The Replacements deserved better. They were poorly served by everyone from record companies executives to themselves. For our purposes, the songs selected by their record company as singles are not always the best songs from their albums – in fact, it feels like the record company didn’t quite know what made The Replacements special. They were looking for ready friendly unit shifters (to borrow phrase made popular by Nirvana, who are also on my list of bands to write about).
I love The Replacements. I saw them perform at Colby College in 1989 with a bunch of my friends and it was an amazing night. Westerberg is a gifted songwriter who ultimately followed a different path. It was the mix of he, guitarist Bob Stinson, bass player Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars in all their barely professional glory that made the band special. You can’t capture that again. If you want to learn more about the band (or are a fan who hasn’t experienced this), I highly recommend the documentary Color Me Obsessed. Its a great history of the band as told by fans and captures a lot of what made them so special.
Let’s look at the singles.
22. Back to Back
From 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul, Second Single
Don’t Tell A Soul had several excellent songs on it. This is not one of them. By 1989, Bob Stinson had been fired from the band and was replaced on this record by the excellent Slim Dunlap (who, never-the-less, wasn’t Bob Stinson). Stinson was the element of danger in the band – there’s dozens of stories about gigs where it was even in question if Stinson was even going to show up and play. Dunlap was arguably a better guitarist, but he wasn’t a threat, you know what I mean? Anyhow, this was thesecond album without Stinson. At the time, most of us recognized it was a sort of grab for mainstream success. Maybe it was the band making this grab, maybe it was the record label, but something was seriously missing on some of the songs. Lyrically, this is quite good (Westerberg’s lyrics are generally excellent) but the music is dull as dirt. Meanwhile, five vastly superior songs (“Talent Show,” ‘They’re Blind,” “Anywhere’s Better Than Here,” “I Won’t” and “Darlin’ One”) were not released as singles. I mean, did the record company even listen to the album or did they just drop the needle randomly and say “this one sounds boring enough to be on the radio?” Ugh, I’m so disgusted with somebody.
21. Someone Take the Wheel
From 1990’s All Shook Down, Second Single
The band was totally falling apart by the time All Shook Down was being recorded. In fact, this was intended to be Paul Westerberg’s solo album debut. The whole (remaining) band only appears on one track. Metaphorically, “Someone Take The Wheel” reads like a final lament for the band – Westerberg asking somebody else to drive for a while. Much like “Back to Back,” this track is lyrically interesting (in fact, one of Westerberg’s best lyrics) but its just not that interesting a tune. I had a complicated relationship with All Shook Down – I think there’s some good songs, but it just doesn’t sound like the band. I mean, of course it doesn’t. I know – from watching Color Me Obsessed – that it is some fans’ favorite Replacement album but, jeez, its the only album that I don’t know back to front and I’ve listened to it probably close to 100 times. I can’t even recall how about half the songs sound.
20. Happy Town
From 1990’s All Shook Down, Promo Single
This is the first decent Replacements song on the list. I mean, its not amazing or anything but it is a song from All Shook Down that sounds like the band. As is the case with several songs on this album, the lyrics suggest that its about the band’s dissolution (“The plan was to set the world on its ear/And I’m willing to bet you don’t last a year”). Drummer Chris Mars quit shortly after the album came out and the whole band famously quit on stage in Chicago at the end of the tour – one by one, they each left stage while playing “Hootenanny” and were replaced (see what they did there?) by their roadies who finished the song. If you imagine the whole band thrashing out on the chorus (and you should), this really sounds like it could have been a contender.
19. Another Girl/Another Planet
1990 Flexi-disc from Bob Magazine
I swear upon a stack of kittens that we received a promo 12” of this song at KTUH in 1990. I’m only finding only evidence of a Flexi-disc from Bob Magazine. The 12” exists (maybe as a B-Side?). I played it on the radio. This is a live cover of a much-loved single by The Only Ones and while it doesn’t quite live up to the glory of the original, The Replacements rip through it with the energy and joy that made their best live shows transcendent. Back in the day, the legend was that when you went to a Replacements concert, you might see a tight, remarkable show or a shambling drunken mess and it wasn’t really possibly to know which you were going to get until they were playing. They famously got trashed (and subsequently got banned) before their performance on Saturday Night Live. This was a typical career move for the band – a huge opportunity sort of self-sabotaged. There are stories about them doing concerts where they only played cover songs (which must have been disappointing or thrilling for fans depending on their view of the band). Anyhow, this recording is evidence that an all-covers set by The Replacements could have been a pretty awesome thing.
18. Hold My Life
From 1985’s Tim, Promo Video Only
Tim is an amazing album. “Hold My Life” – a song influenced by the band Big Star – was the lead track on the album and a video was made for it. Four of the Replacements’ videos feature the same basic idea – some dude putting on the song on his stereo. No single was released but since this was used to promote the album, I figured I’d include it here. Good song – not my favorite from the album – but the “just might lose it” part is fantastic.
17. Kiss Me on the Bus
From 1985’s Tim, Second Single
“Kiss Me On The Bus” is a single influenced by Nick Lowe’s work. The song has already read to me like a teenage Romeo trying to chat up his potential Juliet while riding a city bus. I really liked this song back in 1985 and remember playing it on one of my first solo radio shows on WRBC. I’m not sure why but I’ve soured on it in recent years – I think its because there’s so many other superior songs on Tim and I think Sire Records would have done better to follow up debut single “Bastards of Young” with virtually any other song from the album. There’s a nice guitar solo in the middle (very Nick Lowe-esque) by Tommy Ramone (producer on the album, best known as a member of The Ramones, who are also on my list of bands to write about). Its still a great little song.
