Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Mark Hemingway, senior writer at The Weekly Standard. Follow Mark on Twitter @Heminator and read his work here.
Mark's Musical Pick: The Replacements.
Grab a bottle cheap whiskey, a case of Grain Belt beer, and an electric guitar, because it's time to talk about the Great Lost Cause of the American indie-rock scene, The Replacements (or The 'Mats, a nickname that makes more sense the drunker you get). Mark talks about discovering them right after they had broken up in 1991. Jeff explains that he both loves the 'Mats and hates them as well...more accurately, he resents them for wasting their amazing talents and sabotaging their careers. But they sure did leave us with a lot of great music regardless.
KEY TRACKS: "Talent Show" (Don't Tell A Soul, 1989); "Bastards Of Young" (Tim, 1985)
The Early Years: from Punk to Hardcore to . . . Hootenanny?
The gang discusses the early Replacements, from their origins as Just Another Punk/Hardcore Band on the Twin Cities music scene (their main competition was St. Paul's Hüsker Dü). Mark isn't a big fan of this era of the 'Mats, but Jeff is, finding in it a period where their proclivity for drunken, devil-may-care wildness was still in harmony with the music they were actually making as an up-and-coming indie band. Jeff salutes the surprising consistency of their debut LP Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash while Mark argues that it's too well-produced to be a true hardcore document. The Stink EP (1982) is where The Replacements go fully hardcore -- Jeff says it sounds more like mocking 'musical drag' than a true commitment, citing to the hilarity of "F**k School" -- and while Mark and Scot agree it's a detour, they both love the flagship track "Kids Don't Follow," a response-song to U2's "I Will Follow."
Everybody loves Hootenanny (1983), however, which is a hoot-and-a-half: the 'Mats suddenly start displaying diversity (Westerberg even uses synths and a demo electronic percussion track on the LP). The result is a record that fuses their early, goofy punk loutishness with promising stabs at maturity in songs like "Color Me Impressed," "Within Your Reach," and "Willpower." And Jeff will always love "Mr. Whirly," if only for the Beatles parodies.
As an aside, both Mark and Jeff are passionate fans of Bob Mehr's book Trouble Boys: The True Story Of The Replacements, which is no mere quickie rock biography, but rather a true work of journalism: the comprehensively definitive result of years of research, over 200 interviews, access to the Replacements' outtake vaults, and participation of nearly every living relevant actor (including bandmembers' friends and family). If you like The Replacements beyond mere casual enjoyment, we cannot recommend this book to strongly enough. It is the last word on the band.
KEY TRACKS: "I'm In Trouble" (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, 1981); "Takin' A Ride" (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, 1981); "Johnny's Gonna Die" (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, 1981); "Kick Your Door Down" ("this song was written 20 mins after we recorded it" - Paul Westerberg) (Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, 1981); "Kids Don't Follow" (The Replacements Stink EP, 1982); "F**k School" (The Replacements Stink EP, 1982); "Go" (The Replacements Stink EP, 1982); "Hootenanny" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Within Your Reach" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Lovelines" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Buck Hill" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Willpower" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Color Me Impressed" (Hootenanny, 1983); "Mr. Whirly" (Hootenanny, 1983)
The 'Mats Grow Up, at Least as Much as They Ever Will: Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased To Meet Me
This is the true golden era of The Replacements, as all agree. Jeff still thinks the 'Mats never made a truly great album and argues that Let It Be (1984) is a frustratingly apt example of that: genius music like "I Will Dare" and "Androgynous" sits right next to half-hearted thrashy nonsense like "Gary's Got A Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsills Out." This is material that the Replacements would have been more comfortable doing in an early, less ambitious era, but which sits uneasily along the serious gems by this point. Mark and Scot think Jeff is wrong (Mark: "you are high"), and claim Let It Be as the best of the 'Mats, right in line with general fan and critical consensus.
With Tim (1985), The Replacements' major-label debut, Jeff thinks the problem is even more acute: is there really any better song in the entire corpus of American 1980's indie-rock than "Bastards Of Young"? (Answer: no.) "Kiss Me On The Bus," "Here Comes A Regular," "Hold My Life," "Left Of The Dial"...half of Tim is comprised of anthemic explanations of what rock (and adolescence!) was about in the '80s. But then you also have to sit through "Dose Of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown" and "Waitress In The Sky." Was it that The Replacements were fundamentally limited as a band, or was it more about self-sabotage?
