The Replacements were always their own greatest fans and worst enemies. In a shockingly short number of years, this Minneapolis four-piece got out of the garage, shook but never really broke free of their punk roots, lost a member to substance abuse, landed a major-label deal, and broke up dramatically on stage in Chicago’s Grant Park in 1991.
They started out as the proverbial garage band, with a young Paul Westerberg befriending the Stinson brothers—formidable guitarist Bob and his then-12-year-old bassist brother, Tommy—backed up by drummer Chris Mars. They quickly gained a reputation for their fun and beer-soaked shows around Minneapolis, and subsequently got signed to that region’s excellent label Twin/Tone. Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash was a mostly punk rant in 1981, with some flashes of the ’Mats’ future pop brilliance, followed by 1982’s similar Stink EP. Hootenanny, released the very next year, was still raucous, but Westerberg had started to follow up his early troubadour songs like “If Only You Were Lonely” with more searching and heartfelt efforts like “Within Your Reach.” This tension-filed dynamic would define the band: rebellious young musicians led by an emotionally vulnerable songwriter.
As they continued to tour extensively (from “Duluth to Madison” as Hootenanny’s “Treatment Bound” put it), The Replacements gained a rabid cult following, a fiercely loyal bastion of fans who moshed to “Run It” and swooned along with Westerberg on his slower songs, as the Stinson brothers kept trying to shake him out of it. Many point to 1984’s Let It Be as the band’s peak moment, which kicks off with some twangs by guest guitarist Peter Buck before launching into a variety of stellar tracks. The ’Mats being ’Mats, these sublime cuts were tempered by lesser, jokey songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got A Boner.” The following year’s major-label release Tim continued along this trajectory, but showed a bit more of Westerberg’s influence (with the sweet “Kiss Me On The Bus” and the slow “Here Comes A Regular”) as Bob Stinson’s drug and alcohol use spiraled out of control. The guitarist was kicked out of the band; his years of alcoholism and drug addiction wrecked his health, and he was found dead in February 1995 at the age of 35.
During the period that saw Bob Stinson’s exit from the band, The Replacements took their longest break yet (two years) before releasing their next album in 1987: Pleased To Meet Me served as the band’s second major-label release after Tim. Fans of The Replacements’ rebellious side were understandably nervous about the release—back when “major label” could equal “death knell”—and Pleased did sound miles more professional than anything the band had released before. But the album held hope for the band’s future, with lovely pop songs like “Valentine” and “Alex Chilton” leading the fold.
Unfortunately, that hope did not last for the band, even though new guitarist Slim Dunlap appeared to fit seamlessly into The Replacements’ lineup. Many fans began to trickle out after 1989’s tame Don’t Tell A Soul, which actually helped The Replacements crack the alternative-radio market with more polished “hits” like “Achin’ To Be” and “I’ll Be You.” That tameness then free-fell into All Shook Down, possibly the most appropriate album title ever. (Although both of these later releases do have their fans as well.) It’s rumored this final album was meant to be a Westerberg solo effort, and the band’s disparity failed to bring the album together. Around this time period, The Replacements were given the opportunity to open up on a Tom Petty tour, which would have exposed them up to a much wider audience, but in classic ’Mats fashion, they fucked it all up.
So on a drizzly day in Chicago’s Grant Park, the fed-up band simply stormed off the stage in front of a festival crowd. That kind of bratty, dramatic end was likely inevitable for the band. The Replacements were over, about a decade after the band had begun. Westerberg got a chance to release those solo recordings he’d been angling for, showing up on projects like Cameron Crowe’s Singles soundtrack. Tommy Stinson started his own bands and played with outfits like Guns N’ Roses. Chris Mars gave up music to become a painter. After Slim Dunlap had a stroke, his old bandmates recently reunited to release a benefit album, Songs For Slim.
Twenty-odd years later, the ’Mats have taken on a mythic status, due to all the bands they influenced, various oral histories like Color Me Obsessed, Westerberg’s and Tommy Stinson’s solo efforts, and a recent reunion. Fans rejoiced when The Replacements reunited after so many years to play at Riot Fest in 2013, followed by an extensive tour, although “The Replacements” at this point hinged on Westerberg and Stinson, backed by Josh Freese and Dave Minehan. Westerberg then started wearing T-shirts ominously predicting the band’s eventual demise, and sure enough, they soon broke up again, even with some future dates still in the hopper.
