Note: Record reviews are noted in brackets and a series of links to Youtube videos of the Replacements will be provided for those wanting a glimpse into the madness!
Underground movements have dotted the history of rock & roll, in fact being the basis and genesis for so many excellent genres. Rock itself was sort of underground before becoming offically dubbed rock and roll in the mid-50s, being a style (by names such as race music or R&B) that was confined mostly to black listening audiences. Rock hit one of its many slumps in the mid-1970s, although unlike the previous claims of "rock is dead" (made at various points during the late 60s and early 70s) that had been shouted from the hills since the British Invasion officially said "Rock is here to stay" (no disrespect to Danny & the Juniors), this one seemed all too real. The charts, always dominated by the blandest of the bland traditionally, were almost devoid of something new, something vital. Of course, Bruce Springsteen looked like the first major talent to emerge in the post-Woodstock era, but his sound wasn't a unifying one. That honour goes to the Ramones who seemed to fire the opening shot in a backlash against the excesses of the pomp of prog/art rock, generic hard rock/metal and the usual cheesy pop. They were monumental in inspiring a multitude of "punk" acts, mainly in the UK.
Punk rock also co-existed, then seemingly melded into, "new wave" music. The artists in this sub-genre were mostly favoured by critics, especially in the face of vapid, glitzy disco. But punk lost its initial vitality by 1980, new wave became the mainstream of contemporary pop (meaning the market became overcrowded by newer, lousy new wavers) and disco had been absorbed into the burgeoning electronica/techno style. From 1980-82, the propensity of synthesizer-drenched techno pop left new wave in shambles and a mere categorization tool to describe new bands. It almost seemed impossible to believe punk had been the inspiration for much of this subgenre. By 1982, though there were great things happening as in any period of music, they were primarily underground. Rap was the only thing catching critical adoration from this groundswell and movements like those in various locales for U.S. punk or for urban-based dance music were considered too minor to rave on about. As usual, rock was splintering into categories but what became known as alternative rock in the 90s got its start. Since these underground acts were hard to define, critics and fans lumped them under the moniker "College rock," because of their popularity in university circles.
College rock could be anything outside the mainstream but what it did have was a link to punk and new wave, to varying degrees mind you. Some did it with their aesthetic (R.E.M., the Feelies, the Smiths, the Cure), some with their outspokenness (Billy Bragg), some with their anger and fury (said Replacements, the Mekons, Husker Du), some with their lofty ambition (XTC, Echo & the Bunnymen) and some with their pure experimental flavour (the Pixies, Sonic Youth, They Might Be Giants). The one band who achieved their deserved level of success is obviously R.E.M., who managed to turn their retro melding of folk, psychedelia, punk and new wave into a significant career that continues to this day, albeit their prime has passed them. The one who got some level of success and recognition, but not on the major scale many felt they deserved are the Replacements. Whatever the reasons, it's considered a big query as to why they never became a smash sensation, if even at half the level that R.E.M. would see post-1986 when they signed a major label deal with Warner Bros. The Replacements started out very different from R.E.M. though in just as exclusive a cult audience.
Coming out of the North Mid-West of the U.S, Minneapolis, Minnesota to be exact, the Replacements got their start as a punk band in the garage of 19-year old guitarist Bob Stinson and his 11-year old bassist brother Tommy. As luck would have it, Paul Westerberg, then 18 and working as a janitor, was told about the group through a mutual friend and he sat in on a few of the band's practices. Along with 18-year old high school dropout Chris Mars on drums, this band that called itself Dogbreath was observed by the amused Westerberg before he offered to join. Not totally liking what he had heard, he decided to pitch himself as the rhythm guitarist, primary songwriter and potential frontman of the band in an attempt to improve the sloppy group. Eventually, Westerberg finagled his way into that position by convincing the singer that no one in the band liked him. Westerberg started off as the clear songwriting force, a.k.a. the talent behind the group. From hearing their early records, one would never know that they could be anything marketable or appealing to a large audience. They became known as a band that seemed to find the right groove to perform only after taking drugs and/or becoming drunk.
The alcohol became the tonic of choice for their wasted, tumultuous shows. By being so bad at times, they proved themselves good in an odd way. The Twin Cities had a thriving punk scene and Husker Du was just another big name involved that managed to make it. The group, now armed with a true creative leader in Westerberg, made their name off of their thrash punk style, not to mention their wild stage presence and demeanour. After a stint as the Impediments, they eventually settled on calling themselves the Replacements because they found it a funny concept that they could be the kind of group you had to settle with when the scheduled act got replaced for some reason. Soon their fans began to refer to them by the nickname the 'Mats, an abbreviated version of the Placemats, a common mispronunciation of their band name and/or a name they were derogatorily called by hecklers. Their first album with the independent Twin/Tone Records was recorded over a six month period in 1980 then came out in 1981 only because the label could not come up with funds to do so until August of that year. This release, Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash (B+), had the usual share of throwaways for an indie punk release of course but there was something youthful, angry, yet fun-loving to be derived from the Replacements music.
