Let It Be. The Replacements
1984, Twin/Tone. Producer: Steve Fjelstad, Peter Jesperson, Paul Westerberg
Purchased: ca. 1992.
IN A NUTSHELL – Excellent rock songwriting, with terrific lyrics and strong performances. Leader Paul Westerberg is a treasure, and the band plays in a ragged style, almost as if trying to hide their talent beneath a layer of punk patina. The album has some of my favorite songs from the last 40 years. But for a few so-so songs, this would be top 20, easy.
As 2016 begins, my son is nearing 17 years old and is quite a music fan. He likes a lot of different musical styles, but his favorite is hip hop, which – given my advanced age – all sounds
kind of the same to me.
Our tastes do cross paths at a few places. He loves the “Stevie Wonder Channel” he made on Pandora, and since I’ve played “Oldies” in the car ever since he was a baby, he has a fondness for 60s and 70s classic rock and pop.
Because he knows I’m a music fan, he is always on the lookout for new songs that I might like. He’ll often play a song for me and say, “Dad, I think you’ll like this one …” Typically he picks songs1 that have a strong bass line and a discernible melody in the chorus. When I do like a song, it makes him happy. If I don’t like it he’ll argue a bit, then tell me I have no taste.
The other discussion he enjoys having with me regarding new music is the “What would people think …?” discussion. As in, “Dad, what would people think of this song when you were in high school? Would it just be totally crazy?”
The answer varies. For the hip hop songs, I think the answer is almost always “Yes, it would sound crazy,” because when I was in high school the only “hip hop” we knew was “Rapper’s Delight,” and a little Run-DMC, which sound quite different from anything by, say, Future. But some non-hip-hop songs from 2015, for example “Uptown Funk,” would’ve fit in quite nicely at my school’s Friday night dances after basketball games.
But my usual answer is “I don’t remember how crazy it would sound.” It’s not that advancing age is calcifying the once robust, agile fluidity of my cortex … Okay, that’s partly it. But mainly the reason I can’t remember is because of the fact that as music evolves, sounds that once were unusual or “crazy” come to sound normal, like they’ve always been there. So I don’t recall what sounded crazy, and when.
There is music all around us – in stores, on TV, in our cars – and our ears and brain recognize it as Music. And of course we listen to music for pleasure – buying it on Spotify or iTunes, or even on old-fashioned CDs and previously-old-fashioned-but-now-new-fashioned vinyl and cassettes.2 And our ears and brains adapt to the changes in popular music rather readily.
Some may argue that the more music changes, the more it sounds the same. Recording technology has certainly improved, but while music professionals might notice profound changes in music recording technology, without the thoroughly trained, hypersensitive cochlear apparatuses of a professional, can one really distinguish the sonic improvements in, say, Taylor Swift’s latest record as compared to her first in 2006? I don’t think so. Improvements in technology don’t change the fact that Taylor Swift makes catchy ditties with typical song structure and recognizable musical sounds, just like hits from 2006 and 1986 and 1946. Even Benny Goodman could have played “Shake It Off,” but his version would have come with a full big-band complement of trumpets and saxophones. Good Time Charlies in 1938 would’ve swung their chicks right along to a snappy number like that.
But consider a few words in that sentence a few lines up: “recognizable musical sounds.” How do we as listeners adapt to new musical sounds and incorporate them into our personal basket of “recognizable” musical sounds? When does a “crazy sound” stop sounding crazy?
When truly new-sounding music hits the masses, the tendency is for it to be rejected by a large segment of the music-appreciating public. But if the new sounds can gain a foothold with a critical mass of music appreciation pioneers, the sounds begin to be heard more often, and the next thing you know you can’t tell why you ever thought the new sound was so cacophonous in the first place; it’s now quite mellifluous3.
This initial mass rejection of new sounds before subsequent mass acceptance has a distinguished history4 Probably the most famous example is that of riots in 1913 Paris over a wild new ballet by Igor Stravinsky.
Around the same time, the American media was observing a new kind of popular music, and railing against this “Satan’s music,” called “ragtime.” Ragtime was the first American music to cause a “true upheaval which had moral and economic consequences, other than musical consequences, in American popular culture,” according to composer and historian Max Morath. It’s the kind of music that Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man called “shameless music/That’ll grab your son and your daughter/With the arms of a jungle animal instinct.”
