Band: The Replacements
Why Rolling Stone gets it right: The 'Mats' major label debut has two of their greatest songs -- "Bastards Of Young" and the college radio homage "Left Of The Dial" -- and shows the band at the point of switch from college rock masters to alternative rock heroes.
Why Rolling Stone gets it wrong: "Let It Be" is more garagey and "Tim" always sounds a little too polished for me.
Best song: I adore "Left Of The Dial."
Worst song: "Little Mascara" isn't fantastic.
Is it awesome?: It is.
Of all big three Minneapolis college rock bands (Hüsker Dü, Soul Asylum and The Replacements), The 'Mats were the most successful (until Soul Asylum hit it big with "Runaway Train"). They were the first band to sign to a major label and they sold the most records (again, until Soul Asylum were labeled "grunge"). The reason, of course, was Paul Westerberg's pop sensibilities. Sharing Michael Stipe's affection for Big Star and his own love for punk rock created a garage college rock that remains to this day.
One of the bands profiled in the fantastic "Our Band Could Be Your Life" book by Michael Azerrad, the 'Mats were as standard a rock and roll band as you could get in the underground '80s. Chapter 6 of "Our Band" starts as follows:
While their crosstown rivals Hüsker Dü toed the line in terms of left-wing politics and SST-style pragmatism, the Replacements couldn't give a hoot about any of that -- they never booked their own shows or drove their own van, and the closest they got to a political song was... well, they never even got close to a political song. Instead, the band's leader Paul Westerberg wrote the kind of heart-on-the-sleeve rock songs, not to mention witty wordplay that were almost totally absent from the underground.
Azerrad calls them "one fo the few underground bands that mainstream people liked," in the next paragraph. It's hard to say that's not true. They were sort of the mid-1980s doppleganger for bands like The Police and Cars; mainstream bands that undergrounders could like, as well.
One thing the 'Mats did that was hugely influential, if not a total causation, was perfect the everyman image. Paul Westerberg was a handsome, if hugely troubled, frontman and the band's raucous shows were hugely peppered by their interactions with the audience. Even their nickname -- taken from an old review in which they were called "The Placemats" derogatorily -- was an homage to self-deprecation.
Sound familiar? It's, image-wise, a very similar construct to Nirvana's. Minneapolis was the original Seattle, after all.
But what of the music? Again, Westerberg's sensibilities were so infused by classic rock that even calling the 'Mats "college rock" is a little off. Westerberg's smallness of sentiment in "Kiss Me On The Bus" is sweet, if not a little immature for a 26-year-old. "Bastards Of Young" is a rallying cry for the slacker generation (again, parallels to Nirvana) that includes the genius suburban failed dreams sentiment that a lot of us struggle with everyday: "Dreams unfulfilled, graduate unskilled/It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten."
"Left Of The Dial" remains my favorite 'Mats song. In interviews, Westerberg has mentioned that the song is a love song to Angie Carlons (of the '80s North Carolina band Let's Active) and how their touring paths never really crossed. The idea that the only place he could hear her voice was college radio
Of course, the song itself is a love song to the form of college radio. It's one of the few songs that define an era (a long era, actually, from the mid-80s until about five years ago, when I was in college), where someone "Read about your band in some local page" and had to research the band ("Didn't mention your name, didn't mention your name") in order to know what was going on. It then picks up the classic Midwestern idea of road tripping and the relative signal strength of these wonderful stations "Passin' through and it's late, the station started to fade/Picked another one up in the very next state."
And the song ends, of course, with the wonderful homage to the beauty of the 89.3s and 88.1s of the world: "And if I don't see ya, in a long, long while/I'll try to find you/Left of the dial." Most bands on college radio are only there on the left of the dial and no one spoke this better than this simple final verse. It's my favorite Westerberg moment.