One foot in the door...
The other foot in the gutter
Even before its final show on 4th July, 1991 in Chicago, a great deal had already been written about legendary Minneapolis band, THE REPLACEMENTS. Since that show, and the ensuing break-up, there has been enough eulogising, criticising, praising and damning of THE ‘MATS to fill a whole series of Encyclopedia Britannica several times over. The Jim Walsh book, ‘All Over But The Shouting’, obviously provides the written zenith on the band.
But without the music, the history of THE ‘MATS reads rather like a comedy of errors. Thankfully, Rhino Records has had the foresight not to just re-issue every single REPLACEMENTS album on CD, but remaster them, bring in former manager Peter Jesperson to produce them, add a myriad of sparkling, startling bonus tracks and provide enough liner notes and rare pics with each release to almost render the aforementioned book redundant.
There was something unique about THE ‘MATS. Something made their brand of rock ‘n’ roll all-consuming. I’ve often read about a belief held by those who loved the band that they were not just ‘fans’; that they themselves were Replacements. That could be true; I firmly believe that, as a band, THE ‘MATS was something you ‘got’. If you know why the bratty snot Punk of ‘Fuck School’ is as essential and as inspired as the mesmerising tranquility of ‘Sadly Beautiful’ you ‘got’ ‘THE 'MATS; if you know all the accusations of the band "disrespecting its audience and dishonouring its talent" are written by people who adore U2 and lack comprehension of spontaneity you ‘got’ THE ‘MATS.
To me, THE ‘MATS is the single most defining rock ‘n’ roll band the world has seen. It is the only band to have taken the breakneck ferocity of Punk Rock, the barroom swingin’ swagger of the best degenerate rock ‘n’ roll, a perfect pop sensibility and the intimacy of American-style folk song, and combine them all into a sound that is ingenious, eccentric and untouchable. Nothing sounded contrived or forced on a ‘MATS album; it was all just sublimely natural.
If Elvis Presley invented rock ‘n’ roll, the Rolling Stones contorted it, the RAMONES distorted it, the SEX PISTOLS perverted it and THE REPLACEMENTS perfected it.
SORRY MA, FORGOT TO TAKE OUT THE TRASH. 1981 saw America gripped in the formative throes of Hardcore. DEAD KENNEDYS released ‘In God We Trust’, BLACK FLAG released ‘Damaged’ and THE ‘MATS released the debut album, ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash’. It’s anachronistic to suggest that ‘Sorry Ma...’ is a bona fide HC record, but it did embrace the fervent drive of HC and its anti-image approach. Songs like ‘Takin A Ride’, the frenzied ‘Customer’ and ‘Rattlesnake’ all sprint along with a pace that aligns the band with HC but coupled with the rock ‘n’ roll sus of both DEAD BOYS and JOHNNY THUNDERS, while ‘Shutup’ delves into sneering, PISTOLian Punk Rock. One highlight of the album is the mournful and prophetic ‘Johnny’s Gonna Die’ about THUNDERS himself and, even at this formative stage, displayed Paul Westerberg’s ability to write not just flat out rockers but songs laden with pathos that can be as harrowing as they are beautiful. The band’s career-long irreverence of musical professionalism was displayed with ‘I Hate Music’. At the start, Westerberg is told, "Tape’s rolling." "So what?" Westerberg replies with appropriate disdain. The debut album has more bonus tracks than any of the others - 13 in total. You get the original 4-track demo from May 1980 which is predictably raw but surprisingly slower than the tracks that finally appeared on the album. Then there’s a 3-track studio demo all of which are ragged, freewheeling unreleased songs but totally compelling. Then there are a few outtakes from actual album sessions, with ‘Like You’ being a stunner that should have made the album and also the only track Bob Stinson wrote for the band ‘A Toe Needs A Shoe’. Rounding it out is a basement jam rehearsal and ‘If Only You Were Lonely’ which originally appeared on the b-side of THE ‘MATS debut single, ‘I’m In Trouble’.