Now that it’s 2016, and Ragtime music is over a century old, and we’ve all grown up with its old-timey sounds5 in our lives, it’s hard to imagine a time when this music could have sounded devilish and crazy. It’s difficult to conceive of what it was like to experience that change of sound. And since these changes were taking place at the very dawn of recorded music, it’s difficult to get a good idea of the popular music landscape into which this “shameless music” was thrust.
So let’s jump ahead to Rock and Roll, music from an era that started well after “The Charts” were firmly established, tracking America’s music listening and buying habits, thus providing a clearer window to peek through into the world of the listening public.
Imagine it’s 1955, and you’re listening to your favorite song on the family Zenith radio, Tony Bennett’s beautiful 1954 Number One Smash “Stranger in Paradise.” You’re thinking of your sweetie, and the fine times you’ve had together, the finer times you hope to have. Music, you think, can’t get any better than this … As the song ends, and your warm feelings are lingering, the DJ announces the next number, featuring a new sound coming out of Philadelphia, and heard in the new Glenn Ford film, Blackboard Jungle.
It’s Bill Haley and His Comets, performing “Rock Around the Clock!”
You nearly leap out of your chair with fright!!! “This isn’t music!!!” you scream. “Where are the violins? This guy can’t even sing – he, he, … he BARKS!! And what the hell is that sound at 44 seconds in??!! It sounds like a bumblebee caught in a tin can? And where are those drums coming from, some kind of voodoo ceremony, or cannibal dance? I mean, I like Big Band Swing okay, but I’ve never heard anything like THIS!!”
Watch that video, and check out the woman dancing at 50 seconds. Could you ever fathom pants that tight moving in that manner along to Tony Bennett or Mario Lanza? This new sound6 must have sounded downright insane.
You, the Tony Bennet lover, might think that that crazy music was just a fad when Doris Day sets things back to normal in 1956, but in 1957 Elvis Presley comes along, and the next year Chuck Berry is duck walking all over the airwaves with that electrified guitar, and he’s not even trying to sing in any way that you recognize as singing! Folks like Little Richard aren’t even trying to sing words; they’re just making up gibberish, and by now that Bill Haley song from 4 years ago doesn’t sound too crazy at all. In fact, compared to Chuck Berry, it sounds downright QUAINT! And once Pat Boone comes along to rephrase these songs in a way a Tony Bennett fan can really appreciate, you’ve become very accustomed to the rock and roll sound. Maybe you’re not a fan, but it no longer sounds like something from an outer space jungle insane asylum.
This script for the introduction of “new sounds” to popular music7 is repeated often. The Beatles entered the American airwaves and sounded different from the usual fare and were immediately dismissed by many critics and other music fans. But in another year “The British Invasion” is in full swing, clogging the airwaves with anything vaguely Beatle-esque, and by 1968, nobody can remember what sounded so crazy about the 1964 version of the band.
Likewise, punk rock sounded like screaming maniacs tossing electric motors down a marble staircase when compared to popular hit songs of the era, and most people didn’t get it. But by 1979, the top song of the year is “My Sharona,” a nifty new wave song whose success couldn’t have happened without listeners’ collective ears getting broken in by that edgy, repetitive, stripped-down punk sound.
All those examples of listeners’ ears adapting are from either before I was born, or before I began paying attention closely to musical sounds. However, I clearly recall an adaptation my ears made that, in retrospect, renders cute my ears’ first confused apprehension of a new sound. It occurred in the very early 90s, near the end of the dreaded scourge of Hair Metal. In an era of phony-baloney, pretend-loud, pseudo-aggressive music by bands like Warrant, Kurt Cobain’s indecipherable mumbling and screaming, over the band’s boom-boom crunch in Nirvana’s famous “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounded gloriously unholy and new8. However, listening to the song twenty-five years later9, it’s hard to remember what sounded so wild about it.
The point is that peoples’ ears are only ready for new sounds when they’re ready for new sounds. Some folks get onboard earlier than others; some folks can hear the music in the noise more clearly than others. Music only clicks with the listener when the listener is ready, either after priming by the sounds of an evolving genre, or because a listener is just out there searching for something new. And when I hear The Replacements today, it’s hard to imagine how crazy I thought they sounded at first.
