The Replacements were titans of American indie rock in the Eighties, a bunch of Minneapolis wastrels turning out shabbily tuneful songs about growing up (or refusing to), hating your job, and rock & roll itself. These well-soused guys had no use for the headstrong principles or oblique artiness of bands such as Sonic Youth or Husker Du; the fact that they seemed not to know where they were going was part of their charm. The Replacements never managed to grab the gold ring of commercial success. But like the Pixies, they're a band that's being rediscovered by new listeners and artists year after year.
The son of a Cadillac salesman, Paul Westerberg was refused his high-school diploma for the crime of skipping graduation ceremonies. After taking odd jobs as a steel-mill worker and a janitor, he formed the Impediments with drummer Chris Mars, guitarist Bob Stinson, and Stinson's 12-year-old bass-playing brother, Tommy. Inspired by Westerberg's love for the Sex Pistols, the band — renaming itself the Replacements after being banned from a club for rowdy behavior — developed a raucous if confounding stage act: Bob Stinson sometimes performed in underwear or a dress, beer fueled many performances, and the level of looseness often bordered on the tragic. Still, when they got it right, they seemed sage. With set lists that ranged from covers of radio hits by Kiss and Cher to Westerberg's piercing originals, they struck a great balance between silly and sublime.
Peter Jesperson, cofounder of Minneapolis' Twin/Tone Records, fell hard for this approach, and in 1980 they signed with the indie label. Earning a following that nicknamed them the 'Mats (for "placemats"), they put out albums that progressed from the speed-punk assault of Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash to the twang-tinged Hootenanny to the now iconic Let It Be, on which Westerberg crammed the equivalent of a half-dozen John Hughes films into thirty-three brilliant minutes, claiming Springsteenian passion and regular-dude earnestness for overgrown kids trapped in the Midwest. The album brilliantly balanced collection giddy rockers ("Gary's Got A Boner") and weepy observations ("Sixteen Blue") that suggested no one was more tuned in to pimple-faced frustrations than Westerberg.
But even their major-label signing to Sire in 1987 couldn't alter the Replacements' underdog status. While Tim reflected the band's increasingly skillful musicianship and Westerberg's stylistic range, exhaustion began setting in. Bob Stinson, forever a wildcard, was fired for excessive drinking in 1987, and Pleased to Meet Me was recorded as a trio. Guitarist Slim Dunlap joined in time for Don't Tell a Soul, which again delighted reviewers and even produced a single that cracked the Top 100 ("I'll Be You," Number 51, 1989) but sold only around 300,000 copies. The band's swan song, All Shook Down, was a Replacements record in name only; fighting what he perceived as Westerberg's dictatorial control, Mars eventually departed (Steve Foley of the Minneapolis band Things Fall Down replaced him for a subsequent tour), and the album was basically a Westerberg solo project with the other Replacements employed as occasional sidemen. Again failing to break into the mainstream, the Replacements broke up in 1991, just short of the '90s alternative explosion they helped inspire. A 1997 retrospective, the two-disc All for Nothing - Nothing for All (Number 143), gathered albums tracks, B sides, and rarities from the Sire years.
Contributing to the popular soundtrack to Singles, director Cameron Crowe's 1992 movie about the nascent Seattle music scene, Westerberg finally enjoyed a measure of success; in 1993 he released a solo debut, 14 Songs (Number 44, 1993), to mixed reviews. Eventually (#50) followed in 1996, with the introspective track "Good Day" inspired by the drug-overdose death of Bob Stinson in early 1995. After returning from a tour in '96, Westerberg was treated for depression. He left Reprise in 1997 and recorded a single and EP under the name Grandpaboy that briefly returned the singer/songwriter to an edgier, rocking sound. Westerberg then signed to Capitol for 1999's Suicaine Gratification (#104), earning his best reviews since the Replacements for more songs of intense introspection, but unspectacular sales. In the 2000s, Westerberg was quite prolific, releasing four full-length albums for indie labels like Fat Possum and Vagrant plus a solo retrospective. And in 2008, he began self-releasing online new music he'd cooked up his basement studio, the best batch of which was 49:00, available only as one continuous 49-minute track via Amazon.com for the bargain price of $0.49.
The other Replacements also put out albums whose sound didn't depart greatly from that of their former bands. Both Dunlap and Mars released critically lauded discs. Tommy Stinson formed Bash & Pop, which released Friday Night Is Killing Me on Sire in 1993. That band eventually evolved into Perfect and recorded an EP, When Squirrels Play Chicken, in 1996 for Restless Records. A follow up album was recorded, but Restless chose not to release it. Within a year, Stinson astonished 'Mats followers by joining the new lineup of Guns n' Roses. He first appeared onstage with GNR after midnight at a 2001 New Year's Eve show in Las Vegas and worked alongside Axl Rose on the band's long-delayed Chinese Democracy album, which finally came out in 2008.
Westerberg made a surprise move by writing all the songs for the 2006 animated family film Open Season. Tunes such as "Meet Me In the Meadow" and "Right To Arm To Bears," the latter featuring Stinson on bass, had the same kind of irresistible hooks that powered songs by the Replacements. Later that year, Westerberg, Stinson, Mars (on backup vocals, not drums) and session drummer Josh Freese stunned fans by recording two new songs as the Replacements for Rhino's retrospective Don't You Know Who I Think I Was? In 2009, Rhino reissued the band's entire catalog with an abundance of unreleased tracks accompanying each title. In recent years, the Replacements have continually turned down massive paydays to reunite, with Westerberg insisting that devotees would not want to see him at 50 performing songs he wrote in his early 20s.
A sense of zealotry still follows the group. In 2004 Colin Meloy of the Decemberists wrote a book on Let It Be for the respected 33 1/3 series, and All Over But the Shouting, an oral history of the band written by journalist Jim Walsh, appeared in 2007.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Jim Macnie and Jonathan Cohen contributed to this article.
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