Melody Maker, 16 May 1987
by Simon Reynolds
The Replacements represent the complete antithesis of all my dreams for the future of pop.
And yet I can't help myself, I love them so much it hurts.
You must appreciate how embarrassing this is. Here you see a fervent evangelist for Strangeness, Fascination, Oblivion, The Supernatural, someone who's waged a sincere and vindictive war against Good Songs, Meaning, Simple Passion, and yet finds himself severely infatuated with The Replacements - a group so simple and so natural it's distressing.
Their music is "perfect pop", an amalgam of myriad vintage traces (Sixties Anglo-pop, Alex Chilton, garage, trash-metal, hardcore), and there are words, torn and shaped from the detritus and loose ends of their lives. The words mean something. Yes, I'm afraid the dread "authenticity" is involved as well.
The best term for what The Replacements do is probably "power pop" - but don't flinch, forget those foul associations, and think of what that phrase could signify - pop charged up with a dose of thunder, hooks that crack your ribcage. Think Hüsker Dü; sublime harmonies galvanised with rock attack, rock magnificence. The Replacements are that smashing.
The difference is that, where Hüsker Dü manage to soar, to transcend their environment and mingle with the ether, The Replacements thrash about on the floor, remain grounded. The Replacements are all about energy kicking out against confinement and limits: sometimes the result will be vandalistic, sometimes they'll be crawling up the walls. Even when they're raving it up, there's something sodden and desperate lurking at the heart of the high spirits and crazy foolin' around. This is manic-depressive pop, its violent mood-swings poised around a dilemma neatly captured on a song off the new LP: "Do we give it up? / Do we give it hell?"
At the heart of The Replacements lies fatigue, insecurity, a sense of wasted or denied possibilities, but this is a pain that comes out bursting and exuberant, a world weariness that's positively, paradoxically boisterous.
A Replacements' song can be a scrimmage, a bleary rabble of guitars. Or it can be a semi-acoustic shimmer, a gentle cascade of razor blades in your heart. Either way, Paul Westerberg's voice is equally suited to loutishness or vulnerability, raucous frustration or choked-up sensitivity. It's a great voice, and it has that adolescent quality absent from the Soul Voice that dominates Planet Pop. Fierce, but not robust, a continuous scar, it's the voice of someone dejected, literally thrown down, but struggling up unsteady but determined. It's a voice that captures you through its moments of fallibility, its creases, its slackjawed lack of poise (an abrupt blurt of feeling, a momentary drying-up, tailing away). Westerberg sings as though his tongue's furry, his head's muddied with hangover and clouded over with shame.
And I think The Replacements could be America's inebriate counterpart to The Smiths. Both groups inhabit adolescence's flux of doubt and hope, limitation and possibility; Westerberg and Morrissey are 27-year-olds who've prolonged adolescence into a way of life, who have made a creed of failure and maladjustment. The difference is that a sense of camp and pretentiousness are alien to most American rock bands, which is why Westerberg's wounds reach us raw and gaping, not dressed (up) in Morrissey's peculiar glamour.
Just look at Westerberg's words: simple, but surprisingly dense, words that hurt in valuable ways, words that reach you as a reproach, if, like me, you've started to move away from your adolescence, move towards stability, towards making something of yourself. '16 Blue' and 'Never Mind' touch on the fear (the impossibility?) of making your mind up: "I'm not as ready as I'll ever be / I s'pose your guess / Is more or less, as bad as mine". 'Nightclub Jitters' and 'Swingin' Party' are distant cousins of 'How Soon Is Now', confessions of social ineptitude and communication dread: "If being afraid's a crime / We hang side by side... water all around / Never learn how to swim now". 'Bastards Of Young' is an anthem of failure ("What a mess / On the ladder of success") to parallel 'You've Got Everything Now'. The autumn despair of 'Here Comes A Regular' finds an echo not just in 'It's Over' but in songs by The Mekons, Soul Asylum, Band Of Holy Joy ('Leaves That Fall In Spring'), Hüsker Dü: "A person can work up / A mean mean thirst / After a hard day of nothing much at all... all I know is I'm sick of every damn thing / My money can buy".
But out of this mire emerges a vision of redemptive love to rival 'There Is A Light', in 'Hold My Life' and on 'Can't Hardly Wait', the final, triumphant track on the new LP, 'Pleased To Meet Me'. Maybe I've stretched the comparison a little too far, but I can't think of another two groups who've written about wasting your life with the same candour and wit. And both Westerberg and Morrissey sing about these things in the kind of flawed voice you turn to like a friend.
I FIND myself in Atlanta, Georgia, tucking in to swordfish and sat opposite Paul Westerberg. There's something cartoon about The Replacements, and particularly about their leader. A big head that seems outsize on his skinny, small body; a shaggy mane of hair; a big nose, awry, slightly crazy teeth; a bronchial rasp of a voice - the vague air of exaggeration and caricature about his features is compounded by the ludicrous garb all the band are decked in.