Although, to be fair, I’d never actually HEARD them when I thought they sounded so crazy. I should have learned from Billy Joel: “there’s a new band in town/but you can’t get the sound/from a story in a magazine/aimed at your average teen.”
I have a recollection of being in high school and reading a little about The Replacements in an issue of Rolling Stone.
At the time, a friend had recently tried to get me into the mid-80s punk rock music by playing songs by a band called The Meatmen, from an album called (rather hilariously) We’re the Meatmen … And You Suck! In listening back to this song today, it’s hard to believe how crazy, unmusical and uninteresting it sounded to me in 1985. It sounded like guys who had picked up guitars and just started whacking away on the necks and shrieking along. It was amusing in that way, amusing enough that a couple friends and I actually made up and recorded some songs for fun in which we did just that. And although the Rolling Stone article stated, quite accurately, “The Replacements mix country and blues with hard rock Rolling Stones-… style,” the description didn’t register. All I knew was that I’d already heard some of this new “punk rock,” and I thought it sucked and that the people who played it sucked. (Spoken like a true Rush fan!)
I heard about the band again over the next several years, read their name in articles, saw some records in record stores10 and all along thought they were lousy, screaming creeps banging unrelentingly on their instruments. And maybe they were. But I still wish I’d given them a chance back then.
I was finally forced to actually listen to the band when I joined a band myself, The April Skies, which featured a lead guitarist/songwriter, Jake, who had a Replacements obsession. Maybe obsession is too strong a word. Call it a fascination. Or a condition. Nah, it was obsession. He talked about them all the time, and at rehearsal he often played a simple riff over and over, a catchy little thing that went like this (7 seconds in):
When I finally heard the full song – during a long drive in a van on the way to a faraway gig – I was blown away. The catchy melody, the interplay of bass and drums, the singer’s expressive voice, the lyrics evoking a young person’s desire … it sounded like the perfect song. How could this be coming from a band I knew, just KNEW – from reading a short article and hearing a couple songs by a completely different band six years ago – to be a bunch of talentless losers??
“I Will Dare” features lead guitar from Peter Buck of R.E.M., who were traveling the same College Radio circuit as The Replacements in 1984. Also, Replacements’ lead singer and main songwriter, Paul Westerberg, plays a catchy mandolin to end the song. I love everything about this song, from Chris Mars’s four-on-the-floor drumbeat at the beginning to Westerberg’s plea, “Come on!” before the second chorus, to guitarist Bob Stinson’s sort of out of tune run at 3:11. Westerberg has a distinctive rock voice that strains against years of cigarette soot to reach the correct notes, but reach them he always does. If I were writing about my top 100 songs of all time, I think “I Will Dare” would break the top ten. I remember being young and experiencing all the feelings this song expresses, the thrill of the danger in seeking reciprocated love, the desire for a call on Thursday – or Wednesday, better still! And no songwriter can turn a phrase better than Westerberg (“How young are you?/How old am I?/Let’s count the rings/Around my eyes”). More times than not, I’ll get chills listening to this song. It just has that effect.
Westerberg has a talent for mining a deep vein of a particular form of 70s/80s suburban teen angst, from the days before the internet brought everything everywhere right to your fingertips. It’s a mixture of boredom (“There’s nothing to do in this town…”), doom (“… and I’ll never get out of here…”), doubt (“… and I’m such a loser, nobody will ever like me …”) that is spiked with deep pride (“… but all those folks from other places who think they’re better than me and my town can kiss my ass!”) A good example is the beautiful “Unsatisfied.”
There isn’t a whole lot to the lyrics, but put to this tune, and sung in Westerberg’s moving style, they say so much more than their content. Westerberg adds a wonderful lap steel guitar to the song. I don’t know of another song that makes me feel so much like I did as a fifteen year old in rural Pennsylvania, even though I didn’t hear the song until I was in my twenties!
The topic of teenage angst is handled even more directly in the sweet “Sixteen Blue.”
It’s the third song I’ve written about, and still there’s nothing on the album that sounds like The Meatmen, nothing even reminiscent of the boast Westerberg made in that Rolling Stone piece: “A rock & roll band needs to be able to get under people’s skin … You should be able to clear the room at the drop of a hat.” These are great, straight-ahead rock songs. “Sixteen Blue” has some really nice lead guitar courtesy of Bob Stinson, mirroring the sadness of the lyrics.