In standouts like "I'm in Trouble," "Something to Du" (a playful jab at rivals, and idols, Husker Du) "Shiftless When Idle" or the rather measured, slower "Johnny's Gonna Die," they showed potential for more than your average Ramones knock-offs about the usual adolescent, juvenile concerns. "Johnny's Gonna Die" was one of the few tracks not recorded at breakneck speed with vocals throatily, incomprehensibly screamed from the lips of Westerberg. The band made their attitudes, pleasures and vices in life known through titles like "Kick Your Door Down," "More Cigarettes," and "Shutup." Other reveling, cheap thrill, life-is-a-messy-party sentiments came with songs like "I Hate Music" (where they blare "I hate music/There's too many notes"), "Takin' a Ride," "Careless," "Customer," "I Bought a Headache," "Don't Ask Why," "Love You Till Friday" and "Raised in the City." Portrayals of kooky characters are provided with songs like "Otto" and "Rattlesnake." At 18 tracks, you can be assured that most of these songs barely reach 2 minutes if at all. It's like hardcore punk, but too loose, boozy and puerile.
You could gauge the subject matter through many titles on their own and the trend was present on their followup, a 1982 hardcore punk EP entitled Stink (B). Behold "Kids Don't Follow," the impatient, angstful "Goddamn Job," "Fuck School," "Stuck in the Middle," "Go," "White and Lazy," "Dope Smokin' Moron," "Gimme Noise" as well as the eventually released outtake "Beer for Breakfast" from around this period. These songs were all very much in the same monotonous style of their debut which left something to be desired. At times, these songs were impressive social commentaries, little tidbits on the frustration and vagaries of youth that sometimes saw Westerberg address the issues with a straight face behind all the fuzzy guitars, pounding, insistent drums and furiously plucked bass. Stink wasn't exactly a step up over Sorry Ma, as it seemingly exhausted the route of hardcore punk which the 'Mats soon found wasn't going to help them afford their meals. Westerberg has long maintained that he always had been an avid listener of all sorts of rock and pop music in order to hone his tastes and writing skills.
What he was most influenced by in his early adulthood was the punk savage honesty displayed by bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones, Clash and the Damned. By 1983, it seemed the Replacements could branch out into writing songs more in the style of anglofied pop/rock of the 60s and early 70s, the primary icons for this being Big Star, Alex Chilton's criminally overlooked power pop group of the early to mid 70s. Westerberg felt he could put his own spin on it and write a few songs of his own in the league of or on par with "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Thirteen," "In the Street," "O My Soul," "Back of a Car," "You Get What You Deserve," "September Gurls" and "I'm in Love with a Girl." Of course, Westerberg was the main promoter of such changes but faced opposition within the band, mainly from Bob Stinson who as the lead guitarist was steadfast to sticking with the frenetic, crazy punk rock style. Because of this, many songs Westerberg wrote kind of fell on deaf ears until it became clear the group could raise its profile with such a transition.
That didn't come out full bore with their third release in 1983, their second LP Hootenanny (B+), an album of breakthroughs brought down a little by its dizzying variety of songwriting displays. While it was their best to that date, Hootenanny wasn't a knockout blow or anything as great as Big Star. There were moments, though. But it was impressive enough to get word of mouth going about the band, the most praise actually coming for the non-hardcore punk material. The band retained its completely unpretentious manner with the humourous throwaways "Hootenanny," and the countryish acoustic solo from Westerberg "Treatment Bound." The thrashing Replacements everyone had come to know and love was on display with "Run it," "Take Me Down to the Hospital," "You Lose," "Hayday," "Lookin for Ya," "Junior's Got a Gun" and "Ain't No Crime" (the latter three being outtakes later included on a CD remastering of the LP). There was still the filler with tunes such as "Mr. Whirly" and "Lovelines." But it should be noted that more attention was paid to melodic work with "Color Me Impressed," which anyone could very well say after hearing the song.
As well, the band slowed it down for more haunting, ethereal work with "Willpower," a song distinguished by echo and other positively chilling effects. The party atmosphere of a 'Mats record also turned out some golden moments too, with the fantastic instrumental "Buck Hill," right up the alley of R.E.M. and for good reason too since Peter Buck guests on guitar in his unique fashion, thus the title. Buck would hang around to contribute ideas to the band, even being bandied about as a name for the producer of their next LP. Some of "Buck Hill" would be lifted by Westerberg for 1985's "Kiss Me on the Bus." The true highlight was the spare, perfectly 80s angst of "Within Your Reach," recorded alone by Westerberg on guitar, drum machine and synthesizer. It was a true sign he had a real talent for creating amazing tender ballads, all tinged with frustration, loneliness, disillusion and discontentment like no other writer could muster in contemporary 80s music. "Within Your Reach" proved the turnaround for Westerberg and the 'Mats. But why no commercial breakthrough? It seems the Replacements were practically allergic to the spotlight.
When finally able to tour around the country, they would play so drunk, obnoxious and loud that many in the crowd, already unaware of the group, would be completely turned off by it. The Replacements were known for dropping their own compositions from set lists in favour of doing bizarre choices of covers like the Grassroots' "Temptation Eyes" or "The Look of Love." Whenever you hear unorthodox sped-up punk covers of classic pop, think of the 'Mats and their rowdy live sets. Sometimes whole shows featured covers, done to piss off the punks in the crowd because Westerberg found it hypocritical that such fans would not let the group be diverse in musical style, as well as how they dressed, while adhering to the punk motto "Anything goes." It soon became obvious that pumping out fast, manic punk rock blitzkriegs was getting stale for the band, particularly Westerberg. The best move they could have done in light of all the anti-commercial stunts pulled was to head in a softer direction, although without abandoning their hard-edged approach.
