Primer is an ongoing, introductory guide to the varied and often elusive careers of iconic alternative artists. This week we honour The Replacements' forthcoming reunion gigs with a subjective guide to the band's musical evolution, best material, and general awesome-ness.
Close your eyes and floor it.
- Bob Stinson
For me, the ‘Mats fourth release, Let It Be, my introduction to the band, occupies the same psychic space as Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds — formative and legendary; cornerstones of my understanding of the last half-century of music. I was about 19 when I first heard it – ripe to receive their at-once despondency, brattiness, triumph, and vulnerability. If other indie rock acts can stick to your ribs and satiate those feelings, The Replacements burrow inside your very bones. They’re the kind of band that can become a part of you. They’re elemental.
Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars — the leader, the boozy guitar god, his bratty kid brother bassist, and the quiet one on drums, respectively — started playing in Minneapolis in 1979. This is a city that in 2005 ranked second in both a study of “America’s Most Literate Cities” and Forbes’ list of “America’s Drunkest Cities,” as Jim Walsh points out in All Over But The Shouting. That’s exactly the character that the ‘Mat’s engendered — the perennial losers, the genius assholes.
Their shambolic live shows were the stuff of legends. They’d get on stage, all full of beer and whiskey and maybe a little speed, and literally bash through their songs. Or sometimes play entire sets of only covers, sloppily plowing through rock staples like “Iron Man” and “Jumping Jack Flash.” They’d start more songs than they’d finish. They’d piss people off. If they had a punk crowd, they’d play all of their ballads; If they were at a country bar, they’d play everything at breakneck. Their bass player was a 12-year-old.
Bob Mould — singer-guitarist of Hüsker Dü, the ‘Mats cross-town rival — once said that if you could see ten Replacements shows, nine would leave you walking away scratching your head, wondering what the hell was that?, and one would have you convinced you just saw the greatest band on the planet. Because when they were on, they were the best.
In the years since their demise, rumours of a reunion have bubbled up here and there, but now it’s as sure as eggs is eggs. At the time of publishing this piece, it’s less than a week until their first of three reunion dates (starting in Toronto, lucky for us). There’s no better time to celebrate one of the most criminally underrated bands in the history of the American Underground, and, to be certain, rock and roll in total. Hell, maybe they’ll even win some new fans. And so, here’s a ‘Mats fan’s guide to rock’s best runner-up band.
Sorry Ma, 1980
"Raised in the City"
"Raised in the City," above, is the song that started it all, recorded in Mars’ basement and handed off to Peter Jesperson of Twin/Tone Records, who later said that if he ever had a magic moment, it was hearing this song for the first time. It’s playful and snotty with an English first wave punk vibe, and a blistering burst of a solo from Stinson. Jesperson signed them to Twin/Tone before they’d even played a live show, releasing their debut Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash!in ‘81. They called their music “power trash,” the album name riffed on that.
Jesperson, who also owned a record store in town, became a real mentor to the young Replacements. He had them over at his apartment for culturing sessions. He showed them Bowie, the Beatles’ Revolver, and the Memphis band that would become most central to Westerberg’s songwriting, Big Star.
"Kids Don't Follow"
The ‘Mats followed Sorry Ma with an EP called Stink in 1982. It’s worth remembering here that The Replacements were basically contemporaries of Black Flag and Circle Jerks. They often shared bills with Hüsker Dü. Hardcore punk had become vogue in the underground scene. Stink was their stab at straight-ahead punk, but Westerberg’s goofier, loafer tendencies still peek through. If you were to slow down “Kids Don’t Follow” by about 30 bpm and pull Westerberg’s barks into more of a croon, you’d have the kind of jam The Replacements are remembered for.
"Color Me Impressed"
"Within Your Reach"
Their second full-length, Hootenanny, sees the band come into their own. They realized the hardcore thing was a total facade, an identity crisis, so they went ahead and made this weirdo genre-hopping gem with a considerably richer emotional palette. Mould says he always thought of the ‘Mats as a “fast bar band,” and that identity emerges on Hootenanny. They rip on Chuck Berry and the B52s. For the first time we hear Westerberg the open sore, the vulnerable balladist: The sparse “Within Your Reach” is entirely Westerberg, the songwriter by himself — a sign of things to come.
Let It Be, 1984
"I will dare"
Albums don’t get any better than this. If we were to do that Voyager Golden Record thing again, I’d like to alert whatever committee is in charge that this is my nomination for inclusion. Let It Be is The Replacements at their most consistent. Having been shunned from CBGB and similar bastions of the underground (for basically being dicks), it’s also the best distillation of their misfit-outsider identity. They were certainly punk; they just weren’t what other punks were in 1984. But who else could pen as brilliant an ode to unfulfillment as “Unsatisfied”?
"Bastards of the Young"
"Left of the Dial"
"Here Comes a Regular"
After grabbing serious attention with Let It Be, the boys signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records and released Tim in 1985. Tim is a logical follow-up to Let It Be — heavy rock jams, tempered with Westerberg ballads. “Bastards of Young” is a powerful outsider anthem — something the whole Gen X nation and really any teenage miscreant can get behind. Their rendition of the tune on SNL is legendary, and it gives you a nice idea of what exactly a ‘Mats live show looked like. “Left of the Dial” is a celebration of underground rock — the kind of stuff you found on the college stations at the left side of the dial. The album closer, “Here Comes A Regular,” fictional or not, tangles with loneliness and alcoholism, the latter of which was becoming a real concern amongst the ‘Mats.
Pleased to Meet Me, 1987
"Can't Hardly Wait"
Bob Stinson was fired after Tim. He didn’t like all these slower jams, and his drink and substance abuse had grown uncontrollable. In 1987, The Replacements released Pleased To Meet Me, their most polished record to that date (there are strings! And horns!). Two of the best songs in their catalog — in any catalog — appear on this album: “Alex Chilton” is an endlessly charming power pop song about the Big Star songwriter. It’s a fanciful bit of myth-making, a righting of the wrongs that imagines “children by the millions” waiting to see Chilton. By the time Westerberg gets to “I’m in love/ What’s that song?” you are already head over heels. And, in another turn of perfect pop writing, “Can’t Hardly Wait” closes the album. Some prefer the scruffier demo included on Tim, but no matter, it’s the riff that’s immediately classic.
There are two more ‘Mats albums that follow Pleased To Meet Me — three if you count the 2012 fundraising album for Slim Dunlap, Bob’s own replacement who had a massive stroke that same year — but I’ll close the Primer here. The distinction between Paul Westerberg solo and the ‘Mats blurred as he increasingly assumed more and more power, and in my head The Replacements – the heart-on-their-sleeves punks riding roughshod through the best days of the American Underground – end just as “Can’t Hardy Wait” gives way to silence. And I've always been pleased closing their chapter there. Bob dies in '95 — too much booze and drugs. Chris Mars becomes a painter. Tommy Stinson joins Guns 'n Roses. I shit you not.
Some call these late-in-life reunions cash grabs – John Lydon of the Sex Pistols was never scared to admit that. If that’s the case here, Westerberg and Tommy Stinson — the reunited Replacements — are welcome to whatever share of my $65 ticket they get. I owe them considerably more.