Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Keltner analysis of undiscussed Rock Hall Artists: Hüsker Dü

The site A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, discusses various artists' credentials for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

After finishing my analysis of the Rock Hall backlog, I always intended to analyse artists who have never been discussed by the Nominating Committee, but still might have credentials to justify induction. The aim of the process is to find out whether, on the basis of the Keltner list for a Hall of Fame, the Nominating Committee really is completely ignoring artists who have undeniable credentials to be in the Hall.

I do admit that there are some problems with the criteria, especially given known biases of the Nominating Committee and how they effect who is already in the Hall, but still I cannot see any better alternative.

I have so far done five Keltner tests on undiscussed artists:
My next artist, first eligible in 2006/2007, is Hüsker Dü. Formed when drummer/vocalist Grant Hart and bassist Greg Norton met guitarist/vocalist at a record store called "Cheapo Discs" in Minneapolis, their shared love of the Ramones led them to form a band after discarding keyboardist Charlie Pine after their first gig. They soon developed a ferocious hardcore sound similar to Black Flag, Minor Threat or the Misfits and formed their own label, Reflex Records, that was allied to Twin Tone. Their Reflex albums, 1981's live Land Speed Record and 1982's studio debut Everything Falls Apart, have been heavily criticised, but with 1983's Metal Circus EP, released on Greg Ginn's SST label, Hüsker Dü began towards a more melodic variation on hardcore punk.

However, it was with 1984's double album Zen Arcade that Hüsker Dü first really captured attention outside their already-rabid cult. The album sold out on its first pressing and that affected long-term sales, but Zen Arcade won immense critical acclaim for its fusion of pop with the traditionally anti-pop genre of hardcore. With two albums from 1985, New Day Rising and then Flip Your Wig, Hüsker Dü moved further towards pop played as punk, and become such staples of college radio as to attract the attention of major labels who had previously overlooked anything beyond commercial radio since the "punk revolution" (Warners in fact signed them before Flip Your Wig was finished, but Hüsker Dü felt they owed SST one more album).

With the release of their first major label album Candy Apple Grey, Hüsker Dü were gaining exposure even from commercial radio. However, sales remained very poor: although the album was their first to dent the Top 200, it got no higher than number one hundred and forty. Despite this, Candy Apple Grey was made so economically that Warners made a profit on it. By this stage, Bob Mould and Grant Hart were suffering from drug problems and were fighting over whose songs would be included on subsequent albums: it was said that Mould would never allow Grant Hart to write even half the songs for a Hüsker Dü record.

This conflict, along with the personal differences when Mould but not Hart cleaned up his narcotic habit, marred the making of their second Warner Brothers album Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Originally intended as a single disc, despite Warner Brothers' opposition, Warehouse was eventually released as a double album. "Could You Be the One" eventually got considerable airtime on MTV, but the album could still not go above one hundred and seventeen on the Billboard 200. With differences between Mould and Hart irretrievable, the band broke up after a final tour documented on the 1994-released live album The Living End.

After Hüsker Dü, Greg Norton quit music and became a chef in Minneapolis, whilst Mould and Hart embarked upon solo careers. Mould later formed a power trio called Sugar, whose albums Copper Blue and File Under: Easy Listening sold better than anything Hüsker Dü did, with the latter reaching number fifty and number seven in Britain. Both Hart and Mould have been relatively quiet since the middle 1990s, though they did do one reunion concert for the benefit of Soul Asylum bass player Karl Müller in 2004. Hart also played keyboards on Patti Smith's 2000 album Gung Ho and sang with (members of) post-rock band Godspeed You Black Emperor in 2008.

An evaluation of Hüsker Dü's Rock Hall credentials based on the Keltner criteria, which actually come from the Baseball Hall of Fame follows.

1) Were Hüsker Dü ever regarded as the best artist in rock music? (Did anybody, while Hüsker Dü were active, ever seriously suggest Hüsker Dü were the best artist in rock music?): Many would thought Hüsker Dü were the best artist in rock music for a brief period around 1984 and 1985, but that is a very short period and even then they were in competition with such artists as the Butthole Surfers, the Replacements, the Minutemen and the emerging Sonic Youth.

2) Were Hüsker Dü ever the best artist in rock music in its genre?: Again, this is questionable. A problem is that Hüsker Dü changed genre quite a bit during their short career. In hardcore punk, they were never seen as in a league with Black Flag, the Misfits or Minor Threat or the Angry Samoans. In alternative rock, they were always competing with the Replacements, whilst in the "underground art rock" field, they were always below the Butthole Surfers.

