A Love Letter to The Replacements
Ever since I first heard them, I feel as though I've carried The Replacements with me.
Once-marginal, now-legendary "seminal" acts reform all the time nowadays, but last summer, when two of the four original members of The Replacements got back together to play their first shows since 1991, it was hard to begrudge them a chance to grab some of the attention (and ticket sales) they missed out on the first time round. Since then, the comeback has got increasingly real, with the band embarking upon a major US tour and coming to Europe. This week, they're playing their first UK shows in 24 years at the Roundhouse in London.
Ever since I first heard them, I feel as though I've carried The Replacements with me. A quick scan through my emails reminds me that I've sent their songs to almost every girl I've been involved with. You could accuse me of using other people's art to make up for my own lack of personality – and you'd be right – but in our rush to show the people we might come to love who we are, we all take shortcuts, and a link to a Replacements song is one of my go-tos. Romantic but not cheesy, hip but not alienating, they're perfect for those early days in a relationship when you're still trying to forge a real connection with someone.
Sometimes, I committed to this plugging of the band a little too much. The girlfriend I first heard The 'Mats with knew Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, friend of Big Star's Alex Chilton (subject of a great Replacements song) and an influence on the band. We spent quite a lot of time with Rick and on more than one occasion I'd bore the shit out of him with my opining on the greatness of The Replacements. He'd laugh and give me a look that said, "Alright kid, I was doing all that long before those fuckers." He had a point.
The Replacements don't belong in the past, though, and while the potential damage they could be doing to their legacy might have you running for the hills, it shouldn't blind you to that legacy. Very few bands made music as furious, honest and affecting. Starting in the cold northern city of Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979, with a bass player who was 12 years old and influences that ranged from the punk of The Ramones, the metal of Black Sabbath and the schlocky arena rock of the bands they'd been exposed to as kids (i.e. Kiss), The Replacements went from being the heavy-drinking, comically self-sabotaging, sensitive outsiders of the hardcore scene to being the heavy-drinking, comically self-sabotaging, sensitive outsiders of the college rock scene. They moved seamlessly from the energy of punk, as shown here in an early Minneapolis performance, to the bittersweet sadness of barroom balladry you find in "Here Comes a Regular", and they kept that balance going through their career.
From the beginning, The Replacements could nail the boredom and frustration of being a kid in the melodic hardcore of songs like "Shiftless When Idle", while also being capable of doing something different, as in "You're Getting Married", an off-cut from the early EP Stink, which tells the story of a young woman ready to give up her life by marrying the wrong guy (i.e. not you). "You say you'll both be happy / Hey you forgot to tell your eyes", singer Paul Westerberg rasps, and every thwarted love or casual rejection springs right up in front of you. It's the feeling of being drunk and alone at 6AM. It's the feeling that you are being denied happiness because someone else just can't see the world the way you do. It's a feeling that was a little too emo for the rest of the band. "Save it for your solo album," lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who was later kicked out of the band and went on to die aged 35, told Westerberg.– – –
You know what The Replacements didn't like? Fashion. Here's a film about that:
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Replacements songs move all over the map musically but often return to the same themes lyrically: the promise and waste of youth, boredom and restlessness, unmet expectations and the deeply repressed desire for something more from life. While these are timeless topics, they are most closely associated with being a teenager. So often when we talk about the music we love the most, we talk about things we heard – or pretended to hear – when we were really young.
I wish I could say I first heard The Replacements when I was a teenager, but I didn't. I'd love to say an old punk gave me a copy of their classic 1984 album, Let It Be, when I was 14, but the truth is that I first properly, consciously listened to them when I was 23-year-old teenager.
I was on my way to Washington, DC in a Chinatown bus, to interview Ian MacKaye. A 17-year-old boy drove the bus and every 15 minutes he'd send the creaking old vehicle careening onto the rumble strips that separated road from ditch. We broke down in Delaware for four hours and hit the side of a tunnel somewhere near Baltimore. It took us 12 hours to make a four-hour journey and when we got to DC someone tried to steal our bags. The time I had on the bus allowed me to listen to a bunch of bands vaguely connected to MacKaye's Dischord Records by era or genre. One of those bands was The Replacements. The song was "Unsatisfied" and from Westerberg's half-coherent shout at the beginning of the song, I was hooked:"Look me in the eye / Then tell me that I'm satisfied / Hey, are you satisfied?"I had that moment that is so well documented it feels cheesy to even mention it, that moment when you say to yourself, 'Man, this person gets me, that is exactly what I feel.' The honesty of what Westerberg was singing was striking. I'd seen Mick Jagger pouting his way through "Satisfaction" to a crowd of 90,000 screaming Argentine girls, many of them topless, and thought, 'Shit man, if you can't get any satisfaction, we're all fucked.'
