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.
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.”
Although I was told to never write a disclaimer in writing school I feel it is necessary in this case: the following post should be considered in good fun. It is not a serious attempt to deconstruct alternative music, no matter how pretentiously it reads.
It should instead be looked at as an intellectual exercise done while bored substitute teaching. Take it with a grain of salt: it took me two hours to write and wasn’t really researched and was instead written off the top of my head. It is consciously inspired by David Byrne’s classic paper “I Hate World Music” from 1999.
I Hate Alternative by Dr. Louis Fairbanks, III
I hate the word alternative as it applies to music. This is an interesting proposition for a fan and musician such as myself to make, as much of my record collection (and indeed, much of my own music) could be easily classified under this banner. However, I can still say without a doubt that I do indeed hate alternative music. There are at least two reasons for this hatred which can be traced back to semantics and historical revisionism.
Whoa let’s step back for a moment. Perhaps I should introduce myself: my name is Louis Fairbanks the Third, respected musicologist who holds a doctorate in critiqueality. Rather, I hold a doctorate much in the way of Dr. Dre or Dr. Who: not so much a doctor by training but more by, say, bold claims of awesomeness. Dr. Dre is a bad ass m-fer who has changed the musical world in ways that are still being felt decades later. Dr. Who is a Time Lord. I think that alone has earned him (at least) an honorary doctorate, if not a teaching post in some lower rung university such as Yale.
I digress. Which is normally fine by me, but my digression has nearly taken over the sense of the article and pulled it into areas it need not go. Who cares who I am or how bad I claim I am? You should by the end of the article. Especially as I am going to delineate why alternative music has lost its importance and become nothing more than a popcorn fart in the air of popular culture.
Essentially, there are two reasons I’ve come to despise alternative. One: the term creates a false dichotomy which unfairly maligns both itself and the style of music to which it is an “alternative.” Second: the word itself and even the type of music it is supposed to represent has altered over the last thirty years and become nearly meaningless and inseparable from the mainstream. If alternative is to have a purpose, it is to serve as a, ahem, “alternative” to mainstream taste for those who do not enjoy mainstream music. At its best, it served this purpose. However, the term has become meaningless and must be replaced.
Part One: The History of Alternative
Alternative music can be traced back to the very beginning of recorded musical history. While music fans in the 30’s and 40’s bopped to big band music and early jazz, hardcore blues albums could have been considered an “alternative” to mainstream taste. These gritty axemen and axewomen gave people with an interest in more “down to earth” music a chance to vent their frustrations. This is also true of early country and western music, such as early “Carter Family” recordings.
However, I can’t really claim to be an expert in this type of music. So I won’t. Counter cultural ROCK music became a big deal in the 60’s, with the rise of avant-guard experiments such as early psychedelic music from bands as diverse as “the 13th Floor Elevators” “Strawberry Alarm Clock” and even “The Amboy Dukes”, an early vehicle for the guitar talents of one douche bag Ted Nugent.
Electronic effects also became a big deal, as did weird eastern influenced sitar madness. Proto-punk rampagers such as “The Stooges,” “The MC5” and “The Velvet Underground” set the stage for the late 70’s punk revolutions. In fact, some of the most important and influential rock music ever recorded came between the years of 1966 and 1969.
Then came the early 70’s. These counter cultural advances were co-opted by a mainstream that thought they could tap into this source of music and make big bucks. Groundbreaking bands such as “Yes” and “Genesis” became big names with their wildly experimental music but eventually became laughing stocks due to their overweening ambitions and difficult to process playing styles. This formerly “alternative” style had become popular, co-opted and annoying. It had become the mainstream and an “alternative” to this style needed to exist.
Honestly, it is not the music of these progressive rock bands that offends so much as it is the corporate take over of these styles and their overwhelming success. More honest bands such as “King Crimson” operated according to their own impulses and broke up at the height of the success of progressive rock. The music had gone from being groundbreaking and interesting to bland repetitions of past successes sponsored by Pepsi (not literally, but metaphorically).
