Television “Adventure” Review
The last 70’s was a magical time for debut albums: 1976’s “The Ramones”, 77’s “Nevermind the Bollocks,” 77’s “The Clash” as well as “Talking Heads ’77.” All these bands had something to say about old guard music and that message was: fuck off, we gun do our thing now.
Perhaps my favorite debut and band from that period is “Marquee Moon” by Television. Anybody that’s heard the album can understand why: creative, sprawling guitar interplay; a non-faked sense of epicness; concise, catchy songwriting; drive, power and intensity; wild dynamics; beautifully crafted, intricate guitar solos; truly poetic (yet biting) lyrics. All of this combined with a garage rock punch that made Television stand toe-to-toe with “The Ramones” in intensity but with better chops and more diversity.
Such an album would be hard to follow in any circumstance: as a result, 78’s “Adventure” by Television is often ignored, overlooked and disparaged. “How could Television top ‘Marquee Moon’?” is a question that has haunted the band, main songwriter, singer and co-lead guitarist Tom Verlaine and their fans as soon as the album came out.
Naturally, they couldn’t and the band was smart enough to realize that fact. Instead of trying to top it, they simply made another Television album: a collection of well written, catchy songs with intricate, unique guitar interplay and great lyrics.
The big difference between this album and “Marquee Moon” really lay in one single word: softer. The band has toned down their energy and rawness considerably on this album. The rawness of the Andy Johns production has been replaced with a “cleaner” production with more “sheen” (if that makes sense) to it that definitely puts it a notch lower in the eyes of many fans.
There is also a distinct lack of “epicness” on the album that seemed to be the stock in trade of “Marquee Moon”; no longer are there 10 minute songs that seem to contain the drama of 10 songs. Instead, songs are written around self contained song structures, easier to understand melodies and simpler ideas.
So, the band has softened up, simplified and lost much of the “raw” and “epic” feel of their first album. Clearly, “Adventure” is crap right? Not even close. Tom Verlaine and Television were too smart and too good to release a bad album. Instead, this is an album of “smaller” pleasures and “simpler” ideas.
Let me put it this way: I feel its only a disappointment compared to “Marquee Moon.” If this was their debut album, it would be hailed as a masterpiece of songwriting and guitar interplay that strikes a solid balance between punk aggression and folk simplicity.
Yes, a song like “Fox Hole” would have hit much harder with “Marquee Moon” production but isn’t that song something as it is? The intricate two guitar riff and great “pinch harmonic” at the end of the riff that helps give it a unique sound; the simple but catchy riff and chorus of “Fox hole! Fox hole!”; the solid (but not exceptional) anti-war lyrics and the occasionally dissonant guitar playing of Verlaine and Richard Lloyd.
Lloyd really doesn’t get enough credit for Television’s success: his rawer, edgier, less schooled style of guitar soloing is a great contrast to Verlaine’s smoother, more technically adept style. Some of the best leads on the album are Lloyd’s and help add an edge to the album.
Plus, things don’t really get much better than “Glory.” What a great way to open the album: a somewhat simple but catchy riff opens things up, Verlaine pops up with a complex but catchy verse melody that leads flawlessly into a catchy and uplifting chorus and a lyrical message of celebrating the greatness of life.
And how could an album be bad with songs as effortlessly complex and moving as “Careful’? The way if shifts between simple verse riffs (with great country rock-ish leads popping up here and there) into a simple but catchy chorus and a great bridge section with solid piano, organ and even hand
claps makes the mind boggle at how easy it all goes down without drawing attention to itself.
Not everything is perfect, of course: Television had a hard time with “dirges” (“Torn Curtain” from “Marquee Moon” being perhaps the slowest and weakest song on the album) and “The Fire” is perhaps the weakest tune on the album. Its slow, slow and has a nearly funeral-esque atmosphere that doesn’t really work with Television or the album in general. And it’s six minutes seem infinitely longer than “Marquee Moon”’s 10.
Plus, the opening riff to “Ain’t That Nothin’” sounds way too close to the riff of “Marquee Moon” for its own good. Yes, it’s different and the song itself sounds nothing like that classic song but I always get uncomfortable when the song starts as I keep expecting a different song to pop out of the ether.
However, not even “Marquee Moon” was perfect so we shouldn’t hold these problems too heavily against the album: even “The Fire” has interesting melodies and guitar ideas but simply drags for far too long.
