Bastards of Young
The music business is tricky. Sometimes a band can come around with what seems to be the right sound at the right time and still find success elusive. Just ask the Replacements. Six years after forming in 1979, the band members — Paul Westerberg, Bob and Tommy Stinson, and Chris Mars — seemed to have the world within their grasp. The cult following built by 1984’s Hootenanny and 1985’s Let It Be had earned the Replacements a major-label contract with Sire. With a major’s marketing team to promote them, and a generation of disaffected, Reagan-hating youths as a potential fan base for their angst-ridden sound, the members went into the studio with former Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi and made the album of their lives. With its raucous anthems and anti-establishment attitude, Tim should have made them millionaires. But things don’t always go according to plan. What should have been the band’s crowning glory will instead be remembered as the group’s tragic pinnacle, with the fallout of its commercial failure ultimately leading to the Replacement’s downfall.
“God, what a mess on the ladder of success/ You take one step and miss the whole first rung.”
When it was released, Tim, like previous Replacements efforts, received near-universal critical approval. Unfortunately for the band, this didn’t translate into sales: The album would only enjoy a seven-week stay on the Billboard Top 200, and it peaked at a disappointing 183. It’s anyone’s guess why Tim never caught on with the mainstream public, and all the speculation in the world won’t produce an answer. The band’s self-destructive nature certainly didn’t do it any favors, but to simplify the cause in such a way is ridiculous. Sure, the band’s sloppy performance on Saturday Night Live was underwhelming, but so was Nirvana’s a few years later. The Replacements didn’t release a marketable music video for Tim, but neither has Pearl Jam in years, even during MTV’s zenith.
The one thing we can be sure of is that the problem wasn’t a lack of quality songs. Tim showcases Westerberg at his creative best. From a call-to-arms for the estranged in “Bastards of Young,” to the hormonal “Kiss Me on the Bus” to weepy ballads such as “Here Comes a Regular” or “Swingin’ Party,” Westerberg didn’t just capture what it was like to be young in the ’80s, he touched on universal truths of youth in a way that transcends generations. The masses might not have caught on, but for those who did, Tim remains vital, withstanding the test of time like few other albums from that period. At the time, though, the lack of a commercial breakthrough was all that mattered.
“The ones who love us least are the ones we’ll die to please”
The details of what happened next in the band’s history are murky at best, varying greatly depending on whom you ask. What we do know is that guitarist Bob Stinson left the group after a two-night stint at the Ritz in New York City in May of 1986. Whether he was thrown out for the way his alleged alcohol problems had destroyed his skills or he left voluntarily due to creative tension is a moot point. What matters is this: Stinson was gone, and with him went much of the band’s edge. Whether it was a willful decision on the part of the remaining band members or due to the prodding of a label that wanted a return on its investment, the band decided it was time to change the formula.
What followed — Pleased to Meet Me (1987) and Don’t Tell A Soul (1989) — was progressively more polished, radio-friendly rock, lacking the uncompromising attitude that made up much of the band’s appeal in the first place. If this shift gained them any fans, it ultimately lost them just as many; the album sales for these efforts weren’t significantly better. At this point, the band members could see they had no commercial viability, and Westerberg had divested himself emotionally from the band. The final Replacements album, All Shook Down (1991), was hardly a group effort, with Westerberg assuming complete creative control. Guest musicians were employed, and the album was more of a singer/songwriter affair, hinting at what was to come with Westerberg’s solo career. The group disbanded later that year.
It’s hard to think of the Replacement’s post-Tim and not wonder, What If? Would Stinson have remained if the album had been a breakthrough? If the band hadn’t become so fixated with the idea of mainstream success, how many other classic albums could we have been treated to? We’ll never know the answers, but maybe the premature death of a group with untold potential will serve as a warning to bands today and in the future: Measure success on your own terms, and never compromise for anyone.
*Noteworthy for more than their sound, Prefix considers these records essential to a complete collection.