#Replacements on my mind // the once bashful Tommy Stinson

Happy Sunday, reading people. Twitter’s abuzz with the enthusiasm over last night’s show by The Replacements – their first in 23 years in their hometown of Minneapolis. (Check out this lovely review, by Andrea Swensson, and don’t miss the fabulous photos beneath by Nate Ryan/MPR– here’s a teaser.)

tommy

I picked up Tim based on a single review, and then converted dozens of friends to its virtues, with little proselytizing. In the summer of 1987, we drove through the valley heat into SF for their performance at Fillmore and, just before the end (spring 1990, I figure) at the campus gym at UC Santa Barbara. They were great, drunk, and ever-satisfying, and in the pic for Musician magazine, taken from the back of the stage, you can see my head just beyond Paul’s knee.

My favorite memory, though, of Mats live was at Slim’s in SF, when the Tommy-led Bash & Pop appeared in 1994 (or so). I figured the name “Bash & Pop” echoed the punk ethos of getting our noise on the radio. While their debut LP, Friday Night is Killing Me, was uneven, there were a handful of gems there, and how I wish I could find that damn CD. (Timmay, do you still have it?)

Upon taking the stage, though, I realized that echo was rather distant. Rather than the “I-don’t-give-a-toss” indifference Johnny Rotten perverted from Iggy Pop, T. Stinson entered the limelight as a frontman reluctantly: much more bashful than bashing, and we were old enough in mid-twenties to appreciate the desire for affection–“never disappointed by a show of hands,” in the words of Game Theory, and why should they be? “Never Aim to Please” was a song inspired by the past, but was fully reckoned with on stage. Fun times.

Holy cow, is that a non-punk fade-out at the cadence. Maturity, like death & taxes, is inevitable, to some degree.

I’m on the radio for the first time in six years Thursdays this fall, 1700-1800, EDT, @ http://www.wobc.org/, with my show, “The Spirit of ’77.” There’ll be some punk, and oodles of fun (and errors, I’m sure. Bear with me.) I’ll check @stealingclash this week if you have any requests. Have a fantastically rockin’ week!

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post-punk gems, v. 38 — The Replacements’ “Black Diamond”

Thanks for taking a moment on post-punk gem day to check out my latest musings. Since folks found my claims about punk covers intriguing (thank you!), I’ll stick with this theme today, and to the twin cities, home of two of the key (post-) punk bands in the US–Husker Du and The Replacements.

I’ve spilled quite a bit of virtual ink on the ‘Mats before (see here, here, and here) and, in checking out their first few LPs, I thought I’d find a cover before “Black Diamond,” originally a Kiss tune, of course, on their 4th effort, *Let It Be.* But that’s not the case. These guys were dedicated to original compositions, even if their stage performance was anything but composed.

That gorgeous opening rhythm guitar, all echo-y and stark, then Paul’s vocals, and drummer Chris Mars sets the tempo and bam: that big guitar crunch from Bob Stinson. Oh, fun stuff, and it stands up well over time.

If The Replacements represented the shambly and shambolic side of DIY, Husker Du were the consummate professionals, with real aspirations to make good (and good money). Their cover of The Byrds’ classic “Eight Miles High” gets a good write-up in Michael Azerrad’s *This Band Could Be Your Life,* which is a key chronicle of the DIY punk spirit between American shores. If you haven’t had your coffee yet, you might want to wait to cue up this gorgeous bit of dissonance.

I’m really delighted that you stopped at my minor outpost here on the world wide web, and hope to see you again on Sunday. Enjoy the week!

On the virtues of Clash dynamics — input by Bangs, Christgau, and the hilarity of Killer Tracks

Happy Sunday, folks! I’m going with a new look for the blog for a spell, which I like for the colors (yeah!) but less so for smaller images (hmm). This past Friday, I received a lovely letter from the inimitable Ms. Pennie Smith, of greatest rock photograph ever fame (and there’s plenty more in her oeuvre worthy of celebration), in which she offered a few kind words about the book, so that was definitely the highlight of the week.

