Punk ideals were pretty set in stone when it came to the original wave of rock musicians: seek and destroy. The Clash laid it out plainly when they proclaimed that “phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust” on ‘London Calling’. As punk began evolving into the faster and more explicitly aggressive styles of hardcore, idols continued to be burned in increasingly elaborate ways.
One of the most potent weapons in a punk band’s arsenal was the snotty, eye-rolling cover of a rock radio staple. The Dead Kennedys brought cocaine and lightning-fast tempos to Elvis Presley’s ‘Viva Las Vegas’, while Nirvana took the piss out of The Youngblood’s hippie anthem ‘Get Together’ during the intro for ‘Territorial Pissings’. The kings of this art form, however, were The Replacements. During their notorious alcohol-fueled live shows, the Mats would stumble their way through any classic tune, even if they barely knew it: Led Zeppelin’s ‘Black Dog’, Sweet’s ‘Fox on the Run’, The Beatles’ ‘Nowhere Man’. The sloppier they played it, the more punk rock it seemed. There was no room for the worship of the older generations within the anarchic ethos of punk rock.
But just on the other side of the Twin Cities, another band were beginning to change that perception. The Replacements’ main rival was a rare punk band who were not only open to the iconic sounds of the past, but proudly wore their fandom for acts like The Byrds and Donovan on their sleeves. When it came to revitalising classic rock’s reputation within the realm of punk, nobody did more to legitimise the past than Hüsker Dü.
Part of the reason why Hüsker Dü got away with their love of Bob Dylan and The Beatles was that they were different from the start: featuring two prolific queer songwriters, Hüsker Dü were a bunch of paunchy midwesterners who didn’t look anything like the traditional image of punk rock. To counter this bumpkin-like appearance, the Dü played faster, louder, and more emphatically than any of their peers, booking their own DIY shows and forging an unmistakable identity of the legendary SST label. Despite not looking the part, Hüsker Dü proved that they were the most punk rock out of any band who might be touring through the basement gigs of the DIY circuit.
But pure speed had a shelf life. After nearly half a decade of trying to outrun every other band, Hüsker Dü decided that the most iconoclastic action would be to slow down. Singers Bob Mould and Grant Hart both had great ears for melody, and they found that their voices were ideally suited for harmony. Hart loved the folk-inspired sounds of the ’60s, while Mould was an admirer of everyone from Neil Young to Roy Orbison. While their peers held tight to the rigid idiom that was punk, Hüsker Dü began pairing the aggression of hardcore with the melodicism of classic rock. The result was nothing short of groundbreaking.
Showing up to a Husker Du show didn’t just mean you’d hear the early sounds of what would become alternative rock – you’d also hear how those sounds were rooted in the sonic styles of the past. Covers were a go-to aspect of the band’s repertoire, and their tastes were defiantly out of fashion for punk: Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’, The Byrds’ ‘Eight Miles High’, The Beatles’ ‘Ticket to Ride’. For every one Ramones or Television cover that solidified their punk bona fides, there would be three left-field choices that purposefully challenged their audience. A legendary take on ‘Celebrated Summer’ could just as easily be followed by a dead-serious take on Peter, Paul, and Mary’s ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or the theme song to The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Other bands began to take notice. The Replacements were masking their own love of classic rock behind debauchery and sloppiness, but they too were starting to get more comfortable with bringing in structure, melody, and even softer dynamics to their music. The Pixies took the Hüsker Dü mindset to heart, advertising for a bassist that liked both the Dü and Peter, Paul, and Mary when they found Kim Deal. A young Kurt Cobain managed to reconcile his own love of The Beatles with his embrace of punk, at least partially thanks to Hüsker Dü’s example.
In their section of Michael Azerrad’s seminal text, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Hart gave a properly midwestern response to punk’s traditional attitude towards classic rock. “You know the whole deal with tearing down the old to make room for the new?” Hart explained. “Well, music isn’t city planning.” Hüsker Dü were one of the first bands who were unafraid to show their loyalties to the past and one of the few who were brave enough to bring in the song structures and sonic elements of classic rock to punk. Their discography would lay the groundwork for every rock band of the next 40 years, from Foo Fighters to The Strokes and everyone in between.