Who can we thank most for the highly anticipated new Hüsker Dü box set? It might be Maxell, makers of midrange plastic cassette tapes that music fans bought in five-packs at Kmart throughout the 1980s.
“They always held up, and the sound quality never degenerated,” raved Terry Katzman, longtime sound engineer and de facto archivist for the internationally celebrated Twin Cities punk trio.
A lot of what you hear on the three-CD or four-LP collection, “Savage Young Dü” — due out next Friday, riding a wave of rabid music-blog attention — actually came from a trove of Maxell II tapes. Recorded at live shows and rehearsals, the cassettes were kept safe and sound in Katzman’s Minneapolis basement for the past 35-plus years.
You would never guess the recordings’ modest origins now that they’re in the hands of the Numero Music Group.
The Chicago-based collectors label did an impeccable job mastering the 69 tracks and packaging them into a bulky collection that looks and sounds surprisingly great. Hardly a comprehensive anthology, “Savage Young Dü” captures the earliest, scrappiest stages of the pioneering band, 1979-82. It’s really a collection for the die-hards.
Those die-hards, though, are going nuts for it, largely because — aside from one live album — it’s the first set of unreleased Hüsker Dü music to come out since the group abruptly broke up in 1988. And there’s a lot on it, too.
“When Terry spilled the beans on how much he actually had, and how good a lot of it was, we got very excited,” Numero co-founder Ken Shipley said.
He first approached Katzman circa 2012 for help with another box set, the Grammy-nominated R&B/funk compilation “Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound.” His initial excitement for a Hüskers collection, however, gave way to six years of complicated back-and-forth negotiations.
“There were many times it felt like it could fall apart at any moment,” Shipley recalled.
Then as the project finally neared completion, he heard the news that would turn his efforts bittersweet: Hüsker Dü drummer Grant Hart, one of the band’s two principal singer/songwriters, was afflicted with liver cancer. He died Sept. 13, just two months shy of release.
“Grant was the one member who had the most comments and opinions throughout the process about how something should look or how it sounded,” Shipley said. “It kills me we couldn’t cross the finish line before he passed away.”
Right time, right place
Ever since their acrimonious breakup — which came two albums into a rather momentous deal with Warner Bros. Records — Hüsker Dü’s members have rarely been on the same page about anything, particularly Hart and singer/guitarist Bob Mould, who each went on to fruitful solo careers.
Their old band, however, still has never had a proper website (one is now in the works). The ex-bandmates agreed to a single manager to represent their combined interests only a few years ago. Added to the volatile mix are long-standing disagreements with one of their former record companies, SST.
Plus, Shipley surmised, “Both Bob and Grant were always the kind of artists who just don’t like to look back.”
Those difficulties, however, were nothing new to Numero Group: “We’ve actually dealt with some more complicated cases than this one,” Shipley said, citing a box set by Chicago bluesman Syl Johnson as a particularly troublesome project.
Numero also benefited from what Hüsker Dü bassist Greg Norton called a “right time, right place” scenario.
“The three of us were at the very least starting to communicate again” when Shipley started pushing for the box set, Norton said, citing the band’s creation of a Web store to combat bootleg T-shirts and memorabilia.
When the band members finally all lined up for the box set — Hart mentioned onstage at 7th Street Entry in August 2016 that he had legal papers to sign that night for it — then came the cumbersome process of sorting through, selecting and remastering all the cassette recordings.
“It was the first time most of those tapes had ever left my house,” Katzman recalled, “so I was pretty freaked out, like, ‘Please take care of them!’ ”
He’s happy he gave them up, though.
“I’ve been working toward this for so long, I didn’t care who put it all out or how they did it; I’m just happy to see it finally come out,” said Katzman, who had been aligned with the band since 1979.
“This [box set] goes back to when they were still very much a band, when they were all learning from each other and playing off each other and really working as a unit. After [the 1984 album] ‘Zen Arcade,’ then it became more about song credits, with Bob writing his songs and Grant writing his — great songs, of course, but it was just a different vibe.”
New day rising?
Norton had a similar reaction when he heard the finished box set.
“It took me back to those basements and stages when we were growing up together, working together and working our asses off, really,” said the bassist, who also wrote and sang songs early in the band (one of his contributions, “Termination,” is unearthed here).
“I’m not looking for vindication, but I think this collection does show we always worked as a three-piece band.”
The bassist nonetheless praised his ex-bandmates, saying, “I think they happen to be two of the greatest songwriters of my generation, and you can hear the beginnings of that here.” He called “Private Hell,” among the project’s 10 never-before-heard songs, “one of my all-time favorite songs Bob wrote.”
As for Hart’s contributions to the collection, Norton was more circumspect.
“Grant no doubt would’ve had good and bad things to say about everything that’s on here, but ultimately I think he would’ve been very proud of it,” he said. “One of the things he was initially concerned about was that this would just turn into a monument to Bob, and I don’t think it’s that at all.”
Now the question is: Will “Savage Young Dü” be a one-of-a-kind treat for fans, or could there be similar Hüsker Dü collections to come?
“It would be awesome to see the rest of the catalog get the same love that ‘Savage Young Dü’ gives to that era,” Norton said. “But we’re probably still a long way from that.”
Hart’s death could be a slight complication for future projects. The biggest hurdle could be dealing with SST Records, but there’s faint optimism a compromise can be accomplished.
One thing that is certain, though: There’s plenty of material for subsequent collections.
“This is a band that went on to put out three amazing albums in just over one year,” said Shipley, referring to “Zen Arcade,” “New Day Rising” and “Flip Your Wig,” issued 1984-85. “They were prolific and proficient. So you can only imagine what else there is.”
And for better or worse, the songs from the latter era wouldn’t come off Maxell tapes.
So what’s on ‘Savage Young Dü’?
1. Unreleased songs, demos and alt takes. These include tracks from the band’s first-ever recording session in Macalester College’s arts center, May 1979, and subsequent sessions in the basement of Northern Lights record store in St. Paul and similar spaces.
2. Early singles. “Statues/Amusements” and “In a Free Land” were issued as 7-inches on the band’s own label Reflex. “They basically needed something to sell when they first started going to Chicago and other cities,” Katzman recalled.
3. Various live tracks. Going back to a July 1979 gig at the Longhorn and 1980 sets at 7th Street Entry, Zoogie’s (ex-Longhorn), Duffy’s and Goofy’s Upper Deck, Katzman usually recorded the shows using two microphones placed around the room. “It would be hard to record them off the soundboard because they were so loud,” he said.
4. “Alternate” version of “Land Speed Record.” A few weeks after the band recorded what would be its first LP for SST live at 7th Street Entry on Aug. 15, 1981, it played a near-identical set for a Twin/Tone Records-helmed recording series dubbed “Soundcheck.” Katzman said, “It sounded better.”
5. “Land Speed” bonus tracks. The band played a second set the night it made its live album in the Entry, five songs of which are included here.
6. “Everything Falls Apart.” The band’s first studio LP, originally issued via Reflex and now remastered.