Yet another great musical act to come out of the state of Minnesota (see also Bob Dylan, Prince, Hüsker Dü, and The Hold Steady), The Impediments changed their name to The Replacements after they were banned from the majority of Minneapolis’s bars. The group was led by guitarist and songwriter Paul Westerberg, who joined forces with drummer Chris Mars and brothers Bobby and Tommy Stinson, the former a Yes-obsessed lead guitarist and the latter playing bass and merely thirteen years old when the band released their first record.
Because their first album was released in 1981, they’re often lumped into punk, but after their initial releases, they’re effectively a bar band fronted by a singer-songwriter. Paul Westerberg’s songs are often honest and heartfelt, although they’re balanced by his knack for engrossing throwaways. For most bands, including songs like ‘Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out’ and ‘Waitress in the Sky’ on their albums would be problematic, but somehow they succeed in giving the heartfelt songs like ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘Skyway’ more gravitas.
The Replacements never made it big – they had a knack for career self-sabotage, like a drunken appearance on Saturday Night Live, and they were an often shambolic live band. One show has been famously bootlegged as The Shit Hits The Fans, where they barrel through a bunch of drunken covers of ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’ and The Jackson 5’s ‘I’ll Be There’.
But despite an often chaotic career, The Replacements had one of the all-time great album runs – the three albums from 1984’s Let It Be, through 1985’s Tim, and ending in 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me is marked by some great song-writing, and plenty of personality. And while they never made it big, The Replacements’ combination of guitar rock with heartfelt lyrics is similar to Pearl Jam and Nirvana in the 1990s, and it’s certainly aged a lot better than the hair rock that was crowding them out of the mainstream in the 1980s.
The Replacements Album Reviews
Favourite Album: Let It Be
Overlooked Gem: All Shook Down
Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash
1981, not yet rated
I’m pretty sure that I have this on CD in my ceiling space. I’ll have to hunt it down. I remember liking it, but not connecting to it as much as their later work.
After an album and an EP of energetic punk, The Replacements pushed out their boundaries on Hootenanny. The result is a record that’s unfocused and wildly inconsistent, despite some moments that indicate Paul Westerberg’s burgeoning writing talent and emotional punch that would come into full force in the next album. The liner notes define a Hootenanny as having immediacy, variety and incredible excitement – the variety of this record is certainly unquestionable, spanning snotty punk, power pop, acoustic rave ups, a Beatles pastiche, and a recitation of a personal ads column. But while the record’s fast paced and eclectic, it’s also superficial – it doesn’t hold up to repeated listens and a lot of the songs are far too simplistic to be interesting.
For all the problems the eclecticism of the material creates, the one fantastic song here is the one that deviates furthest from any other Replacements track; on ‘Within Your Reach’, Westerberg is only accompanied by a primitive drum machine and synthesizer, adding guitar to bulk up the chorus, and the result is an aching tale of unrequited love that makes the rest of the record look one-dimensional in comparison. The other real keeper here is the power-pop of ‘Color Me Impressed’, while the classified ads reading of ‘Lovelines’ and Beatles rip off ‘Mr Whirly’ are amusing enough to work. The band all swap instruments for the title track, and it’s predictably messy with busy bass lines from Bob, sloppy drumming from Paul, and not particularly interesting guitars from the other two. Elsewhere, the surf instrumental ‘Buck Hill’ and the not-as-hypnotic-as-it-wants-to-be ‘Willpower’ are two particular lows.
Hootenanny is at least fun, and the record’s fast enough moving and personable enough to be more than the sum of its parts, but for a group on the cusp of what’s possibly the best three album sequence made by anyone, it’s disappointingly disposable.
Let It Be
1984’s Let It Be is the point where The Replacements made their great leap forward, augmenting charming but throwaway punk with more serious and emotionally resonant material. Together with the subsequent Tim and Pleased To Meet Me, Let It Be is part of the Replacements mid-80s trinity of great records. It’s divided almost equally between throwaway material like a Kiss cover and ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’ and more serious work. You’d think it would undermine the heartfelt ‘Unsatisfied’ to follow a Kiss cover, but somehow the inclusion of what would normally be filler material balances the album out – a whole album of ‘Answering Machine’ would feel overwrought.
The serious material includes the closing ‘Answering Machine’, which is intense despite not using a rhythm section, and the anguished ‘Unsatisfied’ (“look me in the eye/and tell me, that you’re satisfied”), where Westerberg adds some lap steel. ‘Androgynous’ adds some diversity with a piano led rumination on gender identity confusion, and ‘Sixteen Blue’ takes on adolesence. R.E.M.’s Peter Buck contributes a guitar solo to the opening ‘I Will Dare’. Among the lighter material, the less essential material includes the Kiss cover ‘Black Diamond’, the bratty ‘Seen Your Video’ and the loping ‘We’re Coming Out’, although each of these has a sloppy charm of its own.
It’s not their most consistent record but it would still be perfectly reasonable to argue for Let It Be as the best example of The Replacements oeuvre, as it represents the meeting point of their less serious early work and their more mature later work.
After the acclaim that Let It Be generated, The Replacements moved to a major label. Produced by Tommy Ramone, Tim is more polished than their early work, and a little more serious in tone than Let It Be was, with Westerberg taking on more universal themes like the anthemic ‘Bastards of the Young’, but basically it’s a marginally more mature version of Let It Be, with slightly more polish. ‘Waitress in the Sky’ is comparable to the charming throwaways on Let It Be, but it’s terrific, with Westerberg playing the snotty rock star (albeit a rock star flying economy class) running off a hilarious list of low skill professions to compare to a condescending flight attendant.
