30 Years Ago: The Replacements Release Their Contradictory Classic ‘Tim’
For a band hailed as the return of real-deal rock 'n' roll -- they were dubbed in their heyday as "the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World" (a decidedly conservative honor) -- there's a lot about the Replacements' major label debut that doesn't make any sense.
Let's start with surface-level stuff. Why is Tim -- which turns 30 this month -- hot pink? Why is the cover taken up mostly by a large painting of some kind of cavernous passageway? And those portraits of the band on top are weird. Bob Stinson (guitar) looks like the Wizard of Oz but inexplicably upside down. The cover was said to have been designed on short notice; the band portraits were actually created by downtown artist Robert Longo. Nothing is explained.
What about the album title? There are no references to any "Tim" anywhere on the album. It should probably be called The Replacements or Bastards of Young. Manager Peter Jesperson told a Minneapolis radio station, "I clearly remember Paul [Westerberg] saying one day, 'I think we should call the album 'Tim.' I said, 'Why?' And he said, 'Because it's such a nice name.'"
And the sound of the thing confounds anyone's conception of a rock 'n' roll ethos. It has not the gutter scum grit of Chuck Berry, the Stooges or the Ramones. It would make sense if it did, since it was produced by Tommy Erdelyi (née Ramone), who seven years after hanging up the sticks, was one of Sire's in-house production men. But Erdelyi was charged with developing Westerberg into an Americana songwriter icon of Tom Petty proportions, not with presenting the Replacements as some elemental rock band. This is apparent from the first strains of "Hold My Life" – drums are way back in the mix, soaked in reverb; bass is loud; and Westerberg's voice is up front, the centerpiece. Elsewhere on the record, there's a new emphasis on acoustic guitars, Where is Bob Stinson? Where's the damn guitar? Here and there, in a supporting role.
Nah, all this about the Replacements as saviors of rock was wishful thinking. But it wasn't due to Sire or Erdelyi or anyone else – in fact, they were picking up on something about the band most critics didn't seem to get. The music on Tim was too conflicted and too thoughtful to be the second-coming (or third-coming, or whatever) of rock's "primal essence."
The Replacements wanted to succeed, but they also willingly blew concerts and declined to participate basic promotion on their albums. Westerberg wanted to write songs that were truer and deeper; he wanted to write songs called "Gary's Got a Boner." He was ready to grow up; growing up is lonely, absurd, depressing.
Tim is a record about this. Tim was the Replacements' fourth album, and each had followed a natural progression. Their 1981 debut, Sorry Ma, I Forgot to Take Out the Trash!, is sloppy, snotty, funny and breakneck and Hootenanny (1983) was more of the same – punk with a bit of a drawl and hooks that grow on you. It's great drinking music.
Their third album, 1984's Let It Be, is the album where the band started to take stock of things and where Westerberg started delivering songs you could call "beautiful" with a straight face – like the deeply felt "Androgynous" and ballad "Unsatisfied," the title of which tells you all you need to know. The two songs sandwich a mean cover of KISS' "Black Diamond." It's the Replacements' best record as a band, and, in a way, it was their last -- it's the last record on which Westerberg, Stinson, Stinson's brother Tommy on bass and Chris Mars on drums lock in like a fierce unit (despite all the hype about them not knowing how to play their instruments). It's the last time they were more than the sum of their parts.
Listeners noticed, and some even bought Let It Be. In 1985, the band went major, moving from local label Twin/Tone to Sire. Heat came from both sides. if you weren't paying close attention, you might see one thing: a bunch of sellouts who are too emotional and ambitious to be punk rock. Or you might see something else: a bunch of ingrates who are too self-absorbed to behave themselves on SNL and too drunk to put on a decent show.
The band's identity crisis was written right into the songs on Tim. Westerberg madly wanted to be famous and he thought he had something to say. The rest of the band -- or at least Bob Stinson -- were reluctant. Westerberg later said in an interview: "Writing songs like ‘Androgynous’ and ‘Answering Machine’ wasn’t difficult. I’d been tinkering with stuff like that early on... It was hard getting across the idea we should just put the best songs on the record, even if there wasn’t always a place for Bob to have a hot lead. Bob was the hard one to get to acquiesce. So [Tim] ended up putting the chink in the armor of the idea of us as a four-piece rock band.”
