The Replacements were born to lose. They were too ugly, too snotty, and too punky to break into the mainstream. They were from a town too far away from America’s musical or cultural epicentres to get noticed. Even when a certain Purple-loving singer brought the rest of the world into the vibrant and bustling scene of The Twin Cities, The Replacements were the scourge of the lace-and-makeup New Romantic crowd. They were the jokesters throwing bottles of piss at the scores of people lined up in front of First Avenue, and most of their shows happened in the building’s smaller than 7th Street Entry stage.
Even in terms of major influential punk bands from Minnesota, The Replacements still couldn’t find their way to the top. Stuck in a constant, mostly friendly but occasionally contested, rivalry with fellow punks Husker Du, the ‘Mats were trading milestones with the Du at every step: who would play the biggest shows, who would get signed to a major label first, who was evolving their songwriting the fastest, who gets major credit for helping shape alternative rock?
The band’s 1985 album, Tim, was their chance to prove their place in the greater rock world. Recently signed to Warner subsidiary Sire Records (Warner Bros. scooped up Husker Du a year later), the band’s sonic style had evolved past the breakneck speeds and barebones squeal of early songs like ‘God Damn Job’ and ‘I Bought a Headache’ to something altogether new. Singer Paul Westerberg was guiding the band closer to melody and pop arranging while still retaining the ferocious power of guitarist Bob Stinson. Songs like ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’, ‘Waitress in the Sky’ and ‘Swingin Party’ showed off a band that, while not wholly mature, were lightyears away from ‘Gary’s Got a Boner’ and ‘Fuck School’.
But there’s an essential element that you need to know about The Replacements, one that’s both foundational to their appeal and directly responsible for their lack of success up to this point: they’re screw-ups. That’s the nicest way to put it. The not-so-nice way is to say that The Replacements were a bunch of degenerate drunks and drug addicts who self-sabotaged themselves at every moment possible. Armed with the best songs of their career and a major label promotional push, the band could finally see the prosperity that had been eluding them for years — and in true Replacements fashion, they fucked it all up.
‘Bastards of Young’ is the band’s statement of intent. If they were on a TV show, this would be their theme song. Bringing the best aspects of Westerberg’s “smartest dumb guy in the room” songwriting persona to the fore, the music works equally well as an autobiographical portrait or as a greater summation of the group’s burned out, folly-filled generation. “God what a mess/On your ladder of success/Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung.”
Westerberg claims that his sister absconding to New York City in search of an acting career was the impetus for his lyrics that long for escape, recognition, and identity: “Dreams unfulfilled/Graduate unskilled.” The Replacements didn’t have a single driver’s license between them, with bassist Tommy Stinson coming on board at the tender age of 12 due to his brother wanting to keep him off the street. The loserdom wasn’t a front: it permeated every aspect of the band’s ethos.
Westerberg brings his signature sardonic worldview to every last line of ‘Bastards of Young’, whether they be personal stories, like his mother giving birth to him on New Year’s Eve 1959 to take advantage of a government tax break, or burying the ideals and sacred cows of the past: “Elvis in the ground, no way he’ll be here tonight.” His generation of peers don’t worship any idols, and they’ve been abandoned by the older figureheads and left without any proper precursors. They’re bastards and proud of it.
Westerberg brings it all to a head with the song’s final verse, leaving any sugarcoating at the door: “The ones love us best/Are the ones we’ll lay to rest/And visit their graves on holidays at best/The ones love us least/Are the ones we’ll die to please.” Over a furious flurry of fills from drummer Chris Mars, Westerberg gives his final instructions on what these kids should do with the world they’ve been saddled with: “Take it; it’s yours.”
With its shout-along chorus and total summation of The Replacements experience, ‘Bastards of Young’ was set to catapult the band out of poverty and obscurity. They even had their big break all lined up: an appearance on Season 11 of Saturday Night Live. The big bright world of show business stardom was calling. But when it came to The Replacements, all the right pieces lining up was a bad omen. Those pieces ended up being a set of dominos that only took a single push to knock everything down again.
When The ‘Mats arrived in New York, they were antsy. There were strict provisions to avoid any blowups, but keeping the band contained was a Sisyphean task. Eventually, they squirmed their way out of the dressing room they were confined to and managed to get their hands on some booze. By the time the show was about to start, the members had been drinking with host Harry Dean Stanton for an extended period.
When they were called on to perform ‘Bastards of Young’, the band were already falling over themselves. The performance is charmingly shambolic, with Westerberg occasionally wandering away from the mic mid-vocal and the studio’s house engineer struggling to balance the band’s punishing volume. Westerberg was worried that the elder Stinson brother might miss his cue for the guitar solo, so his solution was simple: he yelled, “Come on, fucker!” right at him. The only problem was that the profanity was caught on mic and broadcast to live television.
The Replacements managed to stumble over an even more chaotic version of ‘Kiss Me On The Bus’, filled with ad-libs and false starts and switched clothes before Bob Stinson concluded the song by tossing the guitar he borrowed from SNL Band leader G. E. Smith behind him. As it crashed to the ground in a wall of distortion and feedback, the band tumbled off stage, burning every last shred of goodwill that they might have had.
Lorne Michaels, furious with the drunken antics of the group and banned them permanently from Saturday Night Live. The broadcast could have made them the Rolling Stones of the ’80s: loud, dangerous, and debaucherous. But the show had low ratings at the time, and the only tangible effect the promotional performance had was to discourage any other major show from having this gang of miscreants. The Replacements had ruined their golden opportunity, to the surprise of very few.
The escalating intoxication of Bob Stinson, which wreaked havoc on his already fragile mental state, led to his firing from the band a few months after their SNL appearance. The band recorded their next album, Pleased to Meet Me, as a trio before recruiting guitarist Slim Dunlap. Even as they edged closer and closer to mainstream sounds, and even as the alternative rock explosion that they pioneered began to permeate popular music, The Replacements never achieved commercial success. They would have to settle for critical adulation, cult status, and high-grossing reunion tours in the subsequent years following their flameout.
The band’s initial lineup of Westerberg, Mars, and the Stinson’s was always combustible, but they managed to hold it together for long enough to record some legendary music. Let It Be and Tim were the perfect midway points between the band’s punk roots and their more mature future, with Westerberg perfecting his singular songwriting talents without sacrificing the edge and playfulness of their past. The Replacements could be sloppy, stupid, intolerable, frustrating, debased, and depraved, but they could also be powerful, intelligent, inspiring, rakish, and thoroughly engrossing. It all came together on ‘Bastards of Young’, and it was never as good before or afterwards.