Now and Zen: The Greatest Album of All Time Turns 37


Author’s note: This post first ran in July, 2014, on the 30th anniversary of the release of Zen Arcade. And it’ll be back on the home page every July from now til the end of time. Hüsker Dü drummer and co-vocalist Grant Hart kindly contributed several quotes that helped shape the story. Hart died in 2017, but I have kept the text unchanged.


Zen Arcade cover


I REMEMBER THE DAY I bought it. Newbury Comics — the one on Newbury Street — on a midweek afternoon, sunny and hot. I was eighteen years-old.

We knew there was an album coming coming out, but we weren’t sure when exactly it would hit the racks. In these pre-Internet times, news of such things was always unclear and came sporadically, delivered by college radio or gleaned through your network of friends. Sometimes it was a paper flyer glued to a mailbox or tacked to a record shop bulletin board. Nobody was a bigger Hüsker Dü fan than I was, but this latest album, due in the stores at any moment — I didn’t even know the title.

Suddenly there it was, on a rack up front. It was called Zen Arcade, whatever that heck that meant. I picked it up and, hey, what’s this, it’s a double album! As a teenage punk rocker weaned on Black Flag and Minor Threat, with a rather one-dimensional appreciation for music, the very weight of the thing, together with the heady title and the washed-over, almost Impressionist cover art was intimidating. It seemed so arty and grown-up. It also made me curious. What was this strange record?

What it was, and what it remains thirty years later, is the greatest indie-rock album of all-time; if not, in my extraordinarily biased opinion, the greatest album of all time, period.

Hüsker Dü were a trio from Minneapolis. Guitarist Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart sang and wrote the songs. Greg Norton played bass guitar and chipped in on vocals. Before its stormy demise in late 1987, the band would release six full-length albums, two EPs, and a catalog of singles and extras. But the pinnacle of all that output was Zen Arcade, first delivered to stores in July, 1984, by California-based SST records.

“The most important and relevant double album to be released since the Beatles’ White Album,” bragged SST’s own press release. There was some confidence for you, to say the least, when you consider the world of underground music in 1984. This was not only a band, but an entire domain that existed far below the mainstream waterline. Then as now, the idea of comparing a little-known indie band to the Beatles seemed at best pretentious and at worst totally absurd. But was it?

Zen Arcade is best savored not as a CD — and for heaven’s sake not as a download — but in the old, cardboard-and-vinyl package. Each of its sides is a distinct chapter with its own temperature and architecture. Twenty-three songs is a lot of music, but this is one the rare two-record sets that isn’t bogged down by its own overreaching or conceit. The scourge of most double LPs, back when there was such a thing, is they went on for too long — padded with live cuts, covers, and extras (heck even London Calling has its throw-aways. “Clampdown” anybody?). There’s no filler in Zen Arcade. Each and every song, from the shortest (44 seconds) to the longest (14 minutes), belongs exactly in its place. *

Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould.   (SST promo picture)

Greg Norton, Grant Hart, Bob Mould.   (SST promo picture)

On side one, no doubt, where it all gets going with the snap and kick of Bob Mould’s “Something I Learned Today,” eventually winding down with “Hare Krsna,” a booming, tambourine-backed instrumental. The first time I heard this song, sizzling over the stereo in a Boston area record shop not long after the album’s release, I remember the young clerk furrowing his brow, looking up toward the speakers and saying, “Somebody needs to write a dissertation about this song.” I really don’t care if Bob Mould was plagiarizing a Bo Diddley riff; “Hare Krsna” is a three-and-a-half minute cyclone that still gives me the chills.

The seven opening cuts alone are worthy of any landmark LP. But there are sixteen more to go. This is the ultimate workhorse album from the ultimate workhorse band, one so rich with sonic nooks and crannies that an in-depth listen leaves you not only battling tinnitus, but tired. So many changes from fast to slow, hard to soft, love to hate, all in perfect working sequence. Each side-break is a perfectly placed respite. Even more than, say, the Clash’s Sandinista!, Zen Arcade sets the mark for the most brilliantly arranged opus of them all.

You’ll find a gamut of effects: acoustic guitar, chairs being thrown, waves breaking, whispers and chants. There’s even the breezy piano of “Monday Will Never be the Same.” (If Ken Burns ever directs a documentary about the history of alt-rock, the tinkling of “Monday” needs to be its backing theme.) Such eclectics are brave, maybe, for what was supposedly a punk album, but they never become maudlin or self-indulgent. If you think today’s co-opted rockers are clever with the tempo card, shifting from tough to tender, check out Grant Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again,” a sing-along from side one done entirely in 12-string acoustic. “Heartfelt” is the word that jumps to mind, but it’s not the syrupy, melodramatic strum you’d hear nowadays. The song is biting and sharp — an attack. Ditto for “Standing By the Sea,” at the close of side two, with Grant’s cathartic bellows set against bassist Greg Norton’s eerie thrum and the soothe of a crashing surf.

Back in ’84, the rock critic Robert Christgau chose Hart’s “Turn On the News,” from side four, as his “song of the year.” Christgau said many flattering things about Hüsker Dü, but that one was the gimmie pick, like saying the Concorde is your favorite airplane. It’s an easy song to like, but an even easier one to outgrow. If the album has a best song, it’s probably Bob Mould’s neo-pscychedelic “Chartered Trips,” the fourth cut off side one. (“Trips” is almost Mould’s single greatest work, topped only by “I Apologize” and his spectacular rendition of the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High,” released as a single just prior to Zen Arcade.)