1987's Pleased To Meet Me suggests that it was probably self-sabotage, as this is the one that the gang agrees is right up there with the best The Replacements ever did. Fresh off of firing lead guitarist Bob Stinson (it's a very sad story) and manager Peter Jesperson, the 'Mats are somehow wrestled into making an extremely assured, varied, movingly smart album that proves what they could've accomplished with more discipline. Jeff and Mark agree that even though the lone Replacements song any non-fan is likely to know is "Can't Hardly Wait," well, that's not a bad thing. "The Ledge" finds Paul Westerberg writing about teen suicide from a deadly serious perspective, and while Mark argues that there was no universe in which this could ever have been a hit single -- circa-1986 teen suicide news stories notwithstanding -- it's still one of their best. Scot loves "I.O.U.," not just because of the muscularity of its music but also because its lyric feels like a veiled argument about Stinson and Jesperson ("I owe you nothing"). The gang remarks on the irony of "Alex Chilton," a song about a legendary failed band that never reached its full potential performed by a legendary failed band that never reached its full potential.
KEY TRACKS: "I Will Dare" (Let It Be, 1984); "Androgynous" (Let It Be, 1984); "Unsatisfied" (Let It Be, 1984); "Black Diamond" (Let It Be, 1984); "Answering Machine (live February 4th, 1986)" (For Sale: Live at Maxwell's 1986, 2017); "Sixteen Blue" (Let It Be, 1984); "Bastards Of Young (live on Saturday Night Live, January 18th, 1986)" (originally from Tim, 1985); "Left Of The Dial" (Tim, 1985); "Hold My Life" (Tim, 1985); "Kiss Me On The Bus" (Tim, 1985); "Here Comes A Regular" (Tim, 1985); "Skyway" (Pleased To Meet Me, 1987); "Can't Hardly Wait" (Pleased To Meet Me, 1987); "Alex Chilton" (Pleased To Meet Me, 1987); "I.O.U." (Pleased To Meet Me, 1987); "The Ledge" (Pleased To Meet Me, 1987)
The Collapse: Don't Tell a Soul and All Shook Down.
Opinions are highly mixed on the overproduced/overmixed Don't Tell A Soul (1989), yet another troubled production given an ultra-slick commercial sheen by the record label. "I'll Be You" was actually the band's best-charting single, but it's telling that nobody really talks about it as ranking among their best songs nowadays. Mark can't defend Don't Tell A Soul rationally, but he will always love it as his first 'Mats album and points out that a lot of the songs themselves are excellent ones, merely sabotaged by production choices. Jeff also argues that the real issue is that Westerberg was no longer really writing "Replacements" songs, he was writing "Paul Westerberg solo songs." To that end, he enjoys "Talent Show" and "Rock 'N' Roll Ghost," both soft numbers, while Scot singles out "Darlin' One."
As for All Shook Down? Well it's a Paul Westerberg solo album in all but name, with the "Replacements" brand affixed to it for various commercial reasons. The one full-band 'Mats song is "Attitude," a skiffle-folk number that isn't exactly typical Replacements style but which all agree is pretty good nonetheless. Other than that, the rockers seem forced on All Shook Down (e.g. "Merry Go Round") and it's only on the quieter piano/acoustic tunes where any sense of direction comes through...it was just a direction leading inexorably away from the band.
KEY TRACKS: "I'll Be You" (Don't Tell A Soul, 1989); "Asking Me Lies" (Don't Tell A Soul, 1989); "Darlin' One" (Don't Tell A Soul, 1989); "Rock 'N' Roll Ghost" (Don't Tell A Soul, 1989); "Merry Go Round" (All Shook Down, 1990); "When It Began" (All Shook Down, 1990); "Attitude" (All Shook Down, 1990); "The Last" (All Shook Down, 1990)
Paul Westerberg's Solo Career
This leads inevitably into a bonus discussion of Paul Westerberg as a solo artist. Jeff lays out here, as he doesn't know the material, but both Scot and Mark have strong opinions on what gems to hunt for in a rather hit-and-miss career. Scot in particular pushes hard for the double-CD release Stereo/Mono, where Westerberg in his opinion finally comes up with two albums' worth of top-shelf material, humbly produced in his basement studio but standing on its own musical merits despite the lack of any production trickery.
KEY TRACKS: "Black Eyed Susan" (14 Songs, 1993); "It's A Wonderful Lie" (Suicaine Gratifaction, 1999); "Best Thing That Never Happened" (Suicaine Gratifaction, 1999); "Only Lie Worth Telling" (Stereo, 2002); "Let The Bad Times Roll" (Stereo, 2002); "Silent Film Star" (Mono, 2002)
Mark, Scot and Jeff each name their two key albums and five key tracks from The Replacements.
(Image courtesy of Twin/Tone Records)
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