In the late eighties, just as The Replacements were starting to disband, an interviewer asked frontman Paul Westerberg about the band’s reputation as a live act. “It seems like you guys just can’t win!” said the interviewer, referring to the often drunken, shambling live performances of the ‘Mats who played rocked-out versions of seventies pop and buzzed through their own songs while falling down and off-key.
Quoth Westerberg: “Our basic problem is that the people who love our slower, quiet songs are the ones who hide in the back, and the ones up front tend to like the loud, raucous stuff. And we don’t lie, we tend to play that, but the ones we really like are the ones that are too afraid to come up front and say hello.”
Let It Be, considered by many to be The Replacements’ mangum opus, tackled that problem. Released in 1984, their third full-length album (and fourth release, including the Stink EP) sounds like what you’d get if you put John Lennon, Alex Chilton, all the John Hughes movies, the Sex Pistols, a 24-pack of beer and Jack Kerouac in a blender and turned it on. Shamelessly indulgent in whatever the hell they wanted to be indulgent in, The ‘Mats shuffled through three-chord punk rock, jazzy motifs, drunken filler and beautiful confessionals while keeping their listeners following it all fixedly the whole way through.
After their punk debut, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, where Westerberg confessed “I ain’t got no idols, I ain’t got much taste/I’m shiftless when I’m idle, and I’ve got time to waste,” The Replacements had no direction home, a great band with something to say that put out a cheerful mess of an album called Hootenanny in 1983, tossing off most of the songs within one take.
Or so it would seem to the casual listener. Even though The Replacements were certainly aimless (in personality and music), they worked from the heart (yeah, that sounds like a cliché, but if mediocre singer-songwriters hadn’t been lavished with that so much, the term might actually have meaning). Within a Replacements album was not just music but an entire personality of a group of bratty-but-sensitive, all-American friends who got drunk frequently and then bared their hearts out in the only thing they knew how to make a living from.
Westerberg, the lead singer, chief songwriter and rhythm guitarist, had a raggedy voice that matched the nature of his songs flawlessly. Bob Stinson, lead guitarist, played sloppily brilliant solos with raw punk aggression, making him the perfect foil for Westerberg’s songwriting. Tommy Stinson, the bassist (and Bob’s younger brother) looked the most ‘punk’ of any of these merry pranksters, with messy hair and a stage demeanor that harkened back to some of the band’s idols (Johnny Thunders being one of them). And then there was Chris Mars, the quiet drummer peering interested at the camera on the cover, confused like the rest of them but playing along with a steady beat the whole time.
These four boys from Minneapolis epitomized the American spirit of directionless, sensitive people, and Let It Be is the epitome of them.
The album cover shows them off in their typical confusion — guys who are blessed with talent, and who aren’t quite sure how, or what to do with it. That cover photo, of all four of them perched on the Stinson family’s roof in some Minneapolis suburb, is a gem — listening to the music, you get the feeling that this rooftop hang-out could have been a typical occurrence in their lives. That’s how well you get to know them.
Ultimately, though, Let It Be is timeless because it does what so few albums can — it uses a rock ‘n’ roll spirit while reminding you that there are living, breathing, sensitive people behind it all, and who know the real pain and/or joy that goes along with all the issues that less sincere artists only pretend to care about. The Replacements reminded you that you were worth it.
The Replacements — Let It Be: Track-by-track review
1. “I Will Dare”
The record opens with a sound of an intake of breath, or perhaps the sound of a sentence being finished. The Rhino reissue edits this sound out for some reason (as it does later on the count-in on “Answering Machine”), but either way the sound of a gorgeously jangly electric guitar enters, playing a joyously simple two-chord pattern.
A country-tinged bass line enters, providing the perfect hook for the lead-in to the wonderful lyrics — “How young are you? How old am I? Let’s count the rings around my eyes.” Westerberg sings with the pleasure of a guy who’s gonna give something a shot (whether it be a band or a relationship) and follow it through — they’d dare to be themselves.
Chris Mars’ drumming, which seems like nothing special even after many listens, gradually reveals itself as something even more charming. After every two phrases in the verses, Mars hits the hi-hat quickly, just once, and the effect is wonderful. What’s more, during the chorus the original drum beat is kept up, but Mars taps quarter notes on the cymbal, very quietly.
The song just gets better as it goes along. A bit over the halfway point, a very country rock, twangy guitar solo cuts through it all with wonderful tone. It’s no surprise that that solo is played by Peter Buck, as his band R.E.M. were currently jangling everyone in America up with their first two albums.
