Review Summary: Failing to capture the intense energy Husker Du was known for early in their career, one must assume this was just an attempt by Warner Brothers at getting back some of their investment on one of their commercially stagnant underground signings.
The official discography of Husker Du is relatively clean. In it you won’t find a myriad of compilation albums, EPs, reissues and remasters (with bonus tracks!) that other bands are plagued by(even bands that only had two total albums released before they broke up), which oftentimes exist solely for the record labels to make money while spending very little of it. Live albums also fall under the category of “money grabs.” This isn’t a problem when you’re talking about the MTV Unplugged album from Nirvana, or something of actual quality, but each year hundreds of poor quality live albums are released that serve no other purpose but for a record label to make money. Or for a band to get one step closer to fulfilling that five album contract their overlords kindly forced them to sign. This, sadly, is one of those throwaway live discs that really are not worth anybodies time.
The Living End: Live was released in 1994, a full seven years after the Huskers harshly broke up. In 1994 Bob Mould and Grant Hart were both in other bands and releasing solo material. The Living End is not the first Husker Du live album. In 1980 there was the aptly titled Land Speed Record which was released probably because the Huskers couldn’t get into a studio and couldn’t get any professional recordings done. In that album you have a band full of energy and emotion, a band just happy to play wherever and whenever they could. It was also one of the highest-selling albums SST had in its catalogue. At the time of The Living End, you had Greg and Bob arguing, doing drugs, and just being assholes, it seems. The band was close to breaking up every day, and it seems like a miracle they dragged themselves on stage to crank out fifteen Husker Du cover songs a night.
On this album it sounds like a talented band trying, but ultimately failing to play Husker Du music. The vocals don’t sound great. Sometimes Bob is just mumbling with his vocals, Grant is shouting with no direction and the songs don’t sound as energetic as the studio recordings. It’s something of a train wreck. One would think that, in replacement of some of the more awful sounding tracks Warner Brothers would have selected better versions (this album is a compilation of tracks pooled together from shows during the final years of the bands tenure) of the songs, but, perhaps there are no better versions for them to pick from.
As one could expect, the album begins with “New Day Rising,” the standard Husker show opener. The track begins with the band testing out their instruments and making sure the microphones work. The buildup for the actual song is great, but when Grant smacks on the drums, nothing comes out. Bob has no emotion in his voice. The studio version is one of the best high energy rock songs of all time and this isn’t close to replicating that.
Most of the rest of the album follows suite, however the songs where the band doesn’t sound drugged up and awful are pretty decent (Books About UFOs – better than the studio version) and you have to give credit that the entire Husker Du discography is represented (songs like Target, It’s not Funny Anymore and Data Control from the earlier years up to several tracks off of their Warner Bros. work. Sadly though, Zen Arcade is not given its’ due here, with only What’s Going On selected for inclusion). There are also several neat unreleased tracks included in live form, like the Greg Norton rocker Everytime, which is one of the highlights of the album, because you hear Greg singing and because it’s good. Others include Ain’t No Water in the Well and Now that you Know Me, which Grant released on his first solo album, Intolerance. With twenty-four tracks, there is something for everyone.
The Living End finishes with a cover of The Ramones’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker which sadly is one of the few tracks where the band went out all and played with intense emotion, which is the one song present most Husker Du fans wouldn’t care about. If this performance was dragged out to the twenty-three tracks that came to precede, maybe I’d have a much less harsh view of The Living End.
Every so often you may put this album on, skip to the listenable tracks, enjoy them then put the album to rest until you get that feeling again. In later interviews, Bob Mould quipped he had never heard of this album and did not know it existed. To him, it would probably just seem like an awkward family photo.