In "Treatment Bound," singer Paul Westerberg explains the Replacement's touring strategy as follows: "The first thing we do when we finally show up / Get shit-faced drunk / Try to sober up." For legions of impressionable punk rock youth, these were words to live by. The Replacements were like the male equivalent of Courtney Love, one went to their show in guilty hopes of seeing a train wreck, and more than half the time they delivered, being too drunk to remember their own songs and having to revert to out of tune covers to which Westerberg would make up the words. If they did manage the "sobering up" part they might deliver a searing, moving, furious set of rock songs that fell somewhere between hardcore punk and what would eventually be known as alternative rock (Nirvana's Kurt Cobain originally drew Westerberg comparisons with his anguished vocal style and major label-defying antics. I wasn't alone in my first thought on hearing Cobain's voice being "Hey, this guy sounds just like Paul Westerberg!")
The story of the 'mats (as their fans dubbed them) begins in the punk scene of 1979 Minneapolis. Bob Stinson was lead guitarist and the heaviest drinker. His 14-year old brother Tommy was on bass and their friend Chris Mars played drums. They were a hardcore punk band when Westerberg joined them but he brought in gallons of emotion-wracked songwriting talent and they split the difference. They got signed to Twin Tone, and proceeded to release a series of furious, somewhat sloppy albums, the straight up (but amusing) thrash of Sorry Ma (Forgot to Take out the Trash) followed by an EP (The Replacements Stink) and then the delightfully ramshackle Hootenanny.
Their big breakthrough came with 1984's Let it Be, the album that invented modern alternative rock six years too soon. They went over to a major label (Sire) for Tim. But then the elder Stinson was kicked out for drug and alcohol problems (which must have been pretty bad by that point, considering who was kicking him out). Pleased to Meet Me and Don't Tell a Soul followed, without Stinson and with production values slick enough to make their small but loyal fan base accuse them of selling out. Their final album, All Shook Down, was a step forward to Westerberg's solo career, with sparse acoustic arrangements and anguished confessional lyrics, it still didn't sell and the band split up.
Westerberg idled until Cameron Crowe exhumed him for the soundtrack to his film Singles. Though they've long since gone their separate ways, the status of the Replacements as the drunken stepfathers of alternative rock remains forever assured, and if I wasn't in rehab at the moment, I'd drink to that.
SORRY MA FORGOT TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH (1981)
LET IT BE (1984)
This classic 1984 life-changer ignited the soul of every alienated teen who bought it, and marked a turning point in punk rock and has been celebrated on stage and screen and print as soon as those teens grew up. Though there are still several punk tracks on the record ("We're Coming Out," "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out") the key element here is the aching emotionally tormented rock of "Unsatisfied," "Answering Machine" and "Sixteen Blue" in which songwriter/vocalist Paul Westerberg made the band drop all their drunken punk pretensions and expose the tormented anger, hope and longing he, and everyone else, was really feeling. The cathartic end result of all that soul searching is the jangly "I Will Dare," the piano-driven, daring (for the time) "Androgynous" and a Kiss cover; "Black Diamond." Most prescient is "Seen Your Video," in which Westerberg rants about the evils of the then-new music station, MTV, little knowing how it would soon co-opt the genre of music he and his contemporaries were at that very moment creating. Sure it's all over the map style-wise, but then you realize the alchemical change has occurred, the punk of the Stinsons and the rock-and-cry gut ache of Westerberg had given birth to a hybrid that would eventually be called grunge.
PLEASED TO MEET ME (1987)
The first album to be released after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this album alienated a lot of fans (including me) with its unapologetically commercial new direction (Stinson was obviously the force holding Westerberg's more radio-friendly urges in check). Nonetheless, it has stood the test of time and was an obvious precursor Nirvana's Nevermind. In fact, the cover of that album--the baby swimming after a dollar bill on a fishing hook--is clearly inspired by the cynicism of the cover here, of a grungy torn up sleeve shaking hands with a rolexed corporate suit. Westerberg was a big Alex Chilton fan and the album was scheduled to be produced by the same guy who did a few Chilton classics, but things fell through. You can hear Westerberg's Chilton-esque aspirations running full force now though, on tracks like "Alex Chilton" (!), and the acoustic ballad, "Skyway." The rest of the band shows they can still rock hard with "Red Red Wine" and "Shooting Dirty Pool."
DON'T TELL A SOUL (1989)
In a last ditch effort to break into mainstream radio play, the Replacements made their most commercial album, slathering on the slick production and alienating whomever hadn't given up after Pleased to Meet Me. Sales still didn't meet expectations, yet time has been kind to this album; if it had come out around three or four years later it may have been a grunge classic instead of a reviled example of corporate concessions. Anthems of youth alienation abound despite the slickness, including the classic "We'll Inherit the Earth" and "I'll Be You". "Rock and Roll Ghost" is one of Westerberg's gut-wrenchingly honest ballads, this one an intensely personal autobiography about a life possibly wasted as a rock and roll also-ran. "Darlin' One" stings with the ache of unfulfilled romantic yearning. There is no doubting that the band was reaching for mainstream success with the desperation of a repentant sinner, but they didn't reach it, and for that this album's prescient songs are all the more tragic.
ALL SHOOK DOWN (1990)
This stripped-down affair is a big step forward from the slick AOR-bid, Don't Tell a Soul. Recorded with an array of session musicians while the band was in mid-disintegration, this is was originally to be vocalist Paul Westerberg's debut solo album, in the tradition of his longtime hero, Alex Chilton. The title track is my favorite, a lonesome blues with an earthy, almost Tom Waits-y vibe. If the Mats had been a breakthrough success, who knows what these songs would have been about? As it is, their unflinching honesty towards a life misspent and opportunities squandered makes for great wallowing in your-lack-of-fame listening. This was Westerberg giving up on mainstream success at long last, and turning his back on the hard rock limitations of the band. From now on they wouldn't have old Mr. Westerberg to kick around anymore, and with that he was off on his path of introspective soul-tearing angst, honing the mope rock he helped invent right up to the closing track, presciently titled, "The Last."
(originally written for Amp Camp.com, 2001, now long gone)