The Replacements - Biography
Endearing, slovenly, tuneful, and unpredictable, The Replacements helped define the look and sound of second-generation American punk in the early 1980s.
The Minneapolis quartet mashed together contemporary post-Ramones attitude (with a distinctly Upper Midwestern spin to it) and a knowing, sometimes nose-thumbing familiarity with ‘60s pop and ‘70s arena-rock to fabricate their own feisty and frequently poignant sound. Daffy and insouciant, their devil-may-care style – reflected in their just-rolled-outta-bed looks, drunken train-wreck live performances, mocking interviews, and brazen anti-videos – was offset by songs, penned by guitarist-vocalist Paul Westerberg, that were intensely vulnerable and often sweetly melodic.
Though they only grazed the charts during their decade-long existence, they inspired abiding affection from a devoted cadre of admirers. Being a fan of “The ‘Mats” (short for “Placemats”) was something like being in the middle of a difficult but exhilarating love affair that could change course at any second.
The ‘Mats were the product of a provincial music scene that had made little noise nationally at the time of their formation. The Twin Cities’ best-known export, Prince, had just started to attract attention, and was still widely perceived as an R&B performer, when they began playing their first gigs in 1980. On the rock front, post-punk units like The Suicide Commandos, The Suburbs, and Curtiss A had attracted followings, but had failed to have an impact outside the city limits.
Still, like many other towns in Middle America, the Minneapolis/St. Paul area sported just enough of a musical infrastructure to help get the local talent noticed in the media centers of New York and Los Angeles. The Replacements became an act of national import thanks to the efforts of a hometown independent record label co-owned by a Minneapolis record store owner, who also managed his seemingly unmanageable group.
At first glance, The Replacements were unlikely candidates for big-time acclaim, and certainly not for anything resembling success. The band was founded as, to paraphrase of their early song titles, something to do. Three-quarters of its semi-delinquent teenaged membership first played together in an untutored combo called Dogbreath. Its lead guitarist was Bob Stinson, a ninth-grade dropout and unreconstructed fan of Yes guitarist Steve Howe who had spent some time in juvenile hall; Stinson bought his precociously troublesome 11-year-old half-brother Tommy a bass and drafted him for the band. They were joined on drums by fellow high school dropout Chris Mars. The trio convened in the Stinsons’ home to smoke pot, drink beer, and jam.
Paul Westerberg, the son of a Minneapolis Cadillac dealer, joined this unruly fold after hearing Dogbreath’s noisy rock rattling the Stinson family’s windows as he walked home from work. Westerberg was a cover-band veteran who had been inspired to play the guitar by The Raspberries and was conversant with both classical rock ‘n’ roll like The Faces and Tom Petty and local proto-punk like The Suburbs. He was also an aspiring songwriter.
He wasn’t immediately embraced by his bandmates-to-be – fond of hard rockers in the Ted Nugent/Aerosmith mold, they chafed at his mainstream rock influences, and actually tried out another singer first. But he ultimately signed on, bringing a potent musical sensibility to the nascent group. It was Westerberg who renamed Dogbreath, in typically self-deprecating fashion, The Replacements.
Conventional wisdom states that the ‘Mats really didn’t care about popularity and success, but even early on they showed that they had ambition. Not long after their first local gigs in Minneapolis, they recorded a four-song demo. In the spring of 1980, in an act of sheer chutzpah, Westerberg handed a cassette to Peter Jesperson, a local music mover-and-shaker who owned the hipster record store Oarfolkjokeopus, DJed at the club the Longhorn, and – most importantly – co-owned the rising indie label Twin/Tone Records.
Not long thereafter, as he listened desultorily to a stack of demos, Jesperson heard The ‘Mats’ original “Raised in the City” and had a “Eureka!” moment. Despite their still unproven status, he signed the band to Twin/Tone. After haggling over a club booking with the Longhorn’s owner on the group’s behalf, he also fell into the role of manager – one he would hold for six years. The Stinsons’ mother even gave Jesperson power of attorney to act as the underage Tommy’s legal guardian on the road.