STINK. If the debut demanded attention, the follow-up - 1982’s mini-album ‘Stink’ - literally throttled the listener into submission. It represented the closest the band ever got to a full-on Hardcore album, not to mention it being the most cantankerous, offensive release in the band’s cannon. It appeared looking like a bootleg and, from the opening salvo of an infamous downtown Minneapolis show that got shut-down by the cops, it sounded like one - at least until what is arguably the first Westerberg classic appeared in the shape of ‘Kids Don’t Follow’. Seven tracks proceed ranging from the blitzkrieg of ‘Fuck School’ and ‘Dope Smokin Moron’, on to what could be the nearest the band got to making a political statement with ‘God Damn Job’ and culminating with the sombre, introspective ‘Go’. There’s only four additional tracks here, which could render ‘Stink’ the least desirable of all these reissues. You get a couple of outtakes, including a boisterous rocker called ‘Staples In Her Stomach’ and an incredibly disrespectful but all-guns-firing blast through Bill Hayley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’. It rounds off with what is considered the Holy Grail of ‘MATS rarities: ‘You’re Getting Married’. It’s a Westerberg solo demo and the depth and conviction behind the song belies such a relatively inexperienced songwriter as Westerberg was at the time. It could be said the track is the greatest song that Westerberg never officially released and, along with ‘Go’, displays that THE ‘MATS were already out-growing the confines of incinerating, barroom Punk Rock.
HOOTENANNY. One year on and probably the least revered ‘MATS album hits the racks. ‘Hootenanny’, while not amputating the Punk influence entirely, was literally over-flowing with new ideas and sounds. While ‘Run It’ and ‘You Lose’ could have fitted neatly onto the debut album, here we also have the initially throwaway opener and title track where the band have swapped instruments; then there’s ‘Treatment Bound’ and ‘Mr Whirly’ that could be fellow Minneapolis legend Bob Dylan - but drunk; ‘Willpower’ is brooding and remains a track unlike anything else the band recorded; ‘Buck Hill’ has a surf guitar groove while ‘Lovelines’ sounds like lounge-room swing with pornographic connotations. If that’s not enough, it also has what I consider to be the first - and one of the best - undisputable Westerberg classics in ‘Color Me Impressed’. An absolutely joyous track which - along with ‘Within Your Reach’ that uses a heavily flanged guitar, a drum machine and keyboards - acts as the album’s pivotal track. ‘Hootenanny’ was the album where I ‘got’ THE ‘MATS. I already had three of the discs that follow (and one of the above), but it was this album that it all fell into place. It was an embryonic album for the band, with probably the widest vision and least focus. Seven bonus cuts fill this out starting with ‘Lookin’ For Ya’ which was originally released on the ‘Trackin Up North’ album. Five outtakes from the album sessions follow including ‘Junior’s Got A Gun’ which could’ve been the fastest track on the album and ‘Johnny Fast’ which is a revved up take on ‘Johnny’s Gonna Die’ from the debut. The final track is another solo Westerberg demo which sees the comparison with Dylan ever more justifiable, although it’d be Dylan at his most bitter and mixed with the Bluegrass vibe of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ era.
LET IT BE. Considered by many as the band’s crowning moment, ‘Let It Be’ was released in 1984 and from the opening, ringing chords of ‘I Will Dare’ - which remains one of the most loved of all Westerberg compositions - it’s clear that THE ‘MATS stepped up a gear and found ‘their thing’. There’s the crazed, distorted legacy of Punk prevailing on ‘We’re Comin’ Out’, the frivolous rock ‘n’ roll swagger of ‘Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out’ and ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’, a blazing KISS cover, the scathing critique on MTV and the phony bands that pander to it that is ‘Seen Your Video’ and there’s the wistful ‘Unsatisfied’ that sees, possibly for the very first time, Westerberg deliver a vocal that’s both petulant and ethereal. There are six bonus cuts here, starting with the band’s take on T.Rex’s ‘20th Century Boy’ that originally appeared on the b-side of the ‘I Will Dare’ 12". Then there’s four outtakes from the album sessions. They only offer one ‘MATS original - ‘Perfectly Lethal’ which really should have made the final cut. There are a couple of covers including an amazing version of The Grass Roots’ ‘Temptation Eyes’, a reworking of the album’s closer, ‘Answering Machine’ and finally a solo demo of another album track, ‘Sixteen Blue’ . Have to say, I found the extras on here to be the least exciting of them all. This album was the last for an independent label and also featured R.E.M.’s Peter Buck playing lead on ‘I Will Dare’ - easily the best song he has ever played on! Depending on the perspective, this is an album considered to be either the first of three classic albums, or the second of five. While there is no disputing the album’s greatness, it is the following two albums which I consider to be the band’s best.
