Beautiful Losers – A Primer to the early records of The Replacements

One can say with confidence that there never was and never has been a band since quite like the Replacements. The might of their eight album catalog is rivaled only by the proportion of their mythology—and both are equally fascinating. With the catalog, though, you get some of the finest music that stumbled out of the doldrums of the 1980s and shook things up for a moment with their loud, fast rules, their drunken behavior, their on stage antics and amidst the shouting and searing guitar, some truly heart wrenching tunes that blew minds while others became anthems of eternal teenage angst. Some consider the Replacements to be the last great, true rock’n’roll band and they may not be wrong. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding and in this case the pudding was the remastered re-release of their first four records some six years ago, each featuring detailed liner notes and a generous amount of bonus tracks, plus a sound that for the first time approaches how these album came across on vinyl. The Replacements weren’t just a band, they were a place in time, a mindset and for the truly devoted, they were a lifestyle.

It’s strange to think that at the start of the 1980s, aside from Athens, Georgia and LA, the place to be for great music was Minneapolis. The Replacements (or simply The Mats to their tried and true fans) exploded out of that very scene, flanked by the Suicide Commandoes, The Suburbs, friendly rivals Husker Du and Soul Asylum. The original lineup for the band were unrivaled in their debauchery and talent, their chemistry and dissonance, they were the perfect band for being far from perfect. Led by the start up songwriting skills of one Paul Westerberg, fuelled by the insane guitar talent of “Smoking and Drinking” Bob Stinson, pummeled by Chris Mars drums and pumped full of fury by the bass work of a very young Tommy Stinson who was a mere 13 years old when they began as the Ipediments. These individuals were key ingredients in a band, no a phenomena, that took the burgeoning indie world by storm. They secured their legacy with the brilliance of their first four records, but cemented it by the time in 1986 they left Twin/Tone records for the major label promises of Sire Records. The  remastered catalog covers all the territory they treaded before that leap and what’s inside these albums is nothing short of pure broken genius, soft hearts and open eyes—like a musical documentary of exactly what it was like to be a bored teenager in the suburbs at the start of the Reagan era and no one did it better.

Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash (1981)

The Mats debut is perhaps one of the greatest, most underrated albums of the punk era. Amongst the four albums re-released, Let It Be is the classic, the favorite son, but Sorry Ma… is a true treasure—after all London Calling was the Clash’s masterpiece, but no one can argue the urgent brilliant angst of their first album. Sorry Ma is a perfect document from start to finish of four frustrated punks who wanted to start a revolution from their living room couch. The original album was 18 tracks of raunchy frustration, booze fuelled debauchery, unapologetic ribaldry and some of the most down to earth songwriting of the hardcore era squeezed into a whopping 28 minutes. There are no throwaway tracks here and the only thing close to a ballad is perhaps the first hint of Westerberg’s brilliance in his tribute to Johnny Thunders, “Johnny’s Gonna Die”. Aside from that single heart wrencher, the album is filled with paens that scream in cigarette scorched vocals and drunken guitar lines about life as it was, as it is and as it will always be for the adolescent mindset trying to find it’s niche. From the start the Replacements don’t take themselves to seriously (in stark contrast to contemporaries such as REM, Husker Du or Black Flag), there is always a bit of grin with nearly every song, laughing at their own inside jokes and loving every moment of it. The treasure to be found on the remastered recording is the bevy of bonus tracks, 13 in all, that for a Mats fan is like Christmas day. Their entire 4-song demo that started their career is here, as well as all the much sought after outtakes and demos, most importantly though, their first b-side, and perhaps Westerberg’s second moment of pure songwriting brilliance “If Only You Were Lonely” is here—a song that pretty much lays the groundwork for the direction that in only a few years they would follow. It’s also key evidence that right from the start, Paul was well beyond his band in vision, grace and talent, but he had to hide it away for a while, save it up for someday, but once you know how early on it was apparent you can literally hear it leaking around the edges everywhere.

Stink (1982)

In it’s original form the eight songs on this mini album clocked in at just under fifteen minutes. This is their hardcore record if they ever had one. If ever they were screaming at the top of their lungs about the dissatisfaction of middle class American youth, it was here and nearly everything they could think of was a target for their vitriol. The song titles say it themselves: “Fuck School,” “God Damn Job,” “White And Lazy,” “Dope Smokin’ Moron,” “Gimme Noise,” “Stuck In The Middle,” “Go” and the masterful lead off track introduced by the Minneapolis police during the break up of one of their gigs, “Kids Don’t Follow.”  Stink is essentially the faster, angrier little brother of their debut, one last gasp of fast and tight hardcore before their sound loosened up and Westerberg began to take full reign of the bands sound. Brilliant for every second it lasts and a powerful distillation of their own potent brew before they would transition into the sound that would mark their fame and eventually, their shame. Here the Mats scream for attention, still on the living room couch and the attention is much deserved, if only for their timeless teenage anthem “Kids Don’t Follow”, nothing on this mini-album succeeds like the opener, but the brilliant “Go” makes a damn fine move toward it. Four bonus tracks are included here: the punky, spunky “Staples In Her Stomach”, two fast and loose covers from their live set (“Hey, Good Lookin’” and “Rock Around The Clock”) and another Westerberg early masterpiece to close the set “You’re Getting Married.”

