Great Fucking Albums #14: Zen Arcade

I rarely discuss liner notes on albums, but I have to admit that my favorite liner note from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade album is, “We all threw chairs on ‘Pride’.” If you just read that one line and knew nothing else about Hüsker Dü, you’d probably get an accurate idea of how aggressively badass Zen Arcade is. And, if you like the edges rounded off of your rock music, you might quickly discover that Hüsker Dü is not for you.

I was four years old when Zen Arcade came out, but I didn’t know about this album until I lived in Boston and met some dudes who said their band was heavily influenced by Hüsker Dü. I had heard the name but not the music and, in a moment of weakness, I nodded and affirmed the awesomeness of being influenced by Hüsker Dü even though I had no fucking clue what that meant. I’m not proud. I’m a bit older and a bit wiser now, so when someone says they dig a band I’ve never heard of, I cop to it and then go find something by that band to listen to. (Incidentally, I never got to hear the band that said they were influenced by Hüsker Dü, but I see now that’s a sort of risky thing to be. My research indicates that those dudes were either noisy and terrible or shambolic and brilliant. Sadly, it’s easier to be the former.)

I didn’t own a copy of Zen Arcade until this year, but it doesn’t matter when you get great fucking albums; it matters that you get great fucking albums. And there can be no doubt, ladies and genitals, that Zen Arcade is a great fucking album. Hüsker Dü was ostensibly a hardcore band, but that’s like calling the Clash merely a punk band. There’s a lot going on on Zen Arcade from classic rock (the keyboards on “What’s Going On”, for instance, are total classic rock. Hey, I have a really bad idea, but I want someone to take me up on it: I know mash-ups are all the rage nowadays and I want someone out there with a laptop and more time than I care to spend on it to make a mash-up of Hüsker Dü’s “What’s Going On” with Marvin Gaye’s drastically different song of the same title. Any takers?) to hardcore (“Something I Learned Today” and the aforementioned “Pride”) to trippy stoner stuff (“Hare Krsna” is probably better when you’re stoned).

A lazy internet search (I was looking for the official release date of the album on the web) revealed to me that Zen Arcade is a concept album about a kid who leaves home and finds out that the world sucks. Or something. Fine. Doesn’t matter. It matters more that this is one of the few albums along with Black Flag’s Damaged and most of Minor Threat’s stuff, to come out of that whole 80s hardcore scene that you can still put on and just listen to. I like early Bad Brains as much as the next guy (maybe slightly more. I really want someone to croon their way onto American Idol and then bust out “Pay to Cum” one week. When they finish the song, they can jump off stage and beat the shit out of all the judges and everyone in the audience, especially the family members of the other contestants), but you can’t just sit there and listen to Banned in D.C.. In fact, Bad Brains’ more recent “listenable” stuff (think 1993’s Rise) is terrible. Zen Arcade transcends hardcore,  punk, and most other genres. In fact, the album takes most flavors of rock music and pummels the living shit out of them, warping them to reflect the angst of the album’s protagonist (if it has one; I still only half believe the concept album thing. It’s epic for sure, but the “concept” hangs a little loose for my liking. Feel free to argue). It’s safe to say that Zen Arcade is the blue print for the “alternative rock” that would follow it a few years later – for better or worse. I can certainly hear strains of Hüsker Dü in Nirvana and the Manic Street Preachers, but I’m sure there’s at least one joker out there who will try to tell you that The Black Parade is their generation’s Zen Arcade. If you ever meet this person, it is legal to punch them in the face.

Lyrically, Zen Arcade is not as narrative as, say, Separation Sunday (by another Minnesota band I love called the Hold Steady. You might’ve heard of them), but the songs are still incredibly relevant. “Newest Industry” features a line about running out of oil and annexing Mexico for the land, while “Turn On the News” sounds like it was written while watching Glenn Beck (“with all this uptight pushing & shoving/ that keeps us away from who we’re loving”).

For as rough and aggressive as Zen Arcade is, it is also musically rich and wonderfully textured. There are catchy melodies, harmonies to spare, and quite a bit of face-melting guitar to go ’round. It’s rather impressive that all but two of these songs were recorded on the first take (“Something I Learned Today” and “Newest Industry” started too fast, according to the liner notes). For a trio of Minnesota punks, Hüsker Dü was also a band of intensely talented musicians and Zen Arcade, like London Calling before it, is a prime example of a brilliant band at the height of their power. Do yourself a favor and check out this great fucking album.

You can find other Great Fucking Albums here.

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2 thoughts on “Great Fucking Albums #14: Zen Arcade

  1. Pingback: Spoiler Alert: It’s All Been Worth It « Bollocks!

  2. I’ll sit here and listen to “Banned in DC” all I want, thank you very much.

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