Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Shuffle : I Will Dare

I used to be a pretty big music missionary. By which I mean I spent a lot of time trying to convert my friends into fans of the stuff I was a fan of. I made an awful lot of mix tapes. I ranted about the brilliance of various bands, singer-songwriters, obscure, semi-forgotten soul singers. I bored a lot of people, I guess.

But I was generally right, I think. I was right when I told people that the La's debut album was better than the Stone Roses' debut album. I was right when I made mix tapes of the Beatles' post-Beatles material for supposed Beatles fans who hadn't gone there yet. I was right when I went on and on about the dBs or Eric Matthews or Harry Nilsson or Lewis Taylor or Marlena Shaw. I was right when I said that Evan Dando was a sort of genius, or that "Ram On" is a masterpiece, or that Van Halen were one of the best American rock bands of the 1980s. I really was. I think. I was arrogant too, of course. This blog is probably a sort of way to continue my missionary activities in a slightly less offensive, less aggressive manner, I hope. But one thing I know for certain I was right about is the Replacements.

The Replacements are probably the band I was the most fervent missionary for. Because nobody liked them. Nobody I met, anyway. I have only ever had one friend who liked them before we met, which instantly made him alright in my book. But I bought "Pleased to Meet Me" (1987) without having ever heard anything by the band at around the age of 20, and though it's production was problematically dated, and some songs were undeniably filler, and it wasn't quite what I had been expecting, I loved it. It was a rock and roll record, messy, exciting, angry, funny, unexpectedly moving - that was a rare thing in 1980s rock music, dominated, or so it seemed to me at the time, by post-punk on one side and Metal on the other.

In retrospect, "Pleased to Meet Me" wasn't the ideal place to start with the Replacements. Their second major label record, its perhaps their most nakedly commercial. And while this means that it contains arguably singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg's two most perfect pieces of pop-rock magic in "Can't Hardly Wait" (to my mind, one of the greatest songs of the 1980s) and "Alex Chilton" and also makes space for one of his trademark beautiful ballads ("Skyway"), it also makes it somewhat unrepresentative of the band. It's too poppy and too concerned with sonic eclecticism, even if Westerberg's writing is consistently brilliant. There is a faux-lounge number ("Nightclub Jitters"), a scratchy, self-aware singalong criticising the band's own self-destructive tendencies ("I Don't Know"), an almost Brian Adams sounding suicide note ("The Ledge") alongside a handful of vaguely disappointing rockers. I loved it all, but it wasn't what I had been led to expect. I needed to investigate further. Back then, in Dublin at any rate, Replacements records weren't all that easy to get hold of. So the next time I saw one, I bought it.

That record was called, with hilarious cheek, "Let It Be" (1984), and it fairly blew me away. In retrospect it stands as the definitive Replacements album. Its the one with the era-defining songs. Its the one that gained them a major-label contract. Its the one that has been included in the 33⅓ series of books (in an enjoyably autobiographical volume written by the Decemberists' Colin Meloy) and Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums list (Number 239, sandwiched between Run DMC and "Can't Buy a Thrill" by Steely Dan). Its the one I recommend if anyone asks me which album to start with. And as a "definitive" record, it perfectly sums up the band. Its a mess. Bruised Westerberg romanticism rubs up alongside comedic punk-pop throwaway songs with titles like "Garys Got a Boner" and "Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out" and there is a seemingly sincere - and actually pretty awesome - cover of Kiss' "Black Diamond". But to understand the record, it has to be examined in the context of the bands career up to that point.

The Replacements started as a midwestern American version of a punk band. Their debut record, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" (1981) is filled with 18 examples of garage hardcore, each song a flatout sprint through a noisy adolescent world of crude jokes, casual substance use and kneejerk rebellion. Only one is longer than three minutes, and in some of them you can hear the seeds of Paul Westerberg's genius - an insistent hook, a great turn of phrase. The second record, "Stink!" (1982), is more of the same, but Westerberg was tiring of the hardcore sound and was already exploring other genres and styles in his writing. An early b-side, the country-blues shuffle of "If Only You Were Lonely", and the unreleased ballad "You're Getting Married One Night" were evidence that he was continually trying to convert his reluctant band-mates to broaden the band's sound. The third album, "Hootenanny" (1983), is where he began to have some success, most obviously on "Within Your Reach", a sublime mid-tempo love song on which Westerberg plays every instrument. However, the album is something of a blueprint for "Let it Be" with its mix of surf-rock instrumental, Beatles pastiche and jokily improvised spoof alongside more familiar Replacements material.