Killer Tracks   Browse Catalog

A distant second or third was the discovery of Killer Tracks, which is this amazing web site for you commercial directors, as well as pop aficionados who appreciate the codes of popular music and, first and foremost, those musicians who sublimely transgress those codes. (I figure if you’re reading this page, you have a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about.) Killer Tracks, as noted on the About page, “is a leading provider of production music for use in film, television, advertising and interactive media.” There’s a host of fun tracks here, from the “Sports: Dramatic 2” page, which promises “Powerful, dramatic sports tracks with orchestra, drums and guitars.”

Sports: Dramatic 2

The translation: the music you want to accompany receivers scoring touchdowns, linebackers laying bone-rattling hits on less evasive receivers, and the occasional postering via a slam dunk. No strikers on a breakaway or keepers making a diving save need apply. Likewise, on the basketball page, you can find on disc NM308, track 1: “heart of a champion,” which promises “punchy low strings, synth bass and a driving programmed beat with orchestral percussion provide the foundation for a sweeping high strings, brass, and choir melody. Let the games begin!” Boy I’d love to land a job writing this copy. I wonder if she’s the same gal (or guy) behind the inspirational prose on bags of Bear Naked Granola. Once you tune in, you realize you’ve heard it hundreds of times before, and the listening experience speaks to the banality of “canned music,” and to our appreciation of the contrarian sublime.

… which brings us, of course, to the virtues of The Clash. For this note, I want to observe in part Martin Mull’s edict on how “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”–a quote widely attributed to Elvis Costello, Laurie Anderson, and others). The proof of course is in the creme caramel, but let us imagine that words can help us understand how “London Calling,” or “White Man in Hamersmith Palais,” or “Radio Clash” put an extra lilt in our step. That lilt is closely connected to the force behind The Clash that led Robert Christgau to tell me,

“[The Clash] really figured out a way to make effective political art, which as we know is very difficult. It’s very difficult. And what do I mean by effective? I don’t mean it changed the world. I mean it was aesthetically effective.”

Stealing All Transmissions, p. 29

The politics, of course, were smart as smart gets, and even the moments in which melody was sacrificed for pedantry (see “Know Your Rights”), the convictions of the band were rarely–if ever–subject to question. (The matter of gender might be worthy of review at a later date. ) The connection here, though, between the nearly laughable codes that dictate the form and content of the tracks available at Killer Tracks and the merits of The Clash is how the Strummer-Jones(-Simonon-Headon) songwriting team never ran the risk of self-parody. Even in the darker moments, even when the UK press issued broadsides against the band with the release of *Rope* (“so do they squander their greatness”–Jon Savage; “The Clash is a dying myth”–Ian Penman: SAT, p. 45), the band could not be accused of formulaic production.

On their debut LP, the took what they wanted from the codes of punk, re-worked them as they say fit, expanded its parameters with the inclusion of “Police and Thieves,” added joy and humor to the mix and, for the subsequent LP, wrote songs in a different vein, turned over too much control to Sandy Perlman, perhaps, and produced a rock LP nearly any other band would have been delighted to claim as their own. In between, these two LPs, they produced a couple singles Lester Bangs described as “white hot little symphonies,” including “Clash City Rockers” and “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” (live below).

For the next LP, a mostly self-guided venture, they looked to the past for inspiration, imagined their future as a band busking between bah mitzvahs, and produced arguably the best LP over 60 minutes long, ever. Sandinista!, of course, has its questionable moments between gems that still glitter brightly, and Combat Rock–on the strength of “Rock the Casbah” and “Straight to Hell” alone–is worthy of selective heavy rotation on any iTunes playlist.

As Mick Jones noted, “Sandinista! is the big reaching out. I knew we were going to make a different record every time. It had to be different. I liked that with other groups like the Rolling Stones: you knew each record was going to be different. We loved the Ramones, but we didn’t want to be like them, doing the same thing” (Redemption Song, p. 302). Unlike so many punk bands, who opted for purity over, well, creativity, The Clash operated like a great white shark, fully aware that to stop moving meant certain death.

