Inside Husker Du's Early-Years Box Set Treasure Trove

Bassist Greg Norton reflects on band's earliest years ahead of the release of the three-CD 'Savage Young Dü'

Husker Du's Greg Norton previews the band's upcoming box set, 'Savage Young Dü,' which focuses on the punk group's earliest years. Credit: Lisa Haun/Getty

"When I listen to our early stuff now, I'm blown away by the sheer energy of it," former Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton says. "It holds up pretty well. I think it's really gonna surprise a lot of people."

The world will be able to share in Norton's excitement this fall, when the band puts out Savage Young Dü, an extensive box set collecting the pioneering noise-rock and hardcore band's earliest recordings and performances when they were at their most virulent. 

The set, available digitally or on four LPs or three CDs with a giant book of photos and liner notes on November 10th, features tracks from session masters, demos and live tapes for 69 recordings total – 47 of which have never been released. Within those never-before-heard recordings, there are 10 whole songs that have never come out officially in any form and an alternative recording of their 1982 live set Land Speed Record. (Moreover, fans will note that the tracks on Land Speed Record are separated – finally!)

"It's early and forgotten things," Norton says. "It's things that fell to the wayside as the band evolved, but there was a lot of good cuts that got abandoned. It's finally getting to see the light of day, which is great."

Although the band is 100 percent over ("The idea of a reunion is an absolute no," Norton says), the box set also represents a rare truce within the trio after decades of bitterness. The first nonmusical reunion of the threesome – Norton, vocalist-guitarist Bob Mould and singer-drummer Grant Hart – came two years ago when they agreed to work together on an online store to sell their merchandise. Around that time, they also revived their idea of working with their friend, Terry Katzman, who had saved more than 100 live tapes from throughout their lifespan, on their archives. "Terry must have come to us for the first time in 1999 but Bob didn't feel the timing was right, and Terry wouldn’t do it unless all three of us were on board," Norton says. "It kept getting tabled." It was around the time of the merch armistice that things also got serious for them with archival label the Numero Group.

"I think right out of the gate, Hüsker was on to something." - Greg Norton

The imprint had previously issued a double seven-inch, Amusement, which featured the songs from their first single as a Record Store Day exclusive in 2013, but its owners had long wanted to do something more expansive with the band. "We'd been in business for about half a decade when I realized we managed to convince people to work with us who we'd never possible," says label cofounder Ken Shipley. "So I had the idea to pick somebody really, really hard to work with – someone that was notoriously prickly – to see if I could make it happen. For me, there's no timeline to make a record."

He'd zeroed in on Hüsker Dü, whose acrimonious 1988 breakup is the stuff of legend – Mould had taken over the band's management, and Hart was trying to quit heroin – and got in touch with Hart in the summer of 2010, which led to what he calls "snail's pace" movement. "I'm working on things right now [with Hüsker Dü] that I've been working on since 2012," he says. He attempted to clear up the rights to some of the band's recordings for SST but was not totally successful. So he and the band decided to focus on songs from the period when it put out music on its own Reflex label. Things fell into place in 2015 and soon after, Shipley drove up to Minneapolis to get Katzman's collection.

When they came across the alternate Land Speed Record tape, which they'd recorded for Minneapolis label Twin/Tone, and realized it sounded better than the SST version, the Numero guys knew they had something special. "If you're a fan of this band, you've heard Land Speed a million times," Shipley says, "but if you heard a totally different version of that same record and it sounded better ... it's like, this is actually what you want, you just don't know it yet."

Beyond the new Land Speed Record, Savage Young Dü (which gets its title from one of Katzman's tapes) contains the band's very first recordings from May 1979, live sets from 1979 to 1982, demos (including one featuring a cover of Ramones' "Chinese Rocks"), their early seven-inches and their debut LP, Everything Falls Apart – all remastered. Numero Group remixed the group's "In a Free Land" single from scratch, because a master couldn't be found, and Shipley says "it's just so much brighter" than the original. Likewise, he says the remaster of Everything Falls Apart "blows the original out of the water."