“Adventure” is a fine album with great songs, great playing, great ideas and great lyrics that is worth a place in any Television (or punk) fan’s collection. However, I do feel that the opening riff repetition in “Ain’t That Nothin’” does speak of a certain limit in Television’s sound: a third album after this may not have been a good idea. It was perhaps a good thing the band broke up at this point before they made a bad album.
And yes, I know of the self titled album but that was a long time later and was basically a Verlaine solo album. I haven’t heard it though so I won’t judge it.
Husker Du Series Part 10: Warehouse: Songs and Stories and The Living End
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.
Husker Du Series Part 9: Candy Apple Grey
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.
Husker Du Series Part 8: Flip Your Wig
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.
Husker Du Series Part 7: New Day Rising
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.
Husker Du Series Part 6: Zen Arcade and Eight Miles High
Ten out of Ten
1 . Something I Learned Today 2. Broken Home, Broken Heart 3. Never Talking to You Again 4. Chartered Trips 5. Dreams Reoccurring 6. Indecision Time 7. Hare Krishna 8. Beyond the Threshold 9. Pride 10. I”ll Never Forget You 11. The Biggest Lie 12. What’s Going On 13. Masochism World 14. Standing by the Sea 15. Somewhere 16. One Step at a Time 17 Pink Turns to Blue 18. Newest Industry 19. Monday Will Never Be the Same 20. Whatever. 21. The Tooth Fairy and the Princess 22. Turn On The News 23. Reoccurring Dreams
Many bands work slowly over a period of years and develop their skills. They work hard at their craft and eventually become fully confident. At a certain point, any band worth a damn will eventually create a “masterpiece” that matches great musicianship, meaningful songwriting, great arrangements, careful production and immaculate singing. Often, these works are done by accident: a band is simply working at the top of their game and create a great work.
However, some bands often try to force a masterpiece when they are at the top of their game. Brian Wilson created three masterpiece records (to this reviewer) prior to “Pet Sounds”: “All Summer Long,” “Today!” and “ Summer Days (And Summer Nights!)” These were created by a composer at the top of his game, trying his best to make great product. Brian then, of course, “forced” “Pet Sounds” into being. The gamble worked and it is now considered one of, if not the best albums ever recorded.
“The Who” did a similar thing in the late 60’s. Somewhat tossed off albums and singles, such as “The Who Sell Out” and “Happy Jack” were masterpieces of rock and roll songwriting. Townshend was at the top of his game with “Sell Out” and then went on to “force” his next masterpiece, “Tommy.” This album simultaneously created the “rock opera” genre (with apologies to “The Pretty Things”) and made the band an overnight sensation.
However, forcing a masterpiece can result in problems. For example, Brian Wilson attempted to follow up “Pet Sounds” with “Smile.” He was forcing himself into completely new areas of composition, including suite like movements and massively intricate vocal harmonies. No rock composer had yet attempted something so ambitious and it fell flat. This failure was incredibly destructive to Wilson’s life and it took him most of the rest of his life to catch up with his failure.
Townshend also attempted to force a similarly ambitious album into the world with the “Lifehouse” album. Again, Townshend was attempting to integrate ideas that had never been tried, such as audience participation, synthesizer experimentation and feature length movies. Townshend, however, had the strength of character to scrap together “Who’s Next” an album that is considered by many to be their best. Townshend, of course, then forced “Quadrophenia” into being, an album that is also considered by many to be their best (but also considered to be one of their weakest by others).
There are many problems that cause these “forced” albums to struggle to come into life. The ambition of the project is often problematic enough. Who has the strength of character to see these things through? Often, it becomes nearly impossible and people begin to stall for time. This stalling often becomes the major stumbling point. Townshend and Wilson both began to fatigue of explaining their ideas to confused listeners and the projects fell through. Clearly, if something must be forced, it must be done quickly.
Husker Du had been progressing incredibly quickly throughout their career. Their musicianship was peaking, their songwriting was getting truly impressive and their ambitions began to grow. As a result, they wanted to “go beyond the whole idea of ‘punk rock’ or whatever” as described by Bob Mould. They began writing a flurry of songs that would all combine into a lengthy rock opera or concept album about a disenfranchised youth.
The new album would encompass musical forms never attempted in hardcore, such as folk, pop, piano tunes, psychedelic idea, jazz, metal and many others. However, this wasn’t a lazy genre exercise: instead, the band was attempting to integrate the forms of these musical forms into the form of hardcore . Many people balked at the idea and considered it impossible. The band was at a vital crossroad: they had to put out something great to immortalize their name or drift into irrelevancy.