Like a lot of US rock groups, The Replacements are anti-image, anti-style, but instead of dressing down, contenting themselves with merely looking shabby, they've gone to some trouble to throw a spanner in the works of the presentation machine, scouring thrift stores for frightful checked jackets of the kind you associate with loser burlesque comedians and cardsharks. They're wearing green or yellow jeans, Hawaiian shirts, burgundy and puce socks, and one of them has gone so far as to spray paint his shoes silver.
Someone from your record company told me you'd become more responsible these days.
Paul: "More responsible? We've cooled off a little bit, but we're not really responsible. We don't try to get ourselves in trouble now. It happens naturally, of course but, back then, we used to go out of our way to create trouble."
Like the episode when you set fire to your own tour van?
"Yeah, and the time we locked ourselves in the video room at Warner Bros. And the time we brought in all this sand and straw from the streets in our pockets and started throwing it around the offices."
You once dubbed yourselves "rock & roll assholes". What's the last real asshole thing you've done?
"Well, we did this radio interview not long ago where we answered every question with the reply: 'We're gay.' I guess a couple of gay people at the station got offended because the next day they smashed our record on the air. Basically, though, we only behave like assholes, to assholes. We're nice to nice people... but you meet a lot of creeps, people who won't take no for an answer."
"I suppose so, although to me a fan is someone who respects you and gives you space. People come up and think they own a piece of you. But if you talk to everyone for a minute, that's five hours, y'know? I guess I know how it feels, there's songs that affected me that deeply when I was younger. It flatters me, scares the hell out of me, that someone would take a song - an afternoon thought that I had maybe two years ago and have since forgotten - and listen to it every day. That's weird, and scary."
A song off the album ('Alex Chilton', one of the standouts, and the next single) seems to be about the way a song can take possession of your life for a while, get in your veins. Tell me what Alex Chilton means to you.
"He's the hippest grandpa I ever met. He inspired maybe half our songs - the frustrated type of songs, like 'Answering Machine'. Maybe the fact that Big Star never were big has a lot to do with why I like him. He was never rammed down anyone's throat on the radio. I sort of stumbled across him through a friend, and he became a sort of special friend that no one knew about. I wish he'd write a pop song again."
Bassist Tommy Stinson pipes up: "Yeah, he's getting so into that New Orleans fake roots stuff."
He produced one track on Tim, no?
Paul: "Well - he was there. His school of production is to turn up, sit down by the desk and smoke a joint, and see what happens. The track didn't turn out so well."
And he likes a drink, like you chaps?
Tommy: "Not so much these days. His tippling days drove him into the gutter. He was livin' down in New Orleans doin' nothing, being a dishwasher. People had to drag him back into music. On some of the dates on this tour he was supporting us."
How do you feel about the new LP?
Paul: "I like it. It's my favourite. Usually, by this stage, I'm sick of a record, but this one I can still listen to. It's got a fuller, stronger sound, which is down to Jim Dickinson, the producer. He produced Big Star, and he used to hang out with The Rolling Stones and shit. What I think happens with each of our records as we progress is that some of our hardcore fans get alienated, but we replace them with new fans. The old fans won't like the fact we use horns on a couple of tracks. 'Can't Hardly Wait' also has strings on it. We got the Memphis Horns to play on the record - the same guys who cut sides with Otis Redding, Arthur Conley and Percy Sledge. We was totally in awe. I think they saw it as a bit of a joke. What the fans don't realise is that if we could have had horns for the first record, we would have used them."
What kind of success do you think the record will have?
Tommy: "Up till now, it's been college radio that's supported us, but now the big stations are starting to pick up on it... their butts are getting buttered! Charlie Springer at Warners has a $1,000 bet with someone that we'll sell 500,000 records. It's nice that someone has confidence in you, although he can afford it. It's neat to hear your record on the radio. But, y'know, we don't really care either way whether we have a hit or not... it only means you've got to shake more hands, talk to more people, pose for more photographs - which we hate."
Paul: 'Things are pretty good right now, we're successful now. Basically, we don't wanna fail, we don't wanna go back to where we were. We're striving not to fail totally. We have no desire to play to 20,000 people. At the moment we play to between 5,000 in the North and 400 in the South."
How do you like being a critics' pet group (their previous LP was voted number 2 in a poll of a hundred American rock critics)?
Tommy: "All those critics are washed-out musicians who never got anywhere. I suppose they get off on the fact that we're a fairly successful group but we're capable of fucking up in a major way. They like the fact that we're unpredictable, whereas most groups at this level are groomed and guided."
You seem to have acquired a reputation for being serious drinkers.
Paul: "Nah, we don't really drink any more than a lot of bands. I've been surprised by the fact that a lot of the bands we've come across, that have squeaky clean images, turn out to take tons of drugs, tons of alcohol."
Like who? The Judds?