Never say never, but it’s likely that The Replacements will never rise again. Fortunately, the band left behind a rock-solid mid-career album block, with some promising early tracks and even a few toward the end before they faded out forever. (To that end, their Twin/Tone efforts have recently been re-released on vinyl, and a Sire box set is forthcoming.) If you’ve always wondered what The Replacements fuss is about, this is an excellent playlist to get you started. Hopefully it translates what made them so legendary: a fierce punk sensibility that wore its heart on its sleeve, lovelorn but drunk, alone but determined, laughing while falling down. They never charted, and embraced alternative status before anyone even knew that such a thing existed. Yet, decades after their dramatic breakup, The Replacements are still beloved by any rock fan with two ears and a heart who knows what it means to be in love with a song.
Even rebels need an anthem, and no one rallied like The Replacements. This Tim track announced to the world that the band members were the “sons of no one / bastards of young,” but instead of idealizing the rebellion, the song is infused with Westerberg’s signature poignancy. It starts out “God, what a mess”; Westerberg wryly notes, “We got no war to name us,” a lost generation unlike so many that came before them. But with a song this stirring to back them, even these bastards have hope, and Westerberg urges them all to “take it, it’s yours” in the song’s deconstructed ending. The band’s “video” is telling, as you may force The Replacements to make a video, but you can’t make them feature anything more than a faceless listener sitting and smoking in front of a stereo.
A glossy production polish was prevalent all over the band’s second major-label release Pleased To Meet Me. But that album’s leadoff track provided hope that all was not yet lost. “I.O.U.” was an anthemic sneer in the vein of “Bastards Of Young” (“Never do what you’re told / There’ll be time, believe me, when you’re old”). Those who had worried that a lot of the band’s bite had gone with Bob Stinson didn’t have to worry much yet. “I owe you nothing” was Westerberg’s message to ’Mats fans worried about the major-label status, with Tommy’s twangy vocals adding a honky-tonk feel to PTMM’s opener.
Pop fans, then, must have been grateful that The Replacements immediately followed “I.O.U.” with a love letter to arguably the band’s greatest influence: “Mickey Mouse in a tarot card” himself, Big Star’s Alex Chilton. Who knew the ’Mats could use handclaps to such captivating effect? The “I never travel far / Without a little Big Star” rally showed the world that The Replacements were just as much music fans as anyone else, as they too knew the feeling of being in love with a song.
One of the earliest and certainly the most heartfelt of Westerberg’s romantic pleas. Backed only with a similarly wailing guitar, Paul desperately tries to reach the indifferent object of his desire: “a slave of ignorance” as he snidely tries “to teach a whore about romance.” The song climaxes with a looped and annoying “If you’d like to make a call” sound bite with some offbeat percussion instruments, amplifying the torturous phone-related kind of romantic frustration. Although the technologies have changed, the plight of trying to reach a disinterested loved one remains; perhaps the 2015 version of this song would be called “Unanswered Text.”
A more un-jaded side of Westerberg’s romantic “Answering Machine” hero can be spied on the previous album’s “Within Your Reach.” With just some synthesizer and a searching, soaring guitar line, this is the kind of song that was made to close what was once called “side one.” His narrator is isolated (“city got me drowning”) and limited (“I can die without a dream”), but still might find salvation by a connection to just one person. The fierceness of the guitar chords that comes in on “die within your reach,” and the fact that Westerberg recorded it alone, makes this one of the ’Mats’ saddest yet moving efforts. John Cusack helped popularize this song by insisting on its insertion in the Say Anything soundtrack.
This atypical track featured an unusually sweet and romantic side of the ’Mats, with a fuller musical background than the spare, punk-influenced setup the band usually used. The theme of “Kiss Me On The Bus” is as simple as that sounds, which makes it an endearing snapshot of an early romantic moment—“Your tongue / your transfer / your hand / your answer”—as a swoop at the end of the song’s title line indicates that the kiss has actually happened.
This Hootenanny track offered one of the ’Mats’ earliest, purest theme songs, as Westerberg and friends invade a party full of posers, trying but failing to look depressed and “dressing funny.” While as snide as any punk song, Westerberg’s vulnerability is still a focal point, as he pleads, “Can you stand me on my feet?”, and Bob Stinson’s raucous guitar solo proves that the band will rock it out even at a lame party. Immortalized on film in Heathers as one of J.D.’s (Christian Slater) final lines to Veronica (Winona Ryder), right in front of “Westerburg” High.
Hey Replacements! You’ve got a big release coming out on Twin/Tone! Want to kick that off with an example of your uplifting brand of punk-pop music? Or instead, an improvised, deconstructed title track in which all the players switch instruments, with Westerberg on drums, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars on guitars, and Bob Stinson playing bass just like a lead guitar player? Fun but pointless, “Hootenanny” helped bring across the chops of the band’s live set more than any recorded track.
