“The radio, that was my big influence … Bands that were faceless, that didn’t really have anything other than what you heard on the radio. And I liked the real pop-y shit: Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell. I’d never admit it, but I liked pretty things, melodies that had a sad feeling to them. I guess it was because I had an acoustic guitar for five years before I had an electric. And you couldn’t rock out on an acoustic.
“See, I think the rock and roll-antic-party thing about the Replacements is what makes our other stuff better and more attractive. If we were solely a band that played stuff like ‘Here Comes a Regular,’ it wouldn’t be unique at all. We can go to both extremes better than any band — I think, ever … We can make as much noise as anyone on the planet Earth. But none of those bands can write a song like ‘Swingin Party.'” —Paul Westerberg, as told to David Fricke, February 1986 (from the liner notes of the 1997 Replacements compilation All for Nothing/Nothing for All)
Maybe if he’d been more willing to admit that he liked pretty things, Paul Westerberg wouldn’t have had to deal with so much shit later in his career; rather than being viewed as a slightly more mainstream Ramones or HÁ¼sker DÁ¼, the Replacements would have been seen as spiritual heirs to Big Star and the Faces. Maybe a few more fans would have been willing to hang on for the ride when the band (well, Westerberg, really) softened up its sound — when rambunctious rock muscle yielded to scruffy, downcast folk-pop. Shit, maybe they would have stayed together. But probably not.
Here’s a Guide I’ve been warily contemplating for months, folks, but have stayed away from because I didn’t feel qualified to do the writing. The simple fact of the matter is that when they really mattered, I didn’t care about the Replacements, and when I finally did make it into Fanville, I did it backwards — All Shook Down was my first Mats album — forever rendering me uncoolest of the uncool. (Given that Westerberg and the Replacements preached to the outcasts and the losers, that makes me pretty fucking uncool.) I had initially planned on handing this Guide off to my good friend Benja, since he’s much more of a traditional, religious-experience, cigs/beers/feedback & hallelujah Mats fan, but fuck it, here we go.
There were an awful lot of Ramones and HÁ¼sker DÁ¼ comparisons, especially early on, but I think anybody who was listening closely enough should have known the Replacements were more than that. Their music relied heavily on the thunderously sloppy rock & roll love of the former, and the sneering cynicism of the latter, but both of those bands straightjacketed themselves into fairly singular modes of musical expression. The Ramones were punk and HÁ¼sker was post-punk, and that’s pretty much the beginning and the end of the story, whether you love em or hate em. The Replacements were all over the goddamn map.
Now, clearly, you can’t draw a straight line between Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and Tim — but nonetheless, the Replacements, from the beginning, showed a willingness to experiment. Though these experiments were initially couched in ironic detachment (Hootenanny’s joke-tastic “Mr. Whirly” [download] is a great example), as time wore on and the guys learned how to really play their instruments, they started to really show all their roots. This is why I don’t think you can really draw a line between Pleased to Meet Me and everything that came after it — as much as Don’t Tell a Soul and (especially) All Shook Down distressed hardcore fans, they’re woven from the same cloth as the early “good” stuff.
The simple fact of the matter is that Paul Westerberg in 1990 wasn’t the same guy he was in 1979, when he joined up with Chris Mars and the Stinson brothers in a Minneapolis garage. In life and rock & roll, we either grow up or we stop mattering — or, worse, we just die — and Westerberg grew. This doesn’t mean the later albums are perfect, but Jesus, listen to Sorry Ma and tell me the earlier stuff — matter of fact, even the hallowed trio of Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me — isn’t devoid of false moments and filler.
Nor does it mean Westerberg’s solo work isn’t ponderous and stultifyingly boring for the most part. But today’s Guide only carries us through 1990, so we don’t have to worry about what came next.
In a word, this album is LOUD — after fifteen songs or so, it starts to feel like a beating — but you can hear a full-fledged group of songwriters starting to muscle their way out of their shells. “Careless” (download) is a minute and ten seconds of punk fury colliding with pure pop sensibilities, and though I doubt anybody connected with the band ever gave this song a second thought, it foreshadows the ragged, teetering glory of the band’s best mid-’80s work. Most of the rest of Ma follows the same loose pattern, and the songs come and go in a handful of seconds and a cloud of dust, but even on their first album, the band knew how to mix things up a bit — witness the Johnny Thunders tribute “Johnny’s Gonna Die” (download) and the choogling, ramshackle “Shiftless When Idle” (download).
Stink EP (1982)
Stink followed Ma closely, and as you might expect, the two are pretty much of a piece. It’s still heavy on the noise and light on the melody, but the racket is perhaps a little more refined. The band even hoists a small, dirty folk flag on “White and Lazy” (download).
