With this landmark 1984 album, the Minneapolis trio Hüsker Dü picked hardcore punk up out of its monotonous rut and drop-kicked it into the future. Structurally, Zen Arcade is defiantly anti-punk — a double album with an operatic narrative and unorthodox segments of acoustic folk, backward tape effects and psychedelicized guitar à la the Beatles' White Album. Yet in challenging the rigid hardcore aesthetic of "loud 'n' fast rules," Hüsker Dü created a brave new music that was true to punk's raging energy while articulating the anger, confusion and fear of a generation that had outgrown "Blitzkrieg Bop." The result was Tommy by way of CBGB.
"We started out as a punk band," said Bob Mould, the band's singer and guitarist, in 1985. "We had a real garage mentality about everything. We'd get pumped up, and a song that was generally midtempo would come on full throttle. We didn't have a lot of control over that sort of thing." Indeed, the Hüskers' 1981 debut album, Land Speed Record, set the thrash-rock standard. But, as Mould pointed out, "hardcore is basically music for young people. We were growing up, and [Zen Arcade] showed a lot of that."
Hüsker Dü's coming of age took place during the summer of 1983 in an empty church in St. Paul, where the band created Zen Arcade's twenty-three songs. "There was so much change," drummer Grant Hart said in 1986. "We were constantly jamming. We'd pick a chord, any chord, and then go for it. 'Reoccurring Dreams' [Zen's frenzied instrumental climax] would go on for an hour."
The album, primarily written by Mould and Hart, was recorded the following October in a mere eighty-five hours. All but two songs were first takes, and the mixing was done during forty straight hours of work. Total cost: $4000. Yet the depth and detail of the story belied the economy with which it had been committed to tape.
According to Mould, Zen Arcade is about a young computer hack from a broken home who dreams about killing himself after his girlfriend dies of a drug overdose. Instead, he lands in a mental hospital where he meets the head of a computer company who hires him to design video games. "Then he wakes up and goes to school," Mould said. "The only thing we never agreed on was the name of the video game. We thought it was Search."
While the story is fictional, Mould allowed that the songs contain elements of autobiography. "Some of us are from broken homes, some of us have had friends die," he said. "I don't think that's anything new."
But the power and imagination with which Hüsker Dü married fact and fantasy on Zen Arcade, and the album's subtext of striving and hope, helped elevate punk to a higher, more expressive plane. "It's an admission of humanity," said Mould, who has gone solo since the band's breakup in early 1988. "You can't just scream and holler all your life. You have to step back a minute, look at yourself and say, 'Yeah, I am fucked.' And try to change it."