To honor the humor and brilliance of the anniversary of The Clash’s debut LP (8 April 77), I’ll be offering a series of tweets, one per track of the LP, over the course of the next two weeks. Please follow me @stealingclash to join in an example of the “dancing about architecture” discourse taken to the extreme.

Thanks again for checking in.  Have a spirited week!

parsing punk covers–and why Lester Bangs was right about James Taylor

Welcome back to W-SAT, where I’ll be spinning some punk and post-punk platters in just a few more syllables.

The boys over at Crave-online have come up with their 100 kickass songs under two minutes (it’s always boys, isn’t it, making allegedly definitive lists?), and there are plenty of tunes to celebrate here. I’m not sure how Beck’s “Cyanide Breath Mint” or anything by Soundgarden gets in above The Clash’s “White Riot,” but each her own–unless you omit The Replacements, then I’m taking issue. When half the songs on their debut LP start-n-stop within 120 seconds, they’ve earned the right.

Back in the day, amid many glorious and inglorious-ly drunken performances, The Replacements were regarded as the best cover band in the 1980s. The reputation was solidified one night when their road manager confiscated a newly recorded tape from a fan in the balcony and, after the band found the recording to be decent, sound-wise, and representative of their live shows, they released it on cassette as When the Shit Hits the Fans. Oddly enough, no one’s put the whole thing up on YouTube yet, but here’s a sample to whet your aural appetite.

The gesture of the cover, though, is more than merely indulging a few vocal fans. Once The Beatles–and, as a result, seemingly every other white band of that era–stopped offering tributes to their forebears, and started composing everything themselves, rock celebrated artistry. In turn, (white) people grew more earnest, stopped dancing, and abandoned joy altogether–i.e., they bought albums and went to concerts by Jackson Browne and James Taylor. The “singer-songwriter” appellation is not only racist, as a rule–e.g., Smokey Robinson sang and wrote songs, as did Stevie Wonder and George Clinton–but their music largely codified boredom, celebrated narcissism, and encouraged people to sit down rather than stand-up.

Punk as a great refusal p-shawed such navel-gazing, and reclaimed the joy of dancing and the glory of interpretation with fantastic and–in the case of the ‘Mats–fantastically blasphemous cover songs. As they did on so many fronts, The Sex Pistols arrived early, and helped ensure successive generations would offer The Modern Lovers their due.

The Clash followed suit, in part, with more earnest adulation for their Black Atlantic musical forebears. (Check out the brilliance of Topper herein.)

The Ramones, too, were a helluva cover band, and Joey is so adorable live in their version of The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird”:

I don’t know how The Slits have so effectively escaped their due attention in punk annals, so let me make another nod in their direction, via their cover of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Before Chrissie Hynde offered the greatest act of fandom-devotion to Ray Davies by having his baby, she offered a brilliant cover of The Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing.”

Right around that time, The (English) Beat took stock of their influences and dialed up a lovely cover of a late 60s by Smokey Robinson, in a time when even the best bands had to lip-synch through TV appearances.

Their comrades from Coventry also dialed up some brilliant covers–including this double-time tribute to Toots and the Maytals:

I’ll wrap up with one of the more poignant tracks, in which one of the shabbiest bands pays tithe to true masters of rock artifice:

If spring’s arrived in your neck of the woods, please send a bit of it to your brethren here in the midwest. Have yourself a week rich with melody and delight.

my favorite US rocknroll rebels, pt. III

Thanks again for tuning in, and while it’s short of an obsession, I’m still thinking about Color Me Obsessed. It has plenty of moments for Mat-fanatics and, with a more judicious edit, might have had the capacity to convert a few more nonbelievers. (The bespectacled guy on the couch (80-85 min.) who spoke with his hands: whoa.) Still, there’s nothing else like it, and the origin myth (truth?) was quite good. The Stinsons and Mars bang out a joyful noise in the former’s basement, and Paul-the-janitor eavesdrops, endears himself to the band, and chaos and beauty and pain and joy soon follow. It’s stories like this one and that of The Minutemen (We Jam Econo is awesome–check NetFlix streaming, too) that should inspire someone to recast the theory of intelligent design around the history of rocknroll. Could it really all be happenstance?

