For a time the world’s best rock’n’roll band — proof that those who missed the ’60s could still build something great on the crass and hollow corpse of ’70s music — Minneapolis’ Replacements began as juvenile punks whose give-a-shit attitude masked the seeds of singer/guitarist/songwriter Paul Westerberg’s self-destructive genius for injecting sensitivity into flat-out chaos. When it all clicked — volume, rawness, speed (velocity and ingested substances), energy and passion — the Mats (short for Placemats) teetered drunkenly at the brink of the abyss and recklessly cracked jokes about it. Onstage and on vinyl, nothing could compare with their unpredictable excitement. But over the years, the onset of maturity and a reasonable desire for self-preservation caused Westerberg to draw the group back to the point where the latest album has almost none of the old fire.
The original foursome got written off a lot as sloppy, but only by those who chose not to see beyond the confusion. Chris Mars drummed as one possessed; spoiled teen Tommy Stinson (12 when the band started) thumped a mean bassline; buffoonish guitarist Bob Stinson might wear a dress (or less) onstage but could alternate between ripping metal leads and achingly tender melody lines that come from his heart (if not his brain). And Paul Westerberg — too terrified to sing his soft songs — hid behind the band’s noise. The Mats were one of those classic combos whose music, looks and personalities fit together perfectly, the stuff of which legends are made.
The musical evidence of their creative importance was there on the first album, 18 songs following the usual loud/fast/cynical rules with titles like “Shutup,” “Kick Your Door Down,” “I Hate Music” and “Shiftless When Idle.” But a slow, bluesy ode to J. Thunders, “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” showed depth beyond their years. The deluxe 2008 reissue adds 13 numbers: the home recordings that got the band signed to TwinTone, the first tracks they ever recorded in a studio, outtakes, a rehearsal and the fine B-side “If Only You Were Lonely.”
The Replacements Stink — initially issued as eight songs running less than 15 minutes in a white hand-rubberstamped 12-inch sleeve — went for pure driving thrash and produced some gems, including “Dope Smokin Moron,” “Kids Don’t Follow” and “God Damn Job.” But it landed them in the hardcore bins, even though the music and lyrics are much sharper than most, mixing equal parts arrogance and self-deprecating humor. The reissue (re-subtitled “Kids Don’t Follow” Plus Eleven) adds a pair of oldies (“Hey, Good Lookin'” and “Rock Around the Clock”) and a pair of unreleased originals: “Staples in Her Stomach” and “You’re Getting Married.”)
When Hootenanny combined blues, power pop, folk, country, straight-ahead rock, surf (or, more accurately, ski) and punk in a way few hardcore bands could even imagine, people started taking notice. Stink‘s “Fuck School” gave way to “Color Me Impressed,” a wise and soaring rock number about getting drunk and being bored by trendinistas that sounded pretty incongruous next to “Run It,” a paean to beating red lights. Amid the roaring emergency of “Take Me Down to the Hospital” and the wacky Beatlesque collage of “Mr. Whirly,” Westerberg reached into his bag of solo heartstoppers for a naked (yet never sappy) confession of loneliness, “Within Your Reach.” A great album that hints at a broad and deep future for a band once thought to be just a bunch of crazy kids. The seven bonus tracks on the 2008 reissue include outtakes from the sessions (like an alternate version of “Treatment Bound”) and a Westerberg demo of “Bad Worker.”
With Let It Be, the Mats became “stars,” at least on the independent club/college radio circuit. The LP is more focused than anything else they’d done, boldly carrying out what they’d only tried on Hootenanny. They blend rock-pop and country shuffle on “I Will Dare,” cover Kiss’ “Black Diamond” and rave-up on novelty rockers like the lyrical vérité of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner.” Westerberg’s knowledge of loneliness (“Sixteen Blue,” “Answering Machine”) gives way to total emptiness on the harrowing “Unsatisfied.” The reissue adds covers (T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” the Grass Roots’ “Temptation Eyes” and the DeFranco Family’s cheeseball “Heartbeat – It’s a Lovebeat”), a surprisingly accomplished home demo of “Answering Machine” and an alternate vocal version of “Sixteen Blue.”
Critics trampled each other in a rush to claim discovery rights, Sire signed them and TwinTone celebrated with a cassette-only live tape — stolen from some kid bootlegging an Oklahoma show — which showed the feckless Mats at their most messed-up, playing (at least starting to play) a motley collection of their favorite covers, from R.E.M. to the Stones, Thin Lizzy to X.
The Replacements made the transition to major-labeldom with their artistic integrity intact. Ex-Ramone Tommy Erdelyi produced Tim, retaining all of the band’s raggedness and devil-may-care spirit. Westerberg’s tunes here are among his best ever, from a melancholy bar ballad (“Here Comes a Regular”) to an obnoxiously mean-spirited anti-stewardess slur, “Waitress in the Sky.” His raging insecurity shines through on “Hold My Life” (“because I just might lose it…”) and the anthemic “Bastards of Young.” “Left of the Dial” celebrates alternative radio, while “Kiss Me on the Bus” considers the romantic possibilities of public transportation. A stupendous record.