But despite a yearning for something new, something to break up the monotony, The ‘Mats11 aren’t the types to go in for something new just to keep up with those around them.
In the song “Answering Machine,” our protagonist, the Unsatisfied, Blue Sixteen year-old, hoping that a special someone Will Dare with him, is thwarted by a newfangled object in 1984.
The song expresses a “What is wrong with these people?” sentiment, an exasperation that no one else can see just how useless a useful machine can be to a human seeking connection. The song features just Westerberg and his guitar, and this arrangement enhances the song’s emotional and informational message12.
The band also expresses their contempt for another 80s touchstone, Music Videos. The rousing, punky “Seen Your Video” was an attack on the MTV generation, on style over substance, and a poke at R.E.M. (or so I’ve read – either in All Over But the Shouting or Our Band Could Be Your Life, two books I HIGHLY recommend), friends of The Replacements who were just getting some attention on mainstream radio, and were starting to make videos for their songs.
It’s an instrumental (mostly) that’s catchy and aggressive, with nice guitar lines throughout. This is the first song I’ve mentioned here that even smacks a bit of punk rock. But there are others on the album.
“Favorite Thing” is a raucous ode …
a raucous ode to … something. Punk rock? Rock and roll? The way Westerberg sings it, I always thought it was to a person, but the lyrics seem to be about a lifestyle (“It’s really hip, with plenty of flash”), a desire (“Wanna be something/Wanna be anything”), perhaps even a future (“I think big once in a while”). Once again, it’s that 70s/80s small town adolescent, wishing for something but not sure what.
Another fine, funny punk song is about bass player Tommy Stinson’s health problems, “Tommy Gets his Tonsils Out.”
“He gets his tonsils out?” you may ask. “How old is he, twelve??!” Well, actually, he was twelve when he joined the band in 1979, and he dropped out of school three years later to go on tour, after the band’s manager obtained legal guardianship of him so Tommy could legally enter the bars they played. He’s led a very Rock and Roll life. This song is plain fun, with witty lyrics gently teasing the young teen. It’s somewhat of a throwback to some of the band’s earlier, rougher, punkier tunes, but it’s a much tamer and mainstream sound than the early songs.
Another humorous song is the raunchily titled “Gary’s Got a Boner,” dealing with another teenage angst-filled topic, sex. “We’re Coming Out” is a barn-burner about … something. The band also covers the Kiss song, “Black Diamond,” which I generally skip over.
I prefer the less punky songs on the album, something that might annoy long-time, hardcore ‘Mats fans. But the album, and its famous album cover, definitely has a punk feel – especially the title. Giving an album the same name as an album by the greatest band ever is a pretty “punk rock” thing to do. Also punk-rock is the embrace of the “other,” particularly in one striking case – the song “Androgynous.”
It’s a song that I used to mistake as a case AGAINST boyish girls and girlish boys, but a close reading of the lyrics reveals a sophisticated, sincere and broad-minded take on the issue of gender identity. “Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?” Westerberg asks, a prescient view of societal changes to come in the next thirty years after this recording. “Kewpie dolls and urine stalls/will be laughed at/the way you’re laughed at now,” he sings, and sure urinals still exist, and girls still play with dolls, but more and more “unisex” restrooms are found nowadays and toys are becoming much less rigidly gender-specific. The song’s become a bit of an anthem in the LGBTQ community, performed last summer by Miley Cyrus, Joan Jett and transgender singer Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, to raise funds for Cyrus’s “Happy Hippie Foundation” for homeless, LGBTQ and vulnerable youth.
As someone with close relationships with people whose gender and sexual identity has been a source of significant personal struggles, the fact that a song by a favorite band of mine has become such an anthem makes me very happy.
It’s hard to believe how radical an idea androgyny was in 1984 – the simple fact that a boy could want to look girlish and a girl look boyish (even if they’re a straight couple, as the song describes) was rather shocking back then. And it’s hard to believe how shocking 80s punk music sounded to me back then. When my son asks me if a song from today would’ve sounded crazy back then, all I can think is that so much sounded crazy back then – both in music and society – and it’s a damn shame we let that so-called craziness prevent us from trying to understand. I probably missed out on some damn fine music, and others probably missed out on a whole lot more.
I Will Dare
We’re Comin’ Out
Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out
Seen Your Video
Gary’s Got a Boner