Thursday, November 23, 2017

Hüsker Dü, Savage Young Dü / Extra Circus

Savage Young Dü is the Numero Group’s long-awaited box-set collection of early Hüsker Dü recordings (four vinyl records and a hardcover book, also available on CD), from their earliest demos and live stuff in 1979, up through the recordings of their first two albums (Land Speed Record [1982] and Everything Falls Apart [1983]), and even live performances anticipating the recording of Metal Circus (1983).  This material is significant musically in itself, but also for filling in an important historical gap in the development of American rock’n’roll, especially punk and hardcore.  HD were up there with Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat, et al. as one of the simultaneously quintessential and most original of hardcore bands.

Hüsker Dü’s “theme song” “Do You Remember” (which translates the Danish/Norwegian name of the Minnesota band) dates to a 1979 demo, and fittingly starts off the collection.  It’s a heavy punk number, with strong bar chords and a Ramones-like mid-tempo feel.  The next tune, “Sore Eyes,” foretells the combination of melodic chord progressions and vocals with the energy of hardcore that characterizes much of their more well-known work.  It is interesting to notice, right off the bat, how the seeds of their signature sound are sown in their earliest recordings.  At the same time, we see them in this early period making forays into other sounds, experimenting with poppy new-wave tunes and post-punk (“Outside” has hints of Joy Division or perhaps the Cure in places). Other early highlights include a cover of Johnny Thunders’s “Chinese Rocks” and a live 1980 version of “Data Control” (which song was later the highlight of the Land Speed Record album).

Beginning record two of the collection is Hüsker Dü’s first single, “Amusement” b/w “Statues,” which exhibits a post-punk Pere Ubu or Gang of Four-like sound and suggests the confused reaction of the audience at the time — other songs from this 1980 recording session which were not released are in HD’s by-then signature punk style (“Writer’s Cramp” and “Let’s Go Die”).  An early live version of “Wheels” (which was later recorded for Everything Falls Apart) is heard originally here in an industrial mode, with Grant Hart on a Casio keyboard and Bob Mould unexpectedly playing rudimentary drums. Greg Norton’s “Termination” sounds like an outtake from Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures.  HD finally come into their own, both according to the historical account and to this listener’s ears, after their cross-country (or -countries, since they played in Canada too) 1981 tour, which resulted in the live recording of the fast-paced Land Speed Record.

As for Land Speed Record, the original is sludgy and I was not bowled over by it when I got it in late 1982.  This is probably why I didn’t buy the subsequent “In a Free Land” 7” at the time, when I could have, which of course I regret — so it is nice to have the songs now, as that EP I think is the best of their very early releases, and puts forward a still-relevant political stance.  The original tape of the LSR album was lost, and Numero, working with Grant Hart, found another, similar live recording from the same time period to make up an “alternate” version of the album.  The new version actually sounds a lot better to me, but I was a tiny bit disappointed that it didn’t have “Data Control” and others.  Yes, those songs are there in other parts of the anthology, but it isn’t the same as having a fully replicated LSR album.  What we do have, though, is better than the original version.

Obviously, all of this material is great.  But from the early press releases, I expected actual “re-issue”-style packages of stand-alone albums for Land Speed Record and Everything Falls Apart, with reproductions of the original covers and lyrics sheets.  Instead, those recordings are contained on one side each of the ongoing anthology package.  It doesn’t matter that much to me, as I have the original albums, but it was just a little different than what I was expecting.  All wonderful listening, though.  The new LSR better exhibits Hüsker Dü’s speedy hardcore sound, and this package includes part of the second set from the LSR August ’81 show that didn’t appear on the original, including an early version of “Diane.”  EFA is nicely remastered and sounds amazing.  The last side includes live material from late 1982 that was shortly to be recorded for the 1983 12” EP Metal Circus (SST Records) — e.g. “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Real World,” “Out on a Limb” — and these are blazingly tight versions.  The box-set fittingly ends with an announcer saying, in a Minnesota accent, “Let’s hear it for one of the greatest hardcore bands in the country, the Hüskers, huh?”  Whoever he was, he was absolutely right.

The accompanying book is well-written and nicely printed, with tons of photos, flyers, and ephemera.  Incidentally, it includes two photos from a 1983 Love Hall show in Philadelphia, the first time I saw Hüsker Dü.  The textual narrative traces the band’s origins from the very beginnings, highlights how early their connections with Black Flag and the SST people were, and takes them up through late 1982.  After this, of course, their SST releases were recorded (Metal Circus, the great Zen Arcade [1984], and so on) as they moved beyond hardcore (though they were never formulaic to begin with), leading eventually to major-label success.  But Savage Young Dü stops there, keeping its focus on the earlier years of the band, a seminal period in the development of a seminal band.

Numero Group has also concurrently released a separate 7” of the outtakes from the Metal Circus sessions, titled Extra Circus, which looks ahead tangentially into the next stage of their evolution.  This comprises the songs that for whatever reason were left off of the SST 12” and that all together would have made up a full-length LP.  I like how Numero imitated the SST layout of the labels (and back cover), along with an alternative color front photo of the mysterious office from the same shoot.

There are five songs: “Heavy Handed,” “You Think I’m Scared,” “Won’t Change,” “Is Today the Day?” and “Standing by the Sea” (the latter was later rerecorded for Zen Arcade).  Most of them are hard-hitting punk/hardcore blasts (a few recalling Black Flag’s sound on Damaged), which leads one to think that they were possibly originally omitted in order to highlight the band’s burgeoning melodic songwriting skills.  Much has also been written about HD’s disillusion with the growing conformism of the hardcore scene.  That said, Metal Circus is still pretty punky, so who really knows.  In any case, this record sheds new light on the broader project and suggests, to my mind anyway, that it should have been a full-length album, with all twelve of the tracks included.  There is not one song here that is somehow lacking or second-rate.

Taken as a whole, the 69 songs of Savage Young Dü and the five on Extra Circus create a sonic portrait of a group moving from its already strong beginnings to the height of its powers.  They reveal Hüsker Dü not only as an important punk band, but one of the greatest American rock’n’roll bands of all time.  Along with Metal Circus proper and Zen Arcade, this collects the most indispensable chunk of their music in one exhaustive anthology (and paired 7