The Replacements issued their first album, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981), after months of sessions cobbled together during down-time at the local studio Blackberry Way. As its title suggests, the 18-song collection was a bratty, punkish blast packed with songs about boredom, alienation, frustration, and adolescent diversion – “Takin a Ride,” “Hangin Downtown,” “I Bought a Headache,” “Customer,” “More Cigarettes,” “Shiftless When Idle.” As funny and high-powered as these tracks were, numbers like “I’m in Trouble” and “Johnny’s Gonna Die,” a heart-tugging, wised-up premature elegy for the self-destructive guitarist Johnny Thunders of The Heartbreakers, hinted at grander things.
The ‘Mats quickly leap-frogged The Suburbs and pulled neck-and-neck with Hüsker Dü, Minneapolis’ hardcore champs, as the most talked-about rock band in the Twin Cities. To capitalize on the momentum, Twin/Tone quickly recorded and released a feral eight-song mini-LP, The Replacements Stink (1982). It’s the most punk-oriented set in the group’s catalog, in terms of velocity, volume, and writing (“Kids Don’t Follows,” “Fuck School,” “God Damn Job,” “Dope Smokin Moron”), but it still made room for a churning Westerberg ballad, “Go.” The collection – originally released in hand-stamped LP jackets -- begins with a live recording of the Minneapolis police breaking up a ‘Mats performance at a warehouse party.
The Replacements’ reputation began to develop around the country, thanks to their aggressive touring activities (which included stints opening for R.E.M. and X, among others), as well as accounts of their increasingly aberrant and inebriated live sets, which could include drunken on-stage brawls, uncertainly or incompletely essayed cover versions (often of atrocious top-40 pop detritus), and bizarre sartorial displays by Bob Stinson, who favored dresses, tutus, polyester suits, and, on occasion, nothing whatsoever.
They were poised for a breakout when Twin/Tone released Hootenanny (1983). This maddeningly uneven collection included the fiercely rocking, sardonic “Color Me Impressed,” the tender, synthesizer-dominated “Within You Reach,” and the self-mocking, folk-rocking “Treatment Bound”; at the other extreme, it contained the in-joke title track, on which the band members switched instruments with each other, and the Beatles/Chubby Checker mash-up “Mr. Whirly.”
The Replacements reached their apotheosis with the cheekily titled Let It Be (1984). Generally considered the band’s finest work, the album kicked off with the rousing “I Will Dare,” a track featuring R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck that became an immediate college radio favorite. Other highlights included the defining ballads “Unsatisfied” and “Sixteen Blue,” the gender-bending soft shoe “Androgynous,” and a bold, ironic-but-not-quite cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond.” Also-rans no more, the ‘Mats now moved to the top of the alt-rock heap.
They still demonstrated that they would play by no rules other than their own. An audience tape of a sloppy November 1984 show at the Bowery Ballroom in Oklahoma City was issued – with a j-card caricature by drummer Mars of a bleary-eyed Bob Stinson -- on cassette by Twin/Tone as The Shit Hits the Fans (1985). It’s an audio record of an alarmingly typical ‘Mats live show: The dissolute and bored band members veer their drunken way through a confused set featuring off-the-cuff covers of songs by R.E.M., X, U2, The Rolling Stones, and Thin Lizzy, among others.
Despite their best attempts to sabotage their own showcase at the New York punk club CBGBs, The Replacements were signed to Sire Records by A&R man Michael Hill. Seymour Stein’s record label, which was distributed by Warner Bros., was the home of such original ‘70s punk groups as The Ramones (as well as Madonna), and it fell to The Ramones’ original drummer Tommy Erdelyi to produce the ‘Mats’ major-label debut.
