1985: The Replacements / Tim
by J A Gray
Look at that album cover up there. Isn’t it awful? What kind of music are you expecting to hear? Some kind of bombastic arena rock, maybe, or perhaps something bordering on the prog side of things? I wonder how many Marillion fans picked it up thinking they were in for a treat. It certainly doesn’t say “blue collar” or “punk rock” does it? But then it’s fairly typical of The Replacements to deep six their major label debut by dressing it in the worst sleeve of their career. Never did a band appear to delight so much in acts of self-sabotage as these guys. They’d get rip-roaring drunk before important showcase gigs and play a stinker. They’d get much-needed TV exposure and blow it by swearing on air. For their 1983 LP Hootenanny, they included a lame blues jam on which they played each other’s instruments. Badly. And then made it the title song, first track, side one. They prided themselves on knowing how to fuck up with style and with humour, but the end result was the same – they still fucked up. Gloriously.
Simon was on the same English course as me in Birmingham. He was friendly and outgoing and introduced himself to me sometime in late 1984. He was a London boy and full of confidence. One of those people who had taken a year out and seen a bit of the world before moving on to higher education. I was your archetypical nerdy provincial kid, fresh out of school. But we had two things in common – we were both obsessed with music, and we both liked a good laugh. I remember Simon losing it completely during lectures and seminars. Something would set him off and he’d be gone – face bright red, tears streaming down his face, utterly mortified that everybody was staring at him and that he couldn’t help himself. He’d repeatedly try and say sorry, but he couldn’t talk for laughing.
Simon was also an R.E.M. fan. At last, someone else with the same disease! And even better, two or three of the other guys in my hall of residence were also getting the bug. We’d crossed paths too late to go to that gig at Birmingham University together, but now we were all committed to investigating not only the bands that influenced them, but also the scene that was growing up in and around them. College was two bus rides away from where most of us lived. We’d regularly stop off in town, maybe have a burger from this place that Simon had discovered. They did these amazing, enormous burgers with everything. Then we’d more than likely go to the record shops, before catching the second bus home. We started buying up old Byrds LPs. Creedence too. Simon turned me onto Native Sons by The Long Ryders, which I think he bought on the strength of the record sleeve – they looked so much like Byrds and Buffalo Springfield fans that they had to be worth a punt.
The UK pressing of Native Sons was on a new label, Zippo Records. An offshoot of Demon Records set up to put out the music of the up-and-coming new American bands. I noticed that the catalogue number was 003, so I decided to buy Zippo 001 and 002. Whatever they were. Maybe I’d discover something wonderful. In those days, you couldn’t look that stuff up on the internet, but luckily my quest was made easier by the local Virgin record store on Bull Street. Someone on the staff there was obviously sharing our passion for these new bands and they’d set up a discrete LP rack for contemporary American underground rock. A few minutes of flicking through yielded the two albums I was looking for. I paid for them and took them home to find out just what it was I’d got.
Zippo 001 was an album by The Rain Parade called Emergency Third Rail Power Trip. They were clearly in thrall to 60s psychedelia, which was fine by me. This was surely going to be right up my street. 002 appeared to be a much riskier proposition. It was an album called Let It Be by The Replacements. Looking at it in Virgin, all sorts of alarm bells were ringing, telling me that this record wasn’t for me. For starters they looked like old school punks. By 1985 punk had become a tired joke in England. The bands all had mohicans, wore leather jackets with identikit white daub and studs on the back, and stuck rigidly to the least sophisticated blueprint of what punk rock could be. All those “oi” bands and their ilk. No intelligence or imagination. They all seemed to be screaming “punk’s not dead” whilst remaining utterly ignorant of the fact that they were the very people who were killing it stone cold. The bands with more wit and depth had moved on to pastures new. Yet here was an American band looking like it was still 1977 or 1978. Lots of messy hair and plimsouls on display. And they’d dared to call their LP by the very same title as a Beatles album, so they were clearly a bunch of jokers. I tended not to like bands who tried to be funny. I flipped the jacket over in my hands and things got worse. They had a song on there called Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out. And another called Gary’s Got A Boner. And what was this – a cover version of a Kiss song?! This was going to be awful! But who was that listed as playing guitar on the first track? None other than Peter Buck of R.E.M. And if Peter had given them his blessing, then they had to be OK, right? Truth is that the Buck credit probably still wouldn’t have sold me on buying the record. It was solely the desire to collect all the Zippo LPs that had me buy that record. My inner trainspotter trumped my inner music snob. Thank God.