"Let It Be" was a huge step forward, however. It features four classic examples of Westerberg at his most sensitive and angsty; "Unsatisfied", "Sixteen Blue", "Androgynous" and "Answering Machine". These songs all have complex arrangements and make use of a variety of instruments unimaginable in the band's early days - piano and slide guitar, or instance. But the mood is complicated by the presence of the aforementioned comedic rockers, which lighten the tone where Westerberg's deeper songs darken it. And then there is the opening track: "I Will Dare".

It is a pop song, danceable, infectious, undeniable. Its keynote sound is a Rickenbacker guitar, instantly evocative of Classic Rock but not, because here its crisper, more aggressive, and played expertly by REM's Peter Buck*, who had once been lined up to produce the record. The way that guitar just rings to life and then jangles throughout, the song following after, letting that bouncy, melodic, oddly chipper bassline do all the work is beautiful in its simplicity and insistence on the song, always the song. This sense is only underlined by the choruses, when the guitars chop out the same melody as the vocals, ragged electric backing singers of a sort. The solo is an odd moment of finger-picked delicacy, all clean lines and sharp notes. And then a mandolin enters, played by Westerberg and running alongside the guitar until the climax. A mandolin! The young men playing on that first album would have fainted with outrage. And it shouldn't really work, either, but it does, somehow. You wonder if Buck took the idea and used it all those years later on "Losing My Religion", or if he donated it to Westerberg, recognising the brilliance of this particular song.

The lyrics are simple and catchy in their list of reversals and opposites: "How young are you?/How old am I?/Let's count the rings around my eyes/How smart are you?/How dumb am I?/Don't count any of my advice". Yet they capture the everyday emotional risk and romanticism of teen love ("Ain't lost yet, so I gotta be a winner/Fingernails and a cigarette's a lousy dinner"), the momentousness of it all summed up in the use of the word "dare" in the chorus, the sense of something at stake which will never be properly acknowledged: "Oh, meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime/Now I don't care, meet me tonight/If you will dare, I might dare." More importantly perhaps, they fit perfectly with the rushed optimism of the song's sound, the blurred sense of a drunken good time the Replacements always delivered.

"I Will Dare" was a single, but it wasn't a hit. The Replacements never really had a hit, even after they got that major label deal and released "Tim" (1985), a brilliant, focused mainstream rock record with some immortal songs, and followed it up with "Pleased to Meet Me". When a song as perfect as "Can't Hardly Wait" is not a hit, it is just not meant to be for a band, frankly. Especially when that band consistently sabotage themselves by playing deliberately awful gigs, have multiple drug and alcohol abuse issues, and refuse to make conventional videos for MTV. But this was part of what made the Replacements what they were - a chaotic riot of problems and genius, primarily a fan's band, hostile to the industry itself but blessed with Westerberg's songs. They soldiered on for two more albums of variable quality - the final album, "All Shook Down" (1990) is a Westerberg solo record in all but name - before splitting. Westerberg began a solo career which has been interesting and occasionally brilliant but never as inspired as the best days of his old band.

They are one of my favourite bands, and I like and understand them more with every year. Over the last year all of their albums have been reissued with bonus tracks, and they reassembled a few years ago to record a couple of middling songs for a Best of compilation. But watching their influence spread and grow has been strangely even more satisfying. They basically invented grunge a decade early, a fact acknowledged by Cameron Crowe when he commissioned two new Westerberg songs for the soundtrack of "Singles" (he also gave "Within Your Reach" a great moment in "Say Anything"), and also by Kurt Cobain, a big fan. Their influence is also obvious in alt-country, with Jeff Tweedy having written a Wilco song about Westerberg ("The Lonely 1") (as did They Might Be Giants and Art Brut) and people like Ryan Adams admitting their influence. Their songs continually pop up in films - always jarringly, for me - and yet they remain a cult band, the kind of act you can never be certain somebody will have heard of.

Over the years, then, I've made an awful lot of Replacements compilations. I had it down to a fine art. I'd mix in some solo Westerberg ("Things", some Gramapaboy, some "Suicaine Gratification") and balance the rockers with the sensitive stuff. It was surprisingly hard, but easy at the same time. He has written so many outstanding songs, and though his legacy and ouevre don't measure up to that of say, Neil Young, to borrow a comparison a friend once made, when Westerberg hits the spot, he is better than Neil Young has ever been. His best songs are as good as anybody's best songs, and better than most. "I Will Dare" is one of the best things he ever wrote. It was always the opening track on every Replacements compilation I ever made. I figured that would settle the issue straightaway.
Because if you didn't like this song, then you wouldn't like this band.

The studio version isn't on YouTube, but you can listen to it here, and this is a live version from 1991:

*At one point in the early to mid eighties it seemed almost a straight race between three Indie bands to make it and break through into the mainstream - the Replacements, fellow Minneapolis residents Husker Du and REM. Who won that race, you ask?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:41 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:01 am  

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