As many of you reading this already know, singer/songwriter Grant Hart died this week at the age of 56. Hart is best known as a member of Hüsker Dü, the group he was a part of from their very beginnings in 1979 until the moment they called it a day in 1988. Hart played drums, and he, along with guitarist Bob Mould, were the trio’s main songwriters (Greg Norton was the bassist). Though they started out as a hardcore band known for their lightning-fast performances, by their third record they began to show signs that they were outgrowing the genre’s rigid style. One song in particular would provide the blueprint for both their future path and the groups later influenced by them.
Metal Circus came out in October 1983, and though often seen as an EP, due to the fact that there are just seven songs and it runs less than 20 minutes, it’s still considered part of their album discography. Grant Hart wrote just two of the songs on the record, and they’re quite different than anything the band had attempted previously. At the time, it was Hart’s harrowing ballad, “Diane,” that got Metal Circus the most attention, but it’s his other number on the album that proved to be the game changer.
The cover of ‘Metal Circus.’ Artwork by Fake Name Graphx (a/k/a Grant Hart).
Initially, what must have been most striking to Hüsker Dü fans listening to “It’s Not Funny Anymore” in 1983 was the tempo. This was definitely not a hardcore song. There’s also more of a focus on melody—with Hart actually singing some of the words—and hooks, like the super cool harmonics Mould plays during the chorus. The lyrics are more advanced, too, with a meta quality that seems to be addressing the new approach the band is taking with the tune.
In his book, Hüsker Dü: The Story of the Noise-Pop Pioneers Who Launched Modern Rock, author Andrew Earles writes:
“It’s Not Funny Anymore” is Hüsker Dü running into the loving arms of hook-filled noise-pop. The song is a thinly veiled proclamation: “Like it or not, we are going to do this pop thing.”
When Hüsker Dü made Metal Circus, no other act was releasing music like this. Aside from the Beatles’ single version of “Revolution” and some of the early Velvet Underground material, the very idea of a lyrical pop/rock song with a thick layer of guitar distortion was essentially unheard of. Hüsker Dü continued in this direction until the very end, producing noise pop gems like “Books About UFOs” and “Makes No Sense At All” along the way.
It’s hard to imagine how modern rock would’ve evolved without Hüsker Dü. To name just a couple of bands influenced by them: the Pixies, who famously put an ad in their local paper looking for a bass player who liked both Peter, Paul and Mary and Hüsker Dü (Kim Deal was the only respondent); and Nirvana, whose melodic punk rock sounds very similar to the Hüskers. Krist Novoselic once remarked that Nirvana’s style was “nothing new; Hüsker Dü did it before us.”
We’ll end with a video of a Hüsker Dü show from the Metal Circus tour. Recorded at Love Hall in Philadelphia on December 16, 1983, the set includes “It’s Not Funny Anymore” as well as a bunch of songs that would turn up on their next release, Zen Arcade—a concept record, double LP, and giant leap forward for the band.
But as the impetus for writing this post was the passing of Grant Hart, I can’t sign off without encouraging the unfamiliar to delve into Grant’s post-Hüsker Dü work, which is often overlooked. I’d suggest starting with his debut solo album, Intolerance, and then move on to Good News for Modern Man. Listen here and here.
Grant and his cat, Peewee, 2008.