardcore punk, they expanded their sonic dimensions even further and even helped influenced alternative music in the 90’s and 2000’s.
1. New Day Rising 2. The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill 3. I Apologize 4. Folk Lore 5. If I Told You 6. Celebrated Summer 7. Perfect Example 8. Terms of Psychic Warfare 9. 59 Times the Pain 10. Powerline 11. Books About UFOs 11. I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About 12. How to Skin a Cat 13. Whatcha Drinking 14. Plans I Make
Ten out of Ten
After releasing “Zen Arcade,” Husker Du became even more renowned critically. However, they didn’t sell any more albums. A dense, harshly produced hardcore album simply wasn’t going to shift a lot of units, no matter how melodies the band started integrating. However, this didn’t really stop the band from charging forward.
In fact, it barely slowed the band down. In fact, the band went into the studio in July 1985 to record the follow up, which was the same month “Zen Arcade” was released. The album was released in 1985. It featured a mere 14 songs as opposed to the sprawling 23 of “Zen Arcade.” It didn’t have an immediate storyline nor an obvious concept. None of the songs were over five minutes long (only the last track “Plans I Make” stopped four minutes, due to studio chatter at the end of the song) and the band had streamlined itself once again. The album was also recorded over a month period, instead of the unfathomable rush of a few days given to “Zen Arcade.”
All of these changes made the band seemed less overtly ambitious. However, while the band may have scaled back a lot of their ambitions this was probably for the best. After all, they were a punk band weren’t they? Of course they were. And punk hits best in hard, fast bites of sound. “Zen Arcade” is an amazing album but it is a “once in a career” type of album. The band had set out to prove they were the best, fastest and most talented hardcore group in the land. They succeeded: time to focus on improving their musicianship, songwriting and lyrical abilities.
Which is, of course, what “New Day Rising” achieved. In fact, “New Day Rising” is perhaps the single best Husker Du album. That is to say, it is their best single album and is probably their best album overall. However, this is a very close toss up between this album and “Zen Arcade.” It’s all a matter of preference: ambitious, messy sprawling insanity or focused, melodic and hard hitting rock and roll. Technically, the album is an improvement over “Zen Arcade” in every way but does not have the same feeling of rock and roll destiny.
The first obvious improvement is in the production of the album. Instead of the mess of fuzz, bass and drum thump, the instruments are much more clearly defined and delineated. It is easier to tell who is making what sound now, as opposed to the blur of sound from before. This is obvious from the first track, “New Day Rising” one of the stand out tracks in the Husker Du catalog.
Grant’s drums come in loud and clear: he sounds like he’s playing in the room with you. This is much better than the blurry “thud” of previous albums. Bob kicks in with a simple but fast and fuzzy guitar part that hits hard and reminds the listener that he is perhaps the best hardcore guitarist in the world. Greg’s bass fuses with the drums and guitar, providing a noticeable bottom end. The band then starts chanting “new day rising” in various different ways: harmonizing with each other, chanting, slowing it down, altering the melodies etc. The song plays for two and a half minutes and then disappears.
Some may feel that this is a weak song: it never really develops and features only a three word lyric. However, the presentation of the song makes it work: the band is playing as if their life depended on it and their vocals ring with true conviction. The song feels less like a true song and more like a chant or an evocation. It’s damn near religious and its truly exciting.
The band never lets up after this amazing start. “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” comes in with a trademark Grant Hart pop chorus: however, the band still tears it up like a true punk band. Grant is still sharpening his songwriting stick and his songs become harder and harder to forget. This isn’t to knock Bob: in fact, the next song “I Apologize” hits just as hard and has just as catchy of a chorus melody, although the verse melody resolutions are a bit awkward.
Song after song follows, each one hitting as hard as the last. Like previous Husker Du albums, it can be easy to get lost in the album: for the longest time, I found the album weak because it all starts to sound the same. However, this is a fault of all bands in this genre. The instrumentation and approach is limited and the arrangements often sound similar. With that said, the band continues to show off their willingness to grow and change by adding 12 string guitar to the opening of “Celebrated Summer.” This light touch proved a harbinger of future diversification.
Other highlights of the album include “I Don’t Know What You’re Talking About.” Here, Bob rages against a person that he simply cannot understand. In fact, much of the album’s lyrics have a similarly personal approach: confusion, madness, misunderstanding and hatred fill the album. It never becomes a downer because the band is playing too fast and writings songs that are too catchy. By the time “Plans I Make” comes around, any listener will be emotionally drained and devastated by what they have heard: in a good way. Not one song seems out of place or like “filler” except for perhaps a few moments of strangeness such as “Whatcha Drinking” and “How to Skin a Cat” but even these feel more like moments of levity, designed to boost the listener’s spirit, as opposed to bad songs.
Simply put, Husker Du peaked as a band with this album. Everything that made them great is present: great pop melodies, amazing speed, passion, great lyrics and a fuzz guitar led attack that separated them from their peers. The best description I’ve read of this album was that it was “punk played as pop” and that is so true. Although the band never made a bad album, they would begin a slight slide into “more pop than punk” which turns off many hardcore fans.