And the band succeeded at “forcing” out their true masterpiece. How did the band succeed where others had failed in the past? They eliminated one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the past: the length of time it took to finish the album. Instead of fiddling about with concepts, holding band meetings and taking years to arrange everything, the band bashed the album out in a 40 hour recording session. Each song on the album, except two, was a first take. The band then took another 40 hours to mix the album. It cost $3,200 to create.
Incredibly, the album was recorded in the same month that “Metal Circus” was released. It was recorded only eight months after the recording sessions for “Metal Circus” had wrapped. These months found the band busy touring and promoting for the “Metal Circus” EP. How could the band punch out such an album in such a short time? Through sheer determination, talent, gall and well…with a little help of some drugs, especially speed.
A song by song description of the album would be maddening to read and write. In fact, it has what has put me off from writing about the album for so long. What could I say about it? It’s been examined a million times by a million writers and critics better and worse than myself. What more can I add to the discussion?
I will say that the album must be listened to in one sitting. With headphones. That’s right: put on the 23 song, 70 minute long album and sit down with eyes closed and listen. It’s okay if you have to get up and move around. The album is very fast, with quick beats and jack hammering guitar riffs. Punch the air if you got to: scream along with Bob and Grant. Listen to the words and feel them. This album is essential listening for intelligent and sensitive teenagers. However, it can still work for the grown up listener.
You also have to listen to it several times. The scope of the album is astonishing but it can almost seem like one never-ending blur of sound. Subsequent listens bring out details you had missed: the stark acoustic nature of “Never Talking to You Again”; the weird atmosphere of “Hare Krishna”; the passion of “I’ll Never Forget You” (talk about a prime love/break up song); the punchy riffs and catchy melodies of nearly ever song; the weird tossed off songs that somehow still seem like genius; the short piano interludes that let you relax and think; the never-ending but enthralling free jazz of “Reoccurring Dreams.”
Eventually, it will click in your brain and you will feel it. The rush of guitar distortion mixing with the “thumpity thump” of Grant Hart’s drums and the high pitched, precise bass rumble of Grant Norton (listen to “What’s Going On” to hear where Billy Corgan got the idea for the bass part and chord progression for “1979”) creates a stunning listening experience that simply has no analogy in the world of rock and roll. Yes, I wish they’d slow down sometimes. Yes, I wish the guitar tones were varied a little, that the production was clearer, that I could understand what the hell Bob was screaming most of the time. But sometimes, I just don’t give a damn about all of that.
Also, you simply cannot listen to this album without buying and absorbing the “Eight Mile High” single released after the album. The band deconstructs the Byrds transcendentally ethereal (and dissonant) song by focusing on pure speed, passion and vitality. I know people who think this is better than the Byrds version and its definitely a close call. Give in to the rush of a band working for 80 straight hours to force themselves into greatness.
The band would continue their rush of greatness into the decade but would never truly top this gargantuan effort. “New Day Rising” may be more consistent (and focused: after all, 23 songs is a lot to wade through) and “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” may be catchier and more diverse but to this reviewer, nothing else by the band compares to losing yourself to the rush of “Zen Arcade.”
Husker Du Series Part 4: Everything Falls Apart (And More (Or Less)
Six Stars Out of Ten
1. From the Gut 2. Blah Blah Blah 3. Punch Drunk 4. Bricklayer 5. Afraid of Being Wrong 6. Sunshine Superman 7. Signals from Above 8. Everything Falls Apart 9. Wheels 10. Target 11. Obnoxious 12. Gravity Bonus Tracks 13. In A Free Land 14. What Do I want 15. M.I.C. 16. Statues 17. Let’s Go Die 18. Amusement 19. Do You Remember?
“Land Speed Record” caught a talented young band that had the technical skills to play ungodly fast. The poor production and speed left the impression, however, that there wasn’t any true songwriting talent in the band. Husker Du’s first full length studio album, “Everything Falls Apart” helps to dispel this notion. It is heralded by improved production (everything sounds clear and never in any danger of falling apart) and improved songwriting.