Hart, Norton and Mould in 1985.   (Boston Rock magazine)

Hart, Norton and Mould in 1985.   (Boston Rock magazine)

Runner-up would be Hart’s “Pink Turns to Blue,” from side three. Officially the credits for this one list both Mould and Hart, but really this is Grant’s piece. He took all the hook and melody of his earlier masterpiece, “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” and sandblasted it into a haunting anthem of love, drugs, and death. The song is simply gorgeous — and a little bit terrifying. Score it ahead of “Chartered Trips” if you want. I’m not going to argue.

“Pink Turns to Blue” follows “One Step at a Time,” a brief piano time-out that, as much as anything else, allows the listener to catch his or her breath. The pregnant pause between the last note of “One Step” and the opening chord of “Pink” is like those one or two seconds between a lightning bolt and a thunderclap, and is one of the record’s most powerful moments. It reminds me, more than a little bit, of the similarly unforgettable transition into “Sweet Jane” on the Velvet Underground’s Loaded album.

Before going further, I’m aware how this favorite songs thing can turn tedious pretty quickly. Grant Hart himself gives us a disclaimer: “People will always embrace different songs for different reasons,” he says. “A song that might seem terrible filler, serving only to move the story along, will be someone’s favorite on the album. Bob and I were both responsible for those kind of songs.” Of my beloved “Hare Krsna” Grant claims that he was merely “furthering the story without adding much musically.” He feels similarly about some of Mould’s louder and more “hardcore” material. “By embracing likeable formats,” he says, “we avoided criticism, like a bad Mother’s Day card.”

I don’t think he’s being fair to himself, but hey there’s no accounting for taste.

Concert flyer, Boston, 1984.   (Author's collection)

Concert flyer, Boston, 1984.   (Author’s Collection)

With Grant’s feelings duly noted, not all of the album is easy to like and depending on your ear and level of patience, might not reveal itself for some time. For me it was twenty years before the first four songs from side two (Mould at his most furious) finally clicked. They’d always been so noisy and formless. Suddenly they weren’t. This was partly a context thing, maybe: the album, like wine, getting better not despite its age, but because of it. It took the general shittiness of music in the 21st century to underscore the greatness of cuts like “Pride” and “The Biggest Lie” — mere footnotes in 1984. They’re awesome songs, at once explosive and subtle, but buried amidst so much other fantastic music that even the band’s most devoted fans tended to skip them over.

Similarly it was decades before I learned to appreciate “Broken Home, Broken Heart” the second song on the album, for the gem that it is, tucked in anonymously between “Something I Learned Today” and Hart’s “Never Talking to You Again.” And that a supposed punk rock album could move from the fury of “Broken Home” to the acoustic “Never Talking” without so much as a flinch, pretty much says it all.

“The closest hardcore [punk] will ever get to an opera,” wrote David Fricke of Rolling Stone.

While the blending of power/pop extremes was nothing the Velvet Underground, or even the Beatles hadn’t done years earlier, the Hüskers pulled it off in a way that was never gimmicky (not until their lazy cover of “Love is All Around,” the “Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme, in 1986), and did so on such terrain –- the American hardcore punk scene –- where nobody expected it or even believed it possible. Mould and Hart would, in a way, finish the job Reed and the others tinkered with two decades earlier, compounding their sound with equally hefty injections of hippie love and hard rock thunder.

This is the album Nirvana and Pearl Jam only wish they could have made: intelligent, clamorous, and hashing out more torment and passion in four sides than all the grungers and headbangers since. All without a hint of heavy metal pretension: to think anyone could concoct a fourteen-minute bombast of guitar leads and layered feedback — “Reoccurring Dreams,” side four — and have it not come out self-consciously. And when the 40 second whine at the end of “Dreams” is at last pinched off, the album trembling to a close in a congealed, numbing squeal, the silence that follows is palpable. Only then, as your senses regain their composure, is it apparent that your notions of “punk rock” are changed forever.

Maybe we saw this coming? Even at breakneck velocity there always was something ineffably refined and just, well, different about Hüsker Dü. If pressed to explain, one might break out 1982’s Everything Falls Apart EP. Amidst side one’s hypsersonic avalanche is Hart’s cover of Donovan’s 1966 hit, “Sunshine Superman.” Trite, perhaps, on the face of it, until you hear how un-ironic is the remake, without a note’s worth of smirk or parody. This wasn’t a joke. They were serious. Meanwhile, run even the fastest, thrashiest Hüsker song through a centrifuge and something elegant reveals itself. On his solo tours, Bob Mould would often play acoustic versions of vintage cuts like “In a Free Land” or “Celebrated Summer,” and the results were usually beautiful. That’s just not going to work if you’re Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys or Bad Brains. Or Nirvana or Pearl Jam. In early ’84 Hüsker Dü toured as the opening act for REM On the one hand such a pairing couldn’t have been more ridiculous. On the other hand, it was perfect. (I have an enduring memory of a long-haired Michael Stipe on stage in a Harvard University gym wearing a Metal Circus t-shirt.)

Zen Arcade takes this sensibility, this talent and depth and fearlessness, and hones it to perfection. “A strenuous refutation of hardcore orthodoxy,” as Michael Azerrad puts it in his book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991.Zen Arcade was the final word on the genre, a scorching of musical earth. The album wasn’t only about Hüsker Dü coming of age — it was about an entire musical movement coming of age.”