TIM. The major label debut and guitarist Bob Stinson’s last stand. Released just one year on from the classic above, ‘Tim’ was produced by Tommy Erdelyi (that’s Tommy Ramone for those who don’t know) and contains a wealth of Westerberg’s greatest tracks. Kicking off with the buoyant ‘Hold My Life’, this is an album full of delights. There’s the near-perfect power-pop of ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’, the virtually autobiographical ‘Left Of The Dial’ and the wonderful wit of ‘Waitress In The Sky’. Even the often-cited throwaway tracks ‘Lay It Down Clown’ and ‘Dose Of Thunder’ cannot be overlooked - especially the former as it houses a classic scurrilous Bob Stinson solo which is particularly poignant as it was just about the last he laid down with THE ‘MATS. That leaves the album’s big hitters, two undisputed Westerberg classics: ‘Bastards Of Young’ and ‘Here Comes A Regular’. The former is a defining statement of Westerberg’s - "We are the sons of no-one" (which has biblical connotations as the same phrase crops up in the Gospel of Matthew) - and could be said to reflect the last aural vestiges of the band’s Punk Rock past. ‘Here Comes a Regular’ relates the tale of something THE ‘MATS knew first hand - the drinker’s life. It remains, even after 20 years of listening to the song, a stunning, emotive piece of observational writing. On its release, ‘Tim’ received rave reviews but they failed to translate into big sales. One reason could be that the songs here, although polished compared with something like ‘Hootenanny’, were still far too unrefined for commercial radio - and that’s NOT a bad thing as far as I am concerned. The extra tracks make ‘Tim’ the most essential of these reissues. You get two versions of ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ recorded with BIG STAR’s Alex Chilton in 1985, one acoustic and one a cranked, wild electric version. Then there’s ‘Nowhere Is My Home’ that appeared on the ‘Boink!’ compilation. A couple of album track demos recorded early on with Tommy Erdelyi that are rocking and raw follow and finally an alternative, less effected version of ‘Here Comes A Regular’. Truly stunning sounds and for the uninitiated, start here to see if you ‘get it’.
PLEASED TO MEET ME. Originally released in 1987, this was the first album recorded after the departure of Bob Stinson and the only ‘MATS album to be recorded as a trio. Possibly due to that, combined with the production techniques of BIG STAR’s mercurial Alex Chilton, this is a unique sounding ‘MATS album - very Memphis barroom blues, loose-sounding, relaxed and probably, if I really had to pick a favoured album, this would be it. From the opening, surging adrenalin shot bitterness that is ‘I.O.U’ through to the closing, spell-binding, brass-laden version of ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’, there is not a duffer on the album. Highlights include the lounge-room shuffle of ‘Nightclub Jitters’, ‘I Don’t Know’ which further enhanced the couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude and welded it with a snide sense of humour, the sauntering riff of ‘The Ledge’ and the ode to the producer and ‘MATS hero, ‘Alex Chilton’. I’ve not mentioned the meandering ‘Skyway’ or the glorious, uproarious ‘Red Red Wine’. There is a huge 11 extra tracks here starting with the first recordings the band did as a 3-piece featuring four songs. ‘Birthday Gal’ is simply exquisite while ‘Photo’ is easily strong enough to hold its own on the album. Then there’s the three other tracks from ‘The Ledge’ 12" and ‘Cool Water’ (featuring drummer Chris Mars on vocals) that was the b-side to ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. There are also alternative versions of ‘Alex Chilton’ (with Tommy’s bass to the fore) and another version of ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ (actually the weakest of them all). Magical stuff the like of which would never be heard from the band again. Once again, didn’t sell as well as expected, which could explain the sheen of...