Wait, did I say full length studio album? The “studio” part is definitely correct but full length is a misnomer: while there are 12 tracks on the album, the album clocks in at an astonishingly brief 19 minutes and 18 seconds. It’s shorter than “Land Speed Record” by seven minutes, time enough for at least seven songs (in the Husker Du format). In fact, their next release “Metal Circus” is only 21 seconds shorter but is classified as an EP.
What makes this short length extra odd is that both albums were released in the same year. In fact, combining the albums into one would have made for a 38 minute long album with 19 tracks. Comparing the two albums is actually an interesting exercise as “Metal Circus” seems to be the exact point when the band started to value melody at all, integrating it into their songs. Adding the EP to “Everything Falls Apart” would have improved it immeasurably as it does lack the sense of melody and purpose that drove the best Husker Du albums.
This is not to say that “Everything Falls Apart” is no good. On the contrary, it actually showcases a powerhouse band just beginning to hit its prime. The lead off track “From the Gut” shows off improved production and playing techniques immediately. The arrangements are even a little clever for the hardcore style of the period. The song may lack an immediately catchy hook but the power, drive and devotion helps keep the listener interested, as does Bob’s great speedy guitar solo.
However, the main problem with the album pops up immediately. “Blah Blah Blah” actually has one of the best hooks on the album: the chorus chant of “blah blah blah” sticks in the mind long after the album is over. But separating songs from each other is going to be a hard task at this point. After three tracks that clock in at under 2:30 total, the band covers the Donovan classic “Sunshine Superman.” They, of course, convert it to the standard “Husker Du” style. It’s technically the best song on the album due to it having a melody. This is a small hint at the later levels of melodic marvel the band would hit.
However, the album is just one hardcore blur after another. Each song is arranged in a pretty traditional and standard hardcore format. Bob plays a speedy solo in each bridge and while he is an impressively fast guitarist, it all starts to sound the same. And every song is written by Mould who certainly didn’t value melody at this point in his career. In fact, Hart only sneaks in one track, the semi-catchy “Wheels” but it’s hard to tell the difference between he and Bob’s work at this point.
Fans of hardcore and of Husker Du won’t be let down by this album. It offers up plenty of fast paced tunes with highly political lyrics that are perfect for the time period. The album is over fast, making it a perfect album for those periods when you need a fast burst of aggression. Fans of real melody (such as this reviewer) will be let down after hearing their later albums.
Wait, wait, I can’t finish the review without mentioning the “And More” bonus tracks on the CD. The only CD edition of the album actually adds seven more songs to create a 42 minute listening experience. Mould contributes standout early tracks such as “In a Free Land” which is highly political and has a higher dose of melody than normal. He contributes three more songs in a similar vein. They are basically extensions of the previous musical ideas on the album and fit in perfectly.
Greg Norton even contributes one of his rare tracks with “Let’s Go Die.” It is a solid song that makes one long for more Norton contributions to the band. Alas, he was the bass player, the shy one and the straight one so it was not to be. Hard enough getting songs in with ego maniacs Mould and Hart bickering.
Speaking of Hart, he contributes two more songs. The highly personal “What Do I Want?” is a harbinger of a more sober and inward looking aesthetic for the band. However, his “Statues” is a grinding monster of a song. Clocking in at almost nine minutes, it is nearly industrial in its brutality. It shows a band that wasn’t afraid to experiment with their style, a sensibility which would pay off big dividends in the future.
Husker Du Series Part 3: “Land Speed Record” Review
Five out of Ten
1. Side One 2. Side Two
Note: Sorry I don’t go into individual track names here. On the CD, they are all stuck together as if they are one song per side. I know that’s not the case, but it’s annoying to transcribe song lists to the blog. So I’m taking a stand for laziness. So there.
By 1981, Husker Du had been together for two years. They had honed their hardcore playing chops to a completely unbelievable level. The band was a legend of the punk and hardcore scene of Minneapolis as well as around the country. However, they had yet to record or release any music. This problem was rectified in 1982 with the release of their debut album, “Land Speed Record.” It is legendary for speeding through a record breaking 17 songs in 26 seconds. It showcases the band playing a blur of hardcore punk that is truly faster than any of their contemporaries. It was released by Mike Watt on his “New Alliance” label and re-released on CD by legendary independent label SST.
Whoa whoa whoa! Didn’t I just spend two, rather lengthy articles extolling the virtues of this band? Haven’t I claimed that they have earned their “legendary” status and that their influence can be felt up and down the radio dial? I stand by that statement. I also stand by the statement that “Land Speed Record”…well, sucks is a harsh word. It is easily their least essential, least interesting and least successful album.
