Emusic recently got the rights to the Husker Du catalogue which I’m pretty sure was also previously not available on iTunes. Who do they think they are, the Beatles? Anyway, good news even if you have to DL entire albums, can’t cherrypick songs, which disappointed me because I always saw Zen Arcade as a bit of a mess with a lot of somewhat-interesting stuff I didn’t actually want to listen to (“Hare Krishna”) along with a big handful of fantastic songs.
This may seem obnoxiously obscurantist in the “I prefer their early stuff” vein, but in some ways my favorite Husker Du record has always been Metal Circus from 1983, their first record with SST and I think their second more or less studio album, although it’s really a 19-minute 7-song e.p. It’s all great, unrelenting, and has a kind of scrappy lightness of touch, with guitar leads that sometimes sound almost rockabilly, like X maybe, that reminds me a little of some of the early Replacements (their exact contemporaries) records like Stink from 1982. I have this memory of trying to explain to my sophisticated NYC aunt in 1983 or 1984 that in fact, the most exciting new punk music was coming out of not NYC or San Francisco but Minneapolis of all places — not sure if she bought it.
Anyway, I loved everything about Metal Circus definitely including the black and white cover that looks like, what, the view out the window from inside a generic, depressing office room? An employment agency for the down at the heels?
One of my favorite rock show experiences ever was seeing Husker Du in some community center or something in a suburb of Boston in maybe 1984; definitely before Zen Arcade came out. I remember cramming into someone’s parents’ station wagon and ending up in this basement-y space not really knowing where we were. (All the future Lemonheads were there, I think.) I think the sound was atrocious so it was not exactly a “good show” properly but I loved them and it was a total thrill. Actually now that I think about it, this was the second time I’d seen them because I also saw them opening for R.E.M. in a gymnasium at Harvard (!); I didn’t really know who they were at that point (must’ve been 1983?) and I didn’t really get it.
Metal Circus feels very 1983, very Ronald Reagan, Cold War, nuclear anxiety. It’s conceptually coherent with lyrics defining an ambiguous political outlook, or maybe “political feeling,” angry, scared, apolitical as a variety of politics. I love the lyrics to “Real World,” the fantastic first song:
People talk about anarchy And taking up a fight/ Well I’m afraid of things like that/ I lock my doors at night/ I don’t rape, and I don’t pillage Other peoples’ lives/ I don’t practice what you preach/ And I won’t see through your eyes/ You want to change the world By breaking rules and laws/ People don’t do things like that In the real world at all/ You’re not a cop, or a politician/ You’re a person too You can sing any song you want/ But you’re still the same
It’s about hardcore punk politics, a response/rebuttal to “anarchy” punk manifestos. (I always heard it in relation to Minor Threat’s “In My Eyes.”) I probably identified at the time with Bob Mould, a very normal homely/uncharismatic guy who was both a punk and a thoughtful, tormented liberal. I guess the lyrics could be read as expressing pure political quietism, but I’ve always found them to be honest and brave, less a considered expression of a developed political philosophy than a kind of feeling — take it or leave it. (In the equally great “It’s Not Funny Anymore” Mould signs sarcastically, “you can do what you want to do, say what you want to say… don’t worry about the result or the effect it has on your career” — wow, quite the college counselor!). “I’d like to protest but I’m not sure what it’s for/ I’ve heard it does some good if the television people are there… I know I’ve got no control over the threat of a nuclear war.”
One of my favorite songs from this era was Husker Du’s buddies the Minutemen’s “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.” They were all trying to figure out: how can you write a punk protest song without falling into pompous liberal folk cliches, or predictable punk cliches? How can a punk protest song express ambiguity and doubt along with anger?
The other really great track is Grant Hart’s ominous, anguished rape-murder dramatic monologue “Diane,” which has a lot in common with Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover:” “We could lay in the weeds for a little while/ I’ll put your clothes in a nice, neat little pile/ You’re the cutest girl I’ve ever seen in my life/ It’s all over now, and with my knife.” “Diane”‘s bassline reminds me of Joy Division and of course, now that I think of it, the visual aesthetic and even title of Metal Circus may have been influenced by the Factory Records look/feel/sound.
When the definitive book is written on queer punk and post-punk, I hope Husker Du gets their due. The indie/postpunk scene in the 80s was very homophobic; Mould finally came out of the closet in the early 1990s. (I think everyone always figured Hart was gay.) I love that Mould worked for World Championship Wrestling as a scriptwriter for a while.