You see, to understand why the Replacements are that legendary 80s band you might not be familiar with, you must look at the decisions they made at various points in their career. By 1983, they were on the verge of building a solid reputation and a solid fanbase. However, it seemed the task of gaining new fans was an arduous one, looked down upon by members of the band because of the baggage it came with. Opening for acts like R.E.M. proved to be more against their betterment than for it. Westerberg's opinion that "We'd much rather play for fifty people who know us than a thousand who don't care" sums it up excellently. When you go to a show to see a band you're vaguely familiar with or not familiar with at all, it takes a lot of dedication and effort to sit through it and appreciate it when the band is inebriated, playing sloppy and pulling out covers you could hear done 100 times better at your local pub while punks catapult around, spitting and spilling booze all over each other. That's a lot of dedication for a band, not to mention bills from the dry cleaner or trips to the pharmacy to treat your headache and inner ear pain.
But the Replacements found a niche with fans who enjoyed that experience. With their future riding on their next album, Westerberg took the reins and the most accurate representation of their sounds came with Let it Be (A+), so named after the band members agreed to name their album after the next song they heard on the radio. Coincidentally, the Beatles' "Let it Be" was that tune, and was an album title of its own. The Replacements' Let it Be happens to be the better of the two in fact, a significant milestone of 80s alternative/college rock that was hugely influential to future rock giants like Kurt Cobain, whose own vocals recalled Westerberg's pained, anguished, nicotine-roughened singing. It deserves its place among the top 100 albums released in the rock era. The slightly juvenile silly stories were still around, with the raucous, high-school tale "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" and the "Cat Scratch Fever" copycat "Gary's Got a Boner," a couple songs finding their rowdy rock punch at its most seasoned yet. The furious rockers remain too, but with a new sense of purpose and ragged glory, to steal a Neil Young term.
"Favourite Thing" follows in the vein of "Color Me Impressed" as a melodic, engaging rocker and even if you can barely understand Westerberg's likely intoxicated singing or if the band barely holds it together, you're truly won over by its sheer honest effort as they sing yet another quite unorthodox love song. "We're Comin' Out" starts off like the most vicious hardcore punk effort of their career but shows itself as the most complex thrash punk you're going to hear by breaking down into a moderately tempoed middle-eighth featuring fingernsaps and piano. Then it begins gradually speeding up into a cacophonous cadenza, a frantically screamed electric guitar armageddon that grabs you by the short and curlies. It's an astonishing turn of events that leaves you a bit breathless after an already pulverizing start, but it's only the tip of the iceberg. This is arguably the first truly expressive, meaningful album for the 'Mats considering how we get defiant statements like "Seen Your Video," a simplistically voiced message about how the 'Mats refused to succumb to MTV pressure and make a music video.
Westeberg hollers "Seen your video/Your phony rock & roll/We don't wanna know." This is led up to by a wonderful instrumental interlude featuring the band in true cohesion while truly killer riffs and a dissonant piano begin chiming until the actual singing begins. "Seen Your Video" is excellent but even it doesn't match the intensity of the best track on Let it Be, "Unsatisfied." With cowpunk touches and an acoustic guitar intro, you'd think it'd be less overpowering than the Replacements at their harshest but instead, it's the most riveting track to date and perhaps ever for them. The drums pulsate with a pop missing on the bash-and-crash style of the early records while the guitars whine and moan superbly, highlighting the improved production ideas behind the group's focus. Somehow they managed to turn all that alcohol intake to their betterment with Let it Be. On "Unsatisfied," he finally streamlines the long-professed angst of the 'Mats work with a fitting musical setting. Westerberg's tortured vocals continually holler "Look me in the eyes and tell me/That I'm satisfied/Are you satisfied?"
It's pure power pop perfection that stands alongside the extremely stirring "Sixteen Blue," a Byrds-like song describing the blahs of being a disenfranchised teenager, which Westerberg could speak to since he had experienced depression and thought of suicide at that age. He maintains that this "... age is the hardest age/Everything drags and drags." From the sexual frustrations to the identity struggles to the daily boredom to the fear of the unknown beyond high school, "Sixteen Blue" is the Replacements' brilliant ode to teenage angst. The opener is another proof of their progression. "I Will Dare" is like a pissed-off, defiant version of folk-rock and it features a mandolin part and a stomping intro with Peter Buck's signature guitar playing on display. "I Will Dare" once again finds Westerberg's lyrics clear and present instead of buried by mumbling or garbled screaming amidst a litany of distortion. "How are old you?/How dumb am I?/Let's count the rings around my eyes" is a clever little line alluding to the aging of a tree by checking the rings in its stump... or just Westerberg noting the weariness in his eyes from nights of hard living.
Even when doing a cover, the 'Mats are in prime form with a rip-roaring version of Kiss's "Black Diamond." It's got the raw feel of a live Replacements gig but there's no doubt this recording catches them at their most commanding with another writer's work. However, the most out-of-left-field thing on Let it Be is definitely "Androgynous," a sparse, oddly catchy, moving ballad done alone on piano by Westerberg (though it appears the snare drum's snare was left on as it vibrates with the sound in the background) who sings about gender confusion and how one day this kind of androgyny will be considered as normal as anything. "Androgynous" sounds as if it were both composed and laid down on a bleary night in a hotel room or backstage like some one-take demo. That's part of what makes it such a unique gem. It's a little weird and quirky but it's so original and more proof of Westerberg's genius during this period. At first, the closing track "Answering Machine" might seem a wall of noise, featuring pitch-bending, melodically inclined electric guitar accompaniment by Westerberg as he does his patented throaty, tortured shouting on a true songwriter's novel scenario, a man bitching about how he just can't express his feelings to his girlfriend through an answering machine.