Not everybody however — not even Grant Hart — openly embraces that notion. Hart once said that Zen is the album that fans “tend to wear on their sleeves.” Does he mean people like me? Have I been too sentimentally fond of it for some reason?

“The impact of Zen Arcade on the Zeitgeist is hilarious to me,” Grant responds. “Hilarious in the almost alchemical-mechanical way it has been embraced by true music fans and hipster flipsters alike. When somebody states that Zen is their favorite LP, I get the notion to ask why. As we move further from the time it was released, it seems I get more honest answers.”

My honest answer is that I like it the best because it sounds the best, and by the sum of its parts it is the best. And for the record, Zen Arcade is not my “favorite” LP. Hüsker Dü’sNew Day Rising is my “favorite” LP. But that’s getting personal. When you look at it objectively, Zen is clearly the better and more profound of the two.

Norton, Hart, Mould.   (Photo by Daniel Corrigan)

Norton, Hart, Mould.   (Photo by Daniel Corrigan)

Hüsker Dü were nothing if not prolific. Zen Arcade was impressive enough on its own merits, but a mere six months later came New Day Rising, which woke the country from its winter freeze in January, 1985. Eight month’s after that came “Flip Your Wig.” The latter suffered from poor production but is nonetheless memorable, highlighted by Hart’s pièce de résistance, “Keep Hanging On.” Zen Arcade and New Day Rising are the two best albums of the 1980s, and they appeared within six months of each other! Bookended by Flip Your Wig and Metal Circus, a brilliant seven-song EP from 1983, these four records represent, easily, the most potent 1-2-3-4 punch in the annals of indie music. All in the astonishing space of less than two years. That’s simply incredible.

In 1986 and 1987, having moved from SST to Warner Brothers, Hüsker Dü released two final albums,”Candy Apple Gray” and a double LP called “Warehouse: Songs and Stories.” I’m unsure which of these two records annoys me more, but neither, really, has much place in this conversation. “Candy Apple Grey” does well with at the start and finish — I’ve always loved the gothic guitar squall of the opener, “Crystal,” as well as the closer, “All This I’ve Done For You” — but the rest is flyover country, including Bob Mould’s abominable “Too Far Down,” which has to be the ugliest song he ever recorded.

With Warehouse, it’s as if they took Zen Arcade placed it on a table in front of them and said, Okay how can we ruin this? I will always love “Back From Somewhere” and “She’s a Woman (and Now He Is a Man),” but the plodding, uninspired likes of “Ice Cold Ice,” “You’re a Soldier,” and too many others, secure this one at the bottom of the Hüsker canon. Bob and Grant had their power struggles, but as a songwriting tandem their talents were wonderfully complementary — think Strummer and Jones, or McCartney and Lennon. This was much of what made the band so great. By the time “Warehouse” warbles to a close at the end of side four, clearly this synchronicity is unraveling. Hart, at least, holds his own on this record, while Mould’s songs are overextended and lazy. Depressing as it was, you could say that Hüsker Dü broke up exactly when it needed to.

Husker Du "Four Seasons" Collage

Meanwhile, unless I’ve missed something, none of the big music magazines or websites have given Zen Arcade so much as a mention on its 30th birthday. Some years ago Spin awarded it the number four spot on its ranking of the hundred best-ever “alternative” records, and Rolling Stone, in a manic best-of-the-80s list, once gave it lip service at number 33. But what since then? Instead we have bands like Green Day winning Grammys.

And do younger music fans have any sense of what the 1980s truly were like? This was the richest and most innovative period in the whole history of independent music, but rarely is it acknowledged as such. As popular culture has it, serious rock music skipped the 80s entirely.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Grant Hart. “The music business was forced to deal with the underground. They held out the cash and the phonies lapped it up.”

When pundits do take the 80s seriously, we tend to see the same names over and over. It’s both frustrating and unjustified that Hüsker Dü never developed the same posthumous cachet that others of their era did. Like the Replacements, for example, or Sonic Youth. Hüsker Dü could run circles around either of those two, but never became “cool” in quite the same way.

I suppose it’s due to a total absence of what you might call sex appeal? To say that Hüsker Dü never cultivated any sort of image, in the usual manner of rock bands, is putting it mildly. For one, they never looked the part. These were big, sweaty, chain-smoking guys who obviously hadn’t shaved or showered in a while. Norton, trimmest and most dapper of the threesome, wore a handlebar mustache many years before such things were trendy among hipsters. It wasn’t until their eighth and final album that they included a photo of themselves on the cover (the scratched-out images on Zen Arcade notwithstanding). This modesty, for lack of a better description, was for some of us a part of what made Hüsker Dü so special. But it has hurt them, I think, in the long run. (As has the fact that only the band’s final two albums — their weakest by far — are available on iTunes. But that’s another story.)

The idea that the Replacements (much as I loved their debut album, which I consider the best garage-rock record of all time, and which includes a shout-out called “Somethin’to Dü”) were in any way a better or more influential band than Hüsker Dü is too absurd to entertain. Meanwhile the beatification of Sonic Youth goes on and on and on. A year or so ago Kim Gordon got a profile in the New Yorker. I’m still waiting for one of the writers there to devote a story to Bob Mould.

