1987 Week: Why Hüsker Dü were The Beatles of the ’80s American alternative landscape

This week on Vanyaland we are celebrating all things 1987 with a look back at moments, trends, and icons in the worlds of music and film. Follow along #V87.

Hüsker Dü’s sixth and final studio album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, is that classic against-all-odds, stuffed-a-little-too-full double album manifesto from a band at the crossroads of Jedi-level dominance and imminent creative implosion. It’s a profound moment for the halcyon days of “college rock” (read: “alternative” and/or “indie”) and its wide-armed acceptance by the major labels and the mainstream. It’s when Hüsker Dü cemented their status as The Beatles of the 1980s’ American alternative landscape.

Hear me out.

Released in January 1987, Warehouse: Songs and Stories arrived during a period of great transition and turmoil. The St. Paul, Minnesota power trio had signed to Warner Bros. the previous year, after releasing many influential singles, EPs, and LPs on indie labels like SST and New Alliance. The Hüskers’ two songwriters, Bob Mould and Grant Hart, evolved on separate paths at rapid paces throughout the decade, and found creative tensions at a fever pitch. (Third member Greg Norton brought the fly bass lines, pogoing, and next-level mustache game.) David Savoy, their friend and manager, committed suicide merely one month after the album’s release, on the eve of their impending tour. For a band that was defined by change, Hüsker Dü in 1987 was experiencing a disproportionate amount of change via ego, tragedy, and corporate expectations.

The Hüskers’ greatest strength was how singular they were, how they sounded like no one else; they found that strength with pop music that sprouted from still-fresh tropes of post-punk and hardcore. Earlier in the decade, songs like “Diane” and “Hate Paper Doll” came off as the Hollies operating a buzzsaw, and fit their ground-level guerrilla pop image — not to mention the scorched-earth typeface of their umlaut-heavy logo typeface. A mere five years after the wig-blowin’ hardcore debut LP, Land Speed Record, however, Hüsker Dü had grown to something more dynamic and mature. That growth and change set some longtime fans off, because the new stuff no longer sounded like the old stuff — but that’s the point. They had been there, done that, they were moving on. Like their Twin Cities brothers-from-other-mothers the Replacements and predecessors the Clash, the Hüskers of ’87 were finding other ways to make compelling music besides sheer speed and volume.

Warehouse has speed and volume, no doubt, but its balance is found in melody and sonic adventurousness. On 20 songs spread across two records, the Hüskers sound exactly like themselves while simultaneously sounding like a future version of themselves. The band claims their own brand of psychedelic overdrive on “She Floated Away,” and refines Hart’s trademark hypnotic fuzz-swirl song structure on both “Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope” and “You’re a Soldier.” Mould brings more muscle with “Visionary” and “Ice Cold Ice,” two tracks that sound like they could have served as centerpieces of an earlier, heavy record, but greatly benefit from more nuanced arrangements and call-and-response vocals.

My personal favorite of the bunch is the penultimate track, “Up in the Air,” which has a soaring chorus, even for a Hüsker Dü song, as well as some of the most transcendent Mike Mills-channeling harmonies sung by Hart on any of the band’s tracks. “Poor bird flies up in the air/Never getting anywhere/How much misery can one soul take/Trying to fly away might have been your first mistake,” goes the refrain.

Mould is practically singing about the band. Throughout the album are jangling bells, glockenspiel, tambourine, backwards tapes, sound effects, and copious backing vocals and countermelodies. There is a reason why David Fricke, in his March 1987 Rolling Stone review, called Hüsker Dü “the most vital rock and roll band in America today,” and also why then-Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau pondered if they were “the best American band of the ‘80s” — you’ll find that reason in this record.

From the Boston Phoenix, February 1987. Courtesy of the David Bieber Archives.

All of these accolades bring me back to that Beatles comparison from earlier. For starters, songs like “Could You Be the One?” practically bounce with pre-psych British Invasion pep and esprit. Close your eyes and think of not just Warehouse, but much of the band’s output, as next-generation romps through the kind of structure and delivery of A Hard Day’s Night: tightly composed, tightly performed pop nuggets that sound like variations on a theme but remain unique to the band. (This is not particularly hard to imagine, considering the band’s legendary cover of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.”) More importantly, though, both bands came up fast, burned bright and hard for a finite amount of time (both existed for barely a decade), made an indelible impact on their scene (Hüskers: American alternative movement; Beatles: The world), and were ultimately struck down by internal squabbles that intensified following the recording of a polarizing double album.

Hüsker Dü is the archetype for the independent band that remains fiercely D.I.Y. even after signing with a major label. Warehouse: Songs and Stories is Exhibit A in that case. As Mould told Interview magazine shortly after signing with Warner Bros. in 1986, “We’re still self-managed, self-produced, self-car-driven, self-booked, self-promoted.” Warner Bros. label allowed them to self-produce a double album for their second major-label release, which is some Prince-caliber privilege.

More major labels would sign more indie bands in the coming years — most notably, R.E.M. would jump from I.R.S. Records in 1988 to take the place of the newly defunct Hüsker Dü — and I think it’s fair to say that the power trio from Minnesota was a litmus test for that sort of risk. Even fairer: The sound that the Hüskers searched for and finally found on Warehouse quickly worked its way into the consciousness of left-of-the-dial American rock music, a place where one could be both melodic and abrasive, soothing yet loud.

One could, really, have it all.

Hüsker Dü press photo by Glen E. Friedman; Boston Phoenix “WBCN Street Sheet” clip courtesy of the David Bieber Archives, used with permission. Follow Zeth Lundy on Twitter @zethlundy.