Monday, July 13, 2009

Zen Arcade

Today (as far as my fairly extensive research can tell) marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favorite album of all time, Zen Arcade by Hüsker Dü. This record marks a turning point for rock music that may have defined it for the past quarter century. Sure, maybe some band would have stepped in and done what Hüsker Dü did, but it wasn't another band that did it. This is the moment where the seething anger and discomfort and unplaceable angst of hardcore punk met the pop songwriting and drug soaked psychedelia of the mid sixties. When you listen to Zen Arcade, you listen to one of several benchmarks in the creation of alternative rock, but one that absolutely creates its ethical and aesthetic basis.

Let's start from the beginning. Rock and roll started as rebellion. Kids danced and smoked marijuana to early rock tunes. Motion pictures were made decrying its evils. But by the end of the fifties, much of rock's stigma had been taken away by white artists singing about holding hands or even less threatening sounding euphemisms. And so, rock and roll became mindless pablum. There, however, remained something of a threat (see the FBI's investigation of the lyrics of "Louie Louie" for instance). Bands, most of whom tended to stay just below the mainstream radar, made penetrating music that challenged the listener's concept of what music was supposed to mean and who could make it. The work of these musicians finally seemed to culminate in the late 70s when punk bands like the Ramones and the Clash and Sex Pistols made more significant moves into the mainstream conciousness, but most audiences thought of this as little more than an obnoxious, anti-disco fad.

However, there were kids all over the US who heard the Ramones and found something in their simplicity and unforgiving speed. It was a chance meeting of two of these kids in a record store in Minnesota that made music history.

Bob Mould and Grant Hart met when Mould was away at MacCalester College. Hart worked at a record store where Mould often shopped. A friendship bloomed around their mutual love of the Beatles and the Ramones. Eventually Hart and Mould would smoke pot together and listen to records. This relationship led to the formation of a cover band with Greg Norton on bass, and some other guy on electric keyboard. After an impromptu session of shouting random foreign language phrases, the band came up with the name Hüsker Dü, Norwegian/Danish for "do you remember." The umlauts were later added for a more metallic effect. The keyboard player was very shortly thereafter dropped, and the band finally solidified.

A single and live LP followed. They were signed by the Minutemen's New Alliance records, and then Black Flag's SST. There first official output for SST was an EP/mini-album titled Metal Circus. On this record's seven tracks, the band began to incorporate a little more melody into their songwriting. But halfway into mixing the album, the power went out in the studio and much of the material was lost.

More determined than ever, the band set to writing new material throughout a summer in Minneapolis. According to drummer/vocalist Grant Hart, the acid in MPLS was particularly good that summer. Ideas began to gel, and songs began to formulate. It was time to record the tracks for Spot and SST.

And so, in a period of about a week and a half, the entire, sprawling double LP was recorded and mixed at SST's studios in Hermosa Beach, CA. All but two of the songs were recorded in one take.

The record was delayed so that it could be released simultaneously with SST's other equally ambitions double LP, the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime. The wait, I can only assume, was worth it.

The result of tight rehearsal, quick recording, and masterful writing, Zen Arcade represents the absolute pinnacle of what hardcore was possible of and clears a path for new exploration that would later become alternative rock. It's music is poppy, but maintains a level of aggression that can speak to the ostracized teenager to whom the story of the album seems dedicated.

Oh yeah, this shit is a concept album. A kid recognizes a world at home beyond his control and understanding, so he runs away. He experiments with drugs, sex, and organized religion. He witnesses death and destruction and all the horrors of the human condition only to come back home and maybe wake up from some sort of dream.

Basically this album is perfect. While certainly the ultimate product of early 80s hardcore, more than most records of that era, it stands the test of time. More than any record before or since, it captures the spirit of the tortured youth in this country. And as long as the country produces young people, they will be tortured. And as long as those things are true, this country will need Zen Arcade and records like it.

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