“Joan versus Johnny” was kind of the 1980s version of the Conan-Leno battle of 2010. For several years Joan Rivers had been the “permanent guest host” of The Tonight Show—her brassy style decidedly struck a chord, and her catchphrase “Can we talk?” became an ‘80s “thing,” just like breakdancing or Robin Leach. As Carson’s inevitable retirement neared, a memo circulated within NBC listing potential successors, and Rivers’ name was pointedly not on it. So she jumped to her own show on Fox in 1986, and the wounded Johnny never spoke to her again. In retrospect, Johnny doesn’t come off looking too good, and also the sexism of the late-night talk show game is particularly evident—Rivers was basically penalized for being an outspoken woman a little before her time. Although, come to think of it, Chelsea Handler notwithstanding, there still aren’t a lot of women doing late-night talk.
Meanwhile, after several groundbreaking and powerful albums, the great Minnesota band Hüsker Dü (Danish for “do you remember?”) dominated the indie rock world, and then they made a similarly calculated jump of their own—to Warner Bros., a “major label.” Hüsker Dü‘s decision to leave SST sent shockwaves among indie diehards, many of whom had themselves toiled for years in the ranks of the hardcore/punk underground. The idea of an independent band moving to a major label was, to many, unthinkable before that point—this was a precursor to the Geffen/DGC signings of bands like Sonic Youth and Nirvana just a few years later. Hüsker Dü‘s decision didn’t really work out that well—they put out Candy Apple Grey and Warehouse: Songs and Stories, fine albums both, for Warner until longstanding tensions led to the band’s breakup in 1987.
So even if nobody knew it, in this video, dated April 27, 1987, we have two things that were about to come to an end: Hüsker Dü and The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers.
It’s kind of cool that the stage set is done up in the style of the Warehouse: Songs and Stories album cover, which Hüsker Dü was supporting at the time. The two songs they played are “Could You Be the One?” and “She’s a Woman (And Now He is a Man).” As they approach the desk for the interview, cheeky Grant Hart indulges in an extended embrace of Rivers. The interview is as stiff as can be, but Rivers, in her awkward, matronly way, actually raises some points a hell of a lot of indie rock fans were wondering about: What’s with the major label signing? Are you watering down your sound? The Hüskers’ answers have the whiff of politics to them, which under the circumstances is only understandable.
It’s striking to witness the promotional clout of Warner—there wasn’t any way in hell Hüsker Dü was nabbing such a big national late-night talk show before that—as well as the oddity of Hüsker Dü‘s stately, jarring harmonics in such a corporate setting.
I’m glad that both Grant and Bob Mould each got a crack at singing lead vocal.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Truly Post-Punk: Suzanne Somers meets Wire on ‘The Late Show,’ 1987