BEST TRACKS: Real World, It’s Not Funny Anymore, First of the Last Calls, Diane
If not for Husker Du, I probably wouldn’t be writing for this blog right now. The entire apparatus of modern alternative rock would be fundamentally different. Without our darling 80s three-piece, punk’s defiant outersiderdom may never have settled upon the general anxieties of adolescence; and while the 90s grunge explosion was this sentiment’s most (commercially) developed form, Husker Du’s insistence on honest alternativism was a lightning rod for anybody searching for honest, offbeat rock and roll. Du’s magnum opus, Zen Arcade, was radically ahead of its time. Blending amphetamined screeches, startlingly tender piano, and percussive folk guitar, the absolutely essential double album is regarded as the definitive blueprint for something very dear to all of our hearts: College Radio. That’s right, if I were to step into a time machine and travel to 1978’s St. Paul to break Bob Mould’s arm, you could very well be wearing sperrys this very moment. But I didn’t, and you aren’t. And in honor of our collective Husker debt, we should all stand together in our crusty Vans and thank them for their service to aggressive otherness.
But we aren’t talking about Zen Arcade today. No, that would be too easy. Instead, this installment of WKNC From the Vaults Punk Rock Classics Hour with Cliff Jenkins Title Pending is their 1983 EP Metal Circus. Released on SST, Greg Ginn of Black Flag’s independent label, Metal Circus hints at the power punk nirvana (no pun intended) which defined Zen Arcade; and yet was still subtly positioned behind classic hardcore. In fact, SSTs catalogue was stacked with former hardcore bands set on rupturing the boundaries of a genre strictly confined by minimalist fury. Acts like Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and the Minutemen were stationed at the horizon separating hardcore from punk’s modern iterations by transitioning from a reactionary to a progressive sonic model. Of course, Husker Du was perhaps the most important of this noisy new guard, and Metal Circus deserves to be examined as the first evidence of a hardcore band embracing its most egregious blasphemy:power pop.
Husker Du (I don’t want to add the umlauts) was born out of Saint Paul’s Macalester College by Grant Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton. Eventually the trio began practicing with keyboardist Charlie Pine, mainly playing typical classic rock covers. However, on several secret occasions where Pine was absent, the remaining trio confided their love for the Ramones and began testing to see the upper limits for the band’s speed. At their first gig in late 1979, then billed as Buddy and the Returnables, the band ran through expected pop rock before, unbeknownst to Pine, unplugged the keyboard and ripping into several speed fueled originals. Unsurprisingly, Pine was subsequently kicked out, and the band was rechristened “Husker Du” after the eponymous memory game from the 50s. Du began playing out as the consistent three-piece and entered 1980 as a pretty typical hardcore band. Although Mould has stated that there was always intent to remain at least partially removed from the strictly political aggression of bands like Crass or Minor Threat, they closely paralleled these bands’ sound in their infancy. Du toured ceaselessly and, by 1982, released the two critically acclaimed albums Land Speed Record and In a Free Land on the Minutemen’s label New Alliance. This level of semi-local fame caught the attention of punk’s pasty father figure: Greg Ginn of Black Flag. Ginn soon invited the band to move to his own SST where Husker Du were finally upgraded from one collapsing hardcore label to another collapsing hardcore label that the Meat Puppets were signed to. Born out of their brief tenure with SST was the EP Metal Circus: the first indication that their hardcore abrasion was thawing towards the inception of modern indie rock.
Metal Circus does not initially betray its forgiveness of everything sweet. The first track “Real World” does, at least upon first listening, sound pretty close to DOA’s frustrated tremors. But there is something within the apparently standard guitar assault that sounds…off. It could be the power chords shellacked with chorus, but Bad Brains already did that. It could be an anthemic melody brushed behind furious speed, but the Descendants already did that. Maybe it was the off-kilter guitar leads that meandered away from brutality…but Television already did that. Honestly, there is no particular element which separated Husker Du from their influences. But there didn’t need to be. Du was not a gimmick band. There was no awe to them beyond their incredibly explorative and tight songwriting. That being said, “Real World” was only an introduction to Metal Circus’ embrace of pop sentiment. “Deadly Skies”,the EP’s second track, is a laid trap. It’s the purest punk of the EP’s 7 track odyssey; it lures the listener into imaging “Real World” as an aberration. Maybe it was easy listening for marketing purposes. Nope, sorry my imagined 80s hardcore fan with a freshly shaven head and a dirty pair of white Reeboks, the pop has only started.
“It’s Not Funny Anymore” is actually the best 90s alternative song ever released despite coming out in 1983. Are you listening to Nirvana? Are you listening to Blur? Are you listening to fucking Oasis? Fuck that. This song connected the 11 years of poppy alt-rock between its release and Green Day’s Dookie, and shit on absolutely everything else that came out in the interim. If you ever consider creating or watching a video essay documenting the slow transformation of pop punk, don’t. Listen to the Buzzcocks, Descendents, Husker Du, and early Green Day. But I digress. “It’s not Funny Anymore” is the first substantial crack in the ice; it’s slow, fuzz filled guitar lead essentially nullifies any supposed progress that Grunge made. Bob Mould’s pained belches roughly glide along something that certainly isn’t fully departed from punk (it’s production is still shitty) but is indifferent to the rigorously ascetic lifestyle demanded by their hardcore forefathers. For better or worse, the rest of this EP is a tribute to individualized anxiety.
While “Real World”, “It’s Not Funny Anymore”, and “First of the Last Calls” deserve due recognition for their contribution to mope-riddled punk, we still haven’t explored the track that, quite frankly, birthed modern college rock. “Diane”, the EPs only (semi)ballad, instantly received nationwide attention for its declaration of a new alternativism. Its intensely muddy four-minutes of echo-fuzzed guitars, uncomfortably distant drums, and harmonizing wails brought with it a haunting melody that sat comfortably between radical noise and pleasantry. Heavily circulated among university radio stations, the song exploded any legitimate wall separating college tastes from serious commercial attention. (Again) for better or worse, college radio would now become the engine for new-wave exploration; bands like REM, Dinosaur Jr. or even Sonic Youth owe a great debt to Husker Du and the groundbreaking success of “Diane”.
Husker Du simultaneously represents the birth and actualization of college rock, and to a further extent, an accepted mingling of punk with power pop. Though later releases would ultimately prove to be more acclaimed than Metal Circus, this early EP documented a revolutionary change in indie rock that absolutely qualifies it as a legendary addition to punk’s canon.