Westerberg had found a heart-breakingly direct way of saying; "Is this it?" decades before The Strokes asked the same question and changed the way people wore jeans forever. I responded to the song like a teenage fan; as someone trying to find an identity in the adult world and being simultaneously bored, frustrated and scared by what I found there. It resonated then and it still does. Because satisfaction is never guaranteed, it's so often out of reach and the disconnection between what is wanted and what is available – a dynamic that is present in so many Replacements songs – is at the root of so much of our sadness and frustration.
The Replacements could get at all this without being po-faced. More than that, they had a sense of humour. Their first album was called Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and had songs like "I Bought a Headache" and "I Hate Music" (Sample lyrics: "I hate my father / One day I won't... I hate music / It's got too many notes") on it. The first song on their second LP, Hootenanny, is a shuffle they recorded as a fuck-off to their pedantic engineer and the album includes a track called "Lovelines", in which Westerberg reads out lonely hearts messages from the local 'paper.
They followed up the game-changing Let It Be with a fan-recorded show they'd played at a half-full church in Oklahoma. They released it on cassette and called it The Shit Hits the Fans. In a great, self-defeating "fuck you" to MTV, the video for "Bastards of Young", a song that could've made the band bigger than Nirvana before Nirvana even existed, was just a shot of a pulsating speaker. "Swingin' Party", which has been covered recently by Kindness and Lorde, is a bittersweet tribute to middle-aged swingers and The Replacements' best of is called Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? Nowadays, Westerberg makes songs with titles like "Everyone's Stupid" in his basement. What's not to love?
These guys had a sense of humour and they used it to stop themselves getting big, either because they were scared or because they didn't want to. They "dared to fail", as Westerberg once said and, steeped in the Scandinavian heritage of the American north-west, they seemed to subscribe unconsciously to the Law of Jante, the first rule of which reads: "You're not to think you are anything special". They drank and took drugs and had fights and cracked jokes and felt close to the edge and when I eventually sat in DC with Ian MacKaye I felt partly inspired by his dedication and conviction and partly exhausted by his rigidness. I thought: The Replacements wouldn't be like this.
Purists and true believers of any kind see the world in black and white but great art sees it in shades of grey. Westerberg managed to occupy the grey areas of life to make something of our complexities, to sing about difficult things simply and affectively. He talked about the person you didn't want to talk about but had to talk about. He sung about commitment and growing up and the impossible compromise you have to make with the world over your place in it.
"I like to be alone and have my own idea," Westerberg once said, in relation to his suspicion of groupthink, and it was this that allowed him to move away from writing "riffs with statements" (his take on hardcore) to something more original and nuanced. The Replacements always felt like simultaneously the hippest and least hip people at the party and to me those are the people who make the best music. Their brilliant early anthem "Color Me Impressed" almost literally described this: "Everybody at your party / they don't look depressed / everybody dressin' funny / color me impressed". These Minnesotan boys, not from hip New York or cool LA, standing aloof from the party, impressed and attracted by it but also always not of it.
This chronicling of the sensitive, disaffected outsider is all over the Replacements' back catalogue. On "Left of the Dial", their hymn to alternative radio, Westerberg sings about something you know but which maintains its mystery and excitement. "Answering Machine" shoots straight to the heart of being estranged from someone: "How do you say you're OK / to an answering machine?" The protagonist of "Sixteen Blue" is a boy questioning his sexuality (see also: "Androgynous", a piano-led celebration of difference, someone who feels bored and hopeless, who brags about things he doesn't understand and lies to his dad about having a date).
And then there is "Can't Hardly Wait". More than almost any other song I've heard, it leaves you with a heightened sense of what tomorrow might bring, a sense that is both unbearably exciting and unbearably sad. It is, like so many Replacements songs, something that you can sit with in the grey light of another late night/early morning. "Write you a letter tomorrow / tonight I can't hold a pen", Westerberg sings, and as he does he conjures a world of possibilities and dissolute glamour, distilling the early potential of love and life's ability to continue surprising us while still providing us with places to drink and get high. Human lives are both hopeful and hopeless and The Replacements incarnated that and put it into their music.
I could go on, but I've gone on long enough, so I'll end with Bob Mehr, author of the forthcoming Replacements biography Trouble Boys, who told me this:
"In the end I think the bigger goal, the goal they actually achieved, was to be remembered. I once read Civil War author Allan Gurganus describe the idea of the romantic 'lost cause'. He said it's about attempting the impossible at great cost, proudly celebrating the failure and gaining admiration for the performance. In a weird way, I think that holds true for the Replacements as well."
Write me a letter tomorrow. Tonight, I can't hold a pen.