Hootenanny (1983)

For those more familiar with the Mats later major label recordings, Hootenanny is where the magic began. Anyway you spin it their third outing is a beautiful mess, a decorative wreck and probably the best portrait of the Replacements as they truly were. Stylistically it is all over the place, from near hardcore punk to faux country, a touch of blues here and there, a surf instrumental and yes, some Westerberg masterpieces that lay the groundwork for the likes of Let It Be, Tim and Pleased To Meet Me.  Here they are at their shambolic best, still unrestrained, fearless and probably drunk—here they are on the cusp of genius. It’s unfortunate that the albums that follow will always overshadow Hootenanny and that perhaps it’s predecessors will as well, but all in all it’s perfect for it’s imperfection, it is the complete essence of the Mats career compressed into one album. The title track sounds like a demo, “Run It”, “You Lose” and “Hayday” carry on the fierce energy of their first two albums encouraging all to ignore red lights. It is the albums third track that woke everyone up in 1983—“Color Me Impressed” is an instant classic and solidifies the trademark Westerberg sound that would define the rest of the bands career, it is the seed sown with which the likes of Let It Be and the albums that followed would later be grown. “Willpower” is a creepy tune about self control with echoed vocals that is harrowing at best, while “Take Me Down To The Hospital” recalls an emergency run on a Saturday night, and “Mr. Whirly” mashes no less than three Beatles songs into their own demented punk mix in an ode to “the spins.” “Within Your Reach” is another Westerberg classic that foretells their future sounds, a genuinely brilliant, heart-on-his-sleeve declaration of dark independence. “Buck Hill” is the surf instrumental, or in this case, a ski instrumental, while “Lovelines” uses actual personal ads to provide the lyrics and a few laughs to a jazz lounge backdrop. Hootenanny ends with “Treatment Bound”, somehow fitting that this too sounds like a demo, but it’s lyrics are perhaps the most introspective and reflective as Paul sings about people losing their spark or simply maturing with “yesterdays trash too bored to thrash.” This is the album that is a self portrait of a band on the cusp of greatness. The bonus tracks here are again generous and cover nearly every demo or outtake from the period, the gems are “Lookin’ For Ya”, a fast version of Sorry Ma’s “Johnny’s Gonna Die” and a Westerberg solo demo about apathy at a dead end job called “Bad Worker.”

Let It Be (1984)

Simply put Let It Be is one of the greatest albums of all time, and that seems like an understatement. This is their London Calling or Ocean Rain or Queen Is Dead—the transformation is over, this is the Replacements in all their misdirected, imperfect glory. Even if the Mats had stopped right here there legend in the history books would have remained intact. Every song here is faultless, especially the ones that at first seem to be throwaways, the songs that seem to be grudgingly clutching to their adolescence, tunes like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”, “Gary’s Got A Boner” and the peculiarly perfect Kiss cover, “Black Diamond.” It’s these songs that provide the balance to the palpable quantum leap in Westerberg’s compositions found here—the power pop lead off masterpiece “I Will Dare,” the speed blues of “We’re Comin’ Out”, the gender bending piano ballad “Androgynous,” and the near instrumental mocking “Seen Your Video.” It is, arguably, three songs found on side two of this legendary album that defines it as a classic and perhaps it really only comes down to the romantic angst anthem of “Unsatified,” where you can feel the heartbreak and confusion in every second of Westerberg’s vocals, heart in his throat, liquor on his breath, smoke hanging from the corner of his mouth—this may well be his biggest defining moment. The album closes on a similar note with the one two punch of  the beautiful melancholy of “Sixteen Blue” and the heartwrenching gold and grit of “Answering Machine” which now seems even more poignant in the age of cell phones and voice mail, asking simply “How do you say I miss you to an answering machine?” The balance found here is what makes the mix so good and while the best numbers are the slower ones instead of the rockers, it’s the rave ups that propel you through this testament to a young tortured soul alienated in the modern world. Again, the bonus material is great, including early versions of some of the songs and three fantastic covers: T.Rex’s “20th Century Boy,” Gary Puckett’s “Temptation Eyes,” and Tony DeFranco’s “Heartbeat—It’s a Lovebeat.”

The Replacements in the span of four years and just as many albums transformed from a quirky, down home suburban hardcore act to one of the most beloved drunken darlings of the early alternative scene. The Minnesota scene never quite had the press parlay that their brothers in Athens, GA had, but it makes them no less important or influential. After Let It Be, The Mats would make the leap to a major label and from 1985 until their breakup in 1991 they would release four more albums of genius and wonder. Even after the release of their next four albums some of the key lost tracks still missing from the early era (“Street Girl”, “Shoot Me, Kill Me”, “Who’s Gonna Take Us Alive” and many others) in addition to their long lost official bootleg album The Shit Hits The Fans, their seems there could still be a box set on the horizon. And now there appears that there could be a new album in the works as well. The Replacements never had the success or the fame they deserved and as proven here it wasn’t for lack of talent or vision. Somehow, though it’s appropriate that this ramshackle quartet of misfits would always fly just under the radar and left of the dial, always remaining the eternal beautiful losers of American alternative rock.

The Replacements will be playing the Summer Ends Music Festival this Saturday, September 27th at Tempe Beach Park. You can find all the information for that event here: http://www.summerendsmusicfestival.info/

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