With an expanded box set of their scrappy debut coming out this month via Rhino Records, the Rock & Roll Globe celebrates The Replacements at their rawest
The glorious mess that was The Replacements kicked off in 1981 with Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, chock full of spunky, punky, tunes that tend to clock in at barely two minutes.
From the title on down, the ‘Mats make it clear how they feel about the usual niceties of everyday life. It’s a scorching set, with plenty of yelping and barking in proper garage punk fashion about being bored, hanging around downtown, and how the mainstream sucks. But if you want to evolve as an artist that can’t be all there is—snotty rejection of conventional wisdom is just a starting point.
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Within all the raucous punk fury, Sorry Ma… also contains brief flashes of the band’s nascent pop skills, which developed and evolved over time and could have carried them to huge, radio-friendly status– if they’d only wanted it. Sooner or later, you’ve got to play the game if you want to make it big, even if you’ve got the chops, but playing by the rules was never really The Replacements’ stock in trade, which is what always made them so loveable. One fan described his love of the band in these terms: “OK, I’m a loser. But I’m the coolest loser around.”
The Replacements could reliably make the amps rattle whenever they wanted, and they sure knew how to stir up a crowd, but their secret weapon was their insightfulness, which shines through even in their raw early work. Westerberg often liked to play the drunken fool– and sometimes it was more than just playacting– but he was always more introspective and sympathetic than he initially let on. Maybe all the horsing around was a buffer for a secretly bleeding heart. Sorry Ma… contains a few glimmers of this kind of light, to borrow a song title from one of his underrated solo records.
VIDEO: The Replacements “I Hate Music”
“I hate music/Sometimes I don’t/I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” Well that’s all fine and good—plant that minimalist, just-the-facts punk flag right there in the sand. The Replacements could certainly riff with the best of them when they wanted to, but it isn’t about conspicuous jamming, a la arena rock types like Zeppelin. Too many notes and you tend to lose the feeling in self-congratulatory virtuosity. For my money, their later cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond” is leaps and bounds above those caked-up clowns’ original, partially because when The Replacements do it feels like they really mean something by it.
Sorry Ma…’s bare bones aesthetic paradoxically enhances the overall effect, as The Ramones had demonstrated a few short years before. A few of these songs like “I’m In Trouble” and “Customer” do sound like Ramones outtakes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What’s crucial is that The Ramones adored girl groups and Phil Spector and the raw simplicity of the riffs and melodies paradoxically lets that hidden pop sensibility emerge without having to strain or, worse, fake it.
“Takin’ A Ride,” which opens the record, could have been a legitimate radio hit if given a little polishing and promotion. “Kick Your Door Down” anticipates the tenacity about bum-rushing the mainstream: “Your radio is playing rather loud/That don’t bother me/Your attitude, you know not so proud/That don’t bother me/I’m gonna keep on knocking/Your door down” in future songs like “We’re Coming Out” and “Seen Your Video.”
“I hate my dad/Someday I won’t.” That’s more like it. A band with less potential would have left it with slagging off the parental powers that be, which would be sufficient for a bunch of drunken kids banging away in the studio. And yet there’s also the wise rejoinder, a contrast to the blunt opening statement that reaches past the perfectly natural rebelliousness of youth into an acknowledgment of its narrow limitations and the hope that someday you’ll grow out of them. What initially nourishes you, whether it’s booze or money or spite, can eventually be your undoing, a lesson the ‘Mats learned the hard way in a career that constantly veered into self-sabotage.
Speaking of which, “Johnny’s Gonna Die” is the longest, slowest song on the record and seems to have been given the most care. It’s about what it’s like to watch a personal train wreck happen in real time. Johnny Thunders was the talented, doomed guitarist for The New York Dolls whose long dance with heroin was destined to come to a grinding halt.
After observing firsthand what happened to a bona-fide rock star–and a cool countercultural one at that–Westerberg wrote out his response: “Johnny always takes more than he needs/ Knows a couple chords, knows a couple leads/ Johnny always needs more than he takes/ Forgets a couple of chords, forgets a couple of breaks/And everybody tells me that Johnny is hot/Johnny needs something he ain’t got/Johnny’s gonna die.”
You can see the concern for outsiders and the sympathy for lives that start to unwind that will come more clearly to the forefront in later songs like “Here Comes A Regular” and “Androgynous” which for my money are some of the stronger songs in the repertoire. This being The Replacements, though, there is a snide little mockery of Thunders’ plight thrown in, some taunting nah nah nahs, a bratty tendency to punch down that the band will (mostly) outgrow in time. Maybe that’s because taking more than you need isn’t something Westerberg has much right to criticize.
The cure for this kind of self-destruction is to focus not on your appetites, or your complaints, but to give your art everything you’ve got. When they salute their fellow Minnesotans Hüsker Dü in “Something to Dü” Westerberg adds a pun at the end on Husker’s lead singer Bob Mould’s name: “break the mould.”
Breaking the sonic mold is exactly what Sorry Ma… started to do. The rest was up to them, and it was only the beginning.
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