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 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 was, as Martin Sheen put it in Apocalypse Now, "like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.") 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 'mats as the alcoholic 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)
The debut album from the Replacements is a typically ferocious and witty entry in the low budget indie LP pressings of the early 80s. Though untrained ears may be unable to differentiate it from other thrash-punk albums of the period, Westerberg's songwriting gifts show through after a couple of listens. Traditional "slam dancing" favorites would be the hilarious "Shut Up," and "I Hate Music," but there's also some real rock and roll heart in the wrenching "Shiftless When Idle" and "Kick Your Door Down." Looking forward to their future rock balladry there's "Johnny's Gonna Die," an ode to downward spiraling junkie guitar legend Johnny Thunders (obviously an inspiration to their own booze-addled stage antics, people would go see Johnny Thunders shows just to see whether or not he'd be too messed up to play.) "Raised in the City" manages to be both a satire of and a homage to Kiss-style rock, an avenue they'd travel down further in subsequent albums.
You can hear the merry slurs in the vocals here, such as the barely standing up messiness of the title track. The forward-looking track is "Die Within Your Reach," a somewhat sappy ballad whose click-drum track makes one suspect Westerberg did it on his own without the support of his punk rock bandmates. Nonetheless the germs of their future alt rock sound is here, with the ramshackle folksiness of "Treatment Bound" and the vividly realized punk of "Color Me Impressed" and "Fuck our School."
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 even has an entire book written about it by that weird guy from the Decemberists. 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. I could tell you how cool you are if you bought this record when it first came out, but I'd be tooting my own horn. And my friends and I met Bob Stinson in front of an all-ages show in City Gardens, Trenton, in the summer of '85, and and tried unsuccessfully to get him to give us some of his crappy beers.
The follow-up to the Replacement's groundbreaking LET IT BE marks a significant turning point not just in their career but in the history of alternative music. LET IT BE still had a few traditional punk songs under its sleeve, but by Tim time, lead songwriter Westerberg had come fully into his own, and the album is a mix of gut-wrenching ballads, gut-wrenching love songs, and gut-wrenching anthems of angst and alienation. "Bastards of Young," "A Little Mascara" and "Hold My Life," howl with beautiful rage. "Left of the Dial" refers to bands whose only airplay comes from college radio stations (typically at the extreme left of the FM radio dial) and became an instant catchphrase for indie-hood that survives today, as does Westerberg's succinct description of his generation: "Innocence wont claim us / We got no wars to name us." The freewheeling grungy romance of "On the Bus" and the clap-along "Waitress in the Sky" looked forward to the even more innocuous Westerberg solo career but are here catchy, soulful and worthwhile. The final song, "Here Comes a Regular" is a heartbreaking ballad of one slob's failure to escape the dreary all-consuming solace of the local tavern. The band with a reputation for being boozy and unprofessional onstage was realizing the cold, scary future awaiting them if they couldn't stop their downward spirals. This was their first record for a major label and subsequent releases would find them attempting to be more commercial in a bid for crossover success. They didn't make it, but in the passing years, TIM has become a towering milestone whose lyrics are sacred texts to many of today's alternative rock titans.
PLEASED TO MEET ME (1987)
The first album to be released after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this album put off a lot of fans 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 to be considered a classic and was an obvious precursor Nirvana's Nevermind album. 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 THIRD and SISTER/LOVERS for Chilton, but things fell through. You can here Westerberg's Chilton-esque aspirations running full force 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 many of their hardcore fans in the process. 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. Anthems of youth alienation abound, including the classic "We'll Inherit the Earth" and "I'll Be You". "Rock and Roll Ghost" is one 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, and turning his back on the hard rock limitations of his 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)