Obsessed provides a capable back-drop of music history, indicating which LPs, in terms of sales figures, served as the benchmarks during that era — Thriller and Slippery When Wet, among them. As you may know, Replacements ouevre includes  seven albums, The Shit Hits the Fans (a limited edition concert cassette), and the Stink EP, whose first pressings included LP jackets were decorated with hand-carved potato stamps. DIY, indeed. As I noted in the previous post about which efforts still rate:  Sorry Ma … has a smattering of fine moments, and Let It Be and after represents a remarkable run by a remarkable band. In those seven years (The Mick-Jones Clash lasted that long), they released four brilliant albums and another with brilliant moments, including their one “hit” single, “I’ll Be You.” This video opens with Westerberg talking about “the goop” poured into the mix of Don’t Tell a Soul, which proved much too slick for Mats-fanatics, then and now, as many interview subjects attested to. (Just for Mats’ fanatics: a Soul press kit for $20 shipped! Only one in stock, of course.)

One of the finest moments in Obsessed is the camera time of Matt Wallace, who produced Don’t Tell a Soul (1989), their penultimate LP, and his explanation of what happened to that album. Sire/Warner provided the tapes produced by Wallace and the Mats to Chris Lord-Alge, whose Midas touch had graced LPs by Chaka Khan, Tina Turner, Carly Simon and Springsteen’s slickest tracks from Born in the USA (“Dancing,” “Cover Me,” and the title track). The key treatment employed here is called “chorusing,” in which a given track–e.g., Westerberg’s slighty-out-of-tune guitar–is duplicated, pitched slightly up, down, or both, and multi-tracked to produce that “shimmering sound” that is scarce to non-existent on the early LPs. The self-identified authentic Mats’ fans decry this development on film, and some indicate proudly how they opted out after Tim (hardly a sell-out album). I wager the directors sniffed out such (largely-white-male) nonsense in advance, and luckily found fans able to praise Soul, including a woman who testifies that if the shimmering sound got The Mats on the radio (verdict: yes), it was an ultimately good thing.

Westerberg knew all-too-well the politics of the authenticity police, and spoke eloquently circa 1988 about the risks of refusing to grow dynamically: you ran the risk of becoming a self-parody. Now Westerberg didn’t name names–and it pains me to write this, for I still love them dearly (okay maybe Johnny less so)–but I can’t help but wonder if he had The Ramones in mind. (Between 1982 and 1987, I have reason to believe The Ramones played the same set list hundreds of times.)

The finest bit in the film comes at the 85th minute, when Elaine Pan, “fan,” who looks to be in her early 30s, nearly goes to tears recalling the impact of the songs on her adolescence. The memories, still raw, arrest the words, but they pour forth haltingly in her testimony on the lessons in the gospel according to Paul: “It’s okay to not be perfect, it’s okay to be the loser, and it’s okay just to be yourself.” It’s a rich, chilling moment, and anyone still harboring resentment against Paul, Tommy, and Chris for carrying on without Bob in “Bob’s band” will be hard-pressed not to let it go, forever, once they see this clip.

So check out Color Me Obsessed, or get a copy for your Mats-devoted comrades.

my favorite US rocknroll rebels, pt. II

Thanks for checking out more of my musings on a handful of bands–and writers–that truly matter. I’m thinking today about Rob Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, which is quite smart, and organizes each wide-ranging chapter around a specific song. In one of the smartest bits I’ve read about Paul McCartney, he suggests that he and his mates’ fandom for Sir Paul entailed considerably more danger than their devotion to Keith Richards, for example. Yes, Mr. R. needed the occasional blood transfusion to keep his parts in order, but Rob remained confident that he and his mates were never at risk of adopting Mr. Richards’ more dissolute habits. McCartney, though, through his devotion to Linda, was capable of making some terrible songs, and was apparently undaunted by how terrible they were–proving how blind love can be. That condition, Sheffield figures, was fully in reach, and that inspired in his friends and himself a real sense of terror.

