Hardcore, Do You Want More?
In 1984, hardcore —the American underground's authentic, grass-roots response to English punk and post-punk— had only one setting: loud, fast, noisy, and aggressive. There were rules both stated and unspoken about what bands were allowed to do; and anything beyond the bare-bones basics was on the do-not-consider list.
It'd take a true crew of misfits to challenge that hyper-masculinity and machismo so inextricably linked with hardcore's aggressive nature, and Hüsker Dü were they. The band were born in Minneapolis, and came from a local scene not built around punk purity, but under Prince's purple specter.
Their twin songwriters —guitarist Bob Mould, drummer Grant Hart— were both weren't straight-edge goons, but queer men with decadent drug habits. They were also tenuous allies: co-songwriters who were, within their rockband, essentially sparring partners, staging a form of musical sibling rivalry.
The Runaway Narrative
Hart and Mould pushed each other, and in turn pushed the band in new directions. Zen Arcade was an attempt to make an album which completely obliterated the limitations of punk. It was still recorded in the punk spirit —its 23 songs were entirely recorded and mixed in a span of only 85 hours— but it shook off the punk straitjacket: bringing in acoustic guitars, pianos, tape experiments, instrumental pieces, a focus on harmony and melody.
Oh, and Zen Arcade was a double-album that ran with a sustained narrative, something that had been an underground 'no no' since prog-rock co-opted the concept of the concept record at the dawn of the '70s.
The narrative was a coming-of-age story doubling as a coming-out story, and it symbolized the moment in which hardcore came of age. Its tale follows an alienated small-town runaway trying to find himself (in the military, in religion, in sex, in drugs) with increasing despair, only to —in that hokey TV episode device— wake up and realize it was all a dream.
The narrative isn't entirely audible on a casual, cursory listen, but, well, times were different back in 1984. If you plunked down your cash for a double album, you were going to be patient with it: play it over and over, persist with some of the more questionable cuts, carefully study the liner notes. For those listening closely, Zen Arcade's greatness soon became apparent; and the record became a landmark, effectively building a bridge between the tribalist mind-set and nasty sound of hardcore and the more expansive, melodic thrust of indie-rock.
Pretty much any American indie band who came along in the late-'80s —The Pixies, Nirvana, Superchunk, Sebadoh, Buffalo Tom, Babes in Toyland, the Afghan Whigs, The Flaming Lips— owed a debt to Hüsker Dü. That legacy grants Zen Arcade eternal greatness even if the album, itself, doesn't always sound like a great album when you put it on; the sustained narrative not masking the fact that, at times, Hüsker Dü sound as much like a band stretching themselves thing as a band breaking down barriers.
Record Label: SST
Release Date: July, 1984