'The thing with us was that we never hid it. It was never a big deal, but somehow we got this image and people started to exaggerate, write us up as being shitfaced and incapable onstage."
Another notion about The Replacements is that you're militarist Reaganite scum, something that you hardly ameliorate by continuing to play the US Marines anthem, complete with an interpolation about "The shores of Tripoli".
'The thing you have to understand is when we're making a joke. We started playing that song at hardcore gigs, because it was the perfect way to rile up the audience. You see, there's nothing that bores me more than a hardcore band that says 'Reagan Sucks'. That's about as over-used and easy and silly as 'Let's make love tonight, baby'. I wish people would say something in their songs. It's like saying 'The rain is wet', y'know - I mean, yeah, Reagan sucks - so? Anyway, I'm just waiting for Nixon myself!"
Tommy: "I guess none of us really have any defined political views."
I would have thought, from the songs, that your sympathies would lie with the underdog.
Paul: "Yeah, we like losers. That's where we probably have a soft spot for Reagan, 'coz he is such a loser and such an asshole."
Tommy: "Before we started the band, we were bums, we had little peon labour jobs, we never went to college or nothing. We were just losers looking for something to do, and I guess we lucked out with the band."
The Replacements are a populist band in the sense that Springsteen and The Band were populist - rooting for the little folk who always get trod on, feeling aggrieved and fed up and cheated in some way, but never quite getting to grips with why their dreams have absconded. That's because populism as a political/cultural force exists in the troubled space between American "recurring dreams" of space and freedom and purpose, and the lived reality of constriction and entropy and powerlessness.
Populism refuses to relinquish its belief in the promise of America, the possibility of a commonwealth of self-sufficient individuals, and so can't work out what went wrong. Populism has a whole load of questions, but no answers; which makes for great music, but lousy politics.
The Replacements describe their relation to pop as being like "a dirt road through an emerald city", and the video for their single (the wondrous crystalline drive of 'The Ledge') captures this perfectly. Out of a combination of a refusal to conform to the protocol of modern vidpop and a simple inability to be comfortable when being filmed, they've made a video which doesn't compromise in the slightest their anti-MTV bile of a few years back ('Seen Your Video', off Let It Be).
The camera's gaze flits slowly from different segments of their near-motionless bodies - a twitching knee, a bored, blinking eye, a segment of waist, a hand flopping wearily, an exasperated corner of a mouth. It's a promo that manages to propel into the vidpop world of quick-cutting, upful hyper-action... a whole range of experience that pop doesn't acknowledge... torpor, lassitude, despondency, an inelegant lack of oneness with your body... all the experiences that The Replacements' music converts into rocking out. The video - if it gets shown - will be as awkward and obtrusive an intervention as Hüsker Dü were on Joan Rivers, or The Fall would be on Top Of The Pops. Perfect pop, imperfect presentation.
"It's not a bad life this," says Paul. 'The hours between 12 and five suck. Then you soundcheck, and then you have to wait to play. But playing makes up for it. But, see, we must be the laziest band in showbiz. We hate travelling. We love playing, so I guess our dream would be to play for a month in one place, and fly all our fans in so we didn't have to go anywhere."
Tommy: "When this tour's over, we're going to have a mass firing session. We're going to fire our manager, our road manager, our roadies... hell, we're even going to fire ourselves. Then we'll send our suits on tour."
Miscellaneous Facts about The Replacements:
Paul was once "tipsy" and went up to Tom Verlaine at a party and asked him to join the band: "The guy doesn't have much sense of humour."
Alternative names the band might have had: Elegant Mouse. Rooster Fleas. The Retirements. Pelican Urine.
Tommy is 20, has been playing with the band since he was 13: "We took away his childhood."
Paul is getting married in October - the pair of them have been dating for three years. Slim, their guitarist has been married and with kids for a while. The others call their girlfriends "the wives", because they are very faithful.
Paul was flabbergasted when asked if he could imagine a girl being in the band.
WE'RE IN the middle of the long wait between soundcheck and gig. Tension is breeding a few hi-jinks. They find some old helium balloons, prick them and play at funny voices. A band called Rock Gimmick comes in to give them a demo-tape, which they immediately stomp to little bits upon the band's withdrawal. A slightly hairy game of baseball involving an iron pipe and a beer bottle starts up. Later an anguished cry breaks out: "I wish I was someone else! I wish someone else could be in my skin." But nothing really happens to warrant the fearsome reputation.
Onstage, freshly astounded by their vile threads, some British, rock-critical hackles rise within me.
Oh, they do look awful Noo Wave; they even look a bit like Slade at times. Oh shit. Tommy's dropped his trousers - how can I defend that? Live, a lot of the intricacy and sensitivity gets lost in the sludge and the slam. But a version of '16 Blue' crumples my heart and my reservations. The Replacements are bulging, bursting at the seams with rude, unruly life.
Sing along: "I'm in love / What's that song? / l'm in love / With that song"