“Guaranteed to assuage the nervous tension of co-op conversion, labor strife, bad orgasm, World War III, and other modern urban annoyances. In other words: aarrghhh!”
Reviewing Hüsker Dü’s Land Speed Record–the Minneapolis punk trio’s seminal first album–legendary rock critic Robert Christgau captured the speed and fury that befell the 7th St. Entry, the hole-in-the-wall annex to the downtown rock club First Avenue, one August night 35 years ago. Recorded on a $300 budget, the live show was a homecoming gig celebrating a just-completed tour that took Hüsker Dü to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, the site where countless race car drivers shattered world records and the titular inspiration for this adrenaline-fueled album.
Hart returned to the Entry recently to witness the re-recording of the album’s drum track as an integral part of both the Walker exhibition Chris Larson: Land Speed Record and its accompanying exhibition catalogue, a series of essays that appear as liner notes to an LP–in clear vinyl, to match the acrylic drum set use in the recording. Before drummer Yusif del Valle took to the stage to hammer out Hart’s part of punk rock history, Hart joined exhibition co-curators Siri Engberg and Doug Benidt outside the venue for a discussion on the 35th anniversary of Land Speed Record, the ethos and energy of the Twin Cities punk scene, and the no-holds-barred aesthetic of early-’80s Hüsker Dü.
Siri Engberg: How did you get the gig for the show on August 15, 1981 that became Land Speed Record?
Grant Hart: It was on faith. We were coming back from a national tour that was probably two months long, and that tour was kind of our road to Damascus, and we came back streamlined, tight as hell, from playing so much. It was a crowded night because people were curious: “They’re coming back from their tour!” We had a reputation. The people who would come and see The Suburbs or the Flamin’ Ohs or even Curtiss A–those people that later on were to benefit more from the scene–those people were like, “God, they’re the worst band! God, they’re the fastest band. God, they’re the loudest band!” You know, all of these adjectives, and there was curiosity about us because every time we performed, we took the plunge. This isn’t a sales pitch, but it was like: the outcome of the rest of our life is dependent upon this set that we’re going to play now. And we played it like it was that.
Engberg: What was behind the decision to document the show with a live recording?
Hart: We kept writing new songs, writing new songs, and it got to the point where we were like, “We’ve got to get rid of some of these, but we haven’t recorded them. So instead of paying for studio time, let’s just do it cheap and easy.” $300 it took to record. But that’s how you could do it back in 1981. You didn’t have to throw money.
Engberg: How did the title of Land Speed Record come about?
Hart: Well, it was going through Utah–the Great Salt Flats, where [race car drivers] Gary Gabelich, Craig Breedlove, Art Arfons, all these great adrenaline addicts, such as ourselves, tried to go faster than each other on land. Driving through this, we got to the land speed record plinth–the tourist photo stop place–and we thought: “Let’s call this record that we haven’t made yet Land Speed Record.” I don’t know if it was acknowledged at the time or if it was a later realization.
Engberg: How did you choose the set list, knowing it was going to be recorded?
Hart: It was a set that morphed on the tour. And it’s good. I don’t know how it could have really have been improved upon. Now, originally when the songs were written, there might have been a little more dissimilarity as far as the tempo, because at one point on the tour it kind of merged to the point where 60 percent of the songs were the same speed, and what had really happened is that group of songs morphed into a bigger soundscape–because when you listen to the record it is a soundscape. The individual songs and the individual rhythms are just simply that, just different ripples from a different wind. But yeah, I think it [was a case of] expediency being the mother of invention rather than stewing over it. It’s like, “Okay, I have more energy for the next song if I play this song this way.”
Engberg: What do you remember about the energy in 7th St. Entry that night?
Hart: The audience was partying. It was just as much of a triumphant homecoming as it was a concert. It was–without sounding too weird–kind of like we were putting our thumb down and pressing our impression into… what? It was the pen hitting the paper, you know? The fuse merged with the firecracker.
Engberg: It was the new way forward.
Engberg: Hüsker Dü played many times on the Entry stage and in the [First Avenue] Main Room. This place was the beginning of it all for you.
Hart: Yeah. If you look at a monthly calendar from First Avenue back then, it was like, “Tuesday, Hüsker Dü… da da da da…. Hüsker Dü… da da da… Hüsker Dü.” Like a raisin cake, with Hüsker Dü instead of raisins, and a few other raisins, by different names: white raisins, brown raisins.
Engberg: Did you feel a pretty strong connection to other bands at your level of emergence around the Midwest? What kind of dialogue was there?
Hart: In kind of the way Genghis Khan would look upon his legions. I mean, this sounds really pompous, but we made it real easy for people to prosper alongside with us. But you know, it’s like you’re still part of a legion. You’re not a little warlord all to yourself. Nah, it wasn’t that bad.
How do you define punk rock?
Punk rock has nothing to do with music. Punk rock: It’s a cliché to say that it’s an attitude, but it is a sensibility.
More of an ethos?
