“Do we know ‘Fox On The Run’?” Paul Westerberg asks the other Replacements, in response to a fan’s repeated shouts for the Sweet classic. On For Sale, a double live album documenting their 1986 tour, the band obligingly launch into an impromptu performance without knowing exactly where they’re going. The first verse is shaky but determined, with Paul Westerberg seemingly remembering the lyrics just seconds after they leave his mouth. The chorus, however, wobbles precariously until the entire song simply falls apart. Even after his bandmates have dropped out, bassist Tommy Stinson soldiers on, defiantly playing that bouncy riff even as Westerberg promises, “We’ll try again later.” There are shouts from the audience for “Walk Away Renee” and “September Gurls”, but the quartet barrel directly into “Hold My Life”.
Clocking in at a mere 70 seconds, “Fox on the Run” may be a trainwreck, but it’s a revealing moment on For Sale, which documents a tumultuous time in the Replacements’ career. In 1986 they were poised to break out of the underground and gatecrash the mainstream, having already graduated from the Minneapolis indie Twin/Tone to Sire. In October 1985 they had released their major label debut, Tim, produced by Tommy Erdelyi (better known as Tommy Ramone), still considered their best studio album. Their loud and drunken Saturday Night Live performance, which featured Westerberg dropping an f-bomb on live television, may have hindered their cause at the time, but it remains both a legendary television performance and a major component of the band’s continuing legacy.
For Sale was Sire Records’ attempt to showcase the band in its natural setting: the club stage rather than the television or music studio. They opted for the friendly confines of Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey, where the band had already played and developed a devoted following. According to new liner notes by Bob Mehr, author of Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, “Club owner Steve Fallon didn’t even advertise the date; by this time, The Replacements’ shows were such anticipated events that the club was teeming with fans based upon word of mouth alone.”
To record the show in such cramped confines, Sire hired a company called Effanel, which had overseen, among other live albums, U2’s Under A Blood Red Sky. In the hours before taking the stage the band partied in the club’s basement, and there was some suspense over whether the band would be focused and legible onstage or drunk and disorderly. From Westerberg’s first cries of “Murder!” on opener “Hayday,” it’s clear that the Replacements will be all of those things at once. Drummer Chris Mars performs the unglamorous feat of keeping these songs together, even as the band sprawls chaotically in front of him. Westerberg and Bob Stinson don’t strum their guitars as much as they bash and batter them. The result is a beautiful mess: lovingly crafted pop songs played with youthful punk abandon.
The Replacements are still regaled for their pimply insouciance, for the poetry of Westerberg’s lyrics, for the middle finger they flew in the face of music industry demands, and For Sale is perhaps the best document of these aspects of the band. The album’s title comes from the phrase gouged into Westerberg’s Les Paul Special, which signals the group’s semi-vandalistic aesthetic as well as their rejection of music-biz proficiency. The live setting only heightens the fidgety anticipation of “I Can’t Hardly Wait” and “I Will Dare”, the seediness of “If Only You Were Lonely”, the snottiness of “Gary’s Got A Boner” and the intense melancholy that underscores all of their songs. While they never get back around to “Fox On The Run”, the Replacements do manage to get all the way through leering covers of T. Rex’s “Baby Strange”, KISS’s “Black Diamond” and the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”. You can hear them trying harder to keep these songs together, playing them with more affection than they played their own.
Just a few months after the last notes of “Fuck School” faded, For Sale was already obsolete, documenting a band that didn’t exists anymore. While the Replacements didn’t break up, they were forced to fire first their manager Paul Jesperson and later founding guitarist Bob Stinson, Tommy’s older brother. He was eventually replaced by Slim Dunlap, although the group’s paroxysms meant For Sale got lost in the shuffle, unreleased for thirty long years (although available as one of many bootlegs from this period). Who knows how or if it would have changed the band’s fortunes in the 1986, but in 2017 it sounds like a revelation, not just a reminder of their glorious volatility but also a raggedly beautiful effort that stands alongside the Replacements’ best records. They might not have gotten through “Fox On The Run” but few bands could make such undeniable triumphs out of such abject failures; on For Sale, the ‘Mats turn rock ‘n’ roll sloppiness into something cathartic, romantic, and even noble.
The October 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring Jack White on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with Van Morrison, The National, The Dream Syndicate, Steve Winwood, Tony Visconti, The The, The Doors and Sparks. We review LCD Soundsystem, The Style Council, Chris Hillman, Hiss Golden Messenger and Frank Zappa. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Lee Renaldo, Mogwai, Wand, Chris Hillman, The Dream Syndicate, Hiss Golden Messenger and more.