Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:2017-11-10
Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü
Hüsker Dü - Savage Young Dü

Archival label Numero Group have unearthed a monster of a box set documenting the early days of St. Paul, Minnesota hardcore punk band Hüsker Dü.  For fans of the band and their earlier work, there is so much on Savage Young Dü (borrowing its name from an early demo tape) that stands out in the cornucopia of what you get.  It’s hard to assess the most noteworthy accomplishments in putting something like this together, but what stands out are 47 previously unreleased tracks out of 69 included (almost three hours worth of music), the excellent job in remastering what has already been released and perhaps the stand out of the show, Erin Osmon’s outstanding extended essay documenting the band’s formation, their relentless pursuit of forward progress, and rise to dominance of the scene.  The box set consists of either 4 LPs or 3 CDs, along with a hardbound book with pictures, the essay, session notes, and if ordered directly from the label a bonus 7” called Extra Circus consisting of five unreleased tracks from the Metal Circus recordings, including an early version of ‘Standing by the Sea’ which provides a link to the masterstroke of the following year’s Zen Arcade.  

Osmon’s essay details how Bob Mould, attending St. Paul based Macalester College - showing up at his dorm with guitar and amp in tow - meets local record store clerks, Grant Hart and Greg Norton, and as quick as they become friends also throw together their band with a soon dismissed fourth member who played keyboards.  In a legendary tale, Charlie Pine was dismissed mid-show at an early gig while the others continued on as a trio.  Recording in record store basements, playing gigs any and everywhere they could, making up handmade flyers, self releasing singles, and later driving cross country and into Canada in rented vans while encountering the punk giants of the day (Black Flag, The Minutemen, and on and on) evokes a certain DIY quaintness and nostalgia that likely would not fly today.  Aside from the compelling story, the club names of the day like Jay’s Longhorn Bar; a former disco named Uncle Sam’s split into two clubs designated only by their street entrances - First Avenue and the smaller Hüsker haunt of 7th Street Entry; and Ron’s Randolph Inn also hearken to a less corporate era where the love of the music came first.  The happenstance by which they lucked into opening gigs for major bands and how fortune smiled upon them in many instances show how easily they could have just been a footnote in punk rock history instead of a stalwart of the day - the only differentiator being their undying work ethic. 

The earliest tracks here date from May 1979, when the band recorded some demos at Mould’s college auditorium (interestingly, the sequence of the box set is only loosely chronological so these first tracks are not the lead off ones).  Songs like ‘Do the Bee’ and ‘Nuclear Nightmare’ showcase the band’s energy, but not much of their later sound having more of a traditional blues based structure a’la The Stooges - though Mould’s angst and lightning speed guitar are already in place.  The date of these earliest tracks shows how quickly this band advanced over a quick five years before their first major release was issued.  Later demo tracks just a few months later, start to show Hart coming on as the more melodic of the two primary songwriters, with songs like ‘Sore Eyes’ and ‘Can’t See You Anymore’ having an almost sentimental air.  You have to remember they were only teenagers when considering some of the silly almost painful lyrics - particularly the latter track mentioned with it’s lines of “just gotta have sex” and “I can’t see you anymore, but not because I think you’re a bore” and referencing the girl’s parents to boot.  Of these earliest demos, ‘The Truth Hurts’ shows some real structure with a solid rhythm underpinning the song and Mould’s soloing showing muscle and a little creativity.  Also some of the Hüsker’s earliest live tracks from July of 1979 are captured here, which show a band playing fast, but not very tight as yet.  As Hart declares at the end of one of the tracks, “we’re not the most professional band in the Twin Cities, but we’re having fun though”.  The live track ‘Outside’ stands out as an earlier highlight and does show where this band could be headed, with the ferocity of the fretwork going the full three minutes of the track and though a bit muddy sounding the bass and drums are thunderous.  

Barely a year later in the Fall of 1980, the band’s first official self-released single ‘Statues’ was recorded and it’s a gargantuan leap forward in such a short period of time.  Norton’s wandering bass line particularly stands out in the cleaned up remastering and Mould’s alternately pleading and accusatory lines - “you ain’t got no reason to express rage” - showcase the depths of his tangled emotions.  Some of the unreleased recordings from this session were sonically a step ahead.  Hart’s ‘Writer’s Cramp’ is a little more on the pop side but with punk energy and a strong melody while ‘Let’s Go Die’ is a straightforward rave-up but still shows how considerably the band had improved over the year from constant playing.  The live ‘Walk Within  the Wounded’ stands out as a precursor of the band’s later sound with Mould’s patented growl and the tension between noise and melody on full display - you can hear hints of the much later ‘Celebrated Summer’ coming from this song.  

