A new box set delves into the beauty and the madness of the second Replacements album on Sire Records
Contrary to the theory that big fancy box sets enhance a band’s historical status, when that band sprung from the original broke ethos of punk, expensive latterday collections can seem ostentatious.
Like, the Real Kids never even got an expanded version of their debut, and don’t hold your breath waiting for a Nikki & the Corvettes box set. But come on, the Replacements’ Don’t Tell a Soul got a Deluxe Edition?! Well, I’ve already covered my particular thoughts on that 2019 release, Dead Man’s Pop, the first, and surprisingly interesting, big box set treatment for the Replacements. This one, for their fifth album, Pleased to Meet Me (Sire, 1987), makes a little more sense though.
The year before this came out was a career apex for this classic ‘80s crew: four college radio-embraced LPs; tons of touring under their belts; and seemingly on the precipice of getting a hit, the kind that leader Paul Westerberg could already envision when singing his 1981 bubbegum spitter, “Fuck School.” Of course you don’t even need to know who the Replacements are to know where this story is going. Most great underground rock’n’roll acts of the 1980s usually had to get through four solid albums and hundreds of shows before even getting a sniff from a major label; and by then they were usually burnt out, or had released their best material. The Replacements weren’t much different.
VIDEO: Pleased To Meet Me box set trailer
That’s what makes all the extra bells and burps on this box set worth the discovery. They help prop up the less cynical view that, despite the intensely tough, late ‘86 subtraction of guitarist and founding member, Bob Stinson, the Replacements had a lot left in the tank. All the rough mixes and ragged demos here show the band’s early spirit was holding on. Between-song giggles, spirited covers, intriguing liner note stories, and loads of fun extra pictures present guys that – despite their enduring foot-shooting, sad sack reputation – were still in their mid-20s and having a blast recording in Memphis. Ardent Studios no less, where Westerberg’s heroes, Big Star, recorded.
It’s worth giving the Mats credit for turning a generation onto Big Star. When Sire released “Alex Chilton” as a Pleased to Meet Me single, Big Star’s records were long out of print and fairly forgotten; and the flood of ‘90s Big Star reissues are at least partially due to Paul Westerberg writing that song – a joyous, top-down anthem for a man and band whose own story, not unlike the Replacements, has devolved into aging fan boo-hoos that focus on the failures rather than the fun, which “Alex Chilton” most definitely is. Herein, it gets a great, drunken rough take where you can feel Westerberg’s nervousness, via fumbled lyrics and sloppy playing, at daring to record this tribute at Ardent.
VIDEO: The Replacements “Alex Chilton”
Even after seeing it a million times, the album cover art still impresses as a perfect image for that moment of the band. After kicking Bob out, they made a band pinkie shake to follow through with the major label deal and lifestyle they were just about ready to ditch. (Local Minneapolis pal, Slim Dunlop, would eventually join the band as second guitarist once Pleased was finished.) So here they were in the spring of ‘87, with a legendary producer, Jim Dickinson, that a major might be on board with, but who presented his own crazed notions. Nevertheless, they were trying to make peace with the suits.
Good timing since, with Bob Stinson’s erratic playing and drugging out of the way, leader Paul Westerberg could start leaning harder into his more accessible sides (arguably not a perfect plan if “erratic” was one of the things you originally liked about these Minneapolis punks). And the color scheme/font is a nod to the Elvis record, G.I. Blues, which was considered a kind of capitulation moment for the King. Irony and sarcasm were, for the Replacements, like morning coffee for most. Another of their lasting influences on ‘90s alt-rock.
Upon release, Pleased to Meet Me, while disconcerting to longtime fans for its brighter production moves, made complete sense as to where the band was, if also where their major label’s increasingly frustrated implorations stood, hovering outside the studio door, arms tightly folded. It sold alright, and the tours were packed, but that bigger chart dent wasn’t really accomplished. Infamously, the first single/video, “The Ledge,” was rejected by MTV for its suicide theme; then the band essentially used the same clip for the “Alex Chilton” video. This time, MTV just used the “We don’t like it” excuse.
So, back to the future… with this Pleased to Meet Me Deluxe Edition, we get 29 of the 55 tracks previously unreleased; a nice booklet of unseen photos and untold tales; three CDs and an LP – all packed into a hardcover gatefold. Rhino took up this format in 2016 with the Ramones debut Deluxe Edition reissue, and have rightly stuck with it. They’re wonderful sets. Unlike those other hardcover deluxe editions though, this one features no live tracks (frankly, a somewhat easy way to pad box sets), and instead includes all studio recordings, which exposes how creative the Replacements were at this point, having loads of originals and covers to choose from, or drunkenly jam on into the night.
The remaster was once again well done by Dead Man’s Pop engineer, Justin Perkins. Of course this new mastering job is louder and brighter, as to be expected of our digital bump-up age. The purists (are there Replacements fans left who aren’t) can debate “warmth” and all that, but you’d have to completely miss the memo that the Replacements were a ragged rock’n’roll band, so simply put, louder is always better.
The extras at the end of disc one – some of which made it out as B-sides – reflect the band’s Memphis mood. “Tossin’ N’ Turnin’” is a good raggedy take, a chunky, chewed-up ball of the Mats’ unique marriage of AM Gold cheek and Stonesy swagger. And the two versions of “Cool Water” are damply pretty. The covers around this time are solid if less surprising than their earlier kitchen sink approach. I prefer the band’s drunk dumps into novelty goof-offs or cheap metal attempts, but their immersion into the soil of Memphis seems to have osmosisly led to these rootsy choices.
