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Absolution Is Out of the Question: Hüsker Dü and the Replacements Staring Down the Future of Alt-Roc

Absolution Is Out of the Question

July 12, 2017 | by C.M. Crockford

The first Replacements album Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash has a pisstake of a track called “Something to Dü,” with at least three or four jokes that rib their fellow Minneapolis residents Hüsker Dü (including, at the end, Westerberg muttering “break the Mould”). The bands were perfect foils for each other: fundamentally different in mood, intent, and sound yet their milieu was much the same. Both were meat-and-potatoes rock bands with an experimental side that emerged from the same hardcore scene, building devoted fanbases (though Mould and Hart could never quite conjure the deep, fanatical love Westerberg could earn with just a few slurred lyrics). Their story up to a point is the same as well: beloved 1984 breakthrough albums (Let It Be and Zen Arcade), pre-Nirvana major-label contracts, and eventual dissolution mired in substance abuse and resentment. And somehow both bands helped foment the sound that would be defined as alternative rock in the next decade.

Hüsker Dü were at heart pop formalists: they freaked out on tracks like the mindbending “Reoccurring Dreams” but Mould and Hart wrote what felt like their own speed-enhanced versions of the jangly, vibrant '60s singles they'd loved as teens. They unwittingly helped invent emo and post-hardcore with their hooky, angst-ridden songs like “Whatever,” and they seemed to take themselves seriously as glowering guys in flannel often do. The Replacements by contrast were total fucking goofballs. They drank to excess and would sabotage shows with their antics, in sharp contrast to the heart-piercing content of the songs Paul Westerberg was increasingly penning. With roots in the Raspberries and Hank Williams just as much as hardcore, the ‘Mats were great because at its peak their music wrestled with that dissonance and came out the other side as something vital and deeply felt.

Hüsker Dü’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories and the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me — their respective 1987 albums — demonstrated the mad push and pull at the time between the alternative rock scene that had emerged out of hardcore punk and was rooted in small labels and the mainstream that was swallowing these bands whole once they were too popular for indie demand. The album cover of Pleased, the ‘Mats’ second major-label effort, shows how self-aware they were about this uneasy fit: a picture of two hands shaking, one arm in a clean suit sleeve while the other's is ripped wide open. Warehouse was Hüsker Dü’s third for Warner Bros. and their last studio album (though they didn’t know it at the time). Each record was better-produced, cleaner, and readier for say, MTV consumption, than anything that had come before from either band, for better or worse. But on repeat listens, it’s fascinating to hear the clear deviations in their approach to the possibility, however vague, of popular success, a divergence that spelled out where “alternative rock” would go in the next 30 years.

The Replacements, Pleased to Meet Me

Pleased to Meet Me has been called “the last real Replacements album” and there’s a truth to that. It still has a ramshackle punk ridiculousness to it, “I Don't Know” opening with the sounds of the band laughing their asses off at a haywire drum machine (a perfect metaphor for the album as a whole). But with Jim Dickinson at the helm, there’s a polish and beefed-up muscularity to the production that dates it to the time of its release — even the aforementioned sloppiness of “I Don't Know” has absolutely perfect drum rhythms that scream “Reagan-era.” Without estranged guitarist Bob Stinson, who'd been fired for his alcoholism (arguably as a scapegoat for all of the band’s destructive habits), the band was trying for the mainstream but the overdubs of horns and strings on the otherwise wonderful “Can't Hardly Wait” and “Valentine” felt compromised, half-hearted. This wasn’t the same band without Stinson’s soulfully ragged playing, and one wonders, based on the “Valentine” demo with his romantic, deeply earnest guitar tracks, if the album would have been less slickly processed if he hadn’t been forced out.

On the other hand, Warehouse: Songs and Stories was as close as Hüsker Dü ever got to what they should’ve sounded like on record: swampy and shrouded from view, but also crisp and clear. Where Meet Me feels like a bid for modern-rock airplay, Songs and Stories is a natural progression, as Mould and Hart were getting hookier and more melodic (the bridge on “Could You Be the One” is almost mathematical in its power pop genius) without dipping too far into AOR territory. Mould’s guitar still created enormous, strange patterns of sound, Hart’s songs waded into psychedelia and esoterica while Norton’s anchoring bass found a middle ground. While they’d always desired popularity more than their hardcore peers (Ian MacKaye noted that the trio’s first single “Statues” deliberately capitalized on the Manchester post-punk trend), they only compromised on their own terms.

Hüsker Dü, Warehouse: Songs and Stories

These two releases in the same year from the ‘Mats and Hüsker Dü laid out the blueprint for alternative as we know it under that name — whether to a smaller but devoted audience and creative control on a major (or going the distance and making a bid for a big hit at the price of “selling out” according to a chunk of a punk-bred act’s old faithfuls (the Butthole Surfers, Jawbreaker). Few artists’ trajectories were actually this black or white, of course; just about everyone acknowledges Radiohead succeeded commercially and artistically by following their muse on Capitol Records. But that was the overall pattern as indie labels became safe havens for bands until some felt they wanted the big leagues. And now we’re in the post-Nirvana age, where punk is heard in bowling alleys or Broadway musicals, and streaming services have evened out the playing field so fewer up-and-comers can make any substantial money. Some things haven’t changed, though. Like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, indie bands still get boosts from college radio, house shows hosting smaller acts in the dead of night, 7-inch singles played in bedrooms. The Replacements and Husker Du showed the future of alternative rock by signing their contracts, but the network and road they used to get there is still there, weirdly timeless and untouchable.

The Replacements, "Never Mind"

Hüsker Dü, "Could You Be the One"

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