The Replacements were one of the most exciting bands to bubble up from the American underground in the Eighties. By the middle of the decade, their chaotic live shows were becoming the stuff of legend, and the band’s resident genius, singer-guitarist Paul Westerberg, was writing raggedly heartfelt songs that suggested something resembling an actual commercial breakthrough.
In 1985, the band released their major label debut, Tim, and hired an established New York management company called High Noon — in the process moving longtime manager Peter Jesperson into a murkily defined role of “band advisor.” But guitarist Bob Stinson’s drug and mental health issues were spiraling out of control, internal tensions were ripping the band apart, and their legendary tendency towards self-immolation was about rear its ugly head at exactly the wrong time — their first national TV appearance ever. When Warner Bros. Records landed them a slot as musical guest on an episode of Saturday Night Live in early 1986, their performance enraged the show’s producers and threatened to submarine the Replacements’ chance at mainstream success.
Adapted from Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr (Da Capo Press), out March 1st.
In mid-December of 1985, the Replacements wrapped up a month-long tour with two triumphant nights at Hollywood’s Roxy. The year-end accolades for Tim were starting to pour in: it would place second in the Village Voice‘s “Pazz & Jop” poll, just behind Sire labelmates Talking Heads. But the praise had done little for the album’s commercial prospects: Tim had stalled at a modest 30,000 copies after three months, failing to crack the Billboard top 200. The label needed something to kick-start sales.
In California, Westerberg and Jesperson were summoned to Burbank to meet with Warner Bros. creative director Jeff Ayeroff, who wanted to change the band’s hardline stance against making a video. Silver-haired and hulking, Ayeroff exuded a sort of Zen-hipster arrogance. He’d already overseen video campaigns for the Police’s Synchronicity and Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
“I don’t wanna hear about the fact that you don’t want to make a video,” Ayeroff said. “I want to talk about the video that you will eventually make.”
“Tell you what,” said Westerberg, without missing a beat, “you get us on Hee-Haw and I’ll lip-synch to ‘Waitress in the Sky.'”
At this, Jesperson burst out laughing. Ayeroff wasn’t amused. Nevertheless, a serious conversation began about Warner Bros. getting the band on television.
“The compromise was that we’d do live TV if they could swing it — thinking that they couldn’t,” said Westerberg. “Me and my big mouth.”
First, Ayeroff sent a letter to Saturday Night Live music booker Michele Galfas touting the group. Then the ‘Mats’ product manager, Steven Baker, and Warner A&R head Lenny Waronker pressed label chairman Mo Ostin to put in a call to the show’s creator/producer, Lorne Michaels. “Mo was the one who got them on Saturday Night Live, because he had such a strong relationship with Lorne,” said Waronker. “There was an understanding how important they could be for the company.”