I’ll admit to not knowing what is and isn’t Americana. If I thought it was cowboy boots and Southern charm, I’d not be here. What I think of as Americana is more than that, and you know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, so it’s a subjective thing. Given that, when the editor threatened to burn my collection of Grandaddy fanzines if I didn’t contribute a piece for “R” I was at a bit of a loss. Rodan? Really? Rocket from the Crypt? Rock on! They wore leathers and had quiffs, looked like a greaser gang and played amped up rock n roll. What’s more American than that? Hmmm, but they were way more punk and underground. The Replacements, though. They had something more. They influenced a lot of what is widely seen as Americana. Take Ryan Adams and his dummy spitting with Paul Westerburg some years ago, for example.
The Replacements, then. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? Self-destructive punks? Dissolute power trash? Self-sabotaged ne’er-do-wells who could have had it all? Yep, all of that but they had Paul Westerburg, so pogo on that. Starting with their raucous 1981 debut ‘Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash’ which drew from punk, but even then Westerberg was way too skilled a songwriter to just lump a few chords together, showing his chops early, splicing punk like The Damned and The Clash, with The Stones, Big Star and American giants of the era like Aerosmith and Tom Petty, so they never really belonged to punk, despite their hardcore follow up EP ‘Stink’. 1983’s ‘Hootenany’ was more how The Replacements would later become. Inconsistent and ramshackle, it was also confident, varied and brilliantly sloppy. 1984’s ‘Let It Be’ would be their last release on an independent label and oh man, that is the one. Wildly eclectic, Peter Buck appearing on ‘I Will Dare,’ an irony-free cover of Kiss’ ‘Black Diamond’ and the emotional and intellectual space between ‘Androgynous’ and ‘Gary’s Got A Boner’ defining them in many ways, and that’s before the raw open-heartedness of ‘Answering Machine.’ It all contributed to a near-perfect LP after which they went major label with 1985’s ‘Tim.’ With a cleaner sound than ‘Let It Be’ but still rough enough to keep The Replacements’ sound, and has some of their best-known songs, ‘Left Of The Dial’ and ‘Bastards Of Young’ for example. Sadly, the extra money exacerbated the things that made them so much fun. Booze and, drugs led to more self-destructive behaviour which looking back, was one of the things that gave The Replacements their charm, albeit a nihilistic one.
It was all change after ‘Tim’ with lead guitarist Bob Stinson leaving, his dissolute ways too much even for The Replacements who became a trio and made ‘Pleased to Meet Me’. Stinson’s leads became Westerburg’s more retrained licks and solos. The album had guest musicians coupled with some career-best songwriting by Westerburg, see ‘Alex Chilton’ which paid homage to his Big Star hero, with some vintage power-pop. Chilton even appeared on ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ later covered by Justin Townes Earl. However, the decline of The Replacements and their transformation into a Westerburg solo project was apace, though two more Replacements albums were released before the name was put out of its misery in 1991: ‘Don’t Tell A Soul’ in 1989 and ‘All Shook Down’ in 1990. The former is a surprising and underrated album. World-weary poignancy inhabits tracks like ‘Talent Show’ and ‘We’ll Inherit the Earth.’ While the empty and vague ‘All Shook Down’ is a solo album in all but name, typically for Westerburg, coming out at a time when The Replacements were being talked about by many as an influence while Minneapolis contemporaries like Bob Mould (Sugar) and Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) were having huge success. Westerburg went on to have a patchy solo career, never matching the heights of The Replacements, reforming the band for some shows in 2014 and 2015 but old tensions prevented anything further happening, which is entirely apposite given their history. Simply one of the greatest rock n roll bands of the 80s.
The canon: 7 studio albums, two live albums, six compilation albums, four extended plays, 16 singles
Key releases: ‘Let It Be’ ‘Tim‘
Recommended reading: Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements. Bob Mehr.