Thirty years ago, one of the hottest places in American music was the Twin Cities in Minnesota.
In 1984, three of that area’s most prominent artists of the day released career-defining work in a four-month period: R&B/funk legend Prince served “Purple Rain,” hardcore punk trio Hüsker Dü dropped “Zen Arcade” and The Replacements issued “Let it Be.”
Three powerful records in such a short period helped put Minnesota on the map as a major player in the 1980s. All three are records that have held up well against the harsh critic of time.
“Purple Rain” is the most famous and best remembered of the bunch, a career-defining work from an ’80s icon. While Prince bathed in the limelight, Hüsker Dü and The ’Mats (nickname for the The Replacements) were part of a burgeoning underground rock scene.
“Zen Arcade,” which was released 30 years ago this month, showed St. Paul, Minnesota’s Hüsker Dü trio expanding beyond the blistering, brutal work of its first album into bolder territory.
Although Hüsker Dü only lasted from 1979 to 1987, its sound and style changed greatly in that time. The band, composed of guitarist/vocalist Bob Mould, drummer/vocalist Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton, took its name from the Concentration-esque 1970s board game “Hūsker Dū?,” which translates from Danish and Norwegian as “Do you remember?”
In its infancy, Hüsker Dü was known for its abrasive approach to hardcore punk, gigging throughout the Midwest and garnering attention for its speedy, melodic brand of punk. Those are the qualities that caught the attention of Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn, who inked the band to his SST label.
Cut almost exclusively in first takes, “Zen Arcade” was the first of two slabs Hüsker Dü generated for SST. The album was made in approximately 85 hours, almost half of which was mixing.
Where the group’s first studio effort, “Everything Falls Apart,” focused on the group’s speed and brutality, offering 12 tracks in under 20 minutes, “Zen Arcade” is a 70-minute carousel of sounds under the banner of hardcore punk. Instead of the band’s loud and fast style, it ventured deeper into melodic territory and beyond.
Although “Zen” fires an opening shot across the hardcore punk bow with the incendiary “Something I Learned Today,” Hüsker Dü opens up the listening space with its experimentations: Acoustic rocker “Never Talking to You Again,” the backwards-playing psychedelia of “Dreams Reoccuring” and even the piano interlude “Monday Will Never Be the Same.” The record ends with “Reoccuring Dreams,” 14 minutes of screeching guitar work recorded live that leaves the listener wondering what they just heard.
“Turn on the News,” which made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list of the Songs That Shaped Rock ’n’ Roll, showcases drummer/vocalist Grant Hart snarling about the media over a three-chord attack.
Detractors call “Zen Arcade” a bloated, unfocused mess, a criticism that is understandable if a bit inaccurate. “Zen” is imperfect, but it would be a different, less memorable record without all of its dalliances, diatribes and diversions.
It’s also emblematic of the state of punk itself, circa 1984. While The Clash abandoned its punk roots to “Rock the Casbah,” Hüsker Dü opened the boundaries of what punk could be without surrendering its identity in the process. It gives “Zen Arcade” integrity, which is something that has helped it withstand the whiplash of time.
It’s also forgotten as a concept record. Considering punk rock was, in part, a response to the rock opera records of classic rock juggernauts such as Pink Floyd and The Who, it’s surprising Hüsker Dü turned the formula on its head. Rolling Stone magazine, picking up on this, called it “a kind of thrash ‘Quadrophenia.’ ”
For a group that cut six albums in its eight years, it’s hard to think of Hüsker Dü’s “Zen Arcade” as a transitional record. Yet it was, for the band, its role in the punk scene and the 1980s underground rock. It points the direction the band was headed and that punk, too, would have to adapt to remain important.
It also helped establish Minnesota as a fertile ground for great music during the 1980s.
While Hüsker Dü and The Replacements never enjoyed the same sort of chart success as Prince, the impact of “Zen Arcade” and the music scene they shared in the Twin Cities in 1984 still ripples out.
To read more of Nick DeCicco’s blogs, visit http://dailyrepublic.typepad.com/forthoseabouttorock. Follow him on Twitter @ndeciccodr.