If legend and half-remembered first-hand accounts are to be believed, going to see the Replacements in their heyday was something of a gamble. Either you got a blistering set from one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever to traverse the United States, or you got a shambling mess of a performance replete with tongue-in-cheek covers of country standards and glam-rock also-rans. (The band’s alcohol intake prior to hitting the stage was the primary determining factor as to which version of the band you got.)
For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986 offers both sides of that dangerous coin for audience who either never got to experience the chaos of the Replacements in person or for those who are willing to relive what had to be a frenetic night of booze and rock. This is the Replacements at their finest and their most frustrating.
The mere existence of a live Replacements record conjures thoughts of the dingiest, worst-sounding bootleg tape you’d have ever heard in your life, but For Sale is not that. The show, recorded at the famed Hoboken club Maxwell’s around the time of the band’s infamous Saturday Night Live performance, was recorded with the intention of releasing a live album alongside the brilliant Tim. However, the chaos surrounding the band that year — which culminated in the departure of guitarist Bob Stinson — meant that the recordings were lost to time, forgotten by the time the band went to record Pleased to Meet Me later that year. Seymour Stein pushed for the live Replacements album, hoping that capturing the band’s frenetic live energy would make them even more of a sensation. The veracity of that statement is irrelevant, yet another line of “woulda, coulda, shoulda’s” in the Replacements history, but For Sale definitely captures that aspect of the band’s storied past, for better and for worse.
If the Replacements knew that they were being recorded for an album, they certainly gave no indication of that. For Sale is defiantly off-the-cuff in its approach. The band don’t even bother to introduce themselves, choosing instead to launch right into a few of the more rocking songs in their catalog (“Hayday”, “Color Me Impressed”, and “Dose of Thunder”) before Westerberg uses a tuning break to lead the rest of the band into an impromptu cover of the Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”. The rest of the show is filled with stop-start improvisation, with Westerberg prematurely ending “Left of the Dial” before its blissful coda to jump into “God Damn Job”.
Yet, even as the band are less than concentrated on their performance, they’re still capable of moments of absolute transcendence. Early in the set, the band deliver the one-two punch of “Unsatisfied” and “Can’t Hardly Wait”, and they more than do each song justice. (“Wait” was still in the early stages of completion here, but the more guitar-heavy rendition might appeal to a certain strand of Mats fan.) They give “Answering Machine” even more of a dramatic sweep with a full-band rendition that is somehow even more of a gut-punch than the original. And, though their Sweet cover leaves a bit to be desired, they more than do justice with T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”. (Kiss’ “Black Diamond” is also here, but anyone with a copy of Let It Be knows that they spun crap into gold with that one.) While the band ended the set abruptly with the short and snotty “Fuck School”, their innate skill as live performers often overcomes their need to not give a shit.
While the live performances are only a part of the Replacements legend, they’re a crucial one that we sadly might never see again. When the band briefly reunited in 2013-2014, they were as tight and as enjoyable as ever, but that devious nature and mischievous spirit seemed lost to time. It’s likely that Seymour Stein’s prediction was incorrect and that For Sale would have turned off mainstream audiences had it been released in 1986. However, for those of us now who recognize the Replacements as the messy, brilliant rock band that they were, this album provides an even more complete portrait.