Quintessential Mould.   (photo by Robert Francos)

Quintessential Mould   (photo by Robert Francos)

Or better yet, to Grant Hart. Twenty-five years, more or less, that’s how long it took me, to realize that it was Grant, not Bob, who was the more indispensable songwriter and who leaves the richer legacy. In the old days it was trendy to claim that Grant was the real genius behind Hüsker Dü. You’d be at a party and some asshole would say, “Those guys would be nothing without that drummer.” I’d always scoff that off. The mechanics of the band, for one, made it difficult to accept: Grant was the drummer, after all, and drummers are never the stars. Meanwhile there was Bob, right at the front of the stage with that iconic Flying-V. But I think those assholes were on to something.

That shouldn’t be an insult to Mould. Not any more than saying John Lennon was a better songwriter than Paul McCartney. Both were brilliant. But when I flip through the Hüsker canon, I can’t help giving Hart the edge. On New Day Rising, for instance, Mould gave us “I Apologize” and “Celebrated Summer.” But Hart gave us “Terms of Psychic Warfare” and “Books About UFOs,” two of the most electrifying songs of the 80s. “It’s Not Funny Anymore,” “Diane,” “Pink Turns to Blue,” the list goes on. Hart’s “She’s a Woman (And Now He is a Man”) from the often intolerable Warehouse album is, to me, a classic sleeper and the most under-appreciated Hüsker song of them all.

His solo work too has been at least as robust as that of Mould. But while Mould has achieved substantial notoriety and commercial success in his long post-Hüsker career, Hart has labored in comparative obscurity. This is irritating and unfair. Songs like “The Main” and “The Last Days of Pompeii” are as good or better than anything Mould has given us, either solo or with his band Sugar.

“I might have reservations about complaining about lack of attention,” counters Grant. “I have always based my movements on those of fugitives or criminals. The less attention you attract, the freer you remain! I wish to be an artist, not a celebrity. I do not need to own something to know it intimately.”


Related Story:



Grant Hart died in September, 2017.

A few years ago, filmmaker Gorman Bechard released a movie about Grant. “Every Everything” is 93 minutes of Grant — and only Grant — proving himself to be one of the more oddly captivating storytellers you’ll ever have the pleasure of listening to. Bechard had previously interviewed Grant for “Color Me Obsessed,” his film about The Replacements, and was taken with him. “In my book,” said Bechard at the time, “Grant is one of the most influential musicians ever. And he lived a very full rock & roll life. The good, the bad, the ugly. Beyond that that he’s as smart and funny as anyone on the planet.” You may not be familiar with him, but he was among the most important songwriters of our time, and “Every Everything” is a brave and absolutely necessary tribute to one of the unsung heroes of modern music. Click the picture for more info…

Every Everything


— * I will give you one exception. The one song I would probably have pruned from Zen Arcade is “Dreams Reoccurring,” the noisy little instrumental from side one. You’ve got the fourteen-minute version later on, do we really need this miniature one too? And the fact that “Indecision Time” isn’t so great either… it creates kind of a dead spot there on the first side. In its place I’d have put “Some Kind of Fun,” one of the outtakes.

— The greatest concert I ever attended, this was an impromptu show at a place called Harvey Wheeler Hall, in Concord, Massachusetts. It was a last-minute gig arranged by David Savoy, a Concord native who also was the band’s manager at the time (and whose suicide a few years later was partly responsible for its breakup). There was no stage; the band set up on the floor of what, in my memory, was a simple classroom. There were fewer than a hundred people there. We stood or sat cross-legged. The set ended when Grant cut his finger on a cracked drumstick during a cover of the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride.” My best friend at the time, Mark McKay (who later became the drummer for the post-hardcore band Slapshot), gave him a band-aid. When it was over we went backstage, as it were, and chatted a while with Grant, Bob, and Greg.

— A few years ago, Paul Hilcoff, the curator of the painfully exhaustive Hüsker Dü fan site, mailed me a compact disc recording of that entire concert. I had no idea there was one. What a startling feeling it is to discover, many years on, that an actual recording exists of one of your most cherished memories. Except, the CD still sits on my bookshelf, as yet unlistened-to. One of these days I’ll summon up the courage to actually play it. Listening to that recording, provided I’ve got the emotional muster, will be the closest I ever get to time travel.

— I once played Frisbee with Bob Mould. June 21, 1984, it was, prior to a show in Easthampton Massachusetts. There were four of us playing: me, Bob, a local Boston fanzine writer named Al Quint, and my former best friend, Mark McKay, who later became the drummer for the hardcore band Slapshot.

— I’m also pretty certain that I’m one of very few fans to meet and shake hands with Bob Mould’s parents. It was that same summer of ’84. Mom and dad were touring the country, stopping in on the band’s performances. Bob himself introduced me to them.

— Greg Norton once sat patiently backstage while I peppered him with inane questions for a fanzine article I was writing.

— It was Grant, though, who was always the friendliest and most approachable of the three. I remember a night, between sets down at The Living Room in Providence, Rhode Island, chatting with him in the parking lot. He was snacking on slices of cheese, when a stray dog came ambling over. Grant shared his cheese with the dog, holding up small bits of it, ever higher, making the dog jump for them.

— That was the same show in which Mould, rushing toward the stage for an encore, smashed his head against a ceiling rafter so hard that you could hear it from the parking lot. I have a feeling he remembers that.



