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Artist Spotlight: The Replacements

Formed in 1979 by brothers Bob (guitar) and Tommy (bass) Stinson, guitarist/vocalist Paul Westerberg, and drummer Chris Mars, The Replacements became a band on the fast track to success. By 1980 the group had a contract with the local Twin/Tone label and, by late 1981, its first album.

The band’s early live shows were notorious affairs––the quartet was frequently deep in its cups by the time it took the stage––save for Tommy Stinson, who was all of 12 when the band formed––and eager to play half-baked covers of songs from Free, Black Sabbath, and Hank Williams, alongside originals, most of which were penned by Westerberg. Although initial releases Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981) Stink (1982), were wild, careening affairs that featured songs such as “I Hate Music,” “White and Lazy,” and “I Bought a Headache,” by the time the group recorded Hootenanny (released 1983), the material was already more mature and Westerberg’s writing was beginning to show a depth that would soon earn him accolades as one of the leading songwriters of his generation.

By 1984’s Let It Be (a brotherly jab at manager––and avowed Beatles fanatic––Peter Jesperson) the band was winning press coverage in major outlets and respect from peers such as REM. It would be the last album for Twin/Tone, though as the quartet inked a deal with Sire and recorded the often dark––and inexplicably titled––Tim. Bob Stinson was struggling with both addiction and mental illness and soon found that drunk or sober he was no longer welcome in the band he’d helped found. By 1986 he and his wildly imaginative guitar playing were gone.

After his departure the group’s commercial profile rose thanks to albums such as Pleased to Meet Me (1987) and Don’t Tell A Soul, the latter featuring Bob Stinson’s replacement, Bob “Slim” Dunlap, a veteran of the Minneapolis music scene who was a few years older than the other members, having worked his way through a succession of popular Twin Cities bands. The Mats (as friends and fans called them) enjoyed a brief filtration with major league success thanks to the 1989 single “I’ll Be You” (from Don’t Tell a Soul). The song, which contained the line “a rebel without a clue” must have caught the ear of the group’s tour mate Tom Petty, as he used the line a few years later in his mega hit “Into the Great Wide Open.” 

The tour behind Don’t Tell A Soul was disastrous––the band wasn’t making money and drugs and alcohol once more reared their ugly heads within the camp––and by the time the group entered the studio to record All Shook Down The Replacements existed in name only. Tommy Stinson and Westerberg sacked Mars after they’d finished recording and hired drummer Steve Foley to fill out the ranks and the Mats played their final flat note in Chicago during the summer of 1991.

Following the band’s demise Westerberg made an attempt at commercial viable solo career, contributing music to the Cameron Crowe film Singles, and making a bid for stardom on MTV. Tommy Stinson formed Bash ‘n’ Pop, then Perfect, before taking over bass duties in Guns N’ Roses and Soul Asylum. Mars turned to his real passion, painting, and became an acclaimed and sought-after artist.

Bob Stinson died in 1995 after spending a decade playing in a variety of Minneapolis bands and working menial jobs. Foley passed away in 2008 as the result of a reaction to prescription medication––he was working at a car dealership and living across the street from his predecessor in the drummer’s chair, Chris Mars, at the time.

The band has avoided any large scale reunions, although Mars, Stinson, and Westerberg did reunite for two new––and somewhat lackluster––songs featured on the 2006 compilation Don’t You Know Who I Think I Was?. Stinson and Westerberg are scheduled to work together again in late 2012 in a tribute effort for Dunlap who suffered a debilitating stroke earlier in the year.

Further reading:

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad (2001).

The Replacements: All Over But the Shouting by Jim Walsh (2007)

Further viewing:

Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements (2011, DVD 2012)

Further listening:

Hootenanny: The third album from the band, recorded in a warehouse in Minneapolis suburb, it perfects the raw punk influences (“Color Me Impressed”) while nodding to the more melodic rock the members cut their teeth on (“Buck Hill,” “Take Me Down to the Hospital”) and offers one of Westerberg’s best compositions of that or any other era, “Within Your Reach.”

Let It Be: The Mats managed to capture the experience of adolescence in these grooves––moving from the utterly sophomoric “Gary’s Got A Boner” to the tender and thoughtful examination of teen life, “Sixteen Blue.” There was room for a KISS cover (“Black Diamond”), Westerberg’s observations on the transitory nature of rebellion (“Androgynous”), and a song of love, loneliness, and frustration (“Answering Machine”).

Tim: It’s a bit of letdown for a major label debut––it doesn’t have the shock of the new that its predecessors did but it still contains some of the band’s most enduring material including “Here Comes A Regular,” “Kiss Me on the Bus” and “Left of the Dial.”

All Shook Down: One writer said this 1990 release was the sound of someone having a nervous breakdown. Westerberg wanted to call it High Tech Demo. Only one song features all four members on it, but no matter, it remains a fitting goodbye from a band that was finally growing up. You can hear Westerberg’s marriage, band, and sanity dissolve via “Bent Out of Shape,” “Nobody,” and “Someone Take the Wheel.” This also contains one of the best Mats ballads, “Sadly Beautiful,” later covered by Glen Campbell.

All For Nothing, Nothing For All: The Replacements left behind a wide range of rarities and B-sides and the second disc of this 1997 compilation gathers 18 of them from the Sire years. A 2007 reissue campaign saw them tacked on to the original albums but for those who already have the original albums or who are just getting acquainted, this offers some gems including “Portland,” “Date to Church” (with Tom Waits), “Another Girl, Another Planet,” and Chris Mars’ “All He Wants to Do Is Fish.” Bob Dylan was recording next door to the band during sessions for All Shook Down and Westerberg pays tribute (sort of) during the rant-like “Like a Rolling Pin.” 

Jedd Beaudoin is host/producer of the nationally syndicated program Strange Currency. He has also served as an arts reporter, a producer of A Musical Life and a founding member of the KMUW Movie Club. As a music journalist, his work has appeared in Pop Matters, Vox, No Depression and Keyboard Magazine.