We get sound effects of an operator's voice and change going into a pay phone over the finish with Westerberg proclaiming "I Hate your answering machine!" and boy do you feel his pain. Any song is a treat if it can be this minimalist yet intriguing while dropping lines such as "How do you say goodnight?" "How do you say 'I love you'?" or "How do you say 'I'm okay'?" all "To an answering machine." That's some heavy questioning in a relationship right there! The album leaves you wanting more but capping it off with "Answering Machine" seems so appropriate, it's just too satisfying to add onto if you ask me. An incredible LP, no? Well, listen to it first and see if you agree, then get back to me. And if you don't find it incredible, even after a few listens, then consider yourself soulless or tone deaf! But being incredible didn't do much but promote the Replacements as the best group in America that no one had heard of, which was now much to the chagrin of a band still struggling to make ends meet. Rock stardom was like their night job, an escape from the real world. But once again, there was no large discovery made, at least on a national level.
Let it Be didn't, nay couldn't, chart because Twin Tone could not afford extra promotion, which was the tipping point for the Replacements. The inability to promote led to the group signing with Sire Records a year after Let it Be made a dent on America's soundscape with critics and a smattering of fans. With the pressure of being backed by a major label at Sire, headed by Seymour Stein who felt they could truly become a viable mainstream rock act, it became obvious that personality and musical clashes would become more visible within the Replacements. One between Westerberg and Bob Stinson, his old muse and the yin (hard rock) to his yang (thoughtful singer-songwriter efforts), threatened to tear the band apart as they went into their first record for Sire. Stinson preferred the guitar mania, punk thrash of yesteryear while Westerberg wanted to branch out, fulfill his long-held songwriting aspirations and by this point, the other two would follow whatever got them out of working day jobs. Stinson's brother Tommy, still just 19 when the switch to Sire took place, would become more involved in writing from this point on while Chris Mars took a few stabs at that, as well as some backing vocals.
Bob Stinson was the only one not progressing forward and not solely because of his reluctance to go toward a more commercial sound. Stinston was abusing drugs and alcohol by this point, which took some serious business to accomplish in a band of stoned, hard-drinking animals like the Replacements. A decision was inevitable, but it would not come until after the new album. Some fans feel that the resulting product of the "new" 'Mats, 1985's Tim (A), was the peak of their powers, some feel it was the last gasp of their greatness before pop aspirations took hold and some feel it was already the 'Mats denuded by a slicker, more radio-friendly production. Production gripes aside, there is no discernable drop in quality even if Tim can't live up to the lofty expectations set by Let it Be. Nonetheless, Tim is a great little album on its own; a good time, catchy, power pop-punk landmark, produced with booming 80s drums and juicy hooks abound by Tommy Erdelyi (aka Tommy Ramone, original Ramones drummer until he quit to produce them full-time for a while). While it can be argued, and many big fans of the group did, that the production was a bit arena-oriented or sterile, an anti-punk work in many ways, it did position the Replacements in the modern day sound with a bang.
A clean, clear, radio catching production should be the antithesis of punk, no? Well, punk had been somewhat jettisoned as Westerberg's goofier songs no longer explored the depths of teenage gross-out humour or chaotic insolence for the sake of rebellion. And whether the production is dated or not can't change the fact that what's inside the grooves is more growth from everyone's favourite, and yet nobody's favourite, alt-rockers of the 80s. One can hear how Bob Stinson's madman leads were toned down for Tim. The focus is more on pop hooks, but coated with enough of the usual Westerberg flair for rebellion to redeem it. There's still the same grease and grime you'd hope to hear from the guys in the band but Westerberg's increasingly endearing, maturing penmanship is apparent through many tracks, including the insistent, Big Star dead ringer "Hold My Life" (which cautions someone in question to "Hold my life/Until I'm ready to use it" and "Because I just might lose it"). As well, there's the amusing, youthful harangue "Kiss Me on the Bus," the down-to-earth romantic "Little Mascara" and the underground rock tribute "Left of the Dial" (featuring hero Alex Chilton on guitar).
These songs, to varying degrees, should be considered hallmarks of the alternative rock movement that owes a lot of its attitude, spirit and themes to a group like the Replacements. The whole early 90s Generation X outpouring of artistic expression and internal reflection seemingly got started with Westerberg and the Replacements. This was all before there was ever a Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or any other artist from or not from Seattle, before there was a movie like Singles or Reality Bites. Somehow, what Westerberg sang about seemed out of place with the 1980s, a decade of yuppies, go-getters and coke-snorting mavericks who would sooner wear day-glo shorts than dress in plaid and mope by the convenience store. It's not all overly serious, as the acoustic boogie of "Waitress in the Sky," a putdown of a snooty stewardess, demonstrates the band's easier going, light-hearted style. On Tim, Westerberg seems more conscious of what he has to say and who he can say it about, striving to capture the feelings of all the misfits he felt he spoke for. Even if it talks to a minority, it's a significant minority that goes beyond the inanities of platinum-selling, manufactured pap on the market at the times (yes, most popular music sucked even in 1985. Nothing new about that being the case today).