Tim (1985) was a not wholly satisfying distillation of the group’s mature sound. While not as consistently well-penned as Let It Be, it did contain a handful of ‘Mats standards – the vibrantly romantic “Kiss Me On the Bus,” the defiant “Bastards of Young,” the indie-rock anthem “Left of the Dial,” the bleakly self-examining “Here Comes a Regular.” Typically, the band members bridled at the requirements of major-label life: Asked to shoot videos for tracks off the album, they responded with a pair of static clips that showed their songs being played on a vibrating stereo speaker in a messy living room. The message seemed to be, “You asked for it, but we will not be bought by you.”
They made their network TV debut on Saturday Night Live in January 1986, but the original lineup of the band had nearly run its course. The pressures of life within the major-label system ratcheted up the band’s misbehavior and internal tumult, and something had to give. The first casualty was guitarist Bob Stinson, whose party-hearty lifestyle – while by no means at odds with that of his bandmates – was teetering out of control. That year, Bob was fired summarily; the group also parted ways with manager Jesperson.
In an effort to regroup, the three remaining Replacements went to Memphis to record their next album with Jim Dickinson, whose multitudinous credits included production of the third Big Star album with ‘Mats icon Alex Chilton. Pleased To Meet Me (1987) proved to be a fierce, economical affair that included the defiant “I.O.U.,” the unsettling suicide song “The Ledge,” the kiss-off “Never Mind,” the sublime, horn-inflected Tim leftover “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and – of course – the homage to the Bluff City’s favorite musical son, “Alex Chilton.” The band’s caustic point of view about their place in the commercial rock continuum is definitively expressed in the album’s “I Don’t Know”: “One foot in the door/The other foot in the gutter.”
After completing Pleased To Meet Me, the ‘group brought on the first replacement Replacement: guitarist Bob “Slim” Dunlap, a well-traveled Minneapolis journeyman who had worked regularly with Curtiss A. Dunlap was heard to good effect on Don’t Tell a Soul (1989), an imperfect collection helmed by the high-end alt-rock producer Matt Wallace. The album contained the band’s only chart single (No. 51), the ingratiating “I’ll Be You” (which sported a shambolic video in which the band members could be seen switching instruments, Hootenanny style). The set included some of Westerberg’s most affecting songs ever – “We’ll Inherit the Earth,” “Achin’ to Be,” “They’re Blind” – but it also contained a high percentage of filler. Nonetheless, thanks to its widely played single, it became the ‘Mats’ highest-charting album, peaking at No. 57.
The writing was on the wall, however. In 1990, founding drummer Chris Mars was dismissed and replaced by another Curtiss A vet, Steve Foley. The Replacements swiftly became a band in name only; their next album, All Shook Down (1990) – co-produced by Westerberg and Scott Litt, a frequent studio collaborator with R.E.M. -- was considered by many to be Paul Westerberg’s first solo album. A host of guests filled out the band ranks – Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, ex-Velvet Underground member John Cale, Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, Concrete Blonde vocalist Johnette Napolitano, and session drummer Charlie Drayton. While it flashed some fine writing – cf. “Merry Go Round,” “Sadly Beautiful,” “Someone Take the Wheel,” and the title track – it was a subdued and somewhat dispirited-sounding effort, lacking the fire and nerve of their best work.
It would be the band’s last. Following a tour-ending performance in Chicago on July 4, 1991, The Replacements called it quits.
Westerberg, Tommy Stinson, and Mars regrouped in 2005 to cut two new songs for the greatest hits compilation Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?, and Westerberg and Stinson united to cut songs for the 2006 animated feature Open Season (and played together at a special screening of the movie in Los Angeles).
But for the most part, the band’s original members went their separate ways. Westerberg has maintained a sporadic solo career, with albums on both major and independent labels (under his own name and as Grandpaboy). Tommy Stinson fronted the bands Bash & Pop and Perfect before settling into a long-running gig as bassist in the latter-day Guns N’ Roses. Mars recorded four very tuneful solo albums of his own in the ‘90s before stepping away from music to concentrate on painting. Sadly, Bob Stinson’s musical career effectively ended with his tenure in The Replacements: Succumbing to addictions to alcohol and drugs, he died of natural causes in Minneapolis on Feb. 18, 1995.