Like so many good things in the eighties, The Replacements came late to Stockton. Based upon two record reviews and my catching “Bastards of Young” once, maybe twice, on the radio, I purchased Tim (1985) just after its release. (On the same trip to Tower Records, I also picked up Husker Du’s Candy Apple Grey (1985)–both on vinyl, of course.) Up to that point, few bands represented desire writ large quite like Duran Duran. The clothes, the hair, the voice, the bass lines—and the videos! This band and their handlers knew what to do with MtV, Night Flight, and other video programs, and they had some great pop tunes, too. Still, in terms of my adolescence, Duran Duran was my Keith Richards. I had little chance of cavorting with models on schooners, or of chasing them through the rain forest, or of photographing them in the boxing ring (!?!). Enter The Replacements.

After viewing Color Me Obsessed, I was in touch with an English ex-pat now residing in San Diego who missed the flannel wave of the early to mid-1980s. I wondered how those records would stand up to initial listenings, and steered him to Let It Be, Tim, and All Shook Down. (Have you heard the remastered versions of these albums? Are they a real improvement? I’d love to know.) I then cued up Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash (1981), and the opening a capella line of “Customer”–“I’minlovewithagirlbutI’mnothingbutacustomer!”–and realized that Paul Westerberg was my Paul McCartney: Westerberg’s rendition of the “Hello-I-love-you-won’t-you-tell-me-your-name” variety of adolescent desire, along with the raucous accompaniment by Mars, Stinson, and Stinson, allowed me to make sense of those tumultuous years.  (The bookend to “Customer” was Tim’sKiss Me on the Bus”–“On the bus, that’s where we’re ridin’ / On the bus, O.K., don’t say hi, then”–and, in the ensuing years, these tunes inspired the fortitude I deployed to make the acquaintances of a cashier and two fellow Muni riders.) If The Clash set the bar for making aesthetically effective and politically effective music, few bands could touch The Replacements on the topics of adolescent (male) desire, power, and everyday life.

In the next post, I will get back to the documentary itself, which–like The Replacements–is endearing with a hint of sloppiness.

my favorite US rocknroll rebels, pt. 1

Thanks for checking out my blog. I hope your new year’s off to a gloriously rockin’ beginning.

One of my comrades from the old Black Market Clash site referred me to the new documentary on The Replacements, Color Me Obsessed. If you can handle 140 interviews mashed into 2 hours, and you like your film auteur-stylin’, then definitely give it a look–or, if you too believe that The Replacements were one of the most joyful noise-pop bands of the previous century, then you’ve got to check it out.

I streamed the first hour via YouTube through my blu-ray player last night, and it looked and sounded just fine. There were a few “oh yeah” gems, as different tales jogged my memory, and I especially dug the recollections of the widow (ex-wife?) of Bob Stinson (RIP), which offered a bit more complexity to the usual tales of debauchery. It was also nice to hear more about Paul’s influences (Roger Miller among them, due to “the wordplay”), and that the band had Robyn Hitchcock’s I Often Dream of Trains in heavy rotation while they were on the road in 1984.

Interview subjects trotted out the usual essentialist malarkey — “they didn’t make a decent album after Let It Be,” etc. — but their memories were still charged with genuine enthusiasm and, like The Clash, their fans were fanatic. I’m still on the lookout for someone who had a moderate interest in either band. They seem few and far between.

I’ll say a few more words about the Mats once I finish watching the second half of the film. For now, I’ll offer the following argument:

In terms of US bands:

The Replacements embodied the spirit of The Sex Pistols,
and Public Enemy embodied the spirit of The Clash.