Norton has been pleasantly surprised by what has been unearthed. "A lot of band's early demos sound like, 'Wow, you guys really came a long way, ' but I think right out of the gate, Hüsker was on to something," he says. He remembers the band's confidence at the time being high; when the Minneapolis label Twin/Tone (home to Hüsker Dü's Twin Cities rivals the Replacements) turned them down they decided to put out their own music. "We named our label Reflex Records because that was our reflex to being rejected," the bassist says. But even the recording they put out themselves don't tell the whole story.

"We don't physically get together or conference call. But at least there's a level of communication."

"There are several tunes where we were definitely influenced by a lot of stuff coming out of Manchester – Joy Division, in particular," Norton says. "So we had this darker, moodier side before we discovered West Coast hardcore when Black Flag released 'Jealous Again.' Then we had a big turn stylistically. In the summer of '81, we did the Children's Crusade tour through Western Canada and down to San Francisco, and I think we were influenced by what was going on out there after that. The band got a lot faster, a lot tighter; the songs got a lot shorter. We definitely became an American hardcore band at that point. So you can see that evolution that led to the more melodic stuff."

Incidentally, he points to the period between 1984 and 1985, during their partnership with Black Flag's label, SST, when Hüsker Dü put out the touchstone LPs Zen Arcade and New Day Rising, as his favorite time in the band. He says the group's relations with their former label is a "touchy subject" that he's not able to discuss in detail. 

Norton describes the future of the recordings the group made for the label as being "in limbo" but that "the door is certainly open" and that SST has proven that they want to preserve Hüsker Dü's catalogue. Shipley says he too is hopeful about the future of that partnership and that, in the meantime, they're putting out a seven-inch called Extra Circus that will contain recordings made around the SST release Metal Circus that never came out.

"You can see that evolution that led to the more melodic stuff."

Numero Group also has their work cut out for them for possible future releases. For Savage Young Dü, they considered some 40 live tapes from Katzman's collection, but that's just a small chunk of the 150 or so cassettes they have. "We could do a live version of every single record, if we wanted to," Shipley says. "And this is a band that wrote three albums in a year, so there's plenty of stuff that didn't make the cut that we're sifting through. We just want to find the best way to get it out. The hope is that we, once a year, will revisit Hüsker Dü and find a new way to tell their story."

In the meantime, the three members of the band are moving forward with their own lives – separately. Norton has begun playing bass in a new band called Porcupine that will enter the studio soon. And in his words, "Bob's obviously busy with being Bob Mould" and Grant Hart is working on a new LP. "From what I understand, his new record is a concept piece based on the life of [Unabomber] Ted Kaczynski," Norton says.

Any communication between them, the bassist says, is "strictly business." "I've seen Bob once since 1993 when he was doing his book tour in 2011 and playing solo electric," Norton says. "It was interesting. And I saw Grant do a solo acoustic thing a couple of months ago and he plays some interesting arrangements of some of the stuff."

Regardless of his former band's status – or lack thereof – he says they're working together again, if only on a business level. That, in itself, is no small feat. "A few years ago, I did an interview with a paper when we were ready to go live with the Hüsker Dü website that you could order merchandise from," he says. "[The reporter] never asked about a reunion, and I never said anything about a reunion. I said just the fact that the band was communicating was enough. But some website threw up a clickbait title on it like, 'Hüsker Dü Reunion, Who Knows!' and, all of a sudden, rumors were like, 'Oh, my God, Hüsker Dü's reuniting." And Bob got pissed off, and Grant wasn't happy. I literally had to put up a Facebook post like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, everybody, slow down. We're just trying to sell some T-shirts here."

So Norton is happy that he and his former bandmates are all now taking the time to read e-mails and give thumbs up and thumbs down to business dealings. "We don't physically get together or conference call," he says. "But at least there's a level of communication."