The Replacements: You Had To Be There

Something lighter for the weekend.  I listen to several podcasts regularly, including National Review’s Political Beats, on which co-hosts Scot Bertram and Jeff Blehar bring in guests from politics/journalism to talk about their favorite bands.  So far, the selections have been fairly mainstream, but the most recent (with the Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway) featured The Replacements.

If the Replacements are a cult band, I would still have to count myself as a member.  They started out from the Twin Cities’ punk/hardcore scene in the early 80s, became critical darlings of indie rock (or “college rock” as it was known in the days of yore) as frontman Paul Westerberg became one of rock’s more talented songwriters, then collapsed a few years later (onstage in Chicago, to be precise).  The Trouser Press guide’s survey of the band’s oeuvre tells the basic story, but the podcast does an entertaining deep dive into their shaggy dog career.

As both the guide and the podcast note, the band imploded for a number of reasons — notably tension between Westerberg’s songwriting ambitions and the band’s harder-rocking sensibilities, as well as their tendency to willfully blow every opportunity they got in the business.  These form the basis of what Jeff calls his love/hate relationship with the band.

The Replacements (a/k/a the ‘Mats in their worse moments) were lovable losers who would test the limits of your love.  But for those old enough to have been there, it was easier to love our love/hate relationship.

At the outset, my impression is that Jeff in particular is not a fan of nihilism; nor am I, generally (nor is Walter Sobchak).  But the Sex Pistols and others ensured there was a place for it in punk music, a genre that was often intentionally opposed to what many viewed as the ossification of rock by the mid-70s.  The ‘Mats’ self-destructive behavior had many causes, but this punk ethos was a significant reason.

As the podcast underscores, however, as punk/hardcore bands go, the early Replacements were lyrically lighter and funnier than most.  This contrast between art and life was one of a number of dualities to be found in the band.

Indeed, while the podcast mentions and plays a bit of the band’s first single, “I’m In Trouble,” the acoustic, countrified b-side, “If Only You Were Lonely,” may be the earliest foreshadowing of the more heartfelt material Westerberg would master a few records later.  (Who cares what’s on the b-side of a record? I do.)

The tension between these two types of songs that made up the bulk of the band’s catalog  (though Jeff rightly notes the underrated Hootenanny was more diverse) causes Jeff to underrate the Let It Be LP, which Scot correctly notes would be a consensus top-two album for the band. (It’s either this or Jeff’s generally contrarian musical impulses).

One of the “you had to be there” aspects of Let It Be (which not only steals its title from the Beatles, but puts the Replacements on a roof for the album cover) is the band’s version of the early KISS tune, “Black Diamond.”  Jeff is not a fan (while acknowledging it’s better than the original); he’s also not keen on “Gary’s Got A Boner,” which so shamelessly steals from Ted Nugent that he gets a co-writing credit.

What the youngsters on the podcast don’t appreciate is how radical the band was in putting its stamp of approval on 70s schlock and even 70s Top 40 kitsch at a moment when “college rock” was so much more artsy and serious — and punk/hardcore was ideologically opposed to the era.  Including those selections on their “breakthrough” album, one with absolutely beguiling songs like the poppy “I Will Dare” and the achingly gorgeous “Unsatisfied,” single-handedly rehabbed entire genres for the In Crowd and influenced countless other indie bands (perhaps most notably Twin Cities contemporaries Soul Asylum).

At the time, no one else would have covered a song like “Heartbeat (It’s a Lovebeat)” from Tony DeFranco and the DeFranco Family; they would dare.  It was a recurring number for the Replacements on tour, with tutu-clad lead guitarist Bob Stinson getting pelted with coins and other objects from the crowd.  And the rhythm section — drummer Chris Mars and Bob’s younger brother Tommy on bass — would be laughing hysterically, as they might through takes on Vanity Fare’s “Hitchin’ A Ride,” or Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes.”

So when the podcast discusses the band’s uneven live performances, they also don’t appreciate that for Replacements fans, part of the excitement of buying a ticket was that it had an element of the the feel of a game show.  Would the Replacements show up… or the Mats?  (Or where on the spectrum would it be?)

Would they be tight, rocking a club to its foundation and dazzling on the increasingly emotional songs Westerberg was turning out?  Or had they been drinking all day and try to work their way through whatever songs they heard on the way to the gig?

The latter type of shows weren’t always musically satisfying, but could still be entertaining as all get out.  A set concluding with Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69,” Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and the roadies singing “If I Only Had a Brain” from The Wizard of Oz?  Yes please!  And no bootleg of the latter type records the fans gleefully overturning the band’s U-Haul trailer in retaliation (an occurrence common enough that the band usually waited on the load-out).

Of course, I saw some of the great sets also.  The Replacements celebrated their major-label debut — the wonderful and wonderfully named Tim — with a week-long hometown stand at the 7th Street Entry, a tiny club attached to the larger First Avenue (of Prince/Purple Rain fame).  Both shows I saw were incandescent, including the still-gestating “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which would go on to become their likely best-known song.

They played the First Ave stage to kick off the tour for their next (and last truly great) album, Pleased To Meet Me, with local treasure Slim Dunlap succeeding Bob on lead guitar; that was also a great night.  The Young Fresh Fellows opened and Political Beats fans should know the YFF was the sort of band that covered The Kinks’ “Picture Book.”

Occasionally, like Oz or Voldemort, the Replacements managed to be simultaneously great and terrible, such as their SNL appearance in which “Bastards of Young” manages to encapsulate most of the facets of the band in a few minutes, while also getting them banned from NBC for years for the profanity right before the solo.  During the inevitable reunion tour, Jimmy Fallon let them back on The Tonight Show to play the tremendous “Alex Chilton.

I mention these two songs last to make another point about The Replacements.  “Bastards” works like gangbusters as a teenage anthem, and a Gen X anthem — but it’s really about the band.  (“God, what a mess, on the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung / Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled / It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten.“)

“Alex Chilton” pays tribute to another cult rock figure (at 17, he was the lead singer for the Box Tops, but it was his fronting the cursed band Big Star in the early 70s that would influence R.E.M. and an entire generation of independent bands).  The lyrics are fantasy; the self-referential subtext is in the choice of subject. (“Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing ‘I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song‘.”)

When the Replacements acted as they did on SNL, or made the kind of video they did for “Alex Chilton” (one of several which in no way endeared them to their label) they were not unaware of what they were doing.  People coming to the band now (as all should, tbqh) cannot fully appreciate the drama of their highwire act.  They tested the industry.  They tested their fans.  You had to be there.

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