Duly Noted: The Replacements
The Replacements were the wrong band in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their story is full of mistakes, missed chances, full-on fuckups. And great music. We relate to Paul Westerberg because he's not a rock star. His songs are invested with the failure with which we are familiar. They've aged well - they're about more than just the angst of youth or wild indulgence. He's not the life of the party, he's the guy drinking alone at a dive bar on Sunday afternoon.
Hootenanny is the real debut for me, after the first few punky1 experiments that yield only a few good songs. Hootenanny is a drunken document sent from the midst of the wildest party. "Color Me Impressed" is about such a party of trendy fools, where the only solution is to drink and pill your way to sanity. "Swinging Party" is actually not about a party - dare I say it's a metaphor for lynching and by extension martyrdom. "If being afraid is a crime we'll hang side by side" is a fine summation of the Replacements and their fans. "Treatment Bound" peers carelessly at the end of the road, either rehab or death. Either way - eh, whatever. Hootenanny is an ingenius mess, one of the rare albums I listen through then start right over again.
1. How many great bands started 'punk' in the early 80s only to transcend the genre? Even the pioneers - John Lydon, Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye - moved beyond it. Punk is a dead end, musically and spiritually.
Let It Be (1984)
Let It Be has gained a reputation as their best but I don't buy it. The juvenilia that sounded transgressive before just sounds juvenile. Westerberg was writing serious, personal songs and still felt compelled to pad the album with goofy filler. I'm not saying it doesn't work, but the overall momentum is so uneven to make it a frustrating listen. Still: "Unsatisfied" is the quintessential Replacements song.
Tim is where the real classics start coming. Make no mistake - this is the album that made the band. So what if "Left Of The Dial" takes the now archaic premise of tuning an FM dial in search of one song, one voice that barely comes through? It's relevant as fuck to me these days. (It also predicts the band's cult status.) "Bastards Of Young" hails from a different time too - "got no war to name us" is pre-Iraq and pre-World War III.2 But "we are the sons of no one" still stands as a dissident anthem. Would a song like "Waitress In The Sky" fly today? Probably not, with its boorish sentiment and affront over not being able to smoke on a plane. 3 But it's got a raw acoustic vibe that would have fit right in on Beggar's Banquet.
2. Coming soon, unless we all get our shit together.
3. Once upon a time - a beautiful time! - we were allowed to smoke on airplanes.
Let's describe now what the Replacements sound like. It's Stonesy rock, shot through with punk sensibility and a knack for pop hooks. It just feels like honest music, stripped of pretense and artifice. Which is why the boys were so out of their element in the 80s. Pop music of this era is death, just a horribly cheap style and sound. It even infected the great dinosaurs like the Stones, Dylan, and McCartney who were nearly felled by the fumes before artistic resurrections in the 90s. The Replacemetns had no such luck - even if Westerberg envisioned the sound as post-Banquet, he was saddled with record labels, producers, drunken bandmates,4 and a climate oppressive to the sort of music he wanted to make. "Here Comes A Regular" is such music - a reworking of Dylan's "Knockin On Heaven's Door" as the sad anthem of a suburban drunk. It's all about that wince of shame walking through the door of a familiar empty bar, all alone with a few dollars to waste away. If the Replacements have a "Let It Be," it's not the album but this song.
4. No offense, but they were all fuckups, Paul included. musically and spiritually.
Pleased To Meet Me (1987)
Pleased To Meet Me is the real run at stardom. It starts strong, lags in the middle and picks up at the end. It's a classic nonetheless. The mix is a bit too bright, engineered for a Nevermind moment that never came. But the songs are there - "Alex Chilton" is not only about the Big Star songwriter but just music and inspiration. "I never travel far without a little Big Star" - replace that with your favorite band and dig the vibe.5 "Valentine" should have been a hit, and would have been in a more rock friendly environment. Wrong time, guys. "Skyway" is a weird acoustic ballad about love and loneliness. "Can't Hardly Wait" is another would-be hit embellished with Exile horns.
The problem is that Pleased To Meet Me tanked, at least in terms of turning them into rock stars. They must take some of the blame for this, with drunken shows and a general fuck you attitude. See, that attitude in music promotion is cultivated - you give the finger in a photo shoot then confer with management over the best shot, then shoot to some interviews to drop some faux-wisdom as it relates to the album you're promoting. The Replacements just said fuck you.
5. Coming soon, unless we all get our shit together.
Don't Tell A Soul (1989)
Don't Tell A Soul is widely considered to be the worst album and I wish I could disagree.6 The production is poppy, this time less Nevermind and more like Hootie And The Blowfish.7 Pity that the songs are actually pretty good, which means that a lost alternative demo version of this album would be a classic. Unfortunately, the story goes that Westerberg destroyed some reels around this time due to paranoia over bootlegging. "Achin' To Be," "They're Blind," "Rock And Roll Ghost," and "Darlin' One" are great songs that shine despite the too shiny production. But "We'll Inherit The Earth" feels like a rewrite of "Bastards Of Young" and overall there's a spark missing that gives this album a dispiriting quality.
6. I love to disagree with consensus and will actively try to like "bad" albums. But I'm honest too.
7. Jesus. I apologize for that comparison. A cheap shot, but a still a fair one.
All Shook Down (1990)
All Shook Down is my favorite Replacements album. Originally intended as Westerberg's solo project, it's his best collection of songs that remain unquestionably Replacements. "When It Began" is about the Replacements, looking back on happier times before failures and the coming dissolution. "One Wink At A Time" is a tune Keith Richards wishes he wrote - goddamn high praise yes, but it's like the best X-Pensive Winos song ever. "Nobody" is about a bride who's "still in love with nobody," except maybe the narrator who's in the crowd at the wedding. "Sadly Beautiful" is a ballad from mother to a child who was taken away too soon. "All Shook Down" is a sequel to "Here Comes A Regular" - it's Sunday night, he's back from the bar to pick out a tune on the guitar while his girlfriend plays the recorder. Perfect vibe on that song.
All For Nothing/Nothing For All (1997)
I'll add that All For Nothing/Nothing For All is one of the few times I'd advocate for a greatest hit collection for any band.8 It's got most of the key songs from the albums, plus the second disc adds some essential rarities like "Birthday Gal," "Election Day,"9 "Portland," and especially "We Know The Night." I'm okay with folks only buying that one Replacements collection, so long as they play it over and over and over after drinking alone for a lifetime in dive bars.
8. Greatest hits are for little girls. Discography, motherfucker.
9. "I don't care who gets elected!" - I hate to say it but: absolutely goddamn right, Paul.