Interesting note: Peter Buck almost ended up as the producer of the entire album, but the band’s schedules were too busy to allow that (the two groups toured together), and the chief producer of the album ended up being Peter Jesperson, the band’s manager (and Beatles fanatic; the album was titled for him).
The drums fall out for only a couple of bars while a lovely mandolin does its own solo after Buck’s. And then all falls together in the last thirty-five seconds, following a note of bass feedback from Tommy Stinson that actually is to the song’s benefit.
This is also a song that wouldn’t have been as effective if it had ended with a fade-out. Instead, Buck makes a quick, ascending arpeggio and they all strike the ending chord, satisfied… and willing to dare.
2. “Favorite Thing”
“Favorite Thing” follows, a more ‘punk’ song but a sensitive one nonetheless. The highlight of the song is Bob Stinson’s guitar lines from the right speaker, with a fast ascending line spitting out during the verses.
After every phrase of the verses, Chris Mars kind of endearingly forgoes typical drum fills that would have added nothing, and instead just hits one drum with four quarter notes, and it clinches the rhythm.
At the halfway point, the guitars fall out and only a throbbing bass line chugs along with the drums as the chorus is repeated. They do this again after a solo from Bob, while adding a four note guitar line under it this time, before carrying it off.
The chorus, by the way, is Westerberg singing (in a very direct statement), “You’re my favorite thing.” To a companion, what bigger praise is there than that?
3. “We’re Comin’ Out”
When “We’re Comin’ Out” opens, it seems to be a return to The Replacements’ original punk styles. It’s certainly the most ‘punk’ song on the album, and it seems to just be pure dumb fun… until the halfway point.
After a dissonant solo from Bob Stinson, the song abruptly slows down and a piano comes in. And then finger snaps. A guitar hits a few stray notes in the background, foreshadowing the coming explosion. Speeding up again as Chris Mars’ drums kick in, Westerberg repeats the title that results in a climactic shriek and a quick ending.
“We’re Comin’ Out” is one of those songs that you might not think much of on first listen, but then you find the chords and the jazzy interlude stick in your brain. And then you keep re-listening to it before realizing… hey, I like this!
4. “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”
Another stray punk song whose lyrics could have fit well on Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash.
Presumably written as a spoof of Tommy Stinson getting his tonsils removed, “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” contains some of Westerberg’s funniest lyrics, written from the point of view of the impatient doctor about to cause young Tommy some significant pain: “Strap him down, we’re outta gas/Stop your bawling, ya little brat/Let’s get this over with, I tee off in an hour/Didn’t wash up? Yes I did, I took a shower!”
The song is one of the band’s most ‘dumb fun’ songs (and this is a band that had plenty of them). Aside from the riff at the end that echoes the power chords, the song is pretty much all guitar and vocals, nothing special anywhere else. Fast, unbelievably simple (the guitar chords go up one tone, and then back down a tone, and that’s it) and — as mentioned — funny.
The more punk-influenced songs that precede “Androgynous” make said song all the more jarring. If “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” was all in the dumb fun of the guitars and lyrics, “Androgynous” all mood, with a piano, some of Westerberg’s most touching lyrics, and a brushed drum that seems to do some tone painting; amazing how much those drums manage to convey a feeling of a late night in a pretty empty bar, smoke rising to the ceiling on a quiet night.
Lyrically, the song is directly about exactly what the title implies. And not just androgynous, but androgynous love. “Here comes Dick, he’s wearin’ a skirt/Here comes Jane, y’know she’s sportin’ a chain/Same hair, revolution/Same build, evolution/Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss?” Westerberg’s vocal melody — one of his loveliest and most melancholy — couldn’t fit the song better.
The song also manages to make all its lyrical competition look silly — Westerberg singing “Don’t get him wrong, don’t get him mad/He might be a father but he sure ain’t a dad” is infinitely more powerful than Kurt Cobain’s “I tried hard to have a father, but instead I had a dad,” sung years later. But I guess that’s beside the point.
The piano, whose actual music in the song are basically variations of only a few treble chords, has the tone of a not-entirely-in-tune instrument that might have been hanging around in a bar for years before someone bothered to bring it out with a beautiful piece of introspection. The ending, jarring at first, gains power as an abrupt ending to the tossed-off piece of genius the band had created.
6. “Black Diamond”
In the highly-recommended 33 1/3 series of books (wherein a writer and/or musician writes a whole book on one album by one artist), Colin Meloy of The Decemberists wrote in his book on Let It Be that when he first heard the album, he loved everything about it… except “Black Diamond”.