The anthemic by-product of this sense of purpose manages to deliver to us the rip-roaring, brilliant "Bastards of the Young," a middle fingered salute to the establishment trying to ignore the disenfranchised youth of a nation, made all the more resonant by its black-and-white music video which just showed a big speaker projecting the music as people's feet occasionally trot by. Balls-to-the-wall party music gets its share of the attention through "I'll Buy." Sometimes the party is cast in a more thoughtful light though. For example, don't let the title of the song "Swingin' Party" fool you, because it's as relaxed, folky, and pensive a tune released by the 'Mats to that point. Even though it comes dangerously close to sounding like a carbon copy of Neil Young's (via Buffalo Springfield) even weightier 1967 song "Flying on the Ground is Wrong," it is a charming triumph of a ballad. It shows Westerberg's innate talent for writing about loneliness, disillusionment and various neuroses like it was a reflex for him. Paul was quite attuned to the problems one experiences with being the social outcast and these frank songs just come naturally to him by this point.
He does the same with the touching finale, "Here Comes a Regular," an exceedingly lonely, sobering track sung from the point of view of a desperate lonely drinker. The fact it just features Westerberg's emotional, (non-gravely), serious vocals plus string synthesizer and a quaint piano bit makes the intended message even more of a kick to the gut and a stab straight to the heart. A true masterpiece way to close out a fine album that only hinted at what could have been. And even when the Replacements aim to let it all hang out and rock, they still don't sound quite as reckless, drunken or ramshackle as before, with the very average "Dose of Thunder" and "Lay it Down Clown." These happen to be the only tracks where Bob Stinson's guitar pyrotechnics are allowed to run loose and because they are also the weakest things here, the writing was perhaps on the wall for Bob's future in the band. The fact the members of the band were pulled in all sorts of artistic avenues by Westerberg's creative roll didn't lend well to their attempts to revive the burning, fist-in-the-air snarl of their garage days as each of their next 3 albums following Let it Be sound increasingly neutered in comparison to the previous.
But in their behaviour, the Replacements still bordered on the out of control, sort of a punkier version of the naughty, dangerous, living-on-the-edge Guns n' Roses. I say that because when touring, the group was as disorderly and wasted as ever. They gave the country all it could handle when booked as musical guests on Saturday Night Live in January 1986. Paul lets a "fuck" slip within earshot of the mic while the band somehow finds its way through an inspired rendition of "Bastards of the Young." Then they all pull the usual prankster Replacements maneuver by switching into each other's clothes for their next appearance to play "Kiss Me on the Bus." Mars, Westerberg and Stinson have hair longer, more untamed and rattier than ever in their partying state while Stinson does not carry such a giant hairdo, instead carrying a bit of paunch as he barely fits into a kimono outfit, worn since none of the others' attire would fit him I imagine. After treating the unsuspecting audiences to this, they stumble around before leaving the stage, except for Bob Stinson who drunkenly mugs to the studio audience before dropping his still plugged-in guitar right over his shoulder and feigning shock at his intentionally clumsy display.
Future reruns would have some offending moments edited out and surely the Replacements were put on the "Don't ask back" list by Lorne Michaels and NBC (Note: Westerberg returned and pulled off a tremendous version of 1987's "Can't Hardly Wait" when he guested in 1993 to promote his solo debut 14 Songs). By the end of 1986, a hefty diet of drug and drink led to Bob Stinson being kicked out of the group. The rest of the band had their own issues yet it seemed convenient enough to use this reasoning since Stinson never was on the same page when Westerberg drove the band toward a higher cause of sorts with the maturing songwriting. The SNL gig was another indication of how mainstream audiences could never get into a band so delighted by their own mayhem, so unpredictable, wild and so seemingly in it for the shits and giggles instead of the money and worship. After all, what band in their right mind isn't in it for the money, fame, adoration and luxuries not to mention the girls, drugs and free liquor? Ok maybe the 'Mats were motivated by the latter three but they challenge the idiotic "conventional wisdom" of the public that says all bands want to be like Nickelback or Bon Jovi when really all good bands want to be anything but those.
Great bands like the Replacements strain to be something wholly different altogether. The unpredictability of their concert dates was showed off commercially as 1985's raw, live LP The Shit Hits the Fans (B+) saw to. Those who appreciated a good natured band that broke even their own rules flocked to their shows and bought their records, but that was a small part of the consumer market. Someone too "refined" for the Replacements might have gone out and bought a Bon Jovi record or something or even an R.E.M. album if their tastes were finer (possibly snobbish?) but not necessarily chaotic. And those are all key components in how the Replacements just could not break through to the experience of legions of fans and millions of record sales like an R.E.M. or 10,000 Maniacs did from the college rock scene. Known for their barrel-of-laughs mentality, as indicated by the clothes swap of the SNL appearance, other famous Replacements moments included the band shaving their eyebrows before a TV interview. This occurred after Stinson left mind you, but exemplified how the Replacements could try to torpedo any semblance of order and upstanding behaviour on a whim or spur of the moment (likely under the influence!).
Bob was eventually replaced in 1987 by a veteran of the Minneapolis music scene, sideman pro Slim Dunlap (at 36, already older than the next oldest member of the group, Westerberg, by 8 years and a cool 15 years older than the barely-of-legal age Tommy Stinson, still just 21 by 1987). It's interesting because the late 80s Replacements, though they may have been flawed in their crossover attempts, were channeled by some 90s acts who had platinum-selling records of their own, namely the Goo Goo Dolls and just about 1 of every 3 alt-rock bands who crossed over to a pop market. Their influence is a lot deeper than one would think. After Tim, they continued to break through to a wider audience with 1987's Pleased to Meet Me, (A-) recorded as a trio after Stinson's ousting. It features further maturation and progression from Westerberg, plus the advent of digital production changes the sound of the group. Recording in Memphis with famed veteran producer Jim Dickinson brings about the use of horns, a soulful touch to a group devoid of R&B influences in their oeuvre to that point (though certainly not something Westerberg had been adverse to or even unwilling to pick up).
