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Album Histories Monthly: The Replacements – ‘Let It Be’

Welcome back to our new series on Flypaper, Album Histories Monthly, which brings you the story of a single album each month, in the month that it was originally released. Last month, we covered Blondie’s 1978 classic, Parallel Lines. This month: 

The Replacements – Let It Be

Release Date: October 2, 1984

“We were all kind of long-haired, dope-smoking teens…. We’d light a joint, and if the wind blew, your hair would singe.” – Chris Mars (drums)

Let it Be has been lauded as one of the most important American rock albums of all time. It was even recognized by critics at the time as an instant classic, getting an A+ from the “Dean of American Rock Critics,” Robert Christgau. This is a punk album dripping with Americana. It’s as absurdist as it is heartfelt. The album is punctuated with songs that make me cry, like “Unsatisfied,” and ones that make me laugh: “Gary’s Got a Boner.”

The Replacements are one of the most uniquely American bands that have ever existed. The extent of their sardonic wit, heartfelt lyrics, and punk-rock ethos all come perfectly together in the brilliant songwriting and well-executed studio performance of their watershed 1984 album Let it Be.

The origin story of the Replacements is equal parts tragic and comic. The band’s sideways lurch towards stardom is the “stuff of Russian novels” (Nelson). Paul Westerberg was the son of a Minneapolis Cadillac salesman, but he never fit the mold of a typical Minnesota boy. He refused to wear a cap and gown for graduation, so the Catholic school he attended, for troubled boys, refused to give him his diploma. He bristled when forced to move with the grain and always felt more comfortable alienating himself from his peers. The rest of the band grew up in alcoholic households that were less than hospitable.

Westerberg was walking home from from working as a janitor when he was 19 and heard a band playing out of a basement so loud they rattled the windows. He would describe them as “not bad at all,” so almost every day after work, Westerberg would walk by the same house to listen to them play; some days he’d even hide in the bushes. He was listening to Bob (guitar) and Tommy Stinson (bass) playing with their mutual friend Chris Mars on drums. Tommy was only 12 years old at the time; his older brother Bob had given him a bass to help him avoid the pitfalls of living in an abusive home.

Eventually, Mars introduced Westerberg to the band to be their lead vocalist and guitar player. When Westerberg arrived to practice, he asked, “Where is the bass player?”

“He’s sitting right there,” Bob replied gesturing towards the 12-year-old boy across the room. Westerberg would later comment that, “Tommy was so little. He came up to like half the size of his amp” (Azerrad).

Those early practices were just a good excuse to get drunk and party. They would “take a little speed,” drink, and then maybe play some songs as an afterthought. Their early shows were drunken disasters, but under the tutelage of their manager Peter Jesperson, they eventually landed a recording contract with Twin/Tone Records and recorded Let it Be.

When asked about the genesis of the band Westerberg said, “I was nervous, paranoid, and frustrated. I did my share of drugs. I didn’t know what I wanted out of life.”

Let It Be is the Replacements’ third album. Their first two, while important in their own right, were limited in scope. The songs were always great, and the production had been raw and unabashed, but Let It Be was where the band, in particular their frontman, began to draw on a wide range of disparate influences. They had artistic aspirations, whether consciously or subconsciously, beyond being simply a band of drunken roustabouts.

“To the Replacements fan who liked us in the beginning, it may not really please, but there’s certainly some good stuff on there.” – Paul Westerberg (lead vocals, guitar) commenting on Let it Be.

The first track, “I Will Dare,” immediately sets the bar high. Westerberg sings, “How young are you? How old am I? Let’s count the rings around my eyes,” against jangly, upbeat-strummed chords. The band begins to comment on youth, rather than being entrenched in it, with this album. Songwriting, not style, was emphasized. “This was the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles,” said Westerberg (Rolling Stone).

While Let It Be does contain its share of punk-rock bombast with tracks like “We’re Comin’ Out,” “Gary’s Got A Boner,” and “Seen Your Video,” the best songs and truest statements are delivered in the most staid pop formats imaginable. “Androgynous” is, in essence, a piano ballad detailing the poignant profile of “Dick” who wears a skirt and “Jane” who wears a chain. The song also contains one of my favorite comments on parenthood in a song with the line, “He may be a father but he sure ain’t a dad.” The guitar-arpeggiated “Sixteen Blue” is a Big Star homage that has more in common with the earliest manifestation of the Beatles than it does with the Buzzcocks. And then there’s the greatest punk-rock sin of them all: a cover of Kiss’ “Black Diamond” (Reiff).

