By the time they had signed a lucrative contract with Warner Bros in early 1986, Hüsker Dü’s implosion was well underway. Tracked by the label for the previous twelve months, the band had opted to remain with indie label SST until the completion of their fourth album Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü had outgrown SST, but the move to Warners didn’t go down well, and as a consequence, any objective critical analysis of their first album for them, Candy Apple Grey, has been rare. In an otherwise formidable canon, it is almost universally regarded as the runt in the litter, falling way short of masterworks such as Zen Arcade. It is time for a reappraisal.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the major label debut album of the beloved independent band almost invariably elicits a hostile response from the hardcore fan. After all, he was there when it all began. He can vividly recall his idols heaving their own gear into some piss-stinking dungeon of a venue where they performed before an audience whose animosity could not have been greater had you announced you’d had intimate liaisons with their mothers the night before. But he was instantly hooked. He bought their first record on the day of its release at the little backstreet indie store, the only one with guts enough to stock it, and he has followed them ever since. Until now that is. Because now they are working for the man. Look at those Johnny-come-latelys wearing those t-shirts emblazoned with the new album sleeve. Where were they three years ago?! You can’t call them real music fans. They are living proof that the incorruptibles have become corrupted. If the only thing Warners are interested in is product and shifting units, it follows logically that the band have the same aspirations. To hell with those corporate whores, and their fawning new legions of gullible lemmings.
It is a peculiar relationship the one between pop star and fan. Many of us at sometime or another, may have borne this conceit. It is a well-worn cliche that rock stars, simply by virtue of their status, have realised their dreams and fantasies. But it is equally true to say that pop fans often inhabit a fantasy world of their own making. It is all inside their heads. Songs and albums may well seem very personal to the listener, a unique meeting of souls. But they are not. They are simply recognisable expressions of one particular aspect of the human condition. A coalescence of timing and circumstance might propel them deep into our subconscious. What might mean nothing to one person, could be the only thing preventing another person from putting an end to it all. Because of that, music can assume a gravitas beyond its rather humble ingredients. But to believe a rock band is one’s own private possession is both extraordinarily deluded and somewhat infantile.
It was to precisely this type of indignant response I first declared my fondness for Hüsker Dü. Occupying one half of an old C90 cassette was a recording of their penultimate album Candy Apple Grey. It was summer 1987, a few months after the release of their heroic double swansong Warehouse: Songs & Stories. The tape had been handed to me by a fellow student – being students we had little money to buy the records themselves – but the scorn he reserved for the album was merciless. In fact he’d only given it to me so I could hear Side Two (if I recall correctly the Homestead compilation, Wailing Ultimate!) “Ignore the other side” he warned. I could not.
The album was created in the most challenging of circumstances. A home movie style video for the Grant Hart penned 45 ‘Don’t Want To Know If You Are Lonely’ may have reflected the searing intensity of the band’s live performances, but it was captured at a time when relationships between the trio had broken down irreparably. Personal differences had been growing; Hart’s drug abuse accelerating. At the time Mould was quoted as saying that none of the three wanted to continue, but ironically, the band had reached their commercial zenith. That sense of confusion and disintegration permeates an album often labelled a sell out. But any doubts of musical compromise should have been dispelled for good on the album’s opening track, the finger-shreddingly ferocious ‘Crystal’, where Mould, hoarse with fury, rages at the chaos surrounding him (“When civilization falls in its grave/Technology throws on the dirt/You realize the finest things in life/Are the ones that can never be hurt”). Meanwhile, the guitars in time honoured tradition explode like a coalition of cheetahs leaping through an avenue’s worth of shop windows.
The communication breakdown, which Hart accepts ultimately led to the suicide of the band’s manager David Savoy a year later, allowed greater room for the expression of each individual’s musical and emotional idiosyncrasies, and Candy Apple Grey undoubtedly displays the greatest musical variety of any Hüsker Dü album. In Mould’s case at least, the ensuing turmoil led to the more introverted songwriting style he would follow into his solo career. It is undeniably true that on Candy Apple Grey he frequently sounds in despair, bereft. His energies were at an all time low, but this was misconstrued by fans as a mellowing out. His solo acoustic venture ‘Too Far Down’ (“I’m too far down/I couldn’t begin to smile/Because I can’t even laugh or cry/Because I just can’t do it”) is hardly the product of a singer seeking a wider audience. If Hüsker Dü had always struck a fine balance between melody and discord – it was the tempo which was unrelenting – they also possessed a more sensitive melancholic dimension to their sound. Consider ‘Perfect Example’ and ‘Celebrated Summer’ from New Day Rising, or even ‘Diane’ way back on the Metal Circus EP. No, these slower songs are the sound of people having to get to grips with the very real challenges of life, the turgid reality of having to work alongside people you once loved but can no longer look in the eye, and even, no matter how banal it sounds, with the life-work balance. The band’s output had been prolific, they had become exhausted by an unforgiving touring schedule. And their personal lives were unravelling. On ‘Hardly Getting Over It’, a song he continues to perform today, Mould reflected upon his awareness of the impact of loss and bereavement in his own life. “My parents didn’t even mention my grandfather’s passing to me for months, for whatever reason. Presumably it would upset me.” It was a heartfelt confessional, but all people heard was the volume reduction. The sound may indeed have been quieter, but the message sang loud and clear .
The band’s bastardisation of The Byrds’ folk-rock is most obvious on Hart’s ‘Dead Set On Destruction’, while his ‘Sorry Somehow’, the album’s second 45 is much more immediate, belying its author’s fragile psychological state. While the bitterness in the sentiment is acute (“There’s no need to talk to you, well to know what’s on your mind/There’s no need to see you either, no, I’m just being kind/You want me to beg forgiveness, tender an apology/It’s not my fault and you’re not getting one from me”), it’s infectious and muscular Hammond-driven riff seems perfectly tailored for alt-college radio. It is interesting to note that college rock darlings, fellow Minneapolitans The Replacements, had signed to a major label (Sire – also distributed by Warners) shortly before Hüsker Dü, yet there has never been any charge of ‘sell out’ levelled at The ‘Mats’ first major offering, Tim.
On ‘No Promise Have I Made’ Hart was accused of sailing perilously close to the bombastic coastline -over a skin of shivering cymbals and an automotive synth sounding like a multi-tracked vocal, its epic piano motif builds to an ecstatic climax powered by Greg Norton’s Herculean bass riff while at the finale Hart thrillingly hammers home the point orally as well as physically with emphatic angst.
Out of chaos occasionally emerges something beautiful, honest and true. If songs like ‘Crystal’, ‘Eiffel Tower High’ and ‘All This I’ve Done For You’ would have fit comfortably onto New Day Rising, Candy Apple Grey delivers a broader palette, reflecting a depth of emotional involvement unmatched elsewhere on any other HD album. As individuals they were suffering but growing up too, perhaps against their will. The case for the album being a sell out simply doesn’t hold water. It is a wounded bewildered beast, certainly without thematic unity, but made entirely without compromise. It is the album Hüsker Dü would have delivered no matter which label was pressing the vinyl. Time has been kind to its shortcomings. So should you. (JJ)