Tim is wall to wall quality: ‘Hold My Life’ kicks the record off with a high octane riff rocker, while ‘Little Mascara’ is a touching ode to a harangued mother, laden with hooks. ‘Bastards of Young’ is positively anthemic despite its downtrodden lyrics, while ‘Here Comes A Regular’ packs a lot of punch with little more than an acoustic guitar and three chords, a lament for Bob Stinson who was forced out of the band with an alcohol problem after the completion of the album
Tim is simply another great album from The Replacements’ mid 1980s’ peak.
Pleased To Meet Me
With their rawness stripped away and lead guitarist Bob Stinson fired, Pleased To Meet Me veers further away from The Replacements’ sound, but it still stands tall on the basis of Paul Westerberg’s wonderful songs and heartfelt vocals. Jim Dickinson, who also produced Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers, does a good job of tempering the group’s formerly messy sound and the production values of the mid eighties, and it feels as much classic rock as it does alternative rock. While Dickinson plasters on the occasional horn section or keyboard part, Pleased To Meet Me never loses the vigour of the three piece group nor the intimacy of Westerberg’s singer-songwriter inclinations.
‘Alex Chilton’ is a wonderful slice of power-pop (“I never travel far” declares Westerberg in the bridge, “Without a little Big Star”), capturing teenage fantasy and obsession about rock idols perfectly. ‘Red Red Wine’ is a raucous rock song, while ‘Skyway’ is a beautiful acoustic piece. Foreshadowing of Nirvana is arguably evident in ‘Never Mind’, as Westerberg screams himself hoarse in the title, and ‘The Ledge’ is an anguished study of suicide. Counterwise, the line “Jesus rides beside me” is ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ is a beautifully uplifting moment, with Alex Chilton himself providing some guitar work.
Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased To Meet Me is one of the best three album sequences made by anyone.
Don’t Tell A Soul
Don’t Tell A Soul was The Replacements’ most blatant bid for the mainstream, and it’s far less rough-edged then what came before, with a more radio-friendly sound. It loses the effortless charm of earlier Replacements, and in its place is a thoughtful maturity that’s no less valid, but more generic. New guitarist Slim Dunlap has little effect on the group’s sound; the guitars sound fine, but they’re missing Bob Stinson’s personality. A case in point is the wannabe punk of ‘I Won’t’; the band are too far away from their roots by this point to pull it off convincingly, and the resulting track is awkwardly abrasive on an otherwise smooth record.
It’s the ballads like ‘They’re Blind’, ‘Achin’ To Be’ and the slow and mournful ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost’ that make the greatest impression, the latter’s low key approach showing the way forward to the next record. It’s not all slow and reflective; ‘Asking Me Lies’ is a likable slice of jangly radio pop (“telling me questions, and asking me lies” is an archetypal Westerberg line), while ‘We’ll Inherit The Earth’ scores with a catchy chorus (“we’ll inherit the earth/but we don’t want it”). ‘I’ll Be You’ was the single, and it’s typically intelligent, and the closing ‘Darlin’ One’ is effective enough but strays too close to a corporate U2 sound for comfort.
Don’t Tell A Soul is underwhelming after the run of great albums that preceded it, but there are still quality songs here even though the group have lost their edge.
All Shook Down
All Shook Down started as a Paul Westerberg solo album, before his record label insisted on it being a band recording. Tommy Stinson joined the sessions and plays on most tracks, while Slim Dunlap and Westerberg handle all the guitar parts, but Mars’ participation is limited and the only full band track is reputed to be ‘Attitude’. The band are augmented by a host of guest musicians including John Cale, Terry Reid, Tom Petty’s Benmont Tench, and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin.
While All Shook Down is hardly adult contemporary, it’s a lot more mature and subdued than The Replacements were only a few years earlier. Of course it was impossible that Paul Westerberg could go on playing the perpetual adolescent forever with any dignity, and he does an excellent job of updating the group’s outlook; much of the appeal of the album lies in its world-worn atmosphere.
‘My Little Problem’, the duet with Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, feels like another blatant attempt at a crossover hit, but I always look forward to it since it’s one of the most upbeat songs on the record. Westerberg’s knack for pop hooks is intact; the chorus of ‘When It Began’ and the guitar figure of ‘Torture’ both elevate their respective songs, even though they’re two of All Shook Down’s slightest songs. The strongest material is more profound, ‘The Last’ documents Westerberg’s newfound sobriety, while ‘Sadly Beautiful’ is slow and mournful. The title track and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ both have an ambiguity that elevate them above mere singer-songwriter material. Westerberg’s stock of quotable and profound one-liners also remains intact; “Would it help to fall in love a little slower”, Westerberg asks in ‘The Last’, “I know it hurts at any speed.” “You’re still in love with nobody,” he tells an old lover; “I used to be nobody.”
It’s not a great record in the vein of their mid 1980s’ triumphs, but All Shook Down does show The Replacements bowing out with their dignity intact, and it’s a more than respectable final recording and a worthy addition to their catalogue.
Want more? I’ve also covered Paul Westerberg’s solo career.
Ten Favourite Replacements Songs
Hold My Life
Within Your Reach
I’ll Be You