A subdivision of ACIDEMIC

Friday, February 5, 2010

Oh, those drunken Replacements.

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 recovery at the moment, I'd drink to that.


A typically ferocious and witty entry in the low budget indie LP pressings of the early 80s, untrained ears may be unable to differentiate it from other thrash-punk albums of the period, still Westerberg's songwriting gifts show through after a couple of listens. "Shut Up" and "I Hate Music"  would become thrash (or slam-dancing as it was known then) anthems, 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). "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, but 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 boozy field recording "Treatment Bound" and the vividly realized punk of "Color Me Impressed" and "Fuck our School" balance it all out, if you call drunken staggering balanced.
LET IT BE (1984)

This classic 1984 life-changer ignited the soul of every alienated teen who bought it, myself included, and marked a turning point in punk rock and has been celebrated on stage and screen and print as soon as we 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 in their mid-80s late teenage punk rock moment. 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 still young 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 and metal of the Stinsons and the rock-and-cry gut ache of Westerberg had been mixed and bottled together into something brand new; it would be only a matter of fermentation time, about seven years, and the keg would explode; MTV would begin playing Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" around the clock.

TIM (1985)

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.  Westerberg had come fully into his own, and confidently goes deep into a flow 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.


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."


In a last ditch effort to break into mainstream radio play, the Replacements allowed the slathering on the slick synths, giving the AOR guys that empty hollowness they associated with crossover appeal, and alienating whomever hadn't given up after Pleased to Meet Me. Sales still didn't meet expectations, losing even fans of their old stuff (like me). Luckily, 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 itself, 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.


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)


  1. 任何事都是由一個決心,一顆種子開始。........................................

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  5. 所有的資產,在不被諒解時,都成了負債......................................................

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  7. 在莫非定律中有項笨蛋定律:「一個組織中的笨蛋,恆大於等於三分之二。」......................................................................

  8. I was at that City Gardens show. I was an eighteen-year-old with spiky hair who smoked Marlboros and played with one of those little rubber superballs. I pulled up to the venue and saw a bunch of spiky-haired teenagers smoking Marlboros and bouncing superballs off the wall of the club. It was the first time I ever felt like part of a demographic.

  9. As a bar musician in Minneapolis/St. Paul, home of the Replacements, during their 80s heyday, I regularly gagged at the sticky-sweet sentimentality of their local press coverage. Twin Cities journalists/sycophants gave this amateurish "band" and its cutesy, sloppy music way more love than it deserved. The writers and critics seemed more dedicated to the semi-onanistic celebration of a social scene, than to music analysis.

    At the time, I loved and played African-American music, with white and black musicians. But I detected zero R&B, funk, soul in the Replacements - another reason they repelled me. There was no intersection at the time between the at-his-peak Prince and his circle, and the Replacements' scene. Prince exemplified precision, power, sexiness, black and white people making music together. These were not the Replacements' attributes. I could go on, but that was thirty years ago... time to let it go...

    Great blog, Mr. Kuersten. Thanks for the chance to rant.