DON’T TELL A SOUL. Of all the ‘MATS albums, this 1989 album - the first to feature Bob Stinson’s replacement, Slim Dunlap - is probably the one that has aged worst. Whilst distinctly a ‘MATS album it does sound, if not contrived, then at least forced in parts and the lush production suggests the band - and label - were aiming directly at prime-time radio play. It kicks off well with ‘Talent Show’ that amplifies the band’s hesitance toward stardom (ironic that it should appear on the most commercial-sounding of all albums) and continues with highs like ‘Achin’ To Be’, ‘Anywhere’s Better Than Here’ which is the nearest the album has to an all-out rocker, the haunting tale of suicide that is ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Ghost’ and the stadium-bombast of closer ‘Darlin’ One’. Snag is, there is also the sterile funk of ‘Asking Me Lies’ and the ballad ‘They’re Blind’ (which, had it been Westerberg solo with a guitar, could have been cracking. As it is, it’s over-produced slush). If the objective of the album was to achieve some commercial success, it succeeded with the single, ‘I’ll Be You’ that received decent rotation on MTV. There are seven extras here, including a couple from the previously released ‘All For Nothing’ compilation. One of those is ‘Portland’, a song that could have been the highlight of ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ but instead had to wait nearly a decade after the album’s release for public consumption. Then there are a couple of demo/ alt. mixes of album tracks, the b-side of the ‘I’ll Be You’ single that is ‘Date To Church’ and finally a couple of outtakes in ‘We Know The Night’ (a solo Westerberg track in the mold of ‘Achin To Be’) and a loose and ragged but highly entertaining take on SLADE’s ‘Gudbuy T’ Jane’. Westerberg states that this album was the beginning of the end for the ‘MATS. I guess he’d know but sonically it certainly was an about-face and leaves the listener in a rather indifferent frame of mind. Gotta say though, this is a great record to listen to on a long drive.
ALL SHOOK DOWN. And so the 1990 swan-song. It’s been said this was unofficially the first Westerberg solo album; the fact that he recorded the basics before the band and various session musos contributed their parts suggests that - but still - Tommy, Chris and Slim all play their part, unlike a solo Westerberg album. The songs here are full and clean, with Westerberg sounding more vocally pronounced than ever before. Former manager, Peter Jesperson, states he believes this is the best of the major label ‘MATS albums. That’s a grand statement, but the first eight tracks do make a more consistent and ‘MATS orientated listen than anything on ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’, while the rocking ‘My Little Problem’ could be a ‘Pleased To Meet Me’ outtake. Long-term fans of the band could already sense this was it and if there were any doubts, the album’s closing track, ‘The Last’, dissolved them. It’s an emotive, swing-style number that confronts the band’s past dilemmas, pays the bartender the tab and quietly says, "Good night folks - it’s been a ball." Of the 11 extras, eight are pre-album demo versions while the remaining three comprise of the promo-only release EP, ‘Don’t Sell Or Buy, It’s Crap’. This showed the band in much looser and more rocking form including the only completed Tommy Stinson-penned ‘MATS track ‘Satellite’. To suggest the band had any ties to ‘Punk Rock’ per se by the time of this album is painstakingly incorrect; to suggest it had been the most impressive rock ‘n’ roll band yet witnessed would, arguably, not be over stating the band’s importance.
Post-’MATS, Westerberg continues his productive (if hit-and-miss) solo career with something like 10 albums recorded. Tommy Stinson went onto form BASH AND POP, PERFECT and released a solo album before joining Guns ‘n’ Roses while Chris Mars (who left the band soon after the recording of ‘All Shook Down’ to be replaced by Steve Foley) released a couple of impressive solo albums before turning his back on music to pursue a career as an artist. Slim has kept a relatively low profile, working locally in Minneapolis and also releasing a couple of solo albums. Bob Stinson died in 1995 having formed STATIC TAXI and a few bands after that.
The only thing that these reissues omit is ‘The Shit Hits The Fans’ - a live cassette recorded in Oklahoma in 1984. It would have been great to see that given its first, widespread official release. It could be argued that a four CD Box Set would have been the way to go with all the rarities, plus ‘The Shit Hits The Fans’ and a smattering of album tracks packed with a book of liner notes.
Whatever your opinion, for me these eight albums represent the work of a band the like of which could probably not exist today - and possibly will not exist again. There is a natural spark about these records. They represent the perfect balance between genius and gregarious, foolhardy fun.
These records have provided the soundtrack to the last 20+ years of my life, they are something I ‘get’ on a visceral level, one minute laughing at a lyrical twist before getting introspective over a memory shared as ‘Here Comes A Regular’ plays out.
And you know what? That ain’t gonna change for the next 20+ years either! (25.02.09)
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