Hüsker Dü may have looked like a bunch of misfits, but they enjoyed an extraordinary musical chemistry: Why you should definitely own Zen Arcade

Husker Du - Zen Arcade cover art
(Image credit: SST Records)

Formed in 1979, Minnesota power trio Hüsker Dü came up through the early-80s hardcore punk scene and gained a following in 1983 when their EP Metal Circus, with its yin-yang combination of ferocity and melody and mostly two-minute tracks, started picking up college radio play. Then when Zen Arcade landed in July 1984 it caused a mighty, alt.rock splash. Although it included some of their most thrilling punk rock speed rides, it was a hugely ambitious double-vinyl concept album. 

Written and recorded quickly, and with most of the basic tracks put down in one take, Zen Arcade was based on a personal rite–of–passage story, from youth to manhood. It encompassed acoustic strums, piano miniatures, Indian-inspired psychedelia, and the 14-minute instrumental Reoccurring Dreams. Both drummer/vocalist Grant Hart and guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould were evolving as songwriters, and they showed they could turn out Beatles-y melodies and sing rough-hewn harmonies. 

In 1983, Mould told Big Black guitarist/vocalist Steve Albini – then writing for Matter fanzine and later to become the 90s’ go-to punk and alt.rock producer – that Hüsker Dü were expanding beyond punk and “going to try to do something bigger than anything like rock’n’roll”. He later likened Zen Arcade to a stage play or a movie. 

The band looked like a bunch of misfits, but they enjoyed a rare musical chemistry. Hart pushed hard on the beat with busy snare rolls, his playing underpinned by Greg Norton’s limber bass, and Mould summoned an incendiary sound from his guitar. 

Hüsker Dü never lost their edge and intensity but went on to make a series of more focused, commercially successful albums culminating in their swansong, 1987’s Warehouse: Songs And Stories. It was another double and their most streamlined, poporiented and high profile release. The band split in early 1988, but it signposted the way to Mould’s music with the highly regarded Sugar and Hart’s with Nova Mob. 

Zen Arcade stands as Hüsker Dü’s most original statement. It influenced the music of Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Pixies, (who famously advertised for a bass player “Into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul And Mary”), R.E.M., Dinosaur Jr, Green Day, Melvins, Queens Of The Stone Age, and virtually any band from the 80s onwards who allied good tunes with seriously overdriven guitars. Hüsker Dü also helped establish the fashionability of the plaid shirt; alas they had less success with the waxed ’tache. 

Mark Beaumont

Mark Beaumont is a music journalist with almost three decades' experience writing for publications including Classic Rock, NME, The Guardian, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Times, Uncut and Melody Maker. He has written major biographies on Muse, Jay-Z, The Killers, Kanye West and Bon Iver and his debut novel [6666666666] is available on Kindle.