The frantic rockers are more elegantly wasted sounding than the ones on Tim but are still much more sterile and arena-friendly than anything on Let it Be and before. This isn't to say they don't rock hard and that's confirmed with listens to the zany "I.O.U.," the tongue-in-cheek "I Don't Know" (replete with beefy horn backing and droll, zoned-out backing vocals muttering "I don't know") and "Red Red Wine." The weakest of these boozy brawlers is easily "Shooting Dirty Pool" which sounds like some kind of demented twist on Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend," and comes off as a half-formulated throwaway done for fun. The fun doesn't make it much more than an obviously minor composition. The more serious-minded material can be mellow or energizing, the former being the case with the breezy, cocktail jazzy "Nightclub Jitters" (think the piano breakdown in "We're Coming Out") as well as the cozy, acoustic-based "Skyway," which sounds like Lyle Lovett's folkier leanings gone alternative rock and that's not such a bad thing actually. The latter (energizing) being the case with the hypnotic, pleading "Never Mind" (with guitar flourishes not unlike the drone of "Answering Machine") and "Valentine."
These two tracks showed how Westerberg's love songs were becoming more complex and closely thought out, whereas love songs in the early years, if there were any, dealt with matters through frustration and booze-soaked insolence. It's as if Westerberg buttoned up a collar, combed his hair and dried out for some days when he wrote the tunes. No one gets the impression he woke up at 2 p.m. after 3 hours of sleep, careened through a wall with a beer in one hand and a cig in the other to get in the mood for writing... if that's how he used to do it at least (I'm just speculating!). The most enduring and classic things about Pleased to Meet Me are "Alex Chilton," "The Ledge" and "Can't Hardly Wait." The first of these is a genuine Westerberg tribute to a hero of his, the kind of love letter only a hardcore fan could conjure up. He raves on about his enjoyment of the music of Alex Chilton, famed cult legend behind power pop pioneers Big Star and teenaged singer of the late 60s AM radio "blue-eyed soul" stars the Box Tops. Professing that he has "Never travelled far/Without a little Big Star," Paul writes an anthem about someone who he actually emulated both emotionally and in status among music fans as an underrated, under-appreciated master of songwriting.
It still stands easily as one of the top 10 Replacements songs and got a music video clip even, although it was just a black-and-white montage of seemingly random shots of the band, along with new member Dunlap, horsing around on a couch while eating burgers and letting the camera take what otherwise would be considered framing shots and tests. But leave it to the 'Mats to make the music video for the sake of exposing its inanities. Originally the clip was just of a record player playing the song but MTV refused to play such a blatant middle finger submission so a new one, still dull and minimalist though, was filmed. To make it apparent how they felt about the music video concept at the time, they used the same exact clip for "The Ledge." "The Ledge" is almost the first post-punk stab by the 'Mats, a gloomy, piledriving rock that touches on the matter of teenage suicide by singing from the point of view of a desperate, emotionally shattered youth who feels like if he threatens to jump to his death he'll be "The boy they can't ignore." Westerberg, who often acknowledged his intentions in writing the tune were inspired by his own depression and suicidal thoughts as a teenager, throws out unsettling lines like "Watch me fly and die/Watch me fall."
The protagonist here seems to be doing it to attract the attention of a girl who spurned him (e.g: "A girl that I once knew, years ago/Is tryin' to be reached on the phone... I'm the boy she can't ignore") and has no hope of being saved. Matters are a bit less dark for the joyous final track "Can't Hardly Wait," featuring the idolized Chilton himself on guitar plus decidedly Memphis horns and the unprecedented use of strings to add some majesty to the arrangement. It's the ultimate record because it pulls out all the stops to make a Replacements classic, employing multiple instruments, killer riffs and licks and a prime Westerberg vocal. It's an acutely crafted soundscape that works sensationally and manages not to repeat itself by staying just over 3 minutes long. The song is built off a jangly guitar riff that is doubled up by another guitar in harmony as well as horns while Westerberg sings one of the few cheery, optimistic tunes ever done by the band to that point. There's no foreboding sense that the world is coming to an end or life is going to keep sucking on "Can't Hardly Wait." Heck, even a seeming Gen X love letter sort of film was made in 1998 with this song lending it the title.
In the 'Mats history, the whole band was credited with some songs, usually the up-tempo slobber knockers while Westerberg was the sole writer behind the more cerebral material. By Tim, only one song (the crazy "Dose of Thunder") saw the other three get songwriting credits, proving the old style was being usurped by Westerberg's ambitions. But because they had been reduced to a trio in 1986, Tommy Stinson and Mars could join in and provide needed reinforcement. Without Bob, there seemed to be a renewed sense of ambition, although always tinged with this stubbornness in dealing with major record label recognition. Mars and Stinson the younger receive shared credit on "Alex Chilton," "I Don't Know," "Shooting Dirty Pool" and "Valentine." With the addition of Dunlap a quartet set-up was restored but once again, after Pleased to Meet Me failed to move many units, there was pressure to create some big sales. This led to a clear attempt at commercialization, 1989's Don't Tell a Soul (B-). Perhaps the title was asking it be kept a secret that the punk ethic, attitude and sound was being jettisoned in favour of a slicker, radio-friendly approach that made Tim sound like Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.
