With four albums for the independent Minneapolis label Twin/Tone, the 'Mats rendered the hierarchies and caste system of the rock world irrelevant by remaking rock 'n' roll as an anonymous force.
"Hullo…This is the Minneapolis police. The party is over. If you all just grab your stuff and leave, there won't be any hassle."
That really is the fuzz breaking up a party at the start of the Replacements' 1982 EP, Stink, even if the cop with the bullhorn sounds like he's speaking with an exaggerated Midwestern accent. Revelers grumble and cuss out the bust (Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, allegedly, is the one who issues the triumphant "Hey, fuck you, man!" that rises above the din), and the police impatiently repeat their ultimatum. It's hard to tell if the feedback that follows comes from the cop's bullhorn or a guitar, but within the blink of a count-off ("ONETWOTHREEFOUR!"), the Replacements launch into the brusque but tuneful "Kids Don't Follow" (recorded in the studio, not live at the party): "Kids won't listen to what you're sayin' / The kids ain't wonderin' / The kids ain't prayin'." The song is a battle cry of the non-conformist, serving both as an instruction to fellow dissenters (kids: don't follow) and a warning to authority (kids won't follow you). Bob Stinson's guitar grabs Paul Westerberg's vocal by the neck and runs screaming with it, runs against the tide of orthodoxy and obedience, of tradition and pedigree.
In those few minutes, the Replacements -- Westerberg and Stinson, along with Stinson's younger brother Tommy on bass and Chris Mars on drums -- touch on adolescent awkwardness and reluctant adulthood; they're desperate to belong, yet equally desperate to be left alone; they command attention only through their unsympathetic dismissal of it. They are the hangover of the 1970s' ostentatious party, a remedial thud pounding on the heads of prog-rock, epic balladry, and the narcissism of disco and punk. The Replacements weren't saviors -- well, perhaps they were saviors in an accidental or incidental sense, saviors after the fact -- but instead were doubters and skeptics, the ones calling the bluff and blowing the whistle. Groucho Marx once said, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member" -- the Replacements took the adage one step further, wielding contempt for clubs and memberships alike.
That contempt, manifested in a cavalier attitude and basic musical skill, was a way to dismantle the system. With four albums for the independent Minneapolis label Twin/Tone, the Replacements rendered the hierarchies and caste system of the rock world irrelevant by remaking rock 'n' roll as an anonymous force: something that anyone could slog and howl through, as long as they were patient with it; something that anyone could make holy one night and destroy the next, as long as they were true to it. Their name alone (as well as their self-deprecating nickname, the Placemats, more commonly shorthanded as the 'Mats) is an admission of anonymity, merely one of any number of ordinary existences that could be easily substituted for another. The Replacements could have been anybody.
Their ideology -- an anti-ideology, really, born of indifference, boredom, and the artless desire to just play -- differed from the ideology of punk, an immediate predecessor of their 1981 slacker-hardcore debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash. Punk may have dismantled the system first, but it did so with political and social agendas, and with arty conceptualization; bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash always played to some mutinous ideal, where the Replacements had no ideal shining off in the distance. They were inhabitants of the "no future" that Johnny Rotten spat out in the Pistols' "God Save the Queen", without meaning or destination, an entity of near-nihilistic philosophy -- "the sons of no one", as they'd loudly assert in a later song. The Clash sang of "no Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones", and the Replacements' music effectively asked, Why stop there? How about no Clash? And who the hell are we? Why not bring everything down to an aesthetic flatline of debased identity, to a place where we're all equally meaningful or meaningless?
"I'm careless / Couldn't care less," Westerberg hollers in Sorry Ma's "Careless", which would suffice for the band's modus operandi if it actually believed in such a thing. They lampooned consumer culture in "Customer" and their own music in "I Bought a Headache", but any jokes were just that -- jokes, with no biting subtext working overtime under the surface. The blistering "I Hate Music" may be the band's ultimate rejection of rock music's pretension and so-called purpose: "I hate music / Sometimes I don't / I hate music / It's got too many notes", is how the song opens, begetting a mini-flood of post-teenage angst, apathy, and sarcasm, a tangle of conflicted emotions that even Westerberg, as the singer, was helpless to uncoil. (The greatest irony of the song, however, is rooted in Tommy Stinson's lightning-fast bass part, probably the most complicated and nimble bass playing on all of Sorry Ma.)
"Tape's rollin'," someone mentions at the start of "I Hate Music", to which a band member insolently replies, "So what?" And again, at the start of Hootenanny's "You Lose": "Are we gonna record this one?" Instances of studio chatter are a regular occurrence in early Replacements recordings, and more often than not, they reveal the band's accidental involvement. There's no ambition to seize an imminent greatness, no impulse to nail the perfect take; again and again, the Replacements find themselves in this unwitting position, just some ordinary band in another potentially extraordinary situation, like a deer shrugging off the headlights. In "Treatment Bound", Hootenanny's shambling country-shuffle closing track, Westerberg alludes to the band's apathetic response to such circumstances: "We're getting no place / Fast as we can / We're getting nowhere / Quick as we know how". They're doing the things that bands do -- because they are a band, and what else is there to it? -- but their direction, askew, is ultimately an unknown factor because there are no rules. "There ain't nowhere to go", Westerberg sings on Stink, "when you're stuck in the middle".
