A biography of one of my favorite bands penned by one of the sharpest music writers around, there was probably no chance that I wouldn't enjoy Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock. And indeed, I did enjoy it, consuming the entire book in two or three sittings over the course of 24 hours. Though Hüsker vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Bob Mould declined to participate (he's working on his own autobiography with Our Band Could Be Your Life author Michael Azerrad), this is an exhaustive tome, featuring interviews and insights from vocalist/drummer/songwriter Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton plus many of the band's colleagues and contemporaries.
Author Andrew Earles makes explicit in his introduction that his book is meant to be a serious examination of Hüsker Dü's music and influence, not the more sensationalistic aspects of the band that often seem to dominate their posthumous write-ups. He succeeds admirably. Earles mostly avoids what could be considered the more exploitative elements of the Hüsker story: the band members' sexuality, their alleged drug use, the exaggerated acrimony of their messy breakup. He almost apologizes when the narrative necessitates these subjects' inclusion. This could be read as an attempt on the part of the writer to not alienate his heroes. However, it's more likely that Earles realizes that Hüsker Dü were not Mötley Crüe, and that this book is not The Dirt. Hüsker Dü's contributions to culture, in their music and as a trailblazing role model for future independent bands, are more powerful than any titillating tales of rock 'n' roll revelry.
One of the reasons Earles' book works is that he gives the band proper context. The author has a firm understanding of punk rock, post-punk, hardcore, college radio, the Twin Cities music scene, SST records, what later became "alternative" and "indie" and what each meant musically and sociologically. Hüsker Dü was part of all of these things to varying degrees while simultaneously forging their own path. Earles establishes where the Hüsker story converges with the above, often affecting them as much as they were affected by them.
Context is also part of the reason Earles spends the first six(!) chapters focusing on the band prior to the release of Metal Circus, conventionally deemed the band first "important" release. It's as though Earles wrote each early chapter as its own essay examining some part of the band's story. Usually mentioned in passing as a footnote, Hüsker Dü's label Reflex Records gets a full chapter, correctly establishing it as pioneering independent, not on the level of SST but born of the same impulse. This essay approach means the initial chapters bounce around a bit chronologically and contain some redundant information. For the most part this is fine, but a rather egregious example is a quote from Greg Norton regarding Canadian punks D.O.A. and the Subhumans that reappears in the following chapter a mere eight pages later. It's rare bit of sloppiness in what is otherwise a tightly constructed book. In addition to context, these early chapters also shed some much needed light on Hüsker Dü's hardcore days. Earles is sure to make a point that I've often made myself: Hüsker Dü were not some run of the mill hardcore act that eventually changed their sound and became "good." They were one of the best hardcore acts around, on par with anyone else in the genre.
Earles spends the remaining chapters giving a chronological account of each Hüsker release and the band's activities surrounding them, with an extra chapter thrown in focusing on the band's singing with major label Warner Brothers. This may seem like the author is rushing things in comparison to the early portion of the book, but it accurately reflects the speed at which Hüsker Dü was developing musically and gaining forward momentum. He concludes with respective chapters on the band members' ventures following their dissolution and the band's legacy as well as a lengthy appendix on Hüsker and Hüsker-related releases. In these chapters, Earles offers useful and insightful analysis of every release from the band, often dissecting them track by track. It's here that Earles demonstrates his strong grasp of why Hüsker Dü was a remarkable band, offering thoughtful appreciation of their not-infrequent musical innovations. A notable exception is the band's final album Warehouse: Songs and Stories, about which Earles has seemingly little to say. While the album is certainly not Hüsker's strongest, this is disappointing. As a dense, sometimes frustrating, sometimes excellent 20-song double LP, it practically begs for thorough exegesis.
Overall, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock is an essential read for fans Hüsker Dü. For those who aren't fans, I'll remind them that Hüsker Dü is an essential band. You can do the rest of the math yourself.
I'll conclude with a live clip of Hüsker Dü, because it's not like I need much of an excuse anyway.