Let’s start with the most obvious problem with the album, the one that even defenders of the album will have a hard time denying: it sounds awful. I’m not a major “sound” quality guy. As long as I can hear the music and it sounds all right, I’m happy. I know there is allegedly a difference between analogue and digital recordings and that vinyl records are supposed to sound better than CD’s. I’m not gonna lie to you kids: I really only notice the smallest difference. .In fact, I mostly buy CD’s due to their convenience. I mean, I can listen to them in a car. Try listening to a record in a car: it could be done with a lot of extension cord and patience but it hardly seems worth the effort.
Whoa sorry about that digression. The basic point I’m trying to make here, sound quality is not the main criteria for which I judge an album. However, the sound quality of “Land Speed Record” is actually the main problem with the album. It was recorded live to two track in August of 1981. And it sounds worse than most bootlegs: in fact, it’s actually worse than the infamously awful, bootleg sound of the King Crimson album “Earthbound.” Everything sounds like a wild blur of noise, with an occasional scream or cymbal crash echoing in the ear drums and causing severe migraines.
However, another major problem with the album is the material. This album presents Husker Du as the world’s fastest hardcore band: it does not present them as the world’s greatest hardcore songwriters. Each song speeds by as fury of guitar noise, bass thumps and incomprehensible screaming. I understand that’s kind of the point of hardcore, but it’s maddening here because the band doesn’t even attempt to write melodies. Humming one of these songs is more difficult than telling them apart. There are no pauses in between the songs at all, rendering them as one giant, epic hardcore song of unbelievable lengths.
Reader’s may be confused at this point to see that I have rated this album a five out of ten. I just spend the last however many words bashing the life out of the album. I still don’t even own this album despite it being readily available at the local independent record shop, “Vertigo.” But yet I rate it five stars. I guarantee you this isn’t due to me being a complete wimp when it comes to reviewing: I promise many hilarious one star reviews in the near future.
No, this album earns its five stars for one simple reason: it’s exciting. This album captures the excitement and rush of Husker Du at their finest and most primitive. Yes, it would be nice to hear some hummable melodies or distinctive arrangements. Hell, it’d be nice to hear Grant Hart’s drums. But the blur of energy that comes from this album simply cannot be found anywhere else in the Du’s catalog. Or, for that matter, on any other album I’ve ever heard.
Listener’s cannot simply listen to one song off of this album: it has to be experienced in one large rush of sound. SST seemed to realize this as, rather oddly, there are only two tracks on the CD edition: side one of the original record and side two. After all, I can’t even imagine the type of weirdo that would want to hear the 57 second blur of “The Big Sky” out of the context of the album. No, one must commit themselves to the album completely, just as they must do in the hardcore mosh pits of the world.
And this makes the album incredibly unique in the world of rock. It is the only album I’ve heard that so fully replicates the wild rush of being in a hardcore mosh pit as a band plays as fast as possible. Your blood starts pumping immediately when the album starts and, if you’re the type (I’m not but I can pretend to be) you suddenly find yourself thrashing about wildly and letting off some of that childish angst. Not recommended as casual listening but as a nice little piece of occasional catharsis.
Tune in next time as I review an album that has actual music on it: their studio debut album “Everything Falls Apart.” That review will discuss the album itself (a ridiculous 12 songs in 19 minutes, even shorter than “Land Speed Record”) as well as the bonus tracks Rhino added to their CD reissue, “Everything Falls Apart (and More).”
Husker Du Part 2: The Music
Greetings again from Mr. B! Having delved deeply into the world of Husker Du’s legend in part one, I am now going to explore the actual music more in depth. Legend and quality often go hand in hand, but not always. A band that was ground breaking can often seem tame and banal in retrospect, after all their ideas have been integrated into the mainstream. Does Bowie’s “Low” sound as impressive after having heard albums that took his (Kraftwerk inspired) ideas and expanded upon them? It sounds great but a bit thin and not as impressive as it must have in the 70‘s.
Does Husker Du suffer from this problem? Has their legendarily aggressive and melodic style become passe over the years? After all, bands as diverse as Nirvana and Green Day (who covered a few Du songs in their time) have come out, presented Du’s breakthrough as their own and become famous and even passe as time went on. Has Husker Du’s ground breaking combination of hardcore, noise and melody become dull?