From the beginning, the Replacements refused to play by the rules dictated by rock 'n' roll's lineage. They didn't dress the part, didn't pander to ambition. They would fight amongst themselves and with the audience while onstage. They were notoriously impossible to market and promote. They said they hated music, but they really loved it. (Hehe, yeah, actually they really hated it. Which is to say they really loved it.) They were scathingly critical and dismissive of their own talent and output: "THE REPLACEMENTS STINK" reads the hand-stamped jacket of the 1982 Stink EP, and by all accounts, such cynical jokes were quite often taken to heart. Their bassist, Tommy Stinson, was all of 14 years old when the Replacements' first demo tape made its way, in 1980, to Twin/Tone Records' founders Peter Jesperson and Paul Stark. They were ironic one moment, profoundly heart-stopping the next, and utterly stupid after that. They were the knot in the stomach of '80s rock music.
Furthermore, the fantasies of rock 'n' roll -- both the utopias it promises and the horrors it conjures -- are debunked on records like the Stink EP, a raw nugget of caustic cynicism, and Hootenanny, the band's bizarre grab-bag of bullshit and brilliance. The innocence of the Beach Boys' "Be True to Your School" is rendered an abject fraud in the self-explanatory "Fuck School" (critique of the educational system, or a lazy git's kiss-off? Who cares?); the automobile lust and high-school drama painted in the songs of Bruce Springsteen are taken to a self-destructive extreme in "Run It" ("Red light, red light / RUN IT!"); and the Who's maxim of young-man glory, "Hope I die before I get old", is discarded in the narrative of the nervy "Take Me Down to the Hospital" ("I don't want to die before my time / Or use eight of my lives"). On Let It Be, the band put its image-conscious peers in the crosshairs with songs like "Seen Your Video", a swipe at the "phony rock 'n' roll" marketed on MTV, which only served to perpetuate the idolatry that the Replacements sought to, well, replace.
Still, as piss-taking as they were, the Replacements' dismissal of tradition and structure wasn't entirely reckless. The band cared a lot about not caring a lot; it was dead serious about not being serious. "Color Me Impressed", Hootenanny's standout track that marries remnants of hardcore propulsion with pop-minded melodic sensibilities, is a narrative that both ridicules and secretly admires a scene: "Everybody at your party, they all look depressed / Everybody dressin' funny, color me impressed". The classic Westerbergian mix of sentimentality and bitterness -- the kiss-off that manages to sneak in a sloppy kiss -- is a touchstone of the band's internal conflict between self-satisfaction and outward appearance. "You're Getting Married", one of Westerberg's home demo recordings issued here as a bonus track on Stink, is sloppily played and out-of-tune, but it reveals wounded tenderness behind the band's otherwise petulant façade: "You say you'll both be happy / You forgot to tell your eyes / You're like a bird in a cage / Watchin' the flock fly on by".
The best example of the Replacements' capacity for taking themselves seriously-but-not-seriously is in the sequencing of Let It Be (1984), their final album for Twin/Tone before signing to Sire. Let It Be is often celebrated as the band's greatest achievement, and rightly so -- its rich yet crude evocation of youthful isolation is a thumb-twiddling guardian of the proverbial dead-end. Its sequencing gives equal weight to the profound and puerile: Westerberg's touching ode to "the hardest age", "Sixteen Blue" ("It's a boring state / It's a useless wait"), sits next to the horndog rave-up "Gary's Got a Boner"; "Androgynous", a wry piano shuffle of love and confusion, follows the hard-rock spasms of "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out"; and a poker-faced cover of Kiss' "Black Diamond" is proceeded by the existential crisis of "Unsatisfied".
"Unsatisfied" ranks as the Replacements' definitive moment and Westerberg's most tortured vocal performance. It isn't so much a rewrite of the Rolling Stone's "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" as it is a brutal hijacking of that song's angsty sentiment. Westerberg stretches his inescapable truism ("I'm so unsatisfied") over a few minutes of gravel, asphalt, and a ragged, defeatist 12-string acoustic guitar. You can strut and pose all you want to Jagger's narcissistic anthem, but it doesn't ice up your veins with futility like Westerberg can when he beckons, shoulders arched and head cocked up at an angle, "Hey! You sastified?" There is nothing content about this music -- there is no contentment because it is anonymous, speaking of common disillusionment with uncommon power.
In 1980, Greil Marcus wrote, "Rock 'n' roll is, today, too big for any center. It is so big, in fact, that no single event -- be it Springsteen's tour, Sid Vicious's overdose, or John Lennon's first album in five years -- can be much more than peripheral….Rock 'n' roll now has less an audience than a series of increasingly discrete audiences, and those various audiences ignore each other." I think it's fair to say that today, rock 'n' roll still suffers from an identity crisis, but it now stems from a splintered loss of self. Those "increasingly discrete audiences" are now gaggles of sub-genres and sub-cliques, full of saviors and charlatans alike, with no clear demarcations that need eroding -- rock 'n' roll, in 2008, is a non-entity. So, then, listening to the Replacements' anonymous bombshell three decades after the fact remains jarring and liberating, something we can easily recognize as grossly defiant and plainly absurd -- but in response to what, it may be impossible to know.