When I got back to the halls, I played The Rain Parade record first. It was cool and it was groovy, but although I enjoyed it, I never grew to love it. It was OK. However, my low expectations of The Replacements were knocked for six as soon as the needle hit the plastic. It was great! Sure, some of it was a little too raw and boisterous for me (the aforementioned Gary’s Got A Boner, for example), but the best tracks had more of a power pop sensibility. They had tunes and riffs. It was ragged as hell and the singer sounded like he had a very sore throat, but it was spirited and engaging and fun. They played with being dumb, but there was clearly intelligence at work here. Paul Westerberg could write the stupidest set of lyrics you ever heard, and then turn around and write something with emotional resonance and depth for the very next song. I hoped they’d decide to do more of the latter and cut down on the former, and I waited for their next album with interest.*
The roots of The Replacements can be traced back to lead guitarist Bob Stinson giving his 11-year old kid brother Tommy a bass guitar to keep him off the streets of Minneapolis. It was a caring and loving gesture from a man who would spend much of his life being misunderstood. Bob soon made friends with drummer Chris Mars, and the three of them used to jam cover versions in the Stinson basement – lots of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent, and also a garageband version of Roundabout by prog rock giants Yes. Bob would remain an unlikely yet devoted fan of Yes guitarist Steve Howe for life. Paul Westerberg, working as a janitor at the time, used to sit outside on the street listening to the band play. Westerberg also knew Mars, though he had no idea that Mars was playing in the band he used to listen to on his way home. The penny only dropped when Mars invited Westerberg along to hear his new band rehearse. And sure enough, before too long Westerberg was in the band, and pushing them in the direction of punk rock. They were unwilling at first, but Westerberg was a master manipulator. By 1980 they were playing their first gigs (with Tommy still a baby-faced 13-year old) and had even landed a record deal with local indie label Twin/Tone Records. Their reputation for being an unpredictable, but often brilliant, punk and disorderly live act spread by word of mouth and underground press and radio. Their records sales were also growing exponentially. Hootenanny became a college radio favourite, but Let It Be became one of the most talked about independent LPs of 1984. The major labels started taking notice, and by 1985 the band had signed to Sire Records and were working on a new album, with former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi producing.
When it arrived in the shops later that year, not only did Tim have a bad taste sleeve, but it also had that ludicrous title. Tim. Who in the world calls their album Tim?! You can imagine the conversation. Some suit from the record company asks that new band of drunken wasters what their new album is going to be called, and they fire back with “Tim”. They give it a human name as a joke. Not even a cool one. Chances are they were thinking of Tim the Enchanter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but that still doesn’t make it a good name for a record. Calling your record Tim is a funny idea for about half an hour, but The Replacements refused to rethink the idea. They even junked the far better comedy title Whistler’s Mammy.
So, shit sleeve and crap name. So far, so bad. But for anyone with the determination to make it as far as pulling out the record and putting it on the stereo, it was all good news from here on in. The album roars out of the starting blocks. Hold My Life and I’ll Buy sound big and bold and rock hard. Kiss Me On The Bus and Waitress In The Sky are a bouncy pair of skiffle-pop tunes with sharp lyrics and even sharper hooks. If Dose Of Thunder and Lay It Down Clown are the token metal-punk blasts to keep their old fans (and Bob Stinson) happy, then the unpromisingly titled Bastards Of Young sees them write a hard edged anthem that manages to both rock hard and dig deep. There’s also a couple of character portrait songs that’ll tug hard on your heart strings in Little Mascara and Here Comes A Regular. Though the latter wasn’t the first time Westerberg had played a solo unplugged song on a Replacements record, Swinging Party was definitely the first time the full band had played with such breezy lounge lizard charm. And if Big Star’s influence on Westerberg’s writing was becoming increasingly apparent, a mutual appreciation society was firmly established when Alex Chilton arrived to sing and co-produce Left Of The Dial, a tribute to the independent spirit of American college radio.
Westerberg’s lyrics were getting better with every record. How’s this for an accurate snapshot of the underdog from Bastards Of Young:- “God, what a mess, on the ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung/Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled/It beats pickin’ cotton and waitin’ to be forgotten”. Or this portrait of the hopeless drinker from Here Comes A Regular:- “Well, a person can work up a mean, mean thirst/After a hard day of nothin’ much at all/Summer’s past, it’s too late to cut the grass/There ain’t much to rake anyway in the fall”. Westerberg had found his niche, depicting his gallery of lowlife misfits in stark terms, yet with a poetic eye for detail, always treading a path midway between humour and melancholy.