1. Eight Miles High (single)
2. I Apologize (New Day Rising)
3. Chartered Trips (Zen Arcade)
4. Gravity (Everything Falls Apart)
5. Crystal (Candy Apple Grey)
6. Real World (Metal Circus)
7. Makes No Sense at All (Flip Your Wig)
8. Celebrated Summer (New Day Rising)
9. Perfect Example (New Day Rising)
10. All This I’ve Done For You (Candy Apple Grey)


1. Keep Hanging On (Flip Your Wig)
2. Terms of Psychic Warfare (New Day Rising)
3. Pink Turns to Blue (Zen Arcade)
4. Books About UFOs (New Day Rising)
5. It’s Not Funny Anymore (Metal Circus)
6. She’s a Woman [And Now he is a Man] (Warehouse: Songs and Stories)
7. Standing by the Sea (Zen Arcade)
8. Diane (Metal Circus)
9. The Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill (New Day Rising)
10. Sunshine Superman (Everything Falls Apart)


Now if you’ve stayed with me this far, chances are you’re a pretty big Hüsker fan who won’t mind if I push things an obsessive step further. For you I present the following addendum. You’ve been warned:

I was looking at some photos of Hüsker Dü in their heyday, circa ’84 or ’85. These guys were, to put it one way, well fed. Greg always kept himself trim and dapper, but Bob and Grant weren’t going hungry, that’s for sure.

It’s only fair, then, that we should revisit the Hüsker discography, making note of various song titles as they should have appeared. That is, with a gastronomical theme…

There’s little on Land Speed Record or Everything Falls Apart to cook with, so let’s start with Metal Circus. Here, Bob sets the table with “MEAL WORLD,” then takes his place in the “LUNCHLINE.” Grant tells us “I’M NOT HUNGRY ANYMORE,” but later opts for some delicious “STEAK DIANE.”

Zen Arcade is a veritable buffet line of fatty faves: Bob cooks up some “CHARRED TIPS.” Later he orders some “PRIME” down at the “NEWEST EATERY.” He’s got a sweet tooth for “THE BIGGEST PIE.” Alas, it’s a “BROKEN COOKIE, BROKEN HEART.” Grant warns that he’s “NEVER COOKING FOR YOU AGAIN,” yet later we find him “STANDING BY THE STOVE,” dreaming of that moment when “BEEF TURNS TO STEW” (“…waiters placing, gently placing, napkins round her plate.”) This is a very long album, and indigestion sets in by the end of side four, closing with the epic, flatulent jam, “REOCCURRING BEANS.”

Prior to Zen Arcade, you might remember, came the Huskers’ famous 7-inch single — its cover of the Byrds’ — or is it Birds’ — classic, “EGGS PILED HIGH.”

On New Day Rising, Grant tells us about “THE GIRL WHO WORKS AT THE BAR & GRILL,” followed on side two by the sugary “BOOKS ABOUT OREOS.” Bob serves up a “CELEBRATED SUPPER.”

Flip Your Wig is, let’s just say, a little thin, though Grant gives us a cooking lesson with “FLEXIBLE FRYER.” For dessert we get “CREAM PIES.”

On Candy Apple Pie… er, Gray … again its Grant with the big appetite. His two meaty singles are, “DON’T WANT TO KNOW IF YOU’RE HUNGRY,” and “HUNGRY SOMEHOW.”

The band’s final course is the delectable double LP: Steakhouse: Songs and Stories. Bob sings of “THESE IMPORTED BEERS,” before going gourmet on the plaintive “BED OF SNAILS.” Though me makes “NO DINNER RESERVATIONS.” Grant snacks on some “CHARITY, CHASTITY, PEANUTS AND COKE,” and reminds us that “YOU CAN COOK AT HOME.”


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67 Responses to “Now and Zen: The Greatest Album of All Time Turns 37”
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  1. Old Cynic says:

    8 November 1971 ie a whisker away from 50 years ago (God, where has my life gone?)
    Led Zeppelin IV

    I know – opinions are like backsides: we’ve all got one – but I suspect more people will think that LZ IV is the Greatest Album Of All Time, than one that is rather a niche offering.

    • Patrick says:

      Well, because something is “niche” doesn’t automatically diminish its quality or significance. Nobody argues that the Velvet Underground weren’t influential, and certainly they were niche.

      Consider, too, the independent music scene in the early and mid-1980s. Bands were by definition marginalized — locked into a system that had virtually no ability to push them into the mainstream. The indie scene had no infrastructure through which to get its musicians into regular commercial play. It wasn’t until a decade later that “alternative” music, as it now was called, finally became accessible and popular. And by then most of it was terrible.

  2. lovetractor says:

    Great and nostalgiac review. I was 8 when Zen Arcade came out, but it wouldn’t be until I was 17 when my musical tastes started to mature before I picked it up. Still amazing to this day.

    Agree with you about the first four albums, but you lost me at Candy Apple and Warehouse…..two excellent albums in their own right.

  3. Paul says:

    Clampdown sends a chill down my spine every time I hear it. Throwaway??!!

  4. Jeff BH says:

    Related’80s gripe: most concert tickets sold in the 80s? Bruce? U2? Duran Duran? Nope. That band you think of whenever you hear the phrase “80s music,” the Grateful Dead, of course. The connection to your love of Husker Du and mine of the Dead is that they’re both left out of the mainstream narrative by people who allegedly take music seriously and love it.

  5. Jim Houghton says:

    “People will always embrace different songs for different reasons,”

    Truer words were never spoken.

  6. Neil Harris says:

    Just came across this post. Really, really excellent review. For sure one of the most important albums of my teenage years (although I like FLIP YOUR WIG better, but it was my into to the band).

