Welcome to Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t. Tonight we take a look at one of the trailblazers of alternative rock, whose talent goes above and beyond his first band. I am talking of course, about the legendary Bob Mould.
Known initially as the guitarist of the legendary band Husker Du (pronounced HOOsker DOO), Bob Mould is considered by more than a few to be a musical giant. In the vein of bands like The Buzzcocks and The Jam, they were one of the first bands to combine punk energy with pop melodies, much like fellow Minnesotans The Replacements, setting the standard for future bands like Nirvana, Green Day and the Foo Fighters. Because of their marriage of punk aggression and pop sensibility, they’ve often been cited as the godfathers of grunge. Mould’s sincere lyrics and melodic wall of sound guitar playing became the staple of not just Husker Du’s sound, but for his solo career and the short lived band Sugar. With an expansive career that covers three decades, his reputation is well earned. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s begin where it all started.
Bob Mould was born in MaloneNew Yorkon October 16, 1960. He eventually moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul (One of the musical hotbeds of America best known for being the home of artists such as Bob Dylan and Prince) where, inspired by The Ramones, he took up the guitar. While attending college, he met bassist Greg Norton and drummer Grant Hart, and together they formed Husker Du. All three members had a wide, varied taste in music, but all had an infatuation with hardcore punk, particularly bands like the Minutemen and Dead Kennedys. They played sporadically around the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and quickly built a name for themselves. Starting off as strictly a hardcore punk band, each album became more and more controlled as they experimented with more accessible melodies. Because of their relentless touring and aggressive live shows, they eventually landed a deal with SST Records, the same label that housed other alt. rock pioneers like Black Flag, Sonic Youth, The Meat Puppets, Bad Brains, and Dinosaur Jr.
Songwriting duties were split between Bob Mould and drummer Grant Hart, a partnership comparable to that of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They applied to the rule that if they wrote the song, they sang it, and their lyrical writing styles also provided a stark contrast that mirrored their conflicting personalities. Think of it this way: Mould is more like Lennon while Hart is more like McCartney. Bob Mould’s lyrics were more cerebral and confessional, often drawing from personal experiences for inspiration, as opposed to Grant Hart’s more observational writing style. While these different writing styles and personalities would clash from time to time, it didn’t disrupt their restless streak of writing, recording and touring, pumping out three albums for SST (Zen Arcade, New Day Rising, and Flip Your Wig) in a matter of two years.
In 1986, Husker Du was signed to Warner Bros. and released their two most well known and bestproduced albums: Candy Apple Grey, and Warehouse: Songs and Stories, without having to bow to record company demands and maintaining as much creative control as possible. By this time, tensions between Bob Mould and Grant Hart were beginning to escalate. Mould had given up drugs and drinking and was trying to get clean, while Hart sank further into addiction. Coupled with the suicide of their manager right before their last tour, things were not looking good for the band. Mould took over managing duties and restricted Hart’s creative control as his drug dependence became more of a problem. Eventually no one could take it anymore, and the band split in 1987. Greg Norton has since put music aside and became a chef, while Hart and Mould began their own individual bands and solo careers. Hart stayed underground and formed Nova Mob, while Mould moved to Virgin Records and began more accessible and influential career.
Two years later, Bob Mould dropped his first solo release, Workbook, a noticeable departure from Husker Du’s style utilizing acoustic guitars, strings arrangements, and more introspective expression. This record was used as an exercise to purge the demons left behind from Husker Du’s break up, reflecting on the would’ve-could’ve-should’ves of past mistakes on songs like “Wishing Well” while keeping a bright eye to the future in songs like “See A Little Light”. Once the last of his demons were exorcised, it was time to throw himself back against a wall of distorted guitars with Black Sheets of Rain, Mould’s angriest release to date. After forcing a smile throughout Workbook, here he lets out all that pent up anger in a maelstrom of loud guitars and aggressive songs that gnaw at your ankles like “One Good Reason”, “Stop your Crying” and “It’s Too Late”, (the latter of which evidently became a top ten modern rock chart hit) and all without losing his melodic edge.
Sometimes when looking through a musician’s discography, I tend to pick up little tidbits of progression that show how certain records wouldn’t exist without its predecessors. For example, I doubt Pink Floyd would’ve been able to do The Wall without recording Animals first, and I have a hard time seeing Rush’s Moving Pictures coming to be without 2112 before it. In the case of Bob Mould, if it weren’t for the emotional depth and ear for pop in Workbook and the boiling aggravation of Black Sheets of Rain, he probably wouldn’t have the proper ingredients to form Sugar, a band that marries these two elements with sharp precision. Their 1992 debut album, Copper Blue, has become a cult favorite and has been listed by some critics as one of the most underrated albums of the 90’s. It’s also the most successful album in Bob’s catalogue to date. It’s a delightful little mixture of Matthew Sweet, The Pixies, and XTC, all served with the same tearful snarl that Mould’s voice is known for. Songs like “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” and “Hoover Dam” are extremely impressive with its polished yet gritty production and compositions, they still sneak in a sense of depth when you least expect it.
Apparently never satisfied with being stuck in one place for too long, Mould disbanded Sugar in 1994 after their next two albums didn’t meet expectations. He continued releasing solo albums but they didn’t meet the same raving reviews as his first two albums. He took a break from music to become a scriptwriter for the WCW for a while, became a DJ, and released a few dance and electronic albums under the pseudonym Loudbomb. In between this, the world was introduced to a little diddy of his without ever knowing it. Tell me if this sounds familiar.
Sorry I couldn’t find the original, but yeah, that was him.
After a period of inactivity, Bob Mould hit the ground running again in the mid-2000s. In 2005 he released Body of Song, which I think contains his most emotional song to date: “Circles”, a lamentation that’s guaranteed to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever lost a loved one. Two other albums, District Line and Life and Times, were released in 2008 and 2009. Then in 2011, he collaborated with the Foo Fighters on the song “Dear Rosemary” off their new album Wasting Light, a true example of student giving back to the master.
As you can see, Bob Mould has left a bigger impact on the music world than most people give him credit for. Without him, alternative rock as we know it wouldn’t be the same, and people probably wouldn’t know the names Kurt Cobain, Billy Joe Armstrong or Billy Corgan without Mould there to give them a little jump start. If you want music that’s introspective without being pretentious, or something energetic without sounding crass or alienating the casual listener, anything from Husker Du, Sugar, or Bob Mould’s solo work is sure to do the trick. For tour dates and a chance to purchase his autobiography, check out this website. http://bobmould.com/home This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.