With this album, the band played all its cards, though not always well and certainly not always with straight faces. If modern pop music was a department store, Hootenanny would be the sound of four guys running, screaming and naked, through it after hours — stealing tools from the R&B department, taking a leak on the customer service counter in Soul, knocking over a display in Folk, and finally passing out in a pool of vomit between Pop and Rock & Roll. It sounds primitive and sort of goofy today, but this album blew people away when it came out. For my money, the two best songs are the midtempo rocker “Color Me Impressed” (download) and “Within Your Reach” (download), a searing glimpse behind Westerberg’s crooked grin. I’d go so far as to say that “Reach” is one of the best songs on any Mats album — it’s raw, honest, and it somehow manages to rock even though the rhythm track comes from a horrible-sounding drum machine. (It’s also a solo Westerberg recording, which just goes to show that All Shook Down wasn’t entirely unexpected.)
If Hootenanny was their calling card, then Let It Be is probably the Replacements’ touchstone album, the one that was passed between dorm rooms across America and inevitably attracted major-label attention. Late-period Mats and solo Westerberg are probably held up against Let It Be more than anything else he’s done, which is a baffling shame; it’s far and away not their best. Clearly, “I Will Dare” (download) is one of the greatest rock songs of the 20th century — but it isn’t as great as some of the stuff they’d do later on. There’s a handful of nice ballads, like “Unsatisfied” (download). But the album is bogged down with jokey trifles like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “Seen Your Video.” The indie system had taken them about as far as they could go in terms of commercial success, and as far as they were willing to go on their own artistically. Luckily, a still-hungry Seymour Stein stepped in and signed the band to his Sire Records.
Okay, so I’ve spent all this time defending Don’t Tell a Soul and All Shook Down, but here’s the kicker: Even I can’t deny that Tim is Westerberg’s masterpiece. This record is a thing of unadulterated beauty — pure, distilled, rock & roll at its glorious, life-affirming best. Sure, “Lay It Down Clown” and “Dose Of Thunder” are filler, and “Waitress in the Sky” should have been a B-side, but oh my God, that doesn’t come close to putting a stain on the rest of the record. Tim hails from an era when you bought albums on cassette and listened to Side One and then Side Two — it’s an experience, and if the band dialed it back a little on the lesser numbers, that’s only because they were giving you a little breather before they kicked you in your damn solar plexus with the next shining blast.
Really, this is one of those records that critics everywhere venerate, and I know it’s annoying, but I literally can’t help it. Tim is an album that makes me feel good about life. I just don’t know how else to put it, but here are a few words from my aforementioned good pal Benja:
“Tim is, without a doubt, one of the great albums of our time. To me, everything that came after, would forever be in its shadow. It’s right up there with HÁ¼sker DÁ¼’s most transcendent and The Rolling Stones at their knuckle-dragging best.
“Tim was both the major label debut and the fin de siecle. After Bob Stinson’s departure, the follow-up, Pleased to Meet Me, would crystallize the band’s end of innocence, but was there even any to lose? If Let it Be was the band’s Born to Run, then Tim was their Darkness on the Edge of Town. An old girlfriend of mine called it ‘The Replacements go to college,’ and then she took a long drag on her Virginia Slim.
“That chick was right about everything: ‘Bastards of Young’ (download) became the greatest rock anthem since ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,’ and ‘Here Comes a Regular’ (download) became the greatest ode to alcoholism ever. ‘Little Mascara’ (download) was the hottest girl you knew, and ‘Kiss Me on the Bus’ (download) described the best date you could ever hope for.”
Bob Stinson was fired after Tim — though in all honesty, he was barely on that album — and a lot of people have blamed the evolution of the band’s sound on his dismissal. Noted rock nerd Stephen Thomas Erlewine claims the Mats’ “hard rock roots” left with Stinson, but that’s just foolishness masquerading as hindsight. The band was often mellow when Stinson was in the band, and they rocked plenty without him; nonetheless, a lot of people like to slag on this record now. It’s true that Pleased is more polished and less powerful than Tim, and producer Jim Dickinson often takes the blame for that; obnoxious purists point to stuff like the horns on “Can’t Hardly Wait” (download) as proof that he’s a hack who didn’t know what he was doing. If you ask me, Dickinson’s track record elevates him to a position beyond reproach; besides, this album was made in 1987, a year in which literally every rock record made sounded like total shit.
The material? It’s okay. Anything would be a letdown after Tim, really, but even if you remove Pleased from that long shadow, it’s kind of a lukewarm record. The best song — and it’s a really, really great song — is “Alex Chilton” (download), a brilliant piece of rock & roll that makes such a completely fitting manifesto for Westerberg that it’s almost unfortunate he went ahead and recorded the song — he’ll never top it or get out from underneath it. Not just a love letter to Chilton, the erstwhile Big Star (and Tim‘s intended producer), but a battle cry for disaffected outcasts everywhere, “Chilton” is everything the Mats ever promised to deliver, all wrapped up in a perfect 3:13. If it had been on Tim, the world probably would have exploded from the sheer awesomeness of it all.