  7. DaveSF says:

    Patrick, saw your Elvis C comment…I know why you’d feel that way, but Blood and Chocolate is an absolutely incredible record.

  8. DaveSF says:

    As a musician, recording and touring with my own band through the 80’s, and with other bands through the 90’s and beyond, I have to admit pretty much keeping myself sane by listening to the stuff I grew up with – Beatles, Stones, Yes, Cream…with a dash of other genres and artist from Buddy Rich, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra to Eno, and so I missed a lot of cool stuff. Unless we toured with you (Psych Furs, Gang of Four, B52s)…or you played on the same bill around town (Magnets, Dead Kennedys, etc), or someone said “you gotta hear this,” I probably didn’t know your music very well. To my loss, I know.

    That goes for Husker Du too. So, as a Patrick Smith fan, I decided to check them out a million years later and I’m loving this stuff. They’ve moved from “I’ve heard of them” to “holy shit I love this band.”

    Thanks Patrick!

  9. Kurzleg says:

    I’d phrase it this way: I prefer DNOTD, but as I listen to it now, it’s pretty clear that Zen Arcade was pretty influential and a pretty great record.

  10. DLB says:

    By the way, I know lots of folks think people who like Zappa are pretentiousness. Not me. I’m just a gal who was born with music in her blood, and the first time I heard “Envelopes” in 1983, my mind was nearly blown. Literally gave me a headache because musically it made no sense to me, but I couldn’t stop listening to it.

    I grew up on rock, punk, indie, and grew into an eclectic mix of music genres.
    No pretention here, just love of music.

    Also, I wouldn’t omit Clampdown.
    Huge Clash fan. It stays!

  11. DLB says:

    Sasha Frere-Jones may have disappointed you, but as a guitarist/musician (now disabled but an obsessive music theory nut), and former music critic in an East Village rag back in the 1990’s, I can assure you he’s getting his due in the music/guitar magazines that musicians read. To say he’s renowned and revered by many in the business is an understatement.

    Also, while I only agree with 50% of Robert Christgau’s reviews (he’s an erudite musicologist with strong opinions), he’s not easily won over. I guarantee he picked “Turn On The News” as his Song of The Year because it WAS his song of the year and not because it was the most accessible song on the album. My point: high praise from Christgau is rare. You can believe he meant every word he said.

    I HAVE to point out that FREAK OUT! by Zappa & The Mothers was the first ever double album. In my eyes the first “indie” album. He broke every rule. An eclectic first album that inspired bands as diametrically opposed as CAN and The Replacements. The only reason I tell you this is because in art school in NYC in the mid 1980’s, the students who loved Husker Du also loved The Mothers, especially FREAK OUT! Give it whirl if you haven’t already.

    And thank you for this wonderful website. Your interview on the Freakonomics podcast brought me here.

    Have a fine day!✈

    (PS I’m typing this from my phone and cannot scroll up to copy edit. Please excuse any typos.)

  12. Reoccurring Dreams says:

    You hit the nail right in the head about Sonic Youth and the Replacements. Although they were exciting and somewhat on the forefront at the time, their music certainly doesn’t live up to the test of time that I think most of the Huskers music has. Like you, I’ve always believed that the lack of sex appeal was a major component that condemned them to obscurity, even posthumously.

    • Patrick says:

      How depressing can it get? I love it when bands like the Hold Steady are offered up as yet another Minneapolis act that was somehow more meaningful than Husker Du. This sentiment was reinforced in a recent New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece by Nick Paumgarten.

      Yeah, that’s the same Nick Paumgarten who penned that intensely annoying article about Elvis Costello, arguably the most pretentious and overrated songwriter/musician of all time, a few years back.

  13. John says:

    Husker’s music was a very common sound for it’s time. Loud, semi-musical, and forced. I’m glad it’s no longer around. Now, should rap suffer the same fate, we may get back to making music instead of noise.

  14. geert says:

    I really feel beter nou i found oud i Am not the only guy ho just has zen arcade above the rest, not apart but above.
    the thing is every song is performd as if they mean it, even Hendrix can pull that.
    y thank you so much to make me remember there is the 30 j cellebration, i will confront mij spouse with the legacy, hope they like it, or no more netflix!

    some thing jou have to keep going..

    the best…

  15. Stephen Calder, Geospatialist says:

    Isn’t it interesting that so much of the world’s great songwriting emanated from pairs. And like you, I find the Mould – Hart pairing almost perfectly analogous to Lennon – McCartney, as trite as that might sound.

  16. David Sharek says:

    Just saw this today. A clip of the Red Sox organist playing a Mould song.

  17. John Q. says:

    Terrific piece, Patrick. I tend to agree with everything you say here, though, I don’t hear the “poor production” on Flip Your Wig. It sounds different than the stuff Spot produced, but it still packs an amazing punch.

  18. Jim Clarke says:

    I’ll agree on “Gates of the West”….Great Song.

  19. Jim Clarke says:

    Btw Great Article….I was just listening to Zen Arcade in the Car Today.

  20. Jim Clarke says:

    Yes, You would.
    To Me the Throwawys on ‘London Calling’ would be ‘revolution Rock’ ‘The Right Profile’ and ‘Lovers Rock’

  21. anyone referring to The Clash’s “Working For The Clampdown” as filler is obviously deaf and blind… and deserves to die… but yes, Zen Arcade is a masterpiece

    • Patrick says:

      If I had gone with “Hateful” instead of “Clampdown,” would I be getting this much grief?