Musically, the song is pretty much a formula cover of the KISS anthem, recorded horribly and played with barely any conviction. Indeed, it might seem jarring to some that such an introspective band would slap a cover of a KISS song to close out side one of their magnum opus. So why do it?
Well, Meloy got it right. He said that over time, the album’s admitted weak spots all seem to have a special place on the album, despite the fact that you wouldn’t like to hear them isolated from the LP. Including a KISS cover was actually an excellent way of showing the band’s good personality through bad music. To have “Black Diamond” turns these four Minneapolis drunks into full-blown, interesting characters all in the space of one album — the kind of guys who like KISS, but also like to think and dream and wander and often create beauty. That’s much more effective than a bunch of wannabe-hipsters or a bunch of jock fanboys who only listen to 70s hard rock in the first place.
To show that this isn’t just a load of crap, I’ll remind you of The Replacements’ infamous CBGB show in the mid-eighties. Record executives and musicians had crowded the place, having heard from word-of-mouth that the ‘Mats were one of the best ‘small’ bands in the country. Gene Simmons was even there. Of course, once the ‘Mats found out about this they played a deliberately bad set, mostly sloppy covers including… “Black Diamond”. Simmons reportedly left the club promptly.
Like Paul once sang: “I ain’t got no idols/I ain’t got much taste.”
Opening side two is the song many consider to be Westerberg’s all-time greatest song. “Unsatisfied” is a confessional acoustic which, ironically, doesn’t contain many lyrics at all from a man known for his lyrics. It’s the music and delivery of those few lines that makes it so powerful.
Opening with some broken chords on a twelve-string acoustic guitar, you wonder: where is this going? Those chords soon ascend, though, leading to a devastating lead in of a beautiful-sounding electric guitar, which masterfully starts doing its own broken chords throughout the rest, while the twelve-string plays some solid chords.
Westerberg’s vocal performance is one of his very best. One of the all-time best, in fact. As his voice soars through his few lines — “Look me in the eye, and tell me that I’m satisfied/Were you satisfied?” — his voice seems to be on the edge of breaking down completely, his near-wracked throat giving in to his sadness. The effect is startling and emotionally hard-hitting.
When people hear ‘acoustic confessional,’ they tend to think that the song is a quiet, Elliot Smith-like rumination on some distant, boring topic that no one gives a damn about, least of all the artist. Where “Unsatisfied” goes right, though, is by adding Bob Stinson’s electric guitar to blur, delay and arpeggiate in the background, and to not keep the singer quiet. Westerberg is crying out over his sadness, not humming it to himself solemnly.
Eventually, Paul finally gives in and just says it: “I’m so unsatisfied,” repeating it again and again to end the song, singing it as if by repeating it he can somehow dissuade his pain.
After all the confession, one of the most touching things about the song comes right near the end as it starts to fade out — Westerberg sings “I’m so-” before stopping mid-sentence, as if snapping back to reality, almost embarrassed by his confession. The music, however, lingers and fades away gently.
8. “Seen Your Video”
Cheering up, “Seen Your Video” is a very fun, near-instrumental track that decries the emerging popularity of the bane of the band’s existence: music videos. As their first music video they ever made, for Tim’s “Bastards of Young”, was just a shot of a speaker playing the song until someone kicks it in at the end, it’s easy to see that the band were not fans of the format. A later video, for “Alex Chilton”, just showed the guys sitting around, smoking, not doing much of anything.
“Seen your video/The phony rock ‘n’ roll/We don’t wanna know!” come the only lyrics in the last minute. Beforehand, the band charges through one of Bob Stinson’s catchiest chord progressions, while the little solos in between get increasingly dissonant as they approach the lyrics.
Note: The chord progression sounds vaguely similar to the unreleased song “Perfectly Lethal”, a lovely gem recorded for the album but not used, later appearing on the Rhino reissue (highly recommended) as a bonus track.
9. “Gary’s Got A Boner”
“Gary’s Got a Boner” is easily the dumbest, worst song on the album, but in a way it plays the same role as “Black Diamond” did (yes, even though “Black Diamond” has a melody).
Unlike even the worst Replacements songs, “Gary’s Got a Boner” is extremely forgettable. It doesn’t hang in your mind as being really awful (even though it is awful) like Tim’s “Lay It Down Clown” or Hootenanny’s title track do. It’s awful, but it doesn’t linger. I could barely remember anything about it as I began to write this review until I listened to it again.
