by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)
In the winter of 1978 a Macalester College freshman named Bob Mould walked into Cheapo Records in St. Paul, drawn in by the sound of records blaring from the speakers outside. The clerk inside, the source of the racket, was a 17 year old local named Grant Hart and the two quickly bonded over a love of punk rock. They made plans to see the Ramones at the St. Paul Arena along with Hart’s friend Greg Norton. The three would soon form a band and that band, which they decided to call Hüsker Dü, would amass a catalog of records which changed the course of rock music from coast to coast. Their embrace of hardcore speed (Mould: “[we] needed to be the fastest band on the planet”) and melodious, expansive classic rock (see: "Eight Miles High") brought together a combination of shattering fury that hasn’t lost an ounce of its roar in the time that’s passed. Savage Young Dü, the new box set from Chicago’s Numero Group provides a breathing document of the band’s early years, moving from amateur mimics to a groundbreaking force.
Savage Young Dü brings together 69 tracks (47 previously unissued) stretching from the band’s very beginnings through their second LP Everything Falls Apart. The recordings range from basement demos, live soundboard recordings, and session master tapes and detail the evolution of a band who moved with a rapidity fitting the pace at which they played. What’s truly enlightening about Savage Young Dü is its insight into that shift. When the band released their debut Land Speed Record, its extraordinary no-nonsense chaos felt otherworldly, but Savage Young Dü gives us two discs of build up before we see the Hüskers operating as a well-oiled machine. These early recordings show a group of kids drawn together by the punk movement, trying to do something themselves. While there are some early knockouts (“Do You Remember?” and “Sore Eyes”) there are also a few misses and growing pains. A cover of Johnny Thunders’ “Chinese Rocks” gives a great look at the collective’s early vision of a sound worth emulating and sillier tracks like “Do The Bee” humanize the band, giving insight into the days before they would become an institution.
Furthering the contextualization of this time in Hüsker Dü history is the set’s 108 page booklet which includes an extensive essay by Erin Osmon. Osmon lays down the setting of Minneapolis in 1979, the home of Prince and also a scene in need of a kickstart with its initial crop of punk bands either gone or drowning in the sweep of new wave. The Hüskers enter as a distinctively St. Paul act. They’re working class, rugged in comparison to the hipper Minneapolis. They would become the centerpiece of punk’s upswing in Minneapolis with new bands like The Replacements and Loud Fast Rules forming and out of town acts like Mission of Burma and DOA coming to play clubs like the 7th St. Entry. The objective for the Hüskers was to be the fastest band in town, which they were, but Osmon emphasizes the impact of the band’s early treks to the west coast. Taking residencies in places like Calgary, Vancouver, and San Francisco, they would stay in the same place for weeks at a time, playing every night and oftentimes multiple times a night getting tighter and tighter. They would absorb the influence of west coast bands like the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, and the Minutemen and return to Minneapolis faster, tighter, and deadly serious.
This return back to the Twin Cities would be documented in a recorded show at the Entry which would be released as Land Speed Record. The tracks from Land Speed included on Savage Young Dü come from an audio/video recording of the band just a couple weeks after the Land Speed show. “Speed” is the operative word to describe these songs—both in their runtime and for the amphetamines that fueled Grant, Greg, and especially Bob, during the time—but underneath it there’s a deeper sense of melody lining the roar. The band would play a second set the night of the Land Speed show, noteworthy in that it contained about half the songs of the Land Speed set but ran equal in time. These tracks are among the standout of the entire box, most notably the version of “Diane” which swirls in chaos and features a heart-stopping vocal from Grant Hart. Norton’s bass is showered in effects while Mould’s arpeggiation, paired with Hart’s constant cymbal crashing create a nonstop paranoiac threat. Hart’s vocals, low in the mix, breakthrough the surrounding swell only by the sheer force of his screaming. “Diane” may be the first truly great Hüsker Dü track and this version shows the full dynamic power of a band who had made the transformation from good to beyond great.
Savage Young Dü ends with Everything Falls Apart, the band’s second LP, and live versions of songs which would turn up on Metal Circus the band’s first release on the Long Beach label SST. California had helped (pardon the pun) mold the band into the hardcore powerhouse they’d become, but their four releases on the label would bring an immediate influence to their peers and hundreds of bands to come. Hüsker Dü never stopped growing. Noise collage, double LPs, and pure pop, what was never lost was the urgency. Their ambition was clearly stated, to be the best band in the world, and once they got rolling, the world had no choice but to try and catch up.