But for another track that helps capture that craziness, check out the band’s cover of “20th Century Boy,” an outtake from Let It Be. The Replacements brought welcome grime to the T. Rex song’s glam, and Bob Stinson’s chugging freight-train guitar belies how tight the band is underneath, even though their live sets were known for their inconsistencies. Stinson’s rock-god worthy solo, Westerberg’s scream at the end, and the fact that the track just trails off all point to the beauty amidst the Replacements’ cacophony.
Even brats like the ’Mats can grow up. Compare, for example, a couple of tour songs: the inebriated “Treatment Bound” from Hootenanny with “Can’t Hardly Wait” only a few years later. The first features sounds of beer bottles falling over; the second offers strings and horns and The Replacements’ most adult, well-thought-out effort. Although they’re still talking about “ashtray floors, dirty clothes, and filthy jokes,” now it’s over a sublime, over-produced background, helping the band transcend that grungy tour van as they long for home.
Has there ever been a sadder description than “You’re like a picture on a fridge that’s never stocked with food”? The Replacements closed both album sides of Tim with a few of their most mournful efforts. Bringing your own lampshade to a “Swingin’ Party” was sad enough, but “Here Comes A Regular” mournfully suggested the band members’ solitary futures as barflies. With Westerberg’s heartfelt lyrics, as usual, there’s loveliness in the longing, as “everyone wants to be special”: “Summer’s passed, it’s too late to cut the grass / Ain’t too much to rake anyway in the fall.”
Most of the ’Mats’ early tracks put the Ramones and The Damned in a blender, with Bob Stinson’s raging guitar belying his then-youth. In this classic short cut, as befits a teenage boy, Westerberg pleads, “You’re in love / And I’m in trouble.” They keep avoiding the girls in the album’s follow-up “Love You ’Til Friday,” at an age when the band clearly believed that faster + louder = better. Still, the reunion tours featured a few cuts from these earliest efforts, meaning that just like the fans, the ’Mats still had a soft spot for their young upstart selves.
Similarly, “Kids Don’t Follow” leads off with audio from a cop trying to close down a Minneapolis party. The Replacements at this early stage had already dissed standard establishments like school with “Fuck School”: Now they were ready to tell the adults it was pointless to try to corral the youth of the world at all, backed by a dual-guitar assault that ensured that the kids would follow the ’Mats, if nothing else.
We all know the friend who fell away that we wish we were still in touch with, and there is no better ode to that lost friend than “Left Of The Dial.” That side of the radio is indeed a haven for college stations, and other lesser-known outputs, where bands like the ’Mats would certainly hover, if they were played on the radio at all. The “sweet Georgia breezes” line could hint at their friends R.E.M., only an album after Peter Buck contributed the twangy guitar line to “I Will Dare.” But for the rest of us, “Left Of The Dial” likely brings to mind that college friend we can’t believe we don’t know anymore, but Westerberg’s song at least tells us where to look.
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck adds the jangle to one of the Mat’s most atypical but beloved tracks, the first song on Let It Be. Westerberg, as always, is older than his years: “How young are you / How old am I / Let’s count the rings around my eyes.” Still, he has enough childish bravado to live up to the song’s title, as Buck’s melody and even a mandolin makes this invitation sound more cheerful than it actually is.
Any fans a little put off by the unfamiliar sound of Let It Be’s kickoff would be immediately soothed by the album’s second track, a bookend to Hootenanny’s “Color Me Impressed” the previous year. Bob Stinson’s roller-coaster guitar line leads the bright, bombastic love song, with the empassioned “You’re my favorite thing / bar nothing” line as swoon-inducing as any Elizabethan sonnet.
Post-Bob Stinson, post any sense of rebellion, the final two Replacements albums were not group efforts as much as Westerberg trying to pull away from the group into his own solo material. The band still liked these two records enough to pull out All Shook Down’s kickoff “Merry Go Round,” and “Achin’ To Be” from Don’t Tell A Soul for their reunion tour setlist. For our purposes here, though, the track that most reflects the circuitous route the ’Mats had traveled is Soul’s final track, “Darlin’ One.” With a stirring signoff guitar riff and drum beat, and lines like “Darling one / Your time has come,” it was clear that it was time for the ’Mats to move on. It’s the closer anthem parallel to “Bastards Of Young.”
“Unsatisfied” may be the perfect synergy between The Replacements’ rage and Westerberg’s emotionality. He boasts outright anguish as he rails against his unfulfilled status, taunting the listener: “Look me in the eyes, then tell me / That I’m satisfied.” Westerberg’s emotional searches provided no shortage of wonderful song fodder over the band’s heyday, suggesting that even when The Replacements had reached milestones like national touring, heaps of fans, and wider releases, it still wasn’t going to be enough to fill whatever gaps remained in Westerberg’s heart. “Everything you dream of / Is right in front of you / And everything is a lie.”
Total time: 59 minutes, 54 seconds