“Gary’s Got A Boner” is a highly underrated song—it might not be that serious, but it’s fun and catchy, with great gui by Francfurter (1)
10. “Sixteen Blue”
“Sixteen Blue” couldn’t be more different from its predecessor. It’s the most delicate song on the record, a rumination on being sixteen and the sadness that pervades that year.
By the time I got around to hearing The Replacements, and this song, I was already seventeen, but I could relate completely to what Westerberg was singing of. “Brag about things you don’t understand,” he sang, truthfully.
Written as a consoling song for the sixteen-year-old Tommy Stinson (yeah, sixteen), the song’s chorus states “Your age is the hardest age/Everything drags and drags” before offering a surprisingly touching sentiment: “One day, baby, maybe help you through.”
It’s one of the band’s best moments as Westerberg’s rhythm guitar does that call-and-response interplay with Bob Stinson’s broken chords, played again with beautiful tone. A piano does an upward chordal crawl during a phrase of the chorus, the guitars never stopping their searching, yearning sadness.
For such an honest, heart-tugging song, the best part of “Sixteen Blue” is those guitars, particularly for a solo from Bob Stinson that is almost certainly his most powerful achievement with the band.
Stinson, a notorious wild-man in the band who apparently could be aggressively mean and adorably kind in the space of a minute, probably hated playing the solo; such restraint was not one of his likes (not even in the way he lived his life; he was kicked out of the band only a couple years later, and ended up dying from drugs). He was the one who objected to the approach The Replacements were making with their sensitive songs, wanting instead to play sloppy punk-influenced songs. His solos on Sorry Ma and the Stink EP were masterpieces of quick, stinging aggression and dissonance.
And yet, you get the impression during his solo that such a thing could not even have been envisioned by Westerberg, the ‘heart’ of the band. I won’t describe the solo, to let you experience it yourself, but it comes in the last fifty-five seconds of the song (there’s another instrumental interlude before that, that is even more restrained and also beautiful). To believe that this was the same drug-fueled guy who did the solo in “We’re Comin’ Out” is astonishing. For all his Eddie Van Halen-like influences, nobody could play the solo in “Sixteen Blue” like Bob Stinson. Nobody.
11. “Answering Machine”
On their two most acclaimed albums — Let It Be and Tim — The Replacements saved their most heartbreaking songs for the end of the record. On Let It Be it was “Answering Machine”, an amazingly despairing song that has a real, heavy impact on you no matter what mood you’re in.
Over a heavy series of broken chords played on electric guitar, Paul Westerberg despairs his loneliness as his companion is so, so far away. What could have been another ‘You’re so far away — I’m gonna cry now’ song instead turns into an almost unbearably sad piece of loneliness.
“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine?’ sings Westerberg, with a vocal power that could not be executed by anyone else. Later lines: “Try to free a slave of ignorance/Try to teach a whore about romance,” as the jagged guitar hammers beneath it all, on the verge of wandering off entirely. And here’s a kicker: you wait and wait for a booming drum rhythm to come in… but it doesn’t. That took balls.
Let It Be was released in 1984, when answering machines were still a new piece of technology, and the song seems to not only be a meditation on loss, but a meditation on the way technology gets involved in some of humanity’s most primal needs. Westerberg’s final audible lines of the album (before singing some words that I can’t make out but are surprisingly effective) are “I hate your answering machine,” and by the end of the song, you do too.
Something I recently noticed about The Replacements is that in their reflective, non-silly songs, Westerberg almost never says the word ‘love.’ That effect is to the band’s credit, since they understood that the phrase wasn’t something to be tossed-off like it is in songs by… oh, I dunno… KISS. In the solo home demo of “Answering Machine” that Westerberg recorded in his room (included on the Rhino reissue of the album), he sings: “How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘I love you-‘” and then stops. Not “How do you say ‘I love you’ to an answering machine?” but just “How do you say ‘I love you?'” in general. It’s a powerful moment. Westerberg tellingly never even says the word ‘love’ in the Let It Be version of the song.
The last thing you hear on the album is an automatic voice repeating the phrase “If you need help…If you need help…If you need help.” And if you listen hard enough to Westerberg’s screaming after the “I hate your answering machine” lines (where you can’t understand what he’s saying), you can hear his voice flatten out and become… mechanical. Like an answering machine.
Let It Be by The Replacements
“I Will Dare”
“We’re Comin’ Out”
“Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”
“Seen Your Video”
“Gary’s Got A Boner”