Only a few of the pop chart efforts actually work, plus the album is much too downbeat for a quality Replacements LP. Certainly there are highlights but is it Westerberg's rip-roaring rasp singing about beer, hang-ups and rocking out while the group vomits and stumbles around, chaotically bashing each other and any people in the vicinity with their instruments and empties? Well no, not really. A lot of that reckless spirit is gone and the shots at punky leanings are hollow in comparison. Still, they show a glimmer of potential for crossover, MTV, top 40 success on Don't Tell a Soul. The production by Matt Wallace seems to suck the life out of the more inspired pieces but there's still no doubt that the rock-star-in-the-making dialogue of "Talent Show" is one of the high spots. "We'll Inherit the Earth" is an adventurous number that brings up memories of Pete Towshend's most engaged, biographical work with the Who and the heavily strummed acoustic guitar adds more to the Who similarity. "Achin' to Be" has a country-rock feel like a Rolling Stone song from 1968-72 that threw in acoustic guitars, mandolin and/or pedal steel guitar.
"Anywhere's Better than Here" is one of the closest things to edgy rock here. The gentler side of alt-rock is showed off with the only 'Mats top 40 hit, "I'll Be You." It's one of the few worthy of being on any of the previous LPs because like those excellent works, "I'll Be You" hits the mark so sharply. It's a song that stands alongside current acts of the time like the Cure, only with a boatload more bravado as opposed to the Cure's moody artful love peans. Mellower moments come in the form of "They're Blind," a dreamy track with a rolling triplet beat and more of those acoustic guitars, once a rarity unless it was one of Westerberg's solo spotlights. A similar instrumentation is used for the superb ballad "Rock n' Roll Ghost." But for the first time since Hootenanny there are tracks that leave you cold, feeling a bit underwhelmed. Even the throwaways of 1984-87 had their place but this time, the mediocrity is not from the heart and goes for a poppier sound instead of the old nascent, angry, tongue-in-cheek tendencies of the old Bob Stinson-era Replacements. Although Slim Dunlap filled in admirably, he clearly could not replicate the thrash-and-grind of Bob's playing.
Where the absence of any light-heartedness and the shift to a self-conscious, posing songwriting from Westerberg really gets irritating is with the meandering, formless "Back to Back," "Asking Me Lies" (which wastes a newly attempted funk beat with a shallow melody to a dull relationship song) and the better-on-the-shelf attempt at the old ferocity "I Won't." Even the final song, "Darlin' One" is a genuine confession from the heart that falls flat, sounding more tired, unfocused and undeveloped than honest and cutting. Don't Tell a Soul was a supposed "sellout" attempt that didn't even sell, despite actual non-subversive music videos for "I'll Be You" and "Achin' to Be." The frustration with not striking commercial gold was doubled by the fact that fans grumbled over the new material. After the disappointment of this, the band had a disastrous run as opening act for a Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers world tour. Then, as part of contractual obligations for Sire, Westerberg began work on a solo album throughout 1989-90 and it seemed the Replacements could very well be done. However by chance Dunlap, Stinson and Mars were called in to contribute to some tracks and it became a veritable follow-up.
That follow-up was the fitting finale All Shook Down (B+). It received warmer reception than Don't Tell a Soul, even Replacements fans had gotten used to the maturation and more personal exploration of Westerberg's music, whether or not that sat well with most of them. Maybe they were also quite relived to know that the group had reunited. The sad part about the album is not just that it's not a great one but the four Replacements don't ever play all on the same track. Therefore what you hear truly does sound like a solo album by Westerberg under the banner of the Replacements name. The album is not as slickly produced or as vapid as Don't Tell a Soul tends to get, but it is still a measured, sobering (quite literally since Westerberg was quitting his heavy drinking ways), matured one from the group with only a few bursts of electric fury and even those pale in comparison to the old 'Mats. The first song of the LP, "Merry Go Round," does feature some crunchy electric guitar over top of the usual melodic, angstful brilliance. It's one of those tunes that proves the old magic had not disappeared. The acoustic preferences lead to the energetic, lovelorn "One Wink at a Time" which brings back the beefy horn sound that adorned some tracks from Pleased to Meet Me.
This album takes some getting used to even for those who thought Pleased to Meet Me was a blistering hard slice of Replacements anarchy. Mostly absent is Westerberg's rasp and the drunken frenzy. In their place is a tighter strucured, more acoustic-driven, softer alt-rocking approach that characterizes many of these songs. From "Nobody" to the country and bluegrass tinged ballad "Sadly Beautiful," to the twangy "Torture," the aims of the band and its leader are less rebellious than ever but certainly infused with more grit and soul than Don't Tell a Soul. One could see the band going forward with this new approach that they all seemed quite comfortable with, at least compared to the previous LP. "Someone Take the Wheel" is a bit too familiar-sounding, not differentiating itself from superior songs on this LP while "Bent Out of Shape" is a mediocre rock raver. Also, the weak, cloying, poorly-sung "Attitude" sounds like a demo and the title track is a languid, somewhat boring inclusion that still can't be rescued by the inclusion of recorder over Westerberg's whispy vocals and guitar strumming. This was a foreshadowing of some of his homemade, amateur crafted, lo-fi albums in the spirit of one-man band Paul McCartney's work.