So naturally the punk explosion occurred in the late 70’s as an alternative to this type of music. Later on, punk was co-opted and turned into “New Wave” which in and of itself was co-opted and turned mainstream with synth pop and other once edgy bands such as the “Talking Heads” turning very popular. The music was still fine but the success turned it from “edgy” “hip” and “alternative” to what was perceived at the time as being rather bland mainstream music and a complete sell out.
Alternative music then switched over to noise rock bands like “Sonic Youth,” underground noise pop bands like “the Pixies” and folk rock (for lack of a better word) such as “R.E.M.” Underground rock sought to synthesize punk and hardcore with more tuneful melodies, such as in the case of “Husker Du” and “the Minutemen.” These bands successfully became a tuneful, meaningful alternative to the co-opted mainstream punk and new wave styles.
And then “Nirvana” and “grunge” happened. Of course, grunge was a style that existed prior to “Nirvana.” Bands such as the awful “Green River” and the awesome “Mudhoney” were mixing punk, hardcore and classic rock into a weird stew long before “Nirvana.” Early sludge-work “Melvins” can even be considered a blueprint for much of the world of grunge.
In fact, many people argue that “Nirvana” is barely even a grunge band but instead is a pop punk band. This is hard to argue but is irrelevant: “Nirvana” was now grunge and bands such as “Pearl Jam” “Alice in Chains” “Stone Temple Pilots” and countless others jumped on the grunge bandwagon. At this point, the history of alternative becomes even more difficult to track than it was before.
My history of alternative music is rather incomplete, filled with glaring holes, historical inaccuracies and my own opinion. This is indicative of the herculean task involved in tracking down all the changes in alternative music. In fact, it helps illustrate my first point quite well: creation of a false dichotomy.
Part Two: False Dichotomy
The reason that “alternative” music has constantly shifted since the beginning of recorded musical history (and perhaps even before we recorded music) is due to the fact that it has no inherent musical values in and of itself. It simply exists as an “alternative” to the mainstream musical experience, regardless of the quality of the alternative or even the mainstream music. It is the yin to the yang, the white to the black, the good to the evil.
Or vice versa: in fact, most definitely vice versa. Alternative music often deftly positions itself as the “edgier” more wild form of music when compared to the mainstream musical experience. Which is perhaps true and in fact is vitally important to understanding the term “alternative.”
Many people may take exception to the fact that I am lumping what could be called “underground” or “indie” music in with the term “alternative.” They have a very specific understanding of what the MUSIC of alternative sounds like, which is exactly the problem. I don’t wish to confuse terms, but for the sake of simpler understanding, assume that I am lumping all underground music in term with “alternative.” They are, to a certain point, essentially the same term for generations.
The false dichotomy set up by the term “alternative” creates a world of “good” music where “good” music is defined by terms such as “cool” “hip” “edgy” “groundbreaking” and many others. The mainstream is then denigrated as banal, boring and stooping to the lowest common denominator to sell records. Essentially, “alternative” is put on a pedestal as being “better” than the mainstream music.
There is some truth to this statement, if one is concerned about progress in music, artistic ability, meaningful lyrics and serious musical content. However, these terms are completely subjective, which renders them meaningless. What is meaningful to one person may be meaningless to another person. Just because several thousand people claim that“in the time of the chimpanzee I was a monkey” has deep meaning does not make it any more true than denying depth to “I prefer a bad excuse…no news!”
The proper way to define alternative music should be music that plays to a specific audience in a way that pleases their expectations. Bands such as “They Might Be Giants” have a sound that pleases several thousand, perhaps millions of people. However, they have never been a truly major success due to their (purposeful) quirks. Alternative bands seek to create a new sound that does not appeal to all audiences and all tastes.
This is noble, especially if the band does strike a chord and inspire millions of audience members. However, an alternative musical group seeks not to join the mainstream and sell billions of albums but to stand outside the “norm” and inspire those who are not inspired by the mainstream. At least, this should be the cause of alternative bands. After all, if they are not offering something that differs from the mainstream, what is their purpose? Why are they labeled alternative music and not mainstream?
Let’s save that question for later. Instead, lets focus on the purpose of the mainstream. The purpose of the mainstream is simple: to provide musical entertainment and satisfaction to as many people as possible. As a result, the mainstream often focuses on music that is simplified, streamlined, catchy and written under certain unifying standards. This is vitally important to the mainstream: they must try to avoid alienating people.
