The Replacements, ‘Tim,’ and the Rise and Fall of Indie-Rock Morality

As someone who purchased “Tim,” the Replacements’ 1985 major label debut, on the day it arrived in my local record store, I can say the following with absolute certainty: If the remixed, significantly beefed-up version of the album that dropped last week had been released in 1985, the group would have been crucified by the indie-rock morality police, and it probably would have destroyed their career.

Make no mistake, the new version sounds amazing: The original, produced by the late original Ramones drummer Tommy Erdelyi in a sort of homage to Phil Spector, was a muddled mess, with the instruments blurred together and an indistinct, heavily reverbed sound. On the new one, which has been greeted with hosannahs by many longtime fans, you can now hear guitar parts and backing vocals that were almost completely inaudible — not to mention the bass, which was completely inaudible — and you can understand, say, 70% of the lyrics instead of half. The drums still have that tinny mid-‘80s snap, but it’s been dialed back to reasonable levels. For better and maybe sometimes worse, veteran engineer-mixer Ed Stasium has lifted a sonic veil from “Tim,” and although it’s a little too crisp and crunching in places, the internet is filled with “This is the way it always should have sounded!” and “Imagine how different our beloved ‘Mats’ career would have been if it had!”

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Well, the thing those voices either don’t remember or didn’t know is just how judgmental and dogmatic the indie-rock scene of the 1980s was. Mostly, it was a vibrant, exciting, positive and supportive scene. Black Flag basically laid the foundation, mapping an ecosystem of small clubs, record stores, fanzines and college radio, which hundreds and ultimately thousands of bands followed: It’s the scene that Replacements singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg immortalizes in this album’s song “Left of the Dial,” which is where you’d find most college radio stations on an FM tuner (see Michael Azerrad’s book “Our Band Could Be Your Life” for a detailed study). But the outsider, DIY ethic that united the bands and most of the people in that scene had a nasty militant streak, and the most heretical thing that anyone could do was “sell out” — which, for most of those bands, meant signing with a major label.

While R.E.M. were the first from that wave to break into the mainstream, the ’Mats, in many ways, were the most glorious. Westerberg was a world-class songwriter and a compelling singer, and the group played infamously shambolic concerts that could be transcendent one night and tragic the next, depending on whether they’d drunk just the right amount of booze or way too much — and if they knew label execs were in the audience, they’d get completely shitfaced and shipwreck the show, playing joke covers of ‘70s radio songs instead of Westerberg’s mighty originals; the next night they’d blow the roof off of a small club like Maxwells in Hoboken. Westerberg showed traces of brilliance on the band’s rowdy first two outings but it truly began to shine on 1983’s “Hootenanny” and especially a year later on “Let It Be,” one of the best albums to emerge from that era — and the batch of songs he’d written for “Tim” would prove to be the best of his career. Their combination of sensitivity and punk-rock brattiness inspired rare levels of devotion.

So there were shrieks of betrayal when the Replacements left the beloved Minneapolis-based indie Twin\Tone to sign with Warner-owned Sire Records — even though Sire had one of the most “alternative” rosters in music history. Led by legendary exec Seymour Stein, their cred was impeccable: They’d signed everyone from the Ramones and Talking Heads to Echo & the Bunnymen and the Cure as well as Madonna.

“Tim” finds Westerberg reaching new levels of maturity and emotion as a songwriter and singer, yet it also finds the band starting to fall apart. There are ravers like “Hold My Life” and “Dose of Thunder” as well as humor (“Waitress in the Sky”), a swaying ballad called “Swingin’ Party” influenced by Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s ‘60s hit “Somethin’ Stupid,” and a genuine tear-jerking losers’ anthem in the closing “Here Comes a Regular,” a song Westerberg had been embarrassed to play for the band and was recorded in one take as he sat on the studio floor with his acoustic guitar. Fans seized on the self-referential opening line of the classic “Bastards of Young”: “Oh, what a mess/ On the ladder of success.” It’s a set of songs almost any writer would kill to have written.

But the Replacements always had a self-effacing streak that could easily merge into self-destruction — Westerberg had a habit of reaching for the golden ring and then slapping back his own hand — and during the recording of the album they were becoming estranged from lead guitarist Bob Stinson and manager Peter Jesperson, both of whom they’d part company with in the following year. And that confusion is fully reflected in the sound of “Tim.”

There may have been a corporate Warner logo on the album, but its blurry, indistinct sound is definitely not what anyone would call corporate — and it’s hard not to think that a motivating factor was the band’s ability to say, “See? We didn’t sell out!”

In the liner notes to the new reissue, the band and executives mused about what might have happened if Stasium have coproduced the album and, presumably, made it sound more like this new version. In places, the guitars are cranked up to an AC/DC-level crunch, and Westerberg’s soaring choruses feel arena-sized — sure, it might have gotten them on some mainstream radio stations and opened the ears of a few more fans, but it would have made the indie morality police swarm like the Beyhive does today.

Because during this time, something arose in the fast-rising indie scene even worse than signing with a major: Appearing in a beer commercial, which essentially destroyed the careers of at least two bands (just ask the Del Fuegos or the Long Ryders about the turning point in their careers). Yes, those commercials were dreadful, and the backlash was severe: Integrity icon Neil Young wrote a song lambasting the practice called “This Note’s for You”; SST Records even distributed bumper stickers that read “Corporate Rock Sucks!”

The ‘Mats dodged that bullet, but their clock was ticking. They released one more classic album, without Stinson — 1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me,” produced by Memphis legend Jim Dickinson — but then Westerberg’s songs and the band’s sound began to descend into a schmaltzy softness that seemed almost deliberately contrarian, as if he’d grown tired of being a hero and just wanted everybody to go away.

And around the same time, indie morality met its waterloo when the patron saints of the scene, Sonic Youth, signed with Geffen Records in 1989 and released an album that sounded pretty much like fans would have expected — and of course, that signing led directly to Nirvana. We all know what happened next: As much as Kurt Cobain and that band were spawned by the indie scene and tried to live by its standards, those ethics got trampled in the gold rush as artists and young executives made the transition to major labels, agencies and more.

The Replacements never got to ride the alt-rock tidal wave that they’d played such a big role in creating. You could even argue that Cobain — inadvertently and to his chagrin — grabbed the golden ring that Westerberg wouldn’t. Ironically, one of the Replacements’ last shows saw them finally onstage at Madison Square Garden — opening for Elvis Costello in June of 1991 — but down to two original members and playing a set that consisted mostly of those schmaltzy new songs. Yet early in the set, they slipped in their killer cover of the Only Ones’ new wave classic “Another Girl, Another Planet.” And after they’d closed with their rousing 1987 anthem “Alex Chilton” and the house lights came up, they ran back onstage, each member picked up an instrument they didn’t usually play, and bashed out a brief, raucous version of “Hootenanny” — showing their true, bratty nature was still there, if only for a moment. Less than two weeks later, they’d play their last show for 22 years.

While there wasn’t a happy ending for the Replacements, in many ways, there was for the lifers and survivors from the scene they spawned. Over the years, those indie-reared musicians and executives managed to change the music industry, at least a bit. Being savvy about business became essential for artists, and the obverse. Less than a decade after the Long Ryders appeared in a network TV ad awkwardly singing Miller Beer’s theme song, the Gap was commissioning advertisements by musicians from Aerosmith to Luscious Jackson where they could play virtually anything they wanted — LL Cool J even slipped in a reference to a Black-owned competing clothing line, FUBU.

And in a cruel denouement, once illegal downloading and streaming arrived — when most artists’ income from recorded music was slashed to virtually nothing — what used to be called “selling out” became survival.

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