One of the lead singles here indicates perhaps where the Replacements were headed if they had stuck together and that's the shimmering, infectious, splendid alt-country of "When it Began." It's got some rare harmony vocals that add to a sense of comraderie and spirit in the group even if that really wasn't the case in real life. "When it Began" and "Merry Go Round" were another of the 'Mats conventional music video clips, curious in light of their previous disgusted stance on the matter. Still, they found something to salvage out of it as the inventive, claymotion video for "When it Began" got nominated for Best Alternative Video and Best Special Effects at the 1991 MTV Video Awards. The streak of jubilant, likeable alt-rock that the Replacements were giving is finely delivered in addition to those two classics, with "Happy Town" and the best track here, the scintillating, powerful "My Little Problem," a duet with Concrete Blonde's bassist and vocalist Johnette Napolitano. It's a raise-your-fist, sing-along, jacked up performance that lives on in radio through being a piece included during the intros from commercial break on the radio program of controversial sports personality Jim Rome, an avowed fanatic of the 'Mats.
One of the finest mellow, easy going tunes in the history of the band finishes it off for good. It's "The Last," ironically their last original song (a nod to the closing of a chapter much like the tune "The End" was for the Beatles in 1969) for another 16 years. It's a spare, homespun listen, a piano-led ballad that shuffles along with a jazzy arrangement, coming off not unlike Billy Joel or Elton John at their best. In fact, it's good enough that one could say it's not a far cry off from Westerberg's pained, mystic piano delicacy "Androgynous." Some of the songs bring the whole effort down a notch and it would have been nice to have more old-style madness and shit-kicking care-free attitude behind the songs, so through this you can tell it's less a band effort than a Westerberg creative vehicle. One must also give credit to producer Scott Litt, frequent producer for alt-rock breathren R.E.M., because he derives a lot more authenticity from this album than the rather sterile Don't Tell a Soul and the production replicates the live, raw sound of a Replacements gig better than any since Let it Be. In the wake of All Shook Down it seemed like a whole new start for the Replacements when it was actually the beginning of the end.
The seeds for dissolving were sown with the rather disjointed sessions for All Shook Down which displayed a band that was anything but cohesive. The sign that trouble was brewing came when Chris Mars quit to focus on his being a visual artist full-time in November 1990, just two months after All Shook Down. Touring through 1990-91 with Steve Foley in Mars' old drum chair, it was a farewell that went down with little fanfare. In the years following, the reputation of the Replacements has only grown, as so often happens to bands unappreciated in their time. Bob Stinson bounced around with many indie bands after being kicked out in 1986. He continued in his hard-living, hard-rocking niche before he died in 1995, his body worn out after years of drug and alcohol abuse despite being only 35 years of age. Sadly he isn't the only deceased member as short-term drummer Foley died of an accidental overdose of prescription medication in 2008. As for the icon Paul Westerberg, he launched a somewhat acclaimed solo career with the same dizzying variety as his latter day 'Mats work and as inconsistent too.
Westerberg's legion of fans still keeps him higher profile than the rest, save for when Tommy Stinson's GnR actually release a damn album (only took the 14 years this time around!). Yes, that's right; Tommy Stinson is the current bassist in Guns n' Roses. He played with bands such as Bash & Pop before replacing charter member Duff McKagan in 1998, a position he covets to this day thus making him the third longest-running member in the band's history behind Axl Rose and McKagan (Hey, everyone needs a "Goddamn job" don't they?). Dunlap has stayed out of the spotlight, working locally in Minneapolis with bands in production, writing and performance. A reunion has still been thrown around as an idea for the future, with Westerberg spurring on those dreams by claiming that the group will definitely, eventually have another day in the sun. Reunions have been few and far between but Westerberg has explained why the Replacements never broke through to a national audience by passing off many of the theories and claiming that they didn't want it bad enough. He insists that they were too wary of fame and fortune to really go for it so they never felt like they were missing out on anything.
All things considered, the 'Mats lack of headway made commercially didn't disappoint them as much as it seems to bother their staunch fans and critics. The closest thing to a reunion came in 2007 when Rhino Records released a best-of called Don't You Think I Know Who I Was? that featured a reunited lineup on two new tracks. Sans Dunlap and with Josh Freese on drums instead of Mars, who sings backup, these original compositions are ordinary, albeit not without their charm. Called "Pool & Dive" and "Message to the Boys" they recall the more foolhardy side of the group. There was a 1997 double-disc compilation All for Nothing/Nothing for All, the first disc being standouts from Tim to All Shook Down because legal difficulties didn't allow for any of the great songs from the Twin/Tone days to be included. The second disc (Nothing for All) collects B-sides and unreleased tracks, some of them live cuts. The Replacements may never be the same even if they get back together, but there's no doubting their legacy in terms of how they influenced what became the biggest trends in rock during the 90s like alternative rock and grunge.
Perhaps they aren't a households name and when you ask people if they've heard of the Replacements, they usually respond "Oh right, that movie about the scab football team with Keanu Reeves!" But they are indeed more memorable than almost anything involving Keanu Reeves (save for Johnny Mneumonic. I mean, who on Earth could live without the brilliant thespian display of that low-budget masterpiece? Hmmm, probably 6.5 billion people or so not counting Keanu, the writer, the director and the producer). And if I can keep my composure over such an innocuous oversight, I would educate such a person on perhaps the best rock and roll band the 80s produced bar none.
Links of interest (cut and paste 'em!):
Replacements during their last tour- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hd0t0QM09fE
"Shaved Eyebrows" interview- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v-aqvt7YBkG3Y&feature=related
1981 Live Club Performance of "Kids Don't Follow"- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unscw03qWbE