All in all, it is tough to pinpoint a moment when Hüsker Dü were demonstrably the best artist either generally on in its narrowly-defined "genre".

3) Was any member of Hüsker Dü ever considered the best at his instrument?: No. Grant Hart as a drummer would be closest, but he has rarely made published lists of the very best drummers in rock. Even from his time period Steve Shelley and Topper Headon were generally considered at least as good.

4) Did Hüsker Dü have an impact on a number of other artists?: Certainly, immensely so, and this is the case for their induction. They became regarded as the inventors of grunge rock by many during the 1990s, and Hüsker Dü are also a critical root for emo bands like Thursday and Jimmy Eat World who hit the charts in the 2000s. During the 1990s, many people even outside their genre, like Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, expressed great admiration for Hüsker Dü.

5) Were Hüsker Dü good enough that they could play regularly after passing their prime?: Emphatically no. Hüsker Dü disbanded in 1987 and have never had any hope of a reunion since with Greg Norton having not played music since 1991. In recent years even Mould and Hart have not been doing that much.

6) Are Hüsker Dü the very best artist in history that is not in the Hall of Fame?: Hardly. Even if one confines oneself to underground innovators who never broke in the mainstream, one would have at least the Stooges, the MC5 and Captain Beefheart eligible for much longer and being just as well known in the mainstream.

7) Are most bands who have a comparable recording history and impact in the Hall of Fame?: No. If one looks at other hugely influential alternative acts who never dented the Top 100 on Billboard, only the Velvet Underground and the Sex Pistols (Never Mind the Bollocks has actually sold 750,000 copies in the US) are in the Hall. None of the underground alternative bands except the Replacements have even been considered.

8) Is there any evidence to suggest that Hüsker Dü were significantly better or worse than is suggested by their statistical records?: The fact that Hüsker Dü could never break through commercially despite exposure on commercial radio and MTV suggests they spoke only to a small minority of people in the musical community and that some of the hype over them was unwarranted.

9) Is Hüsker Dü the best artist in its genre that is eligible for the Hall of Fame?: If one wants to follow Throwing Things (upon which this series is based), I will have to say no. Moreover, if you look at 1) and 2) above there always seems at least to be an artist who would dispute the claim at the very least.

10) How many #1 singles/gold records did Hüsker Dü have? Did Hüsker Dü ever win a Grammy award? If not, how many times was Hüsker Dü nominated?: As mentioned many time, Hüsker Dü were a complete failure commercially, never reaching the Billboard Top 100. They were also never remotely considered for a Grammy.

11) How many Grammy-level songs/albums did Hüsker Dü have? For how long of a period did Hüsker Dü dominate the music scene? How many Rolling Stone covers did Hüsker Dü appear on? Did most bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?: Hüsker Dü were never considered for anything like a Grammy, and they dominated the music scene for a quite short period of time before tension between Mould and Hart broke the band apart. This criterion can only disfavour their induction.

12) If Hüsker Dü were the best artist at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?: Definitely. Hüsker Dü's live shows were one of the reasons they became so influential on many other bands who at the time they played regularly in the Minneapolis area were struggling to gain record deals. Their live shows have been considered so important that long after Hüsker Dü disbanded they were compiled onto an album.

13) What impact did Hüsker Dü have on rock history? Were they responsible for any stylistic changes? Did they introduce any new equipment? Did Hüsker Dü change history in any way?: Hüsker Dü had a pivotal impact on rock history in developing the concept of playing pop songs with the energy of punk, which paved the way for the grunge explosion. They did not introduce any new equipment, but Hüsker Dü certainly changed history by becoming the first of the 1980s underground bands to sign with a major label, thus paving the way for hit singles by R.E.M. and in 1996, even the Butthole Surfers.

14) Did Hüsker Dü uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?: The main thing here would be the consistent fights between Mould and Hart over the running of the band and their involvement in drugs, neither of which I would see as a positive - especially given their effects on the band's long-term future.

Verdict: Hüsker Dü must be the definitive case of a band with tremendous influence as its only credential to be inducted. The fact that Hüsker Dü, as shown by its failure to break through commercially even with some support from radio and MTV, could not speak to most people in Reagan-era America, means though that they fail almost all the other criteria and the verdict must be don't induct Hüsker Dü into the Hall of Fame.

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