How Hüsker Dü changed punk by embracing classic rock

(Credit: Daniel Corrigan)


Punk ideals were pretty much set in stone when it came to the original wave of rock musicians: seek and destroy. The Clashes made this clear when they proclaimed that “the funny Beatlemania has bitten the dust” on “London Calling”. As punk began to evolve into faster, more explicitly aggressive hardcore styles, idols continued to be burnt in increasingly elaborate ways.

One of the most powerful weapons in a punk band’s arsenal was the arrogant and stunning cover of a rock radio staple. The Dead Kennedys brought cocaine and super-fast tempos to Elvis Presley’s “Viva Las Vegas”, while Nirvana pissed off The Youngblood’s hippie anthem “Get Together” during “Territorial” intro Pissing “. The kings of this art form, however, were the successors. During their famous boozy gigs, the Mats worked their way through any classic tune, even if they barely knew it: “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin, “Fox on the Run” by Sweet, ” Nowhere Man ”by The Beatles. The sloppier they played it, the more it sounded like punk rock. There was no place for the cult of the older generations in the anarchic ethos of punk rock.

But just across the Twin Cities, another group was starting to change that perception. The main rival of The Replacements was a rare punk band who were not only open to iconic sounds from the past, but proudly wore their fandom for bands like The Byrds and Donovan on their sleeves. When it came to revitalizing classic rock’s reputation in the punk realm, no one did more to legitimize the past than Hüsker Dü.

Part of the reason Hüsker Dü got away with their love for Bob Dylan and the Beatles was that they were different from the start: with two prolific queer songwriters, Hüsker Dü was a bunch of paunchy midwesterners who looked nothing like the traditional image of punk rock. To counter this hunchbacked appearance, the Dü played faster, louder, and more energetically than any of their peers, booking their own DIY shows and forging an unmistakable identity for the legendary SST label. Although he didn’t seem to be in the game, Hüsker Dü proved to be the most punk rock of all the bands that could be touring through the basement concerts of the DIY circuit.

But sheer speed had a lifespan. After nearly half a decade of trying to outrun all other bands, Hüsker Dü decided that the most iconoclastic action would be to slow down. Singers Bob Mold and Grant Hart both had big ears for melody, and they found their vocals to be perfectly suited to the harmony. Hart loved the folk-inspired sounds of the ’60s, while Mold was an admirer of everyone from Neil Young to Roy Orbison. As their peers clung to the rigid idiom of punk, Hüsker Dü began to associate the aggressiveness of hardcore with the melodic of classic rock. The result was quite simply revolutionary.

Showing up to a Husker Du concert didn’t just mean you would hear the first sounds of what would become alternative rock – you would also hear how those sounds were rooted in sound styles of the past. The covers were an essential aspect of the band’s repertoire, and their tastes were decidedly old-fashioned for punk: “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan, “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds, “Ticket to Ride” by the Beatles. For every Ramones or TV coverage that solidified their punk bona fides, there would be three left-wing picks that deliberately challenged their audiences. A legendary version of “Celebrated Summer” might as well be followed by a very serious version of “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary or the theme song at The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Other groups have started to notice this. The replacements masked their own love of classic rock behind debauchery and carelessness, but they too were starting to feel more comfortable with bringing even smoother structure, melody and dynamics to their music. The Pixies took Hüsker Dü’s state of mind to heart, advertising a bass player who loved both Dü and Peter, Paul and Mary when they found Kim Deal. A young Kurt Cobain has managed to reconcile his own love of the Beatles with his embrace of punk, at least in part thanks to the example of Hüsker Dü.

In their section of Michael Azerrad’s founding text, Our group could be your life, Hart gave a Midwestern response to punk’s traditional attitude to classic rock. “Do you know what it takes to tear down the old one to make room for the new?” Hart explained. “Well, music is not town planning. Hüsker Dü was one of the first bands not to be afraid to show their loyalty to the past and one of the few who had the courage to integrate the song structures and sound elements of classic rock to punk. . Their discography would lay the groundwork for every rock band for the next 40 years, from Foo Fighters to The Strokes and everyone else.

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