      • Patrick says:

        Bah! How can you not love “Revolution Rock?” It’s one of the best and most fun songs on the record. It has some great lines…

        Careful how you move, Mac, you dig me in the back. And I’m so pilled-up that I rattle!
        I have got the sharpest knife, so I cut the biggest slice. I got no time to do battle. Hey!

        Careful how you slide, Clyde, all you did was glide; you pour your beer in me hat.
        Keep my good eye on the beat; living on Fixation Street. I ain’t got no time for that. Hey!

        There used to be a band out here called “Weddings, Parties, Anything.”

        And I also like “The Right Profile.”

        “Lovers Rock,” though, now that you mention it, is probably the worst song on the album. I’d forgotten all about that one!

        This is off-album, but nobody yet has mentioned “Gates of the West” or “Bankrobber” as their favorite Clash songs. Two of my faves.

  22. Dan says:

    Oh man. What a great bit of nostalgia. There is seriously nothing like Reoccurring Dreams. Or, oh God, the rest of the whole freakin album. Thank you!

    • Dan says:

      But I gotta disagree on the MTM cover. Maybe I like covers, but I just don’t get how that’s lazy.

      • Patrick says:

        It’s not that I don’t like it, but it strikes me as a cover for the sake of being a cover, and it’s too self-conscious, too much of a novelty. It’s if they’re saying, “Hey check this out, it’s the Mary Tyler Moore song!” You could call the production lazy too: Bob’s guitar sounds very muddy. I’ve always hated the sound of FLIP YOUR WIG, which suffers from that same muddy guitar, and “Love” is more or less an outtake from those sessions.

        Compare it to the Husker cover of “Ticket to Ride,” for example. Now that one rocks.

  23. Dennis says:

    I was giving some songs from Zen Arcade a listen. I nominate “Turn On the News” for song of the day. (Airplanes are falling out of the sky.)

  24. RevZafod says:

    From The Big Lebowski, censored version:

    I see you rolled your way into the
    semis. Dios mio, man. Liam and
    me, we’re gonna f–k you up.

    Yeah well, ya know, that’s just,
    like uh, your opinion, man.

  25. Bob Steinkamp says:

    You are just too young. The greatest album is “The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East”

  26. JuliaZ says:

    This is an awesome love letter to Zen Arcade… and I believe I’ve figured out that you are just a year older than me. 🙂

    I have to ask, on a completely different subject, WHY on earth Malaysian Airlines was willing to ignore the Advice to Airmen notice about Ukraine, choosing to fly over this war-torn and very dangerous region? What a stupid tragedy. I had no idea that commercial airlines of any stature would ignore such advice. I realize it might cost them more money (fuel, flight time, crew pay) to fly a detour around it, but even one crash like this seems to cost it much more in terms of reputation, money, and of course, real people’s lives.

    I would really be glad to hear your take on this aspect of the story, as all the usual media outlets are going bananas with the whodunit stuff that isn’t that interesting to me. Once it was clear that the plane was shot down and that all aboard were lost, the question for me immediately became “why were they there when they had to know that airspace was dangerous?” And in fact, they DID know. Stupid, stupid, stupid. If there was any chance of me ever flying Malaysian Airlines after the March incident, it is clearly totally removed now.

    Would YOU fly across an area that was off-limits with an FAA Notice to Airmen? FDC 4/7667 on Page 1-GN-2 of this document (page 327 in the PDF) seems pretty clear, even to someone without formal training.

    Thanks for your insight.

  27. MartyU says:

    Just glad I was in High School radio at the time. It was fascinating, in retrospect, to hear about Du, Metallica, REM, Marshall Crenshaw and all this diverse stuff in the early ’80s that was actually trying to be worthwhile, music-wise. I never would have heard it on commercial radio, yet these guys were sending the HS station promo vinyl! We’re likely long past such an era of quality & diversity…

  28. Zoon says:

    Is it “The Tooth Fairy and the Princess”?

    • Patrick says:

      No way. I dig that song. I love the way it builds and falls, builds and falls; and the strange, almost orchestral sounds that Bob’s guitar makes.

  29. biff says:

    Also, Double Nickels on the Dime is a much better album than Zen Arcade. Since we are trafficing in superlatives, I would even say it is the best album ever.

  30. biff says:

    Clampdown is a great song

    • Patrick says:

      No! I hate that song! That one and “Lost in the Supermarket.” But especially “Clampdown.”

      “Death or Glory” is the best song on London Calling — if not the best song the Clash ever wrote. “Wrong Em Boyo,” “Rudie Can’t Fail,” “The Card Cheat” and “Revolution Rock” are the others gems from that album.

      — Jimmy Jazz (J-a-zed-zed)

      • Gary says:

        Dude. “Lost in the Supermarket” is also a gem. Written for Mick by Joe. With judgement like that I’d hesitate to let you fly a plane I was riding on.

        My two favorite Clash songs are “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” and “Broadway.” The latter, a relatively unknown song on “Sandanista!,” is spectacular.

        I am personally unbelievably excited to get to see The Replacements play live here in their hometown, the Twin Cities, in September. Maybe Mould will join them for a song or two.

        • Patrick says:

          Oh give me a break. We’re talking about songs for heck’s sake.

          Speaking of unknowns on Sandinista!, one of my all-time favorite Clash songs is “Living in Fame.” I’m a big fan of the “Silicone on Sapphire” instrumental too.