16. Achin’ to Be
From 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul, Third Single
There’s a touch of steel guitar in the middle of “Achin’ to Be” that sounds just about exactly what punk rock steel guitar should sound like. Its moving but sloppy. Excellent. The Bob Stinson-era Replacement famously didn’t want to play ballads. As a result, their more ballad-like songs had an edge. By Don’t Tell A Soul, the elder Stinson was gone and Westerberg could embrace full-on balladry. On the one hand, good because this is a lovely song (the final verse in particular is a work of pop music art). On the other hand, as good a song writer a Westerberg is, I think his songs were elevated in performance by that tension of having to please stubborn punk band mates. “Achin’ to Be” still has enough of that edge to bite but some of the later songs (notably on All Shook Down) lose the band’s dramatic tension. Ah, what the heck do I know.
15. Merry Go Round
From 1990’s All Shook Down, First Single
Drummer Chris Mars quit right after filming this video. The Replacements were pretty anti-music video until 1989. As I mentioned, several of their videos were just a close up of a stereo playing the song. They famously mocked music videos on their Let It Be album with the song “Seen Your Video.” When they started making videos, it was pretty clear they were hoping for more mainstream success. Anyhow, “Merry Go Round” was the first single from All Shook Down. When I first heard it, I had high hopes for the parent album (alas). While the song doesn’t rock quite the way that I’d want the band to rock, it has all the hallmarks of a great late-period Replacement songs – tight musicianship, excellent songwriting, and an impassioned vocal that moves from a hush to a shout. Westerberg’s solo work right after the band dissolved sounded a lot like this particular song to my ear and that’s surely a good thing.
14. Cruella DeVille
From the 1988 Disney Tribute Album Stay Awake
If you’ve never encountered Stay Awake, go out and encounter it because its a delight. The idea at the time was to invite all of these pop and rock artists (largely alternative and college rock staples) to record covers of songs that we Generation X kids had grown up listening to. Several of the songs (notably Tom Waits’ terrifying “Heigh Ho” and Suzanne Vega’s a capella “Stay Awake”) explore whole new layers of the song. The Replacement’s “Cruella DeVille” is a glorious swinging celebration of the 101 Dalmatians villain. This is a Cruella DeVille who really loves being evil and, as a result, is a whole lot of fun. Not that genuinely evil people are fun, just that… I mean.. Oh, listen to the song.
From 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, Fourth Single
The Skyway System is one of the great things about Minneapolis (hometown of The Replacements). The city is terrific for many other reasons too (public art, notably), but in the winter, you can get around from building to building in many places via a heated, covered walkway. How cool is that? This is a sad little love song about a missed connection between a man who waits for his bus on the street and a woman who takes the skyway instead. Bob Stinson had recorded the demos for this album but had been fired just before they started recording it – the band didn’t have a permanent new guitarist yet so there’s a bunch of guests on this record. “Skyway” is a big leap away from punk in sound but I think its spot on in spirit – The Replacements weren’t going to be held down to just one sound. At the time, it sounded like they were pushing boundaries. It doesn’t hurt that the song is really lovely and the ending is small kine heartbreaking.
12. Color Me Impressed
From 1983’s Hootenanny, First Single
There was only one single released from Hootenanny. I KNOW RIGHT? The album is a blast and was the first time the band really started delving into exploring other genres. What’s great on this particular album is that they don’t seem to be taking most of those genres especially seriously – they approach them all with the same loose “the heck with it” attitude as their first punk EP and album. Its really a blast. I should mention it also includes an all-time classic Replacments tune in “Within Your Reach,” a song played completely solo by Westerberg. “Color Me Impressed” is a more typical Replacements rocker with better-than-average punk rock lyrics. Minneapolis gave birth to Husker Du at the same time as The Replacements, so you’ve got to feel for the ‘Mats. They were always being compared to another first class punk band at the time. I sometimes wonder if that’s why they started branching out into different styles or whether it was just that they had to sort of sabotage everything they did once they did it well enough.
11. Swingin’ Party
From 1987’s Pleased to Meet Me, UK Single Only
“If being afraid is a crime we hang side by side/At the swinging party down the line.”
Starting with this song, we’re at a whole different level of Replacements quality. “Swingin’ Party” is a bit of a masterpiece that plays on the word “swinging” to mean both “hip” and “hanging.” Its been covered a number of times, but there’s something about the hollow, distant production quality on Westerberg’s vocals here that make the song more painful than any other version. I’ll tell you what, though, Lorde’s version is pretty good (specifically her vocal). So is Kindness’ version. I hope Westerberg made bank off of those covers. Back to the original, there’s a sort of “live in the studio” feel to this one – like it was the end of a long day and they’d tried it fifteen or sixteen times and finally, weary but inspired, they nailed it. In Color Me Obessed, they take a few minutes to identify which albums specific fans thought were the zenith of The Replacements’ career. I’m torn between this one, Tim and Let It Be, but I think I’ve listened to Pleased To Meet Me more than the other two, in part because of this track.
Coming Soon: Ten Entirely Good Ones.