The band’s quirkier sides were developing over in their originals, and in the loose late night takes and inquisitive mixes that a major label budget allows (then turn up on box sets decades later). Like Jimmy Iovine’s layered remix of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that goes into the direction most fans were iffy on in the first place – louder horns, a 12-string chiming in and out, and Westerberg’s vocals slapped more – making it of course something that might’ve been a hit at the time.
Most Mats deep divers have heard the perpetual bootleg resident, “Birthday Gal,” over the years, but the three versions here are obviously the best sounding yet. That outtake always sounded like something that might’ve morphed into another song or two on Don’t Tell a Soul (in fact, that phrase is used in “Birthday Gal”). It’s one of Westerberg’s most accessible romantic pop tunes that might’ve been a hit, in 1973. So take that for what you will.
VIDEO: The Replacements “Birthday Gal”
All the rough mixes/outtakes/alternates on the third CD are a treasure trove. The rockin’ numbers are yet more gripe fodder for older fans that the band cleaned up too soon. Fun toss-offs like “Lift Your Skirt” followed by “Till We’re Nude” would be album staples for most roots-wrangling rockers around that time. But the amount of lilting acoustic-led songs prove Westerberg was at that career moment where you have to decide if it’s time a wider world should hear this shit. Given the Mats’ influence on the alternative rock boom on the horizon, another Iovine mix, “Trouble On the Way,” could’ve been a hit in 1994. Ah, who knows, this is the Replacements we’re talking about… An empty-can kick through Billy Swan’s stroll, “I Can Help,” some quintessential Mats-y filler, and meaty rough mixes round out the CD three bulk.
The 15 Blackberry Way demos from late ’86 on disc two – especially the seven that were the last recordings with Bob Stinson – are the biggest selling points for longtime fans. Recorded at the familiar Minneapolis studio the band had worked at before, they definitely feel like transitions from Tim. There is no denying Bob’s ragged ballast to Westerberg’s glistening songwriting, even given that close listening (especially on “Photo”) shows some droopy, if suitable, weariness. Bob’s leads don’t jut out quite as much. The version of “Birthday Gal” is the most heartbreaking, for something that sounds like an ode to the DeFranco Family. The lyrics appear piercingly about Bob, and I can imagine that, if they recorded the basics together in one room, no one was looking up.
Bob was kicked out in the middle of these sessions, and the band soldiered on as a trio through the making of Pleased, with help from some ace Memphis musicians, of course. Nevertheless, those ‘86 demos retain what’s left of Bob’s confused energy that always kept Replacements songs from turning into, well, Don’t Tell a Soul. (And here’s where I implore Rhino to do an expanded edition of Tim. The few, amazing rough mix extras on the 2007 CD reissue made fans drool at what Tim might’ve sounded like had they laid off some reverb and played just a wee faster on that album, my personal favorite.)
There are also three great previously unheard Blackberry Way takes that represent the first time the band took a stab at bassist Tommy Stinson’s budding songwriting. If Westerberg was yet leery of deviating from his songbook, any of the Tommy three would’ve helped bolster Don’t Tell a Soul. “Awake Tonight,” especially, is a great shot at a Faces ramble, the bassist doing his best Rod Stewart. It definitely should’ve been a B-side at least, but is the kind of song that a “professional” probably ascertains it’s just too much of a tribute. “All He Wants to Do is Fish” has a similar Faces tipsy tact, a piano boogie saloon singalong. The debate about whether we needed a draggier demo version vs. a slightly more finished take is, well, debatable, but the sort of thing fanatics love to do, and that’s who these box sets are for.
Another longtime bootleg fave rave, “Time Is Killing Us,” is a slightly undercooked, but otherwise sturdy riff rocker, and has a title-appropriate raggedness in Westerberg’s vocal. This of course could be just late-in-the-day recording session gruff, but it also suggests that Westerberg not only had less interest in singing fast and miffed, but was not as up to the task anymore. It’s obvious that singing more tempered songs was a wise move at this point, no matter fans’ desire for more rockers. That “Time Is Killing Us” is one of the last songs Bob Stinson played on is just as creepy as sad.
Lyrically, the demos provide a great way to finally recognize some of those lyrics you could never quite make out, or offer up completely different slurry ones, as Westerberg was keen to do live. The band stumbled in and out of Ardent over three months of recording, so you definitely get a worthwhile sense of song development throughout this set.
The 180-gram LP they cobbled together is a very welcome and neat treat. As opposed to the standard remastered original album with these kind of sets, this one features 13 rough-mixed demos that engineer John Hampton cooked up during the sessions (they also appear on the third CD). It presents a kind of alternate Pleased to Meet Me that leans a little towards Westerberg’s more melodic, liver-on-his-sleeve sides, bolstered by more ragged playing, and by extension more raw emotion than what sometimes was reigned in on the original.
There’s a fog of “Don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” around Pleased to Meet Me. As fans back then debated the production and ditching of Bob, the best idea was to enjoy the rollicking ride, because it very soon turned into even more misdirected production on the next album, and the band was never really the same again after this.
VIDEO: Paul Westerberg The Cutting Edge interview 1987
These shmancy, pricey sets – Rhino is offering three different, limited “bundles” with various goodies at different prices – are clearly geared towards older, dyed-in-the-flannel fans. So I can’t speak to how this kind of broad dissection of a classic album would read to a youngin’ who’s never heard of the Replacements. But for fans, the time away from that original needle-drop, and loads of rough takes of it, should at best revive the teen intrigue, and infuse an old standard with new reminders of the band’s strengths that hopefully can survive time’s murky gauze. And for that, this works wonders.
But again, a Tim Deluxe Edition, now that would be…!