Not to these ears. Husker Du’s fuzzy wall of melodic noise still holds up as exciting all these years later. When Bob Mould leans into his flying V and unleashes a torrent of power chords, screaming “does it hurt you, when I do this?” followed by harmonized, melodic “ooooohs” the hair on my neck still stands up. There are several reasons for this excitement: production, songwriting and musicianship.
To many modern listeners, Husker Du albums can sound incredibly quaint or even horrible produced. While I can agree that “Land Speed Record” sounds worse than the average bootleg, the rest of their albums lack that type of ear destructive lack of fidelity. However, even their best produced album, “Warehouse: Songs and Stories” seems muddy.
For lack of a better word, their albums often have a fuzzy feeling to them. Part of this is because of more primitive equipment but it is also due to Mould’s odd guitar sound. His guitar has a vacuum cleaner tone. This combined with his fast playing often makes it hard to tell the difference between chords and notes.
Another major problem is the drum sound. Although Grant was one of the tightest and fastest of all hardcore drummers, his drums sound flat and tinny. Each drum can be heard but they sound almost like a weird drum machine. The best mixed instrument is, oddly, Greg Norton’s bass. Sometimes the instrumental melodies can be discerned only through his fast paced, unison bass lines.
Modern production techniques may have improved incredibly since “Zen Arcade” but to me this is actually a slight detriment. Not that albums by “Rancid” or other punk bands don’t sound crystal clear, loud and heavy. They do and they can even be exciting. However, Husker’s odd, tinny buzzing sound is completely unique. To me, it sounds more “real” which is, I know, a rather vague and subjective opinion.
The best way to describe it is to say that it actually sounds like Husker Du is playing in the room with me, live. Listening to higher quality recordings remind me that they are, in fact, produced. Husker Du sounds like a tiny band living in your speakers, playing their heart out for you. And that’s cool.
Husker Du also possessed two of the finest songwriters of the 80s. Bob Mould forged a successful career with his post-Du band “Sugar” and with a variety of highly acclaimed solo albums. His music has ranged from high speed hardcore, acoustic balladry to dabblings in electronic music. It has all been united by his odd bellar of a voice and searing, highly personal lyrics that pick apart his emotions, present them raw and make them universal to the listener. Although hardly poetic, they seem to hit upon a sharp nerve with this listener.
Grant Hart has not had the same type of success as Bob post Du but this seems due more to outside influences as opposed to his own innate talent. Grant has recorded several high quality albums that show off a diverse songwriting talent. Grant moves wildly between genres, from post-Husker hardcore blur to organ driven instrumentals and even odd sea shanties. His lyrics, while less personal, can be highly devastating. His “Diane” was an obviously influence on Nirvana’s “Polly” as he sang through the perspective of a rapist.
Bob and Grant seemed to grab everything they could in music and force it into their hardcore sound. Blues, jazz, folk, metal, rock and roll, balladry, funk and anything else they could grab was fine tuned into their sound. Moreover, they were smart about how they integrated these elements. They didn’t start playing slow jazz instrumentals with horns: they simply improvised wildly, like a manic free jazz combo. “Never Taking To You Again” features an acoustic guitar and elements of folk harmonizing, yet it is as punchy and fast paced as the rest of their material. Simply put, they emphasized their natural affinity and talent for hardcore while still diversifying their approach.
Lastly, Du’s musicianship was among the finest of all hardcore bands, past or present. Each band member was able to play as fast as humanely possible while still staying a tight, functioning unit. Other bands may have been slightly faster or louder but Du held it all together like a band. And they made it sound natural and musical, even at their most hardcore focused. Bob and Grant were also skilled multi-instrumentalists, with pianos, organs, dulcimers and other odd instruments making their way into the mix.
So, Du is still as exciting as their legend suggests. They are still not quite for everybody: sound purists will complain about their muddy sound. Hardcore fanatics will complain about excessive melody. Others may complain about the evenness of their sound as the band was always united under the sound of Bob’s buzz saw guitar, Grant’s bippity bop drumming and Greg’s lightning fast bass lines. Some may hate Bob and Grant’s “shout it out loud” vocalizing style.
However, I honestly believe that almost anybody with an interest in hardcore, punk, rock and roll or alternative music will still get an honest kick out of the band. But just how good were each of their albums? That’s a good question: join us next time for a look at the band’s debut, “Land Speed Record” to find out how this great band started their career.