Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising, a major influence on indie/alternative rock, was released in January 1985, 30 years ago this month.
Early Alt-Rock Bands
At least canonically, rock history has a starting point for punk rock, with 1976 generally presented as when punk begins—music before ’76 that influenced punk is often referred to as proto-punk. With alternative rock, it’s a little different, mainly because the genre itself is hard to define. The word alternative alone is vague enough to imply that the genre could go back as far as The Velvet Underground, or back to the many garage bands of the early 1960s.
Typically, though, the early-to-mid 1980s is when the first music that was undeniably alternative began being released. Like them or not, it’s hard to deny that bands like R.E.M. and Pylon fit into the alternative rock category (although, at the time, the genre was referred to as college rock). Those bands have another thing in common: they were both based in Athens, an unlikely home to an early alt-rock music scene.
The other unlikely home to early alternative rock bands was Minneapolis, where two of the most influential underground American rock bands of the ‘80s, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü, were based. But while R.E.M. progressed much faster the other Athens bands, the two Minneapolis bands moved at roughly the same pace in their early years. They both began as hardcore punk bands who played fast and loud, but also showed more songwriting prowess than the average hardcore band. With each new album, the bands utilized more musical variety, expanding their instrumentation and including more diverse lyrical themes, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the alternative rock genre.
In 1984, both bands released extremely innovative albums that showed them straying from the bounds of punk and heading into more blatantly alternative territory. For The Replacements, it was Let it Be, an absolute masterpiece containing everything from the band’s familiar hardcore punk (“We’re Coming Out”) to lounge music (the queer anthem “Androgynous”) to more emotional ballads (“Unsatisfied,” “Sixteen Blue,” “Answering Machine”).
Hüsker Dü, meanwhile, released Zen Arcade, a concept album just as influential and musically varied as Let it Be, if somewhat less perfect. While it is commonly considered to be the band’s opus, I find it a bit overrated, as well as overstuffed. At 70 minutes, with 23 tracks, it doesn’t always hit its mark, despite plenty of wonderful songs.
In 1985, both bands followed these albums with more mainstream releases. The Replacements moved to major label Sire and released Tim, an album that shows lead singer Paul Westerberg continuing to grow as a songwriter, but also features a more tight sound—too tight, in fact, for many of the group’s fans. Hüsker Dü stayed with SST Records, releasing not one, but two new albums in 1985, New Day Rising in January and Flip Your Wig in September. Both of these albums showed a more straightforward focus on songwriting and instrumentation, and seemed less interested in innovation.
Despite not being quite as praised, New Day Rising’s influence is very close to that of Zen Arcade, showcasing the kind of poppy hooks and angsty lyrics that went on to define not only ‘90s alternative rock, but also emo and pop-punk music. It’s also a shorter and more easily consumable album, and my personal favorite from the band.
“New Day Rising”
“New day rising,
New day rising,
New day rising.”
-Hüsker Dü, “New Day Rising”
“New Day Rising” isn’t the only song to be lyrically based around its title alone. There are quite a few songs, mostly electronic—Daft Punk’s “Around the World,” Skrillex’s “My Name is Skrillex,” etc.—that use this to good effect. In Hüsker Dü’s case, though, this is used as an announcement. Opening the record with a song based entirely around the album’s title is essentially saying, “Here we are, we can create a catchy song with almost no lyrics.” However, as the following song shows, they handle lyricism well, too.
“The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”
“She’s got a big room and it’s always a mess
Worn out shoes and a worn out dress
A worn out smile that she’ll wear some more
And a worn out welcome mat by her door”
– Hüsker Dü, “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill”
Hüsker Dü’s primary songwriter was singer/guitarist Bob Mould. However, drummer Grant Hart also wrote and sang his own songs, albeit far less frequently than Mould. In fact, a major reason for Hüsker Dü’s breakup in 1988, along with Hart’s drug addiction, was the creative tension between Mould and Hart.
I view Hart somewhat as the band’s George Harrison. He’s a talented songwriter whose contributions to the band’s discography make him seem better than he really is (his solo albums were often pretty bad). Still, the four songwriting credits he has on New Day Rising are all pretty great. It’s “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” however, that tends to receive the most praise.
After an opener with basically no lyrics, “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” is pretty poetic, with three highly lyrical verses that open it up to multiple interpretations—commenters at SongMeanings say it could be about alcoholism, cancer, or merely a crush. Ultimately, though, the meaning isn’t too important, since the words themselves are gorgeous and Hart sings them well.
“The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill” isn’t even my favorite Hart track on the album, though…
“Books About UFOs”
“Her live revolves around all of the planets
And she is constantly aware of all the changes that occur
I’m going to turn into a lens and focus all my attention
On finding a new planet and naming it right after her”
– Hüsker Dü, “Books About UFOs”
The ridiculously underrated “Books About UFOs” is my favorite Hart-penned song ever, built around a jingly piano and one of the finest melodies ever written—although, like everything Hüsker Dü, there’s a wall of noise surrounding it. The lyrics are similar to “The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill,” but more straightforward.
Despite all that, it’s still not my favorite song on New Day Rising…
“Then the sun disintegrates between a wall of clouds
I summer where I winter at, and no one is allowed there”
“Celebrated Summer” is not only the best track on New Day Rising, but it’s also Hüsker Dü’s best song, the best thing Bob Mould ever wrote, and damn near close to the best pop song anybody’s ever written. Featuring a perfect structure, contemplative lyrics, a gorgeous melody, and vocals that serve it wonderfully, the song describes a vivid image of summertime, when there are endless possibilities and getting out of school means getting out of hand.
Lyrically, the song may seem a little corny. But when the noise fades away and Mould comes in with an acoustic twelve-string, he perfectly captures the mood of changing seasons. Even on a literal level, though, a line like “Do you remember when the first snowfall fell?” has plenty of depth when coming from a band based in Minneapolis, who probably know the true impact of a snowfall—as someone who grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I can relate, although I can’t say I quite share Mould’s enthusiasm towards summer.
“Celebrated Summer” is a true anthem, even though it comes from a band which was never successful enough for its anthems to have the impact they deserved. Still, as someone born nearly nine years after the song’s release, it still resonates completely with me. That has to mean something.
Both of the albums that Hüsker Dü released in 1985 were well-received, each appearing on the top ten of the Pazz & Jop critics poll that year—Flip Your Wig, somehow, made it higher on the list. Today, New Day Rising is typically held up as the second best Hüsker Dü album next to Zen Arcade. However, lacking Zen Arcade’s reputation, it’s still typically presented as being just another really good album from a really good band.
After New Day Rising, Hüsker Dü released three more albums before breaking up in 1988. Mould formed Sugar in 1992, and both he and Hart had solo careers. Bassist Greg Norton, meanwhile, has been less prolific, leaving the music business to open a restaurant in 1991 before returning in 2006.
New Day Rising is a personal favorite for me, an album that had a major influence on how I hear and listen for melody. After all, if you can hear the melodies behind the level of noise in “I Apologize” and “Plans I Make,” you can hear them anywhere. They rarely reach this level of brilliance, though.