The story of The Replacements, particularly the Minneapolis-based quartet’s early days as self-sabotaging punk-cum-power pop scamps, will always be marked by their collective Jekyll and Hyde personality.
Their breakthrough album, 1984’s Let It Be, featured the blinding brilliance of “Answering Machine” and the jangly “I Will Dare” alongside tossed-off silliness like “Gary’s Got A Boner” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out”. When the ’Mats arrived in New York City riding a wave of critical attention for that record, they played a not-so-secret showcase for major-label reps at CBGB’s (billed as Gary & the Boners, natch) that was, by all accounts, a drunken trainwreck of half-assed covers and even worse renditions of their originals. A few nights later, the group stormed the stage of Irving Plaza “playing what almost everyone judged to be one of the best shows of their career”, writes Bob Mehr in the liner notes for Tim (Let It Bleed Edition), an expanded reissue of The Replacements’ fourth studio album that features a remixed version of the LP, a wealth of studio outtakes, and a scorching live recording from the era.
That performance on December 14, 1984 proved to be an inflection point for the quartet. It brought The Replacements to the attention of Seymour Stein, the late impresario who ran Sire Records, who was so blown away by the set that he successfully pursued them for his label. The financial support and creative freedom this afforded them came at the perfect moment. According to bassist Tommy Stinson, the group’s principal songwriter and leader Paul Westerberg was ready to “step up our overall game. To do the thing that makes other people sound like they do to make great records that sell.” But this beefed-up version of Tim reveals that the ’Mats still had some growing pains to go through to get to that level.
After inking a contract with Sire, the group began the sessions for Tim with an unlikely supporter at the helm: Alex Chilton. The ex-Big Star leader was at the ’Mats’s ramshackle CBGB’s gig and was so intrigued by what he saw that he offered up his services as producer. Westerberg and manager Peter Jesperson, avowed fans of Chilton’s former band, leapt at the chance and booked time at Minneapolis’ Nicollet Studios for a demo session.
The experience, by all accounts, was an awkward one, with Chilton not given much chance to offer up any feedback or assistance outside of some occasional vocal harmonies. The demos that came out of these early, all of which are included in this set, evince that unsteadiness.
Take the band’s many attempts to come away with a workable version of future classic “Can’t Hardly Wait”. The second disc of this set has four different takes of the song, including a lovely rendition that features Westerberg, playing acoustic guitar, joined by cellist Michelle Kinney, a Twin Cities musician who was working as the studio’s receptionist at the time. Fascinating as it is to hear them try to knock the song into shape, the band’s shaggy attempts undercut the obvious greatness that Westerberg had achieved. Leaving it for the follow-up, 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me, also gave the songwriter time to polish the lyrics, leaving behind a forgettable opening couplet (“I’ll be there in an hour/Take at least two weeks there on foot”) and other throwaway lines.
When it came time to record the album properly, Chilton was left out of the running of potential producers with the band and their team opting for Tommy Erdelyi, aka original Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone. A fine fit for the project, he strained at times to rein the band in here and there. The original take of “Kiss Me On The Bus” is bog standard pub-punk, but with some yanking by the producer, it became a jangle pop wonder. The real struggles arrived when it came time to mix the music for release. Bassist Tommy Stinson insists that Erdelyi did most of the work using headphones rather than listening through monitor speakers, which may explain the somewhat pinched and hazy feel of the original release of Tim (Erdelyi denies those claims). A remastered version of the album included in this set does clear things up, but the new mix by much-respected studio wizard Ed Stasium elevates the music considerably. The muddiness has been completely wiped away, bringing a remarkable clarity of the playing of Westerberg and Bob Stinson. The slide guitar melody on the blistering “Lay It Down Clown” is nicely foregrounded, as are the nasty solos that Stinson laid down for the glitter stomp of “Dose Of Thunder”. Chris Mars is also pulled out of the murk with his drums brought sonically in line with the muscular tromp of his work on Let It Be and Hootenanny.
The sessions for Tim were also notable for the ways in which Bob Stinson was becoming dissociated with the band that he helped start in the late ’70s. His addictions to drugs and alcohol were only becoming more debilitating and, at the same time, he was becoming less inspired by the songs he heard Westerberg writing. His absence for much of the recording of this album, according to his younger brother Tommy, meant that there are several tracks on the finished LP that don’t include Bob at all. He would eventually be forced out of the band or quit, depending on whom you ask, but he was there as The Replacements began the work of promoting Tim following its release in the fall of 1985. He was on camera with the boys during their now-legendary appearance of Saturday Night Live and he was onstage with the group a few weeks earlier when the band played at the Cabaret Metro in Chicago – a performance captured on tape by the ‘Mats’s sound engineer Monty Lee Wilkes. This previously unreleased recording finds The Replacements at their best. Though it begins in media res as Wilkes was late to start the tape after the band had already kicked off the evening with “Gary’s Got A Boner”. But from there the train doesn’t stop, with the quartet running through song after song from their already sizable catalogue with almost no breaks to tune or catch their breath. Even the covers they threw into the setlist – The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”, Sham 69’s “Borstal Breakout”, Billy Bremner’s “Trouble Boys” – are presented with reverence and fire.
Heard in the context of The Replacements’ full history, this live recording is also further evidence of where the band was headed and the sacrifice they made to get there. The beginning of the set is marked by the more controlled, pop-centric material that was already part of their collective vocabulary but soon became their focus. The spikier, punkier stuff is mostly reserved for the adrenalised rush of the second half. Bob Stinson soars through it all, giving a Ron Wood/Wilko Johnson-esque spark to even the mid-tempo “Little Mascara”. The ’Mats had to cut the guitarist loose in order for the band to survive and continue to flourish across three more albums; but this deluxe set showcases the vital rush and wildness that Stinson brought to the band for the last time.