Here’s Benja with some more love for Pleased:
“This album was like The River — a dictionary of rock & roll written in the blood and typewriter ink of Griel Marcus-cum-Bukowski-cum-Dave Marsh on a tall can bender. In the late 1980’s, it was the flannel-shirted and beer-gutted hordes that would point the way to pure rock transcendence — when Never Mind the Bollocks could walk hand in hand with Exile On Main Street and everyone got drunk, laid, and self-actualized in the end. But in the real life bitter end, The Replacements would father the bastard children of grunge, who would wear their power chords (but never their heart) on their thermal-shirted sleeves.
“I once read that the two greatest moments in rock history are:
1) The pause just before the squeal of feedback in the VU’s ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’. Right after Lou sings ‘And then my MIND split open!’ pause…SHWEEEEEEEAAAAAANGGGGG!!!
2) After that line in ‘Alex Chilton’ about something something ‘the house, mickey mouse, and the tarot cards’ there’s a little riff, a little bit of guitar pyrotechnics that just makes you feel so fucking glad to be alive. It makes you want to jump up and down. It’s like being a kid and getting a new pair of shoes, you suddenly get injected with this mad fiery energy. The refrain — ‘I’m in love with that song’ — said it better than we ever could.
“For me, Pleased was the closest thing to a best friend I had in 7th grade. Quoth the ex-girlfriend, ‘Pleased to Meet Me is like some fucked up term paper set to music.’ I can’t stand that chick, but maybe she had a point. I see it more like a box of letters.”
This album had a tortured birth — multiple producers, multiple studios, multiple American coasts — and if the writing wasn’t on the wall for the Replacements after Stinson left, things probably seemed fairly dire after the band sweated, fought, and toiled over Soul, only to see it suffer critical attacks and commercial defeat. They really tried to play the game here; they tightened up their sound, and though they didn’t sand off all the rough edges completely, they did add a not-inconsequential pop sheen. But the fuckin’ fans, man — they wanted another Let It Be or Tim and couldn’t accept a Replacements album without a certain amount of stupid, drunken hedonism. Given the passionate response to this album, you’d think Westerberg had stolen money from everyone who listened to it.
Fuck em. Sure, Soul isn’t a great album — “Talent Show” is a pretty flaccid opener, and “Asking Me Lies” is just dumb — but for the most part, it’s nothing more or less than another solid entry in the band’s catalog. After a decade of living on the rock & roll fringes, the band decided to take an honest shot at the mainstream, and it’s unfortunate that so many fans and critics were too petulant and narrow-minded to accept that. Especially since “I’ll Be You” (download) and “Achin’ to Be” (download) are two of the biggest hits the band never had.
After Soul died, Westerberg wanted to record a solo album; Sire Records refused to bankroll it, so he went ahead and recorded All Shook Down as a Replacements album without the Replacements. As you might imagine, this was not a popular move — Chris Mars quit, and though “the band” staggered on through a promotional tour, there really wasn’t much point. The record sold for shit, the critics called it an embarrassment, and the fans (again) cried sellout.
Critics and fans are idiots. If anything, All Shook Down is a better album than Don’t Tell a Soul, regardless of who played on it, and although it’s not as loud as anything the band did before 1985, it really isn’t the collection of folk dirges that many would have you believe. “Merry Go Round” (download) and “Bent Out of Shape” (download) come closer to what Tim producer (and former Ramone, it’s a small world, la la la) Tommy Erdelyi referred to as the “razor blades and phlegm” of classic Mats than anything the actual band had done in years.
More than anything, people could probably sense where Westerberg was really headed, and they didn’t like it. Rockers like “Bent Out of Shape” notwithstanding, he was creeping toward an edgeless, bluesy folk/pop hybrid that, to many listeners, wasn’t as interesting as what he’d done before. In fact, a lot of them regarded it as a betrayal. When the “new sound” worked — like on the graceful “Sadly Beautiful” (download) — it was tasteful and assured, but it didn’t kick your ass the way “Alex Chilton” did. When it missed the mark, it wasn’t much more than soundtrack music for an awkward campfire. For people who wanted Westerberg to forever remain the besotted anti-hero, All Shook Down represented a dark cloud on the horizon (which would make his solo career a long, terrible storm, but as I said before, that’s for another day).
The Replacements’ last gig — July 4, 1991 — was broadcast on Chicago’s WXRT-FM, and as the band left the stage for the final time, the DJs covering the show engaged in the following bit of patter. It makes as fitting an epitaph as any:
DJ One: I believe the Replacements have left the stage and what a wild conclusion it was! But is it the conclusion?
DJ Two: Well, we sure don’t know, only the Replacements know for sure.
DJ One: The crowd is still hungry out there.
DJ Two: They are nowhere to be found. They’re not on the side stage area either. I think they’re gone.
DJ One: I think that’s it. They’re so unpredictable, though. Are they gonna come back?
DJ Two: Or they’re gonna break up? Maybe they’ll break up and then they’ll get back together and then they’ll come back.
DJ One: I believe they’re not going to be back.