It wasn’t quite as nihilistically put out as punk, so it had little credibility there. It wasn’t sweetly composed enough to connect with pop fans, either.
There was something, however, of both aesthetics in the music of the Replacements, so they never quite fit in anywhere. In that way, as Twin/Tone label employee Blake Gumprecht says in this terrific new documentary, this band could have existed 20 years before or 20 years after its 1980s heyday.
In possession of an off-handed ambition, the Replacements had a way of doing something even when it seemed like they weren’t doing anything — with the resulting epiphanies sometimes buried so deeply in the visceral sound of their music, their drinking and their violent outbursts, that they remained a riddle for drive-by fans. Religious experience, or complete garbage, any night was like that with the Replacements. You had to live with this band — and for those who did, there remains a lasting magic, as retold in Color Me Obsessed, a film focusing on the Replacements as seen through the eyes of everyone but the band members.
Written and directed by Gorman Bechard, the movie uses the voices of fans, fellow musicians, critics, record store clerks, and friends to tell their story — which, even today, feels just as messy as it is completely memorable. This is, after all, a group that put out a live set in 1985 called The Shit Hits the Fans. Hilarious, right? So often, however, it was completely true. The first Replacements show, for instance, never actually happened — because the band, then calling themselves the Impediments and still in their teens, brought liquor into a non-alcoholic club. By 1980, they had signed with Twin/Tone, their hometown of Minneapolis’ leading punk-rock imprint, but even then they struggled to find their place.
The Replacements’ first release, 1981′s hilariously titled Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash, initially sold some 2,600 copies — and to this day has only moved roughly 110,000. (Included inside is a note for one of the songs that says: “Could have been better if we’d tried harder.”) Stink, a raggedy-ass triumph recorded over just one day in 1982, would follow. The song titles are so perfect as to be apocryphal: “Fuck School,” “Dope Smokin Moron,” “God Damn Job” and the legendary “Kids Don’t Follow.” Here’s how lo-fi this was: Each cover was hand stamped, with someone pain-stakingly carving the word “stink” backwards into a halved potato, dipping the spud in ink and then pressing the album title to the front. Stink actually sold less than its predecessor, so perhaps Twin/Tone was right to cut corners.
Not until 1983′s Hootenanny did the Replacements begin to explore sounds and textures that didn’t involve bloody-knuckled riffs and hamburger-meat vocals. Not that there wasn’t plenty of that, too. But the band was starting to feel out toward the edges of its own imagination. And starting, maybe, to break out, too? Nope: This new project only sold roughly 1,000 more copies than did Sorry Ma in its original pressing. The Replacements were, it seemed, an exclusive club — destined forever to be an underground sensation, known to few, but deeply loved by those who did.
That as much as anything is conveyed by Color Me Obsessed, which includes comments from still-smitten fans like writer Robert Christgau; musicians from Husker Du, Babes in Toyland, Archers of Loaf, the Hold Steady and the Goo Goo Dolls; actors George Wendt and Tom Arnold; and a dizzying array of lesser-known folks who were there from the beginning and stayed all the way until the bitter end.
1984′s brilliantly unpolished Let It Be continued the Replacements’ intriguing maturation, pairing emotionally raw, potentially career-making moments like “I Will Dare” and “Unsatisfied” with old-school goofs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out.” They even covered Kiss, showing just how un- they actually were — un-cool, un-caring of the infrastructure of cool, brilliantly un-concerned with convention.
But even as Let It Be increased the Replacements’ profile — selling some 235,000 copies to date, attracting the notice of the rock-crit glitterati like Christgau and Bill Flanagan — the drinking seemed to worsen. Then they inevitably descended into fighting, often during the group’s performances. The Replacements had constructed their masterwork, and maybe were at long last about to make it in the music business, but there obviously were misgivings about success.
“There’s no hurricane’s eye with the Replacements,” RJ Smith of the Village Voice wrote around this time, “just four forces pulling in different directions.”
The band eventually signed a big-label deal with Sire, a division of Warner Bros., put out Tim in 1985, appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in 1986, then Pleased to Meet Me in 1987. But by then nearly all of the edges had been smoothed out, and lead guitarist Bob Stinson, who never wanted to slow the Replacements’ furious sound, was thrown out of the band.
They set about now with frontman Paul Westerberg firmly in charge, making their most polished music yet. But something had gone out of the Replacements, some essential sense of adventure. They finally were charting with Billboard, but — inspirationally, at least — seemed completely out of gas. The bigger they got, the worse things went.
In truth, the Replacements had started sounding like they gave a shit, and it didn’t suit them. Once they were cornered into playing the game, they never could recover the sense of risk and danger that powered their most connective moments.
1989′s Don’t Tell a Soul came off like a lengthy rumination, but without the anthematic songs that always provided an essential counterbalance on their earlier, better albums. 1990′s finale All Shook Down, an even more damaged requiem, only featured all of the Replacements on one track, with bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Chris Mars and second-era guitarist Slim Dunlap serving as part of a lengthy guest list elsewhere. The Replacements broke up in 1991 in perhaps the only way that they could — onstage during a performance of “Hootenanny” at Chicago’s Grant Park.
By 1995, Bob Stinson — then just 35 — was dead.