The strengths and weaknesses of Tim are rooted in this transitional feeling. Let It Be had great songs but its minor songs were great in their way, too – rip-roaring, funny and palate-cleansing. Some of the minor songs on Tim are real anthemic rockers, like "Hold My Life," no waste of time. But some are just filler, a chance to throw Stinson a solo or prove the band was still tough. "Dose of Thunder" and "Lay It Down Clown" aren't bad tunes, but they're skippable. The production makes it all seem a bit muted, anyway. Stinson shines, but for what? You get the sense he's being phased out.
Tim holds up because of Westerberg's songs and his voice. "Kiss Me on the Bus" and "Waitress in the Sky" are like the "Gary's Got a Boner" of yesteryear, but more fleshed out. They're bop-along rock and crusty blues, respectively, but more aware of their surroundings – particularly "Waitress in the Sky," which is an airline passenger's snooty slam on a flight attendant. "Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer / Garbage man, a janitor and you my dear / A real union flight attendant, my oh my / You ain't nothin' but a waitress in the sky." Westerberg wrote it after his sister, a flight attendant, told him about being accosted by a passenger.
Later on, "Left of the Dial" is a breezy love song – both to a girl and to college radio – and Westerberg does sort of sound like a punk Tom Petty. It's perfectly structured pop. The songs at the literal center of the record, "Swingin' Party" and "Bastards of Young," elucidate the album's themes. "Swingin' Party" is ballad-tempo with a Roy Orbison sound; it's all chandelier guitars and walking bass. "If being afraid is a crime / We hang side by side / At the swingin' party down the line," Westerberg sings, choking at the thought of another party just as he's beginning to see a glimmer of something beyond. The song is a kind of typical late-20s sentiment. Westerberg was 26 during recording and he delivers the lines with palpable panic, quietly but on the edge of breaking down.
"Swingin' Party" would have been the last song on Side A for listeners in 1985; "Bastards of Young" is song one on the B-side. It's ambitious to write a song about your generation, and Westerberg pulls it off thanks to an arena-sized chorus. It's more than a fist-pumper, though. It's an anthem about the absolute futility and absurdity of real life -- the pissed off realization that the glimmer that taunts him in "Swingin' Party" is a lot duller close up. And like most of the material here, you can easily hear it as a song about the band -- about this feeling Westerberg has that the success he's chasing is hollow. "The ones who love us least/ Are the ones we'll die to please," he roars.
Ironically, "Bastards" could use a dose of thunder -- it's one of the few times it really does feel like Erdelyi's production doesn't live up to Westerberg's song. It's not bad, but not loud or powerful enough. The band's SNL performance is perhaps more definitive -- Westerberg even gives a big old wink during the "die to please" line. Other bands -- like Titus Andronicus and Craig Finn -- have appropriately upped the sonic ante when they cover it.
Mostly, the rest of the album elaborates this tension between being driven and being hopeless – particularly "Little Mascara" (a punk ballad about a Sisyphean domestic relationship) and the closing track, "Here Comes a Regular," which is a crushing acoustic lament about an old barfly -- Westerberg, maybe. It could be a vision of himself he's hurling toward and one he dreads.
Some things come more into focus now – like the cover – which shows a band looking uncertain, three of them hiding their faces, Stinson is staring deranged and upside down with his back toward you. And they're all diminished and cordoned outside of whatever darkened, uncertain way forward lay in front of the band.
Some of that way forward turned out to be determined already. A reissue of Tim released by Rhino in 2008 features a couple demos and alternate takes recorded around the same time, including two versions of "Can't Hardly Wait," which wouldn't be come out officially until Pleased to Meet Me in 1987. In both its forms -- the demo and the horn-laden Pleased to Meet Me version -- it's a song about getting out, about existential restlessness, perhaps Westerberg's best song. The restlessness continues to be a part of Westerberg's songwriting long after this, but the old contradictions that defined Tim dissolved. Bob Stinson was fired in 1986. The band abandoned punk pretense and chased pop full bore but Pleased to Meet Me is a great record in its own right. With the identity crisis behind the Replacements, everything started to make a little too much sense.