If Paul Westerberg was the group’s yang, then Bob Stinson was its yin. Though their reputation for hard drinking and crazed pranks made for great copy and a lifetime’s worth of legends, three-quarters of the band still seemed to have things under what you might generously call a near-neighbour of control. And then there was Bob. He’d always been the supreme joker in the pack. Bob would play gigs dressed in a tutu and fishnets, or appear for encores wearing nothing but his guitar. And believe me, if you’ve never seen pictures of Bob, this wasn’t the height of sexy gender-bending cool – Stinson was a slightly overweight, balding, blond hulk. He looked deranged and truly frightening.** During the Tim sessions, more often than not he wouldn’t show up for the tracking dates, leaving Westerberg to put down all the basic guitar parts. This was partly because every step away from the hard rock songs of their earlier records only served to lessen Bob’s enthusiasm for the group. He didn’t want to play slow songs or soft songs. But the other reason for his absence was more serious – he’d not only become a full-blown alcoholic, but was now well on his way to becoming a junkie too. When he did finally show up, he unleashed what Tommy Erdelyi called his “flame-thrower” guitar and made the songs sound so alive and so thrilling. But it wasn’t good enough to keep his seat in the tour van and by early 1986, Bob became the first Replacement to be replaced. At first, I didn’t mind about Bob. I was even a little relieved that the scary one had gone. But looking back, the band became so much more ordinary afterwards. They were still great, but Bob helped to make them special. They felt safer, tamer, more sanitised, and less fun without him.***
Tim catches The Replacements at the perfect mid-point of their ‘career’. Their major label debut, but their last album with Bob. grown-up enough to be invited to the party, but not enough to be trusted to behave themselves when they got there. They made three videos for songs from Tim, but none of them showed the band. Just footage of a stereo and its speakers. They didn’t trust the music business and they didn’t like music videos (the track Seen Your Video from Let It Be had already spelled that out loud and clear). They became the American underground rock scene’s rebel poster children. They may have looked a bit like an American version of The Clash five years too late, but they were also the template for Nirvana, and all those other grunge bands, a decade too early. Like Westerberg’s beloved Big Star, they would forever remain a cult act while others got to cash in on their sound and their attitude.
I remember when Tim was released that Simon and I had just blagged our way into writing album and gig reviews for the college paper. We didn’t stick at it long, but it was fun while it lasted. The first thing I wrote was a review of Tim.
It’s to my lasting regret that I never saw The Replacements play live. I’m not sure, but I seem to recall them only ever playing over here the once. It was in London. Simon went. That was always the major advantage of being a London boy in my eyes – you had all the great bands playing on your doorstep. I don’t think I had the money or the energy to get down there. Wrong decision.
When deciding which album to talk about for 1985, I might easily have made it three in a row for R.E.M. Fables Of The Reconstruction is an album filled with haunting songs that get under your skin. They had rediscovered much of the spook that they’d downplayed on Reckoning, though Fables… was somewhat marred by its decidedly murky production. But just as The Stones could do some things that weren’t in The Beatles’ DNA, so it was with The Replacements and R.E.M. The Replacements were the rowdy bacchanalians. They had swagger and a hint of danger. R.E.M. were more cerebral, more enigmatic, and were far better house-trained. Even when they were kicking up a storm, you still knew they were nice boys who would remember to say their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s. The two bands both complemented and completed each other. And I needed both in order to have all my moods and emotions catered for. I think Tim is the greatest example of The Replacements doing what they did best. It’s tough and tender, stupid and smart, and finds the perfect balance between raw energy and well-honed songwriting. Just don’t look at that sleeve while it’s playing.
* There was actually another new Replacements release between Let It Be and Tim. The brilliantly titled The Shit Hits The Fans was a cassette-only ‘official bootleg’ of a live gig, and their parting shot to Twin/Tone. It captured The Replacements in all their sloppy glory. They manage to play a good two thirds of a set fairly OK, but then they start taking requests for covers from what sounds like a relatively small crowd. Most of these cover songs begin well enough but few make it to anything in the vicinity of a satisfactory conclusion. In fact, few make it past the first chorus. Some gig-goers, and also people who have heard my copy of the tape, probably found this horrible, amateurish and beneath contempt. I find it hilarious and highly entertaining. It’s by far the greatest thing I ever bought on cassette. Incidentally, it was taped by an audience member. The band’s soundman saw him recording the gig and confiscated his tape towards the end of the gig. The band had just started playing Let It Be by The Beatles, of all songs. The Shit Hits The Fans has never been issued on CD, but it’s available as a download out there in cyberland for the curious.
** Not that Bob was the only one of The Replacements to indulge in such madcap behaviour onstage. On occasions when the normally serene drummer Chris Mars had imbibed a few too many, he would transform himself into his alter-ego Pappy the Clown, complete with creepy clown’s makeup, just minutes before hitting the stage. Such gigs usually started out wobbly before heading swiftly downhill.
*** Bob Stinson died of organ failure in 1995, aged 35.
N.B. Tim is currently available, in remastered form, as a CD with bonus out-takes, including the band’s first attempts at recording the song Can’t Hardly Wait which would become the standout track on their next LP, Pleased To Meet Me.
My other nominations for 1985 albums of merit:
R.E.M. / Fables Of The Reconstruction/Reconstruction Of The Fables
Meat Puppets / Up On The Sun
Minutemen / 3-Way Tie (For Last)
Kate Bush / Hounds Of Love
Dexys Midnight Runners / Don’t Stand Me Down
Green On Red / Gas Food Lodging
Green On Red / No Free Lunch
John Fogerty / Centerfield
The Pogues / Rum, Sodomy & The Lash
The Waterboys / This Is The Sea
The Long Ryders / State Of Our Union