Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
By almost any measure, 2014 has been a banner year for ’80s alt-rock icons The Replacements. At nearly every stop of the band’s present-day reunion jaunt around the festival circuit, they’ve been showered with the sort of glowing platitudes and outpourings of adoration they never enjoyed during their creative peak. And while they’ve no doubt earned this acclaim, it’s also obscured just how little of a shit anyone cared about The Replacements 30 years ago when the group released its now-seminal record, Let It Be. It really is something of a minor miracle that they ever mattered at all.
Anyone who has held even a passing interest in The Replacements is at least peripherally aware of this record and much of the music therein. From track one (“I Will Dare”) to track 11 (“Answering Machine”), Let It Be plays like an eclectic masterpiece of pop music. But, while Let It Be was, and remains, a darling of the critical elite—No. 241 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time—it was an absolute failure upon release, moving a mere few thousand copies. Interestingly enough, in what might just be the greatest critical/commercial disparity in music history, “Dean Of American Rock Criticism” Robert Christgau ranked it just behind Bruce Springsteen’s multi-platinum monster Born In The U.S.A. as the second best album of 1984.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s plain to see why The Replacements weren’t a greater success in their first go-around. Nearly every single time they stood at the precipice of something even resembling a positive turning point in their career, they actively pissed it away. One of the great non-Saturday Night Live related examples of this in Replacements lore revolves around the band’s showcase for a collection of record executives at CBGB around the time Let It Be debuted. Any other group in the world would do its absolute best to impress, but not these strident Minnesotans. Instead, they played a shambolic set composed solely of cover songs, before singer Paul Westerberg bellowed out into the crowd, “Do we get a record contract now?” A deal was not struck that night.
Afterward, when asked about the performance, Westerberg told Village Voice journalist R.J. Smith, “We went up there, we did what we wanted to do, and they wanted us to play our best songs as best we could. And we didn’t feel like it. And so they figure, ‘They’re a small-time bunch of amateurs.’ That’s one way to look at it, and that’s partly true. But I think it’s also the spirit that makes rock exciting and immediate.”
What a sentiment! The sense of honesty, the pure altruism… the absolute bullshit. Later on in the now-almost canonical profile, Smith recalled a scene that betrays the band’s outward bravado. “I remember the argument outside the gyro restaurant. Bob [Stinson, guitarist] was complaining about the size of Twin/Tone’s operation. And I remember Paul saying, ‘Well, just wait until we get to New York. We’re going to talk to somebody from Warner Bros. there.’ He wasn’t just placating an angry Bob.”
Why then do we continue to care so much about a record written and recorded by a band that did just about all they could have done to sabotage themselves—and not just once, but repeatedly? Unlike so many other late-blooming cult hits that earn their acclaim by way of their own ignominy, Let It Be stands today based on the merit its material. Unrelenting in its emotional sincerity, imaginative in its song construction, and confident in it delivery, it has become the musical shorthand for the angst-ridden experience of adolescence for many.
In his review of Let It Be, Christgau summed up the band’s viewpoint quite well when he wrote that, “Bands like this don’t have roots, or principles either, they just have stuff they like.” Prior to this record, those who were aware of The Replacements pegged them as another punk band—a damn good punk band, it should be noted—but a punk band nonetheless. The catch to that particular viewpoint was not how The Replacements saw themselves, and thus they set out to quite deliberately disrupt that particular narrative.
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. The guitar-arpeggiated “Sixteen Blue” 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.”
In the most literal sense, The Replacements adhered closer to the non-conformist ethos purveyed by their punk rock forbears than those who most loudly propagated it ever did. Even before they had a real career to sabotage they were sabotaging themselves. Even before they had a real audience to subvert, they were actively subversive. This extends to this record’s name itself, which Westerberg later explained was “our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that The Beatles were just a fine rock ’n’ roll band. We were seriously gonna call the next record Let It Bleed.”
It’s almost ironic that the centerpiece of the entire album is the song that most disrupts the general view of the band even to this day. For a group that was never supposed to care, they certainly seem to care quite a bit on “Unsatisfied.” It’s a clarion call of the disaffected and the downtrodden, those who deign to wish, and those afraid to try. There’s no bravado here, no don’t-give-a-shit attitude, only raw anger and resentment. In the song, Westerberg lays open his ambition, his fears, and his frustration in a way that few songs ever have, either before or since.
“Look me in the eye then tell me / I’m satisfied / And now are you satisfied?” It’s unclear to whom Westerberg is singing. It could be a lover or it could be a friend, a bandmate, a family member, a manager; it really could be anyone, making the track’s appeal universal. “Everything you dream of / Is right in front of you / And everything is a lie.” Who hasn’t felt that way at one point in life?
The modern day legacy of Let It Be is perhaps most closely aligned with that of another low-selling, now-iconic record released by the New York art-rock outfit, The Velvet Underground. In 1982, Musician magazine famously asked Brian Eno about the commercial flop that was The Velvets’ first release. He responded with the now-classic quote, “I think everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.” That same sentiment can be applied to Let It Be. It is the ultimate bridge between what came before it and what followed in its wake.
Larger musical movements aren’t created in a vacuum. In most cases they are simply manufactured by those looking to capitalize on the success of a singular entity. The British Invasion rode in on the coattails of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix made psychedelia acceptable, and everyone and their mother donned a flannel shirt in the wake of Nirvana’s success. The real sticking point of this process is that few artists or entities ever live up to the artistic truth of what came before them. That’s why we don’t celebrate Herman’s Hermits, Strawberry Alarm Clock, or Bush in the same sort of way.
The best art isn’t accomplished when the artist is attempting to do something new just for the sake of doing something new or, conversely, trying something old because, hey, it worked once. The best art comes out of artists who are willing to take a chance because what they are creating is equally stimulating and rewarding. Ultimately, that’s just what The Replacements did with Let It Be.