Naturally, a certain alienation exists amongst people who don’t like the sound of the music or find it too banal and simple for their taste. However, you can’t please everybody so this is the reason an “alternative” category exists. It exists for those music fans that want something that goes beyond what they consider the limitations of the mainstream music media.
However, it takes a lot of skill to come up with music that satisfies millions, if not billions of people. The melody may be simple but it does have to stand out in a crowded field of sound alike artists. A good mainstream artist, one worth considering does stand out from their peers through use of interesting melodies, ear catching lyrics and often times danceable beats.
Dancing isn’t, of course, the only use for mainstream music as much of it is designed to make the listener reflect and to touch their emotions. It is often artistically unsuccessful because of a banality of melody or statement but it still affects millions of people anyways. Consider: a song that is, perhaps artistically limited and poor when compared to a better alternative song, touches a nerve with millions of people in a way the more artistically successful but “alternative” or “underground” song simply cannot.
This is the advantage mainstream music has over the underground: wider exposure and wider expectations. A mainstream album by a successful artist must sell millions of copies to be considered good. A good alternative artist may sell thousands or even hundreds of albums and feel successful. One approach is not inherently better than the other, objectively. Instead, they serve two different purposes that contrast and compliment each other. This dichotomy has, over time, rendered the term meaningless.
Part Three: Alternative is Meaningless
Up until the early 90’s, alternative was a meaningful category for music. However, with the break out success of the grunge bands such as “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” it rapidly began to mean less and less. These formerly “alternative” bands suddenly became chart topping entries. They had invaded the mainstream and it was seen as a sign of huge success at the time. And it was, in many ways, a return to the musical values that alternative minded music fans held dear.
Of course, this quickly changed when other, less artistically minded bands began appropriating the musical forms, tones and styles of alternative bands. Instead of using it as a form of self expression that delineated them from the mainstream, they integrated other mainstream ideals into their songs. Slowly, but surely, these “alternative” grunge bands had their sound appropriated by the mainstream. This is nothing unusual.
However, what was unusual was that the TERM alternative was actually appropriated by the mainstream. This happened to disco: at one point, it was an underground musical form that became popular. It also happened to punk and metal music as well. These terms represented different genres of music that had become popular and well integrated into the mainstream. This is not a problem to me.
Alternative was NOT a genre of music: it was music that stood opposed to the mainstream. It was supposed to be the opposite of mainstream. However, hard rock bands that were influenced by grunge, but which held none of the serious tones and ambitions, were labeled “alternative.” This was a major misunderstanding of the definition of “alternative” music.
By 2012, the term “alternative” has come to represent bands that are little more than hard rock bands that operate entirely within the mainstream. They have huge radio hits, big music videos and embrace all elements of mainstream acceptance. Again, I cannot hold these successes against them but find labeling it as “alternative” to be a serious mistake.
Terms, words and symbols such as these are often co-opted to mean different things throughout history. For example, the Nazi Cross was simply a sign of unity before being used by the Nazi party. Of course, it now represents fascism and horrible racism. This symbol cannot be reclaimed: it will forever be linked to the horrendous crimes of the Nazi party.
Of course, the appropriation of “alternative” is nowhere near as serious as the appropriation of the Nazi Cross. But it has rendered the term “alternative” to be meaningless in the modern age. It no longer represents music that can be defined as “that which goes against the mainstream.” It has become the mainstream.
Conclusion: What of Other Terms?
Naturally, one can still refer to this type of music as “underground” but this is an unwieldy term that doesn’t quite fit the needs of the term. “Underground” indicates music that is barely known and hardly acknowledged by the mainstream. Instead of selling hundreds of albums, they may sell a dozen.
This obscurity is not a problem. “Underground” music and music fans find that the quality of music is inversely proportional to its popularity i.e. it gets worse the more popular it gets. “Alternative” music had some symptoms of this disease but didn’t worship at the altar of obscurity so promiscuously.
Another term that has been thrown around is “indie” which is closely tied to “alternative” in its own way. However, it is not the same thing and comes with its own problems I honestly don’t feel like getting into at the moment. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure the idea of even one more page of this nonsense is horrifying. Maybe for another day.