More of an ethos. It’s how you collect your resources, and it’s how you disperse your resources. It’s like you don’t take money from good people just to put it in the hands of bad people. It’s like the original “shop locally.” It’s like, “Oh, so-and-so can fix my carburetor. I’ll take it to the guy with the leather jacket, rather than the guy that’s…” You know? It was a community of different communes. It was painters who did music. It was musicians who painted. The trouble with the whole thing is: as people gradually saw the whole thing emerge, and especially when the Seattle bands started doing really well, all of a sudden somebody started putting a price tag on it. Because then it started to be merchandised. It was like the circle around the A was a trademark instead of an expression of anarchy.
Right, it was on too many skateboards at that point.
I was really worried the first time I saw the logo “No Fear,” because I was seeing the self-reliance and the strength and dependability of punks turned into “Dare you to knock this block off my shoulder.” And from that point on, you know, so much has been lost.
I’m interested in the whole graphic sensibility of that moment. You were very much about putting that forward for Hüsker Dü. You did the logo. You did the album cover. You did all the handbills.
Well, doing that was the destination rather than the road there. And I enjoyed the road there just as much as anybody else, but it started out as, “Tonight I get to make posters, and I get to go to all the record stores and put them up.” It wasn’t long before it was like, “Oh, who can we find to put up the posters for the gig?” Because by then I was sitting behind this velvet rope in the dressing room getting my tattoos and free Jägermeister.
Tell me about these drums we’re sitting with here.
These drums were purchased by my parents for my oldest brother, and he was giving me drum lessons–
How old were you?
I started at the age of nine. These were his drums, but he was killed [in a car accident] and I inherited them when I was 10 years old. And it was a little monkey business that I pulled having to do with these drums, because as long as I was with these drums, my parents knew that I was not going to get in trouble. You know, it’s like, “Oh, he’s out drumming. Isn’t it so nice that he’s keeping his brother’s memory alive?” OK, I am doing that, but I’m partying. I’m having a hell of a good time. I’ve got a PA system that fits in my trunk. I’m going to parties, I’m DJing at the age of 17, and I’m getting into working at record stores and all these other things. My parents were a little skeptical that I wasn’t following it academically, but as long as I was connected to these things they knew that I was OK. I probably took greater advantage of their complacency in that department than a lot of kids would. But years later the folks came to all the parties. So there you go. My dad was a Second World War vet. He was in his 40s when I was born. To them, any kind of rock and roll was like, “Okay, it’s rock and roll… Oh, it’s got a nice beat, Grant.” They didn’t know for shit whether it was like glam or the Beatles. It was just like, “Oh, that’s got a nice beat.”
So your parents weren’t your influences, musically?
No, no. They belonged to the Columbia House record club. So their cabinet was filled with every Sing Along With Mitch record. (I’m so surprised that Mitch Miller was able to milk that concept for so long.) So it was rock and roll, country, classical, and my dad was like, “Classical! Oh, that’s music for people that think they need to show off.” But they didn’t try to influence me negatively. They never restricted anything.
When you were doing that gig in ’81, there was some kind of a seismic shift throughout the local music landscape because of what you guys were doing. Did you sense that? Did you ever feel like, “This is a zeitgeist moment for us and this city”? Or was it just, “We’re just doing this gig, and it was cool.”
Well, this sounds a little snarky, but it wasn’t until people tried to copy it that– I mean, when somebody’s copying what you’re doing, or trying to get your imprimatur on what they’re doing… I mean, The Replacements: “Something to do, something to do!” It’s like, “You have nothing to do with what we’re doing.” You know?
Because nobody sounded like you guys back when you were doing that.
No. And you know, it’s just the way things were. We didn’t have a menu, and say, “Hmm. Oh, something nobody’s done before. Okay, let’s do that.” It was just a converging. You have three people with three different sets of influences. Greg [Norton] and I were listening to a lot more jazz. Bob [Mould] came from upstate New York. I had never really gotten knee-deep into the Ramones albums, but we each brought something new to the table. And there are things on [Land Speed Record] that you won’t hear on any other punk rock record. And not on any other Hüsker Dü record.
Right. But you can hear bits of your drumming style in formation, and that was echoed in the drumming today [in Yousif Del Valle’s playing of the Land Speed Record drum track.] I mean, I heard a lot of signature Grant happening there this afternoon, a sound that would reverberate throughout the other Hüsker Dü records.
Yeah, although he’s trying to make shortcuts though. He’s using two hands to do what I was doing with one hand. But Yousif did a really tremendous job. I was really gratified to see him doing the job today. I don’t want to say, “Oh, it’s a tough role to fill,” but it’s not an easy job.
What was it like hearing it all stripped down to just the drums today?
Well, you see, in one ear I’m hearing the rest of the record along with it as a means of checking what he’s doing. You know? Yeah, there is no joy in Mudville, huh?
“Every time we performed, we took the plunge. It was like: the outcome of the rest of our life is dependent upon this set that we’re going to play now. And we played it like it was that.”
“Punk rock is an ethos. It’s how you collect your resources, and it’s how you disperse your resources.”