Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
“Stink”

Remembering Bob Stinson on what would have been his 61st birthday.Ed.

One thing you’ve got to say for the Replacements; they knew how to record an album. The story I’ve heard, and it could well be apocryphal, is that after the Replacements finished one recording session, some poor sap had to go in to clean up the puke—off the ceiling.

The Replacements’ hard-drinking, hit-or-miss live shows became legendary; they might be great or they might be wrecked, and proceed to abandon songs in midstream, commit bodily harm to their defenseless instruments, perform covers they only kinda sorta knew, and generally muck about until they decided enough was enough. Lots of bands lay claim to being room-clearers, but the Replacements were the real deal, the kings in a world full of pretenders to the throne.

The Replacements were formed in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1979. Their career trajectory was rather odd; instead of starting as a hardcore band and then softening the edges as most bands did, they did just the opposite, by recording 1982’s decidedly hardcore “Stink” EP after the tangentially more melodic (which bears definite traces of vocalist/guitarist and chief songwriter Paul Westerberg’s gift for writing great, heart-wrenching melodies) debut LP, 1981’s Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash.

Westerberg was supported by the Stinson brothers, Bob on guitar and Tommy—who was 11 when he first started playing, and had to drop out of 10th grade to join the band on its first national tour—on bass, and Chris Mars on drums. Bob Stinson, a lunatic and hardened alcoholic, would leave the band in 1986 and die a sad drug-related death in 1995, but all that was far in the future when the Replacements recorded “Stink.” Westerberg hilariously summed up the young band’s general attitude towards their chosen profession on Sorry Ma’s “I Hate Music,” when he sang, “I hate music/Sometimes I don’t/I hate music/It’s got too many notes.” And Westerberg hit the nail on the head on “Something to Dü” (a reference to their relatively friendly rivalry with Minneapolis’ Husker Dü) when he described the band’s job as “delivering noise.”

I saw them in Philadelphia at the Tower Theater around 1984 or so (dates, schmates—I was every bit as drunk as they were) and they teetered somewhere between competency and mayhem, and afterwards a female friend of mine returned with Westerberg to his hotel room, where she went straight from vomiting in the toilet to sucking face with Paul. No breath mint or nothin’. He didn’t seem to notice.

By then the ‘Mats were well on their way to recording the carefully crafted and often touching songs that would win them plaudits from critics—although never sell them many albums—across our great land. Their masterpiece was the truly brilliant Let It Be. I always loved the sheer chutzpah of that title; yes, they seemed to be saying, we can and have appropriated a Beatles album title, and recorded a better album to boot. And goddamn if they didn’t.

But back in 1982 they were punks in the true sense of the word, albeit confused as to whether to pursue the more finessed punk of their first LP or go the hardcore route as so many other bands were doing. It’s for this reason that “Stink” is unique amongst the Replacements’ body of work; Westerberg was too skilled a songwriter to bind himself to the restraints imposed by hardcore, as such nuanced tunes as “Willpower” and “Color Me Impressed” off 1983’s Hootenanny make clear. And “Within Your Reach” is about as hardcore as REM, while “Treatment Bound” (with its great lines “We’re getting no place/Fast as we can”) brings to mind the Meat Puppets’ radical transformation from deranged hardcore to deranged country.

Yet make a hardcore record they did, either because they thought it was the smart move or they just fucking felt like it. And for one glorious EP of eight brief songs they would totally let loose, beginning with a recording of the Minneapolis police breaking up a Replacements show, which leads into the anthemic “Kids Don’t Follow,” the lyrics of which a hoarse Westerberg bellows out as the band rips and tears at the social fabric in the same way The Who, The Sex Pistols, and so many other great bands have being done since they first figured out their elders were totally clueless.

“Fuck School” is more direct, with a barking Westerberg delivering up 31 fucks (I counted ‘em) in a mere 1:27, which comes to (bear in mind I flunked division) one fuck approximately every 4 seconds! And he even finds time to sneer at wood shop, which I spent sweeping woodchips off the floor, and never made nothin’. Meanwhile the band roars along like gangbusters, and even finds time to toss in a very, very short guitar solo.

“Stuck in the Middle” is a left-handed salute to living in the middle of the United States, and features Westerberg singing “Nothing on the left/Nothing on the right/Nothing on the left/Nothing on the right.” It tears along going nowhere, because where ya gonna go when you’re stuck in the middle? But it sure sounds great, with its deranged guitar and Westerberg singing, “Burgers on the grill/Oh, what a thrill/I got a head full of teeth/Got a pocket full of nothin.”

On the speed racer “God Damn Job” Westerberg sings about needing a god damn job, and a god damn girl, and he doesn’t sound optimistic. What he does do is say god damn more than seems humanly possible in 1:20, and play some fierce guitar. As for “White and Lazy” it’s a bizarre mid-tempo blues, complete with harmonica and a set of weird lyrics, that Westerberg sings in a voice that is indescribable, before somebody shouts, “1 2 3 4” and the tune morphs into a speedcore tune featuring some cool call-and-response between Westerberg and band.

On “Dope Smokin’ Moron” Chris Mars beats the drums within an inch of their life, while the band kicks out the jams as fast as it can. “Dope smokin’ moron/Don’t make me yawn,” sings Westerberg on the chorus, and it’s an excellent tune whose highlight is a cameo by the dope smokin’ moron himself, who asks, “Hey, Merle, I was wonderin’ if ya had any ‘ludes on ya?”

As for “Go,” it’s not a hardcore tune at all but a slower and more sophisticated sign to things to come. The guitar part is more complicated, and Westerberg’s vocals have an echo, and while the lyrics don’t make much sense, he puts a lot of emotion into the repeated phrase, “Go while you can.” Towards the end he shouts “Go!” over and over, and you get the sense he’s trying to protect someone, perhaps from the band’s next song, “Gimme Noise.” It begins with a blurt of guitar, then launches into a frenzied assault complete with freakout guitars and a hoarse Westerberg singing “Gimme a hammer” then, after a blast of dissonant guitar, shouting “Gimme… noise” over and over before just barking out “Noisenoisenoisenoisenoise” until the song’s end.

And that’s that. The Replacements would go on to greater things, and plumb incredible emotional depths in such classic songs as “Unsatisfied,” “Sadly Beautiful,” and “Here Comes a Regular.” And produce great rockers in such tunes as “Alex Chilton” and “Bastards of Young” and “I Will Dare.” But for one brief moment they were a hardcore band, and a great one at that, and should you ever find yourself saying, “Gimme noise,” head for the middle my friend, and that studio where if the stories are true you can still hear the echo of drunken, derisive laughter, and they’re still trying to clean the vomit off the ceiling.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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