The Replacements were a lot better than they wanted you to think they were.
This past October was the 25th anniversary of the best rock album you don't own. Let It Be, the third full-length record by the now long-defunct Minnesota quartet the Replacements, was released at the tail end of 1984, a miraculous year, looking back on it, in music history. That year saw the dawn of the global pop mega-star. Madonna ( Like a Virgin), Michael Jackson (John Landis' video for "Thriller" was released in December '83 and played on loop for the following calendar year), and Bruce Springsteen ( Born in the U.S.A.) gave fledgling rock 'n' roll bands a new and coherent sense of what they didn't want to be when they grew up. In a telling shift in nomenclature, something called "punk" or "post-punk" became "alternative," and one hardly had to ask "To what?" The music was aimed at a fan base tuning out MTV, dialing in to college radio, and getting its hands stamped at shows in rec centers and converted lunch halls. The trade-off was breadth of audience for intensity of devotion. In 1984 alone, in quick succession, the hungry cognoscenti got Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen, Meat Puppets II, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, the Smiths' debut album, and R.E.M.'s Reckoning.
Let It Be is arguably the finest of the lot, and also the decade. The band had a genius, though, as snowbelt drunks and self-saboteurs, for slipping into cracks of their own gratuitous making. Take their name. "Like maybe the main act doesn't show," drummer Chris Mars once wrote, "and instead the crowd has to settle for an earful of us dirtbags. It seemed to sit just right with us, accurately describing our collective 'secondary' social esteem." (Fans of the band nicknamed them the Placemats, often shortened to the 'Mats.) Take the title of the record. Paul Westerberg has said Let It Be was "our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that the Beatles were just a fine rock & roll band. We were seriously gonna call the next record Let It Bleed." Or take their live shows. One night they'd come out and absolutely kill it, the next they'd play consecutive renditions of "Hello, Dolly" until they'd cleared the room. "We barely escaped with our lives in Richmond," Westerberg's reminisces in All Over but the Shouting, a glorious new oral biography of the band. "We pulled a hootenanny on 'em and they didn't buy it at all." In Nashville, they played hard-core to a crowd of country music execs, until nobody was left but the punks. Then they played nothing but country and Western music.
This talent for mindless (or, if you think about it, really quite mindful) audience baiting didn't come from nowhere. The Replacements were four working-class kids from South Minneapolis. Being Catholic, of Scandinavian descent, and snowbound 10 months of the year produces a streak of modesty lying just this side of suicide. The 'Mats were always at pains to make their music sound tossed together, a dog's breakfast, nothing anyone without guitars, some chops, a case of Leinies, Chuck Taylors, maybe a pair of clown pants, and a complexion the color of raw cookie dough couldn't re-create in their own (parents') garage. What total rubbish. Track by track, Let It Be is a perfectly crafted collection of perfectly crafted songs. "I Will Dare," "Unsatisfied," "Favorite Things," and "Answering Machine" are actually classics—music the caliber of the Dolls and the Stooges but also the Beatles and the Stones. The idea that the title Let It Be is just a doofus lark is itself a doofus lark. For all the punk attitudinizing, Westerberg is one of nature's tunesmiths and a wildly inventive rhythm guitarist. He sets his instrument to an Open A tuning, then flat picks, often playing arpeggios with highly elaborated hammers and pulls, reaching for peculiar off-notes. This is punk rock liberated from the tyranny of the bar chord. It was so good nobody noticed. But that was the point.
Westerberg was a shy stoner who worshiped Johnny Thunders but also privately Joni Mitchell's Blue. He wrapped his sensitive side in layers of defensive posturing, one of several "lay low" strategies mastered, presumably, as a vassal in the jockocracy of Minneapolis Central High, where he was a year behind Prince. "I don't think a well-adjusted class president could have made it to play lead guitar for us," Westerberg has said. "There was not a high school diploma on that stage." Westerberg was the melody maker, but the Replacements were a band: That is, the ensemble sound of incendiary mutual antagonisms barely resolving themselves into a whole. Bob Stinson, the lead guitarist (listen to the towering solo at the end of "Sixteen Blue"), and Tommy Stinson, his younger brother and the bassist, wanted to rock relentlessly hard and fast, to compete with their Minnesota brethren, the speed/noise merchants Husker Du. They hated Paul's ballads, but that hatred only makes the balladry reverberate in its strangely cavernous way.
"It's the college rock album of all time," someone in Shouting says of Let It Be, and therein lies the rub. What do you do if, after recording a masterpiece, you're still headlining a no-I.D. show at the Regina High School auditorium? The album was put out by TwinTone, an independent label that existed for little more than the glory of its one band. Let It Be has sold 250,000 copies, a succès fou, if you look at it one way, but it didn't perform well enough at the time to lift the band out of touring in a van and playing for little more than gas money. Bob still worked a day job as a pizza chef. Tommy, meanwhile, looked like he'd ridden his banana bike to the show. He had been 12 years old—12—when the band started. He dropped out of 10th grade to tour for Let It Be. A friend of mine once said, unforgettably, that the overwhelming affect of the Replacements is homesickness. "Everybody in the band has cried in the van on the way to the show," Westerberg has said. "And Tommy did it the best once, when he was 15 or 16. He was looking out the window as we were passing some farm area, and he's going, 'That's real, that's life—a fucking house, a home where you can stay, where you live, where you wake up, where you work.' "
They signed to a division of Warner, made Tim, a rousing follow-up to Let It Be and another classic; but the salesmanship necessary to being a national act was taking its toll, though for the most perverse of reasons. They were four whey-faced dunces from Minnesota, but the masks they were asked to wear by the label made them resemble … four whey-faced dunces from Minnesota. It was like putting on an unbreathably thick layer of makeup to look like yourself; like Nixon wearing a Nixon mask. "Our managers encouraged our hijinks more than they encouraged us to straighten up and fly right," reports Westerberg.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of the Replacements by Michael Buckner/Getty Images.