Boink!! is an eight-song UK condensation of the band’s pre-Let It Be catalogue, with the added bonus of an otherwise unreleased Alex Chilton-produced cut, “Nowhere Is My Home.”
When it became apparent that Bob Stinson was in danger of succumbing permanently to the band’s treacherous lifestyle (he died of a drug OD in 1995), the Mats fired him and proceeded to record the incredible Pleased to Meet Me as a trio. With Jim Dickinson producing and Westerberg doing all the guitar work, the group stirred up another batch of their finest brew: virile, witty rockers (“Valentine,” “Red Red Wine,” “I.O.U.”), tender ballads (“Nightclub Jitters,” “Skyway”). There’s a rollicking number about “Alex Chilton,” a bizarre but fabulous stab at commercial radio acceptance (“Can’t Hardly Wait”) in which the Memphis Horns echo a deliciously nagging guitar riff over a wicked backbeat, and “The Ledge,” a tense suicide vignette musically rewritten from Hootenanny‘s “Willpower.” On tour following the LP’s release, the group unveiled a new guitarist, Slim Dunlap (ex-Curtiss A), and a far less obstreperous attitude.
Whether Don’t Tell a Soul is a strong album with a few clunkers or a weak album with some great songs, the Mats’ previous glories tinge the record with disappointment. (Initial impressions were strictly the latter; the record’s better qualities have emerged over time.) Westerberg’s arrival in adulthood has softened his outlook (while increasing his disillusionment) and reduced his desire to play blaringly loud, wild rock. But as his passions have cooled, his lyrical concerns have grown increasingly private; the songs are as strong and artistic as ever, but somehow less compelling. Arrangements which favor acoustic guitars, layers of harmony vocals and keyboards undercut the band’s standard attack; Mars is consigned to keep the backbeat with a criminal minimum of rhythmic variation. “Achin’ to Be,” a gentle country love song, and the stately minor-key “Darlin’ One” are extremely effective, as are “I’ll Be You,” the soaring “We’ll Inherit the Earth” and “Anywhere’s Better Than Here.” But there’s still an unsettling aloofness to the record. Rather than the previous album’s reach-out-and-grab-someone impact, Don’t Tell a Soul is merely an uneven collection of songs.
Compared to the stultifying All Shook Down, however, Don’t Tell a Soul is positively blistering. A band album in name only, Westerberg used session players (including the three other Replacements) to craft lightweight songs that resemble the Replacements, but lack fire, content, imagination and tension. Considering the Mats’ past achievements, the vocal duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano on “My Little Problem” is a fairly lame excuse for rock’n’roll. (“Bent Out of Shape” is the album’s sole working burner, although the Stonesy “Happy Town” comes close.) While the acoustic “Sadly Beautiful” (with viola by John Cale) demonstrates how to find intensity in tranquility, the album — even a piano-based pitch for sobriety entitled “The Last” — fails to perform that feat twice. Oh momma, can this really be the end?
For Chris Mars, it was. He quit in November 1990. With a new drummer, the group hit the road, but that was the end of the band’s recording career.
The postscript: All for Nothing/Nothing for All is a two-disc compilation of the Sire era. The release is split between a best-of disc (All for Nothing) containing four songs from each of the four albums and a disc of unreleased material and rarities (Nothing for All). The marginalia is actually a richer, more interesting listening experience than either Don’t Tell a Soul or All Shook Down. In fact, it suggests Westerberg may have misjudged his own work in a bid to reshape the band for mainstream success.
Nothing for All plays out like a companion piece to Tim or Pleased to Meet Me, with sloppy rave-ups (“Beer for Breakfast”) sharing space alongside sensitive ballads (“We Know the Night”) bolstered by the usual Westerbergian lyrical panache (“With scissors and a comb, I cut my lawn / And there’s no one in the world I’m counting on”). The rousing “Wake Up” and majestic “Portland” from the aborted first Don’t Tell a Soul sessions are arguably superior to anything that ended up on the final album. The most revelatory cut is an early, breathtaking version of “Can’t Hardly Wait” filled with suicidal imagery that would later be tweaked for “The Ledge” as Bob Stinson’s stinging guitar pushes the song along at a breakneck pace.
Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?, a 20-song career overview, provides a nifty introduction for newcomers. The album offers two new reunion tracks by Westerberg and Tommy Stinson (although Mars cedes the drum throne to Josh Freese, he chips in with background vocals). While slight, the punchy “Pool and Dive” and the poppy “Message to the Boys” are suitably ragged and familiarly charming. “Message to the Boys” begins with a winking (and winning) couplet, “Well, I met her in a bar / Like I always say,” that shows Westerberg not only aware of the Replacements mythology, but for the purposes of these new songs at least, willing to embrace it.