Another quick year forward, which included a week where the band played four gigs a night six nights in a row at the same venue in Calgary of all places, and the band committed the live tracks that would become Land Speed Record to tape.  Ingeniously here on the box set, the tracks are cleaned up, separated and some superior takes are subbed out from the original release.  Notably this was the band’s first release for another label - Greg Ginn’s New Alliance offshoot of his main SST label.  Of note here is ‘All Tensed Up’ which is an alternate radio broadcast and captures the fierceness of their live show in a brief two minute onslaught; the unbridled rage of ‘Guns at My School’; the swirl of bass and drums on ‘Don’t Have a Life’ that foreshadow the sound of Zen Arcade; and Mould’s guttural “F.U.” at the end of ‘Let’s Go Die’ that sounds totally uncontrived - not something you would want to be on the receiving end of.

Aside from the ability to see the band’s precipitous growth, the sound quality throughout this package is outstanding and becomes particularly apparent in the later tracks.  Although the improved sonics are across the board, Norton’s bass seems to be the primary beneficiary providing a deep wallop in places and sounding rubbery and lithe in others.  Given the SST connection, he gives Mike Watt of the Minutemen a run for his money on the 1982-1983 era tracks here.  Live tracks and outtakes from this part of the band’s history are included as well as all of the LP Everything Falls Apart and the ‘In a Free Land’ single.  The song structure of ‘In a Free Land’ shows where the band was headed with standard verse and chorus with a hard edged melody, but showing a bit more restraint (though that’s all relative).  The version of ‘Target’ as an outtake from the ‘In a Free Land’ single sessions ends up superior to the later release with skittering drums and brooding guitar while expressing more rage as the band charges hard through the song.  

The cleaned up tracks from Everything Falls Apart take away any sludge that was present before, with ‘From the Gut’ jumping out with Hart’s crisp martial drumming before the song settles into a tight groove.  Mould’s ‘Signals from Above’ show the band has not lost its edge while the closer ‘Gravity’ shows the extent of their journey musically being in full control of their instruments and voice.  Norton’s heartbeat thrumming in the quiet moments here shows a jazz like precision with drums and guitar having bite but played at a skill level not shown till now.  This precision foreshadows their mid-period albums from Zen Arcade to Flip Your Wig (aside from the band’s early prolific output documented here, the fact they put out the equivalent of four albums worth of their strongest music in the two years following is simply astounding.  They were operating at a production and quality level that was the punk rock equivalent of Creedence Clearwater Revival).  The box set closes out with some later live tracks that include several that appeared in studio versions on Metal Circus.  Of particular note is showcasing the opposing styles of Hart and Mould side by side with Hart’s loud but tuneful ‘It’s Not Funny Anymore’ followed by Mould’s raw proclamation in ‘Real World’ of “I don’t rape and I don’t pillage other people’s lives”.  This yin and yang approach would benefit the tension of their albums to come while also starting to drive a wedge into the primary songwriter’s relationship.  The final track tips its hand directly towards the sound of the soon to come Zen Arcade with the six minute feedback workout of ‘It’s Not Fair’. 

One of the Hüskers early soundmen, Terry Katzman, is to thank for the existence of many of the live tapes that exist here which he had kept on hand untouched for over 30 years.  He must have known he was on to something important at the time or was just the consummate documentarian, but either way the rest of us benefit.  The perfect confluence of events helped this band form, develop and ultimately flourish.  The bulk of the band’s existence and their most creative period also coincided with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which served their sense of alienation and lashing out well.  The time would seem ripe for a resurgence of a band with this stance, so maybe somewhere in a record store basement (though there are lot less of those today) there is an angry young band working out songs, hand coloring flyers and showing up unannounced in hope to play gigs.  If so, let’s hope someone is committing that to tape so the lightning in a bottle that was captured in the Hüsker’s formative days can be captured again.  Though the earliest tracks here would not have seen commercial release, even back then, they do serve the arc of their early history and are essential to understanding the full story.  For the uninitiated their mid-period masterpieces are probably the place to start, but this labor of love, complete with all that is contained, is a must for anyone that considers themselves a fan whether a grizzled or reformed old punk or a relative newcomer wanting to know all that they can.  It’s definitely a heartbreaking side note that Hart recently passed away before this release, but as is readily apparent in the music and their story he lived this and I’m sure took his memories with him.

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