          I’ll give you “White Man,” but I think “Complete Control” is by far the best song from that first record.

          Replacements: On the Sorry Ma album, on the song “Raised in the City.” I love the way you can hear Paul Westerberg shout out the names, “Stinson! Stinson!” right near the end. Great moment on a great record.

          • Gary says:

            I was joking, of course. Still, poor judgement.

            I’ll agree that “Complete Control” is way up there. My second fave on that first album.

            “Sandanista!” is greatly underrated, in my view. “The Magnificent Seven” is arguably one of the first rap songs of all time done by a white rock band. I remember being thrown completely off balance by it when I first listened.

            By the way, one of the (few) joys of being 52 years old is that I got to see The Clash live, at the St. Paul Civic Center (“I Bought A Headache”). Combat Rock tour. A definite highlight of my life in music.

            I don’t think he’s saying “Stinson!” there. I think he’s saying “fix it, fix it!”

            And why no love for “Stink?” Sixteen minutes of pure joy.

          • Patrick says:

            As to the STINK record:

            There was a time when the recording on my answering machine, after picking up on the third ring, went: “Hey Merle, I was wonderin’ if you had any ludes on ya…?”

  31. Gary says:

    “Clampdown” a “throwaway?” Are you serious?

  32. Al Quint says:

    Hi Patrick…

    good job! I actually just wrote a column for Maximum Rock ‘n Roll (the August issue) about “Zen Arcade” and “Double Nickels On The Dime.” About that question as to why it means so much to people, my answer would be it came along at the perfect point in my life–post-collegiate confusion, working at a job I truly hated, tension with my family about my future, etc. I could relate to the protagonist in the concept. The words on “Whatever,” in particular. That record didn’t leave my turntable for weeks after I got it.

    By the way, side two is mindblowing. Some of the most visceral music the band ever put on vinyl.

    You forgot one of the best Husker Du songs–“In A Free Land,” which came out right before “Everything Falls Apart.” Total rush of adrenalin and melody.

    I remember that Frisbee game, too!


  33. Stephanie says:

    I’m just glad that there’s a pilot writing about Husker Du. Thanks.

  34. Simon says:

    I don’t disagree with much you’ve written about Zen Arcade, but Warehouse is an awesome record (and Candy Apple Grey is a classic too). Bob Mould may never have written a better song than ‘No Reservations’. If ‘Visionary’, ‘These Important Years’ and ‘Up In The Air’ are someone’s idea of second-order songs, thrn there must be only about 3 songs in the history of recorded music that they’d give a tick to. And for the Grant-boosters, ‘You Can Live At Home Now’ was a perfect recorded note for the band to go out on.

    Still, the order things get discovered in and the personal history of the listener is also important—I discovered the band a year or two after they split up, with Warehouse being the first record I heard. Whereas if you were scouring the shelves on the day Zen Arcade was released, of course your take on that whole later period would be very different.

  35. Rob says:

    is the song you’d replace with some kind of fun whatever or beyond the threshold?

  36. Eric says:

    as good as Zen Arcade is–a few months later, The Minutemen released, “Double Nickels on the Dime” — which then took over the title of Greatest Album of All Time.

    • Patrick says:

      If I’m not mistaken Double Nickels was released on the same day as Zen Arcade.

      As some tell it, the Minutemen were intimidated by what they’d been hearing about Zen and rushed their own double-LP out to compete. They threw in some automobile sounds, put some out-takes back in…

      • Eric says:

        Yeah, actually-they were released on the same day. SST delayed the release of Zen Arcade so that they could release both bands’ albums at the same time. I love both collections…it’s amazing to think how many incredible trios released stuff on SST.

        • Dennis says:

          Double Nickels and Zen Arcade, they’re both two of the best albums ever. The ‘Mats “Let it Be”, The Feelies “The Good Earth” and those other SST faves, The Meat Puppets (II) are a few more great albums from that time.

  37. Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Zen Arcade has the more sustained excellence along the entire four sides, but New Day Rising, while less consistent, has higher peaks.

  38. Todd Kenndy says:

    Also just realized it’s the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain. Also an amazing album from a man/band from Minneapolis. There must have been something in the water…

  39. Todd Kenndy says:

    While I enjoy it, “One Step at a Time” has always seemed a little superfluous on the album especially given as it’s an interlude between “Somewhere” and one of my personal favorite songs of all time, “Pink Turns to Blue”

    • Patrick says:

      Are you sure? When I imagine the record with “Somewhere” feeding directly into “Pink”… It’s too fast, too much. I think “One Step” is a perfect time-out. Like I said in the story, it gives the listener a few short seconds to catch his or her breath.

      • Chris Hesler says:

        It also achieves a half-step modulation, setting the stage for “Pink Turns to Blue.” According to Bob’s autobiography, “One Step” begins in the key of C. During mixdown they slowly sped up the tape so that it finishes in C#. Then “Pink” begins in C# minor. The pitch change is so gradual and the alchemy so perfect that I’d never noticed it before.

        • Chris Hesler says:

          Oops. Wrong song sequence. It’s actually “Monday Will Never Be the Same” into “Whatever” that has the pitch-bending (F# to G).

  40. Steven Rubio says:

    When I read this, I wish you were the pilot on every flight I take.

  41. Lin Sherman says:

    Whew. For a moment there, I was afraid you were a Robert Plant groupie.