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How St. Paul punk pioneers Hüsker Dü paved the way for grunge music

image of ticket to husker du show
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Poster for Hüsker Dü concert, featuring Soul Asylum, in Athens, Georgia, 1986. Gift of Karl H. Mueller.

Hüsker Dü was a hardcore punk/alternative rock band that formed in St. Paul and performed and recorded between 1979 and 1987. The Hüskers (as they were called by fans) were a key creative force in the Twin Cities hardcore scene in the early 1980s and became one of the most influential and highly praised American alternative rock bands.

Hüsker Dü formed in St. Paul in 1979 after its three members (Grant Hart, drums and vocals; Greg Norton, bass guitar; and Bob Mould, guitar and vocals) met at Cheapo Records (then located on Grand Avenue and Macalester Street) where Hart worked. Hart and Norton both grew up in the Twin Cities and were previously acquainted. Mould had recently moved to St. Paul to attend Macalester College, and frequented the nearby store.

During its active years, the band was a cornerstone of the vibrant 1980s Minneapolis‒St. Paul hardcore scene. It played live shows at the punk rock venue Jay’s Longhorn Bar (14 South Fifth Street, Minneapolis) and at First Avenue & 7th Street Entry in addition to other local venues, including college and university campuses. Like other groups in the DIY punk and hardcore scene, the band often played makeshift venues in basements, galleries, and rental halls. That same scene supported many other local bands, including the Replacements, Loud Fast Rules/Soul Asylum, and Babes in Toyland.

The group released six records on independent record labels: Land Speed Record, Everything Falls Apart, Metal Circus, Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig. The first three of these established the band’s reputation for short songs and fast playing. The next three records, on the SST label, began to earn the band critical acclaim. The conceptual double album Zen Arcade is noted for both its storyline and its creativity, drawing from multiple musical styles. Flip your Wig marked a move towards power pop and increased the band’s popularity in the mainstream as a college radio mainstay.

The first of the 1980s independent/alternative bands to sign with a major label, Hüsker Dü produced three records with Warner Brothers: Candy Apple Grey, Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and The Living End. The move was precipitated by SST’s inability to effectively distribute the band’s records as they became increasingly popular. The demands of supporting major-label releases and touring schedules are sometimes blamed for breaking up the band. While some fans felt the band had sold out when it moved to Warner, major-label interest in an independent band with punk/hardcore roots represented an early investment in a style of rock—eventually labelled grunge—that became mainstream in the early 1990s.

The band broke up in 1987 while on tour due to discord in the group caused by Hart’s drug use and the suicide of band manager David Savoy immediately before the tour began. Afterward, all three band members went on to new musical projects. Norton’s band Grey Area performed until 1991, when he largely retired from music to pursue a career in the restaurant business in Red Wing (he later played in the group Porcupine). Mould led the band Sugar and performed as a solo artist, recording both rock and electronic dance music.

In the 1990s, Hüsker Dü’s fast playing and musicality continued to influence the most popular rock bands of the era, including the Pixies, Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, Metallica and Green Day.

Two of Hüsker Dü’s members, Hart and Mould, had same-sex relationships while representing their band in venues and subcultures that were often hostile to queer people. Though Mould did not come out officially until 1994, his example paved the way for the more explicitly queer punk of bands like Pansy Division.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Hart performed with the band Nova Mob and as a solo artist. He died in 2017 of liver cancer and Hepatitis C. His death prompted a new wave of critical praise for Hüsker Dü. Vanyaland critic Zeth Lundy called them “The Beatles of the ‘80s” in an August 2017 review and Paste critic Geoffrey Himes named “Hüsker Dü—Not Nirvana—the Real Kings of Punk’s Second Wave.” Numero Group released Savage Young Dü, a box-set compilation of the band’s early work, in 2017.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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