The Replacements performing live at Maxwell’s in Hoboken in 1986.

“Unsatisfied,” track seven, is perhaps both the album’s and the band’s high-water mark. The song was written for an acoustic guitar, a first for Westerberg. You can hear it in the intro; the plucked guitar seems almost out of place before the band kicks in with a shout. By the time Westerberg sings, “Look me in the eye and tell me, are you satisfied? Everything you dream of is right in front of you, and everything is a lie,” you’re singing and screaming along even if you don’t know the words.

The sincerity in his voice is palpable. Westerberg was unsatisfied with the artistic direction of the band and his determination to grow and leave his mark on the world can be heard in his voice. It’s hard to describe, but his hoarse, beautiful voice is absolute perfection on this song. Bob Stinson’s slide guitar-style outro is perfectly evocative of the ennui of the song. “I was not terribly happy,” admitted Westerberg. “It was just the feeling that we’re never going anywhere and the music we’re playing is not the music I feel, and I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know how to express myself. I felt that one to the absolute bone when I did it.”

Copping the Beatles’ album title was the height of their punk-inspired cheekiness. It was that mixture of self-deprecation and bravado that made the band what it is. They knew they’d never be the Beatles, but in their own way, they were just as great, and they knew it. “They were the band who walked and talked like the Rolling Stones, while existing on the kind of audience and sales befitting a scrappy group of misfits who emerged from the Minneapolis punk scene” (Hann).

“The jump from a wild punk band to one that actually plays songs and has some interesting stuff came at the right time.” – Paul Westerberg

The album was recorded quickly and without a lot of fuss. This was the Replacement’s method. They were cut quickly and cruelly. Tommy Stinson commented, “We didn’t have a producer looking over our shoulder, saying, ‘This isn’t done, boys.’”  With Westerberg taking more time and care with the songwriting, and the band keeping one foot in their anarchic roots, you get the perfect mix of the chaotic early Replacements and their new Americana sound perfected on later albums like Tim.

“With Let It Be, we got a little bit closer to figuring ourselves out. Paul’s songwriting took a giant leap toward thoughtfulness and really was becoming his craft. In terms of even opening up the production to experimentation and considering things to add that previously we never would have thought of. It just sort of naturally occurred,” Tommy Stinson said. The band was surprisingly supportive of their new direction.

This was also the last album that Bob Stinson had made a creative impact on before his alcohol and drug use eclipsed his talent. Tommy Stinson said, “I also feel like it was the last album that my brother Bob was really in it in the same way we all were. He and Paul always had a “push-me/pull-you” thing going on. You can hear it in the records. Let It Be is the pinnacle of that relationship and where their strengths come together in a really beautiful way.”

“It’s as if [the Replacements] can’t bear to be taken seriously, so he subverts his art with artifice.” – David Ayers (music critic)

The story of the Replacements can be summarized as “four scruffy outcasts who came together to create one of the truly enduring and beloved catalogs in recent history” (Nelson). I think that they are absolutely brilliant and Let It Be is the pinnacle of their achievement. On this album, they’re both drunken louts who sing about boners and poets who plumb the depths of ennui.

Robert Christgau said in his 1984 review, “Bands like this don’t have roots, or principles either, they just have stuff they like — which in this case includes androgyny (no anti-trendy reaction here) and Kiss (forgotten proto-punks). Things they don’t like include tonsillectomies and answering machines.” While I would have been more effusive, I agree with what he says here. They didn’t use cosmic symbolism or otherworldly diction, they just wrote great, simple songs that have endured for decades.

Bibliography

“100 Best Albums of the Eighties.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 16 Nov. 1989. Web.

Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981-1991. N.p.: Little, Brown, 2002. Print.

Campbell, Mike. “Rank Your Records: Tommy Stinson Rates The Replacements’ Seven Iconic LPs.” Noisey. N.p., 18 May 2017. Web.

Hann, Michael. “Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements by Bob Mehr Review – How a Great Band Destroyed Itself.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 06 Apr. 2016. Web.

Nelson, Elizabeth. “At the Peak of Their Powers: On the Replacements’ Most Volatile and Rewarding Period.” Men’s Journal. Men’s Journal, 26 Sept. 2017. Web.

Reiff, Corbin. “The Replacements and the Legacy of Let It Be.” AV Club. Music.avclub.com, 02 Oct. 2014. Web.

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Evan Zwisler
Evan Zwisler

Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.