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. Ive 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. Its 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 Johnnys Gonna Die about THUNDERS himself and, even at this formative stage, displayed Paul Westerbergs ability to write not just flat out rockers but songs laden with pathos that can be as harrowing as they are beautiful. The bands career-long irreverence of musical professionalism was displayed with I Hate Music. At the start, Westerberg is told, "Tapes 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 theres 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, Im In Trouble.
STINK. If the debut demanded attention, the follow-up - 1982s 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 bands 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 Dont 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. Theres 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 Hayleys Rock Around The Clock. It rounds off with what is considered the Holy Grail of MATS rarities: Youre Getting Married. Its 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 theres 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 thats 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 albums 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 Juniors Got A Gun which couldve been the fastest track on the album and Johnny Fast which is a revved up take on Johnnys Gonna Die from the debut. The final track is another solo Westerberg demo which sees the comparison with Dylan ever more justifiable, although itd 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 bands 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 - its clear that THE MATS stepped up a gear and found their thing. Theres the crazed, distorted legacy of Punk prevailing on Were Comin Out, the frivolous rock n roll swagger of Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out and Garys 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 theres the wistful Unsatisfied that sees, possibly for the very first time, Westerberg deliver a vocal thats both petulant and ethereal. There are six bonus cuts here, starting with the bands take on T.Rexs 20th Century Boy that originally appeared on the b-side of the I Will Dare 12". Then theres 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 albums 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 albums greatness, it is the following two albums which I consider to be the bands best.
TIM. The major label debut and guitarist Bob Stinsons last stand. Released just one year on from the classic above, Tim was produced by Tommy Erdelyi (thats Tommy Ramone for those who dont know) and contains a wealth of Westerbergs greatest tracks. Kicking off with the buoyant Hold My Life, this is an album full of delights. Theres 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 albums big hitters, two undisputed Westerberg classics: Bastards Of Young and Here Comes A Regular. The former is a defining statement of Westerbergs - "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 bands Punk Rock past. Here Comes a Regular relates the tale of something THE MATS knew first hand - the drinkers 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 thats 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 Cant Hardly Wait recorded with BIG STARs Alex Chilton in 1985, one acoustic and one a cranked, wild electric version. Then theres 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 STARs 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 Cant Hardly Wait, there is not a duffer on the album. Highlights include the lounge-room shuffle of Nightclub Jitters, I Dont Know which further enhanced the couldnt-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. Ive 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 theres the three other tracks from The Ledge 12" and Cool Water (featuring drummer Chris Mars on vocals) that was the b-side to Cant Hardly Wait. There are also alternative versions of Alex Chilton (with Tommys bass to the fore) and another version of Cant Hardly Wait (actually the weakest of them all). Magical stuff the like of which would never be heard from the band again. Once again, didnt sell as well as expected, which could explain the sheen of...
DONT TELL A SOUL. Of all the MATS albums, this 1989 album - the first to feature Bob Stinsons 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 bands hesitance toward stardom (ironic that it should appear on the most commercial-sounding of all albums) and continues with highs like Achin To Be, Anywheres 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 Theyre Blind (which, had it been Westerberg solo with a guitar, could have been cracking. As it is, its over-produced slush). If the objective of the album was to achieve some commercial success, it succeeded with the single, Ill 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 Dont Tell A Soul but instead had to wait nearly a decade after the albums release for public consumption. Then there are a couple of demo/ alt. mixes of album tracks, the b-side of the Ill 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 SLADEs Gudbuy T Jane. Westerberg states that this album was the beginning of the end for the MATS. I guess hed 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. Its 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. Thats a grand statement, but the first eight tracks do make a more consistent and MATS orientated listen than anything on Dont 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 albums closing track, The Last, dissolved them. Its an emotive, swing-style number that confronts the bands past dilemmas, pays the bartender the tab and quietly says, "Good night folks - its been a ball." Of the 11 extras, eight are pre-album demo versions while the remaining three comprise of the promo-only release EP, Dont Sell Or Buy, Its 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 bands 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 aint gonna change for the next 20+ years either! (25.02.09)
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