I'm given to a lot of hyperbole 'round these parts but, really, trust me when I say that Savage Young Du, the new Husker Du box set from The Numero Group, out Friday, is a magnificent achievement. Simultaneously a thing of beauty sure to please music collectors everywhere and a necessary addition to the canon of American punk rock, the set delivers the impossible (a new perspective from which to survey the work of a familiar act) and the unexpected (47 previously-unreleased tunes). Sure to further the legacy and legend of Husker Du, Savage Young Du serves up nearly 3 hours of spectacular hardcore that (largely) hasn't seen the light of day already.
Opening with previously-unreleased numbers from 1979 sessions, Savage Young Du reveals a fairly familiar take on American punk rock with "Do You Remember?" echoing NYC rockers like Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and more melodic and quirky numbers like "All That I've Got To Lose Is You" and "Sore Eyes" edging closer to the sort of proto-power pop that the trio would end up making on swathes of the mammoth Warehouse: Songs And Stories (1987). If "Data Control" betrays a debt owed to Joy Division, the spry "Insects Rule The World" rockets forward on a hook that's largely revved-up Ramones stuff with a dash of Diggle-etched hooks from a Buzzcocks single. And, frankly, we shouldn't be too surprised that Husker Du in the early years of its existence as a band, in the first few years of the Reagan era, should be heard drawing from so many disparate quarters besides the burgeoning hardcore scene in the USA as the band tried out various aspects of its coalescing sound. There's real variety here and a listener should be pleased that Savage Young Du reveals a more diffuse version of the band we've come to think of as one of the pioneering acts from this country's punk boom of the Eighties. If a number like "Sexual Economics" sees Husker Du trying on a sort of issue-oriented approach to hardcore, learned perhaps from D.C. bands in the era, then early single "Statues" and flip "Amusement" indicate that this trio owed a big debt to the more adventurous bands from the post-punk years as these tracks are clearly longer than nearly anything one would hear in the U.S. hardcore world back then, and more experimental too. For a band like Husker Du who used to name-drop Pere Ubu in interviews, the link is now more apparent as, at least on these cuts, the Minneapolis trio is drawing more from David Thomas and crew than, say, Ian MacKaye and his partners here in D.C.
Disc 2, largely all live cuts, sees the ragged glory of "Drug Party" kick things off, Husker Du here adopting a directly caustic tone that was rare for them, while the simmering "Private Hell" is all Wire raggedness wrapped up in a snarl, Mould delivering one of his best and nastiest hooks here. Elsewhere, an early version of "Diane" pops up, the future Metal Circus standout here early proof of Grant Hart's genius as a songwriter. The live cuts here -- and there are loads of them -- all roar past in a style that's typical of the era with a few -- "Guns At My School" and "Gilligan's Island", for instance -- sounding a bit like the sort of tunes that Husker Du would serve up on Zen Arcade. This is tense, anxious, and sharp post-punk that offers up -- within the strict confines of the fast tempo of American hardcore, that is -- some flashes of melodic invention of the sort that Husker Du would later be famous for. Still, this is a young band and there are still cuts that sound like a band finding its way amid the sounds of the era. For instance, "Let's Go Die", a number composed by bassist Greg Norton, recalls the sounds erupting from the nation's capital in the early years of the Eighties, stuff like Government Issue shouters and Iron Cross scorchers. And even as they attempted to match the fire and fury of their sonic peers, Husker Du were charting new paths, including paths that would lead to the recording of what would be their first long-player. If 1982's debut album from Husker Du was not entirely a great introduction to the sound of this trio, Disc 2 of Savage Young Du thankfully offers up alternate versions of the tracks from Land Speed Record and a listener can now sort of recreate that troubled release as he or she sees fit.
Selections from Everything Falls Apart make up big chunks of Disc 3 of Savage Young Du, with numbers like "Signals From Above" and a cover of "Sunshine Superman" by Donovan indicating future directions this band would pursue. What we're hearing here is, quite simply, the groundwork for the entirely unique sound that Husker Du would swiftly perfect on those SST-label albums in the mid-Eighties. Bristling against the strict confines of the hardcore form, and eager to work in some elements that were more melodic, Husker Du were crafting a uniquely American form of punk rock here. And proof of its uniqueness is how many bands cite this one as an influence and yet how few bands ever sounded this good. Even a lumbering number like "Gravity" has that tonal momentum that later Du numbers like "It's Not Peculiar" and "Tell You Why Tomorrow" would have. And by the time that a live version of "Real World" shows up, the track is not just a taste of the future greatness to come on Metal Circus, but also a blueprint for what Bob Mould, Grant Hart, and Greg Norton were doing so well, and with such force and fury in those pre-SST years.
Remarkably, this is one of those rare compilations that truly does force a reassessment of the artist on offer. The folks at The Numero Group have done such an amazing job here stuffing this set full of previously-unheard tunes, and adding in a book-length liner notes booklet, that there should be little hesitation now in November in calling this the reissue of the year. Staggeringly full of essential American punk, Savage Young Du also makes a case for the early diversity of Husker Du. If that diversity was the result of the trio finding its sound, the fact remains that Husker Du were, from the outset, remarkably dedicated to blasting away the shackles of the very genre they were perfecting. And if this group was not the best hardcore act ever, they were, instead, something more. The sheer panoply of styles here serves as proof of the talents of Mould, Hart, and Norton. When taken in total, the material reveals a band we thought we knew in a fairly new light. More varied in tone than lots of what ended up on their early albums, the 69 cuts here showcase Husker Du finding their place in a world of alternative music that was largely being dominated by British New Wave acts and earnest American punks back when these songs were recorded live and in the studio. If Husker Du could play as fast as, say, Minor Threat, they were hardly content in being that kind of band. And so, Savage Young Du is then a demonstration of a band sharpening their attack so that they would sound like an SST band, in a way, even as they would rapidly expand their sound once signed to that label. Savage Young Du offers us, in a sense, the real Husker Du for the first time. And for that, the set's contents are a series of revelations of a group whose output both live and in the studio was, clearly, far more varied than those first few releases ever indicated.
Savage Young Du by Husker Du is out on Friday via The Numero Group.
[Photos: The Numero Group]