When the Replacements signed with Sire Records in 1985, fans must’ve feared the major label gears would grind away all the amateurish charm that made these guys great. This was, after all, a gang of four Minneapolis goofballs as famous for their boozy clowning as for their sound: an impeccably raggedy racket born of punk yet heavily influenced by the classic rock ‘n’ roll that leader Paul Westerberg was slowly bringing to the fore.
Alas, all the worry was for naught. Released 30 years ago this month and celebrated with a string of hometown shows that kicked off on Oct. 18, 1985, Tim was the best possible outcome — proof the Replacements could go respectable without losing their edge.
It’s about as strong a major label debut as any underground punk band has ever made, and while many ‘Mats heads will go to the mat for 1984’s Let It Be — the foursome’s third LP and last one for the Minneapolis indie Twin/Tone — Tim is arguably the band’s finest moment. On these 11 tracks, Westerberg summons the restless tumult of the group’s early punk records while hinting at the greater heights the original foursome would’ve reached had it not been programmed to self-destruct.
Then again, the Replacements’ story has become a tragicomic legend largely because the band had shotguns pointed at its own Converse-clad feet. They’d have been far less interesting as a professionally minded career outfit that didn’t sometimes fall down onstage, and by the time they got to Tim, lead guitarist Bob Stinson had developed the drug and alcohol addictions that would lead to his 1986 departure and death in February 1995.
As Tim producer Tom Erdelyi, aka original Ramones drummer Tommy Ramone, recalls in his extended interview for the 2011 documentary Color Me Obsessed, Bob was only in the studio for one day — long enough to cut all the raucous solos that counterbalance Westerberg’s more muted approach.
“Bob was the quickest to get bored, and when he was, he was usually wasted,” Westerberg told Uncut in 2013, noting the in-studio tedium that, thankfully, doesn’t translate to the finished album. “Not that the rest of weren’t, but it was tough.”
Whether Bob got sacked or left on his own accord remains a matter of debate, though in a 1995 interview with Guitar World, drummer Chris Mars called the guitarist “a scapegoat” for the cocaine usage that was taking its toll on everyone. Regardless, Mars, Westerberg, and Bob’s bass-playing kid brother Tommy made their next record, 1987’s slicker and spottier (though still excellent) Pleased to Meet Me, as a trio before recruiting guitarist Slim Dunlap for two more LPs, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul and 1990’s All Shook Down.
Those last two are often dismissed as Westerberg solo records, which isn’t exactly a slight, considering Paul’s one of the finest songwriters of his generation. But everything after Tim feels too tame to truly represent a group that defined alternative rock for a generation and did more than anyone bar buddies R.E.M. to take so-called “college rock” beyond the left side of the radio dial.
Read on for a track-by-track take on this, the last great gasp of the original Replacements lineup — the record that got them on MTV (a missed opportunity) and Saturday Night Live (a total fiasco) and set the stage for the final act of a rock ‘n’ roll fable that people never get tired of retelling.
“Hold My Life”: An anthemic admission of irresponsibility that, like so many great ‘Mats songs, falls somewhere between hopeful and heartbreaking, the disc’s opener essentially sets the scene: scrappy young band preps for the bigs. Westerberg’s lyrics are fragmented and incomplete, like notes on a bar napkin, but his music betrays the sense of purpose that was there from the beginning.
“I’ll Buy”: The ‘Mats would often cover old country and rock ‘n’ roll songs, and here, they go Chuck Berry with a flippant punkabilly jam about blowing cash and believing lies, which sound here like pretty much the same thing.
“Kiss Me on the Bus”: Originally a much punkier song, this deceptively frothy retro guitar tune isn’t about kids smooching on the way to school. Westerberg’s singing about transfers — as in public transportation, often the last resort of people without cars — and there’s genuine urgency when he tells the object of his affections, “It really ain’t OK / I might die before Monday.”
“Dose of Thunder”: The loud and dumb ‘Mats roar back with this skippable basher, a tune Westerberg later implied was written so that Bob would have something to solo over.
“Waitress in the Sky”: Superficially misogynistic, this not-quite-novelty is actually a sympathetic song about Westerberg’s sister, a flight attendant who used to get gruff from entitled passengers like the one Paul portrays. Again, there’s an old-school skiffle or rockabilly vibe, and no matter how you read the lyrics, the contrast of breezy music and boorish ‘tude give this one its kick.
“Swingin’ Party”: “Hold My Life” carried traces of hopefulness; this one’s just a beautiful bummer. It’s a sober jangler about drunken parties that begins when you’re a high school loser and continues until you get locked in a cell or a box. Westerberg plays a guy who knows full well where he’s headed, and he packs all the fear and sadness into one of his most affecting vocal performances.
“Bastards of Young”: You’re not a great punk band until you write a generational anthem, and this is the ‘Mats “God Save the Queen” moment. It’s a call-to-arms for wastoid kids of wastoid parents who don’t even have anything decent to rage against. For Westerberg and his fellow ‘80s suburbanite products of crappy public schools, there’s little to really complain about and even less to strive for. You get hitched and have a kid and claim the same tax deduction your folks did. But hey, it beats picking cotton.
“Lay It Down Clown”: While not quite “Tommy Got His Tonsils Out” or “Gary’s Got a Boner,” the jokey cuts that make Let It Be such a similar album, this roadhouse-punk rager about a switchblade-packing drug addict stands alongside “Dose of Thunder” as a jarring break from the cleverness and profundity of the surrounding tracks. Which is of course why it’s completely necessary.
“Left of the Dial”: Westerberg has noted the irony of the ‘Mats, four guys who never graduated high school, becoming college radio stars. But they were destined for those low-watt stations whose signals come and go like friendships in the drunken underground rock world romanticized here. “I’ll try to find you / left of the dial,” Westerberg tells a female fellow traveler, offering his scruffball punk version of the “good luck, goodbye” Springsteen sends “Bobbie Jean” on Born in the USA.
“Little Mascara”: The single mom in this mangy, mournful tune could be one of the kids from “Swingin’ Party” or “Bastards of Young.” She fell for the bad boy; now she’s all cried out. Despite the defeatist tinge to Westerberg’s lyrics, “Little Mascara” is a musical pick-me-up. Maybe it’s the reckoning that comes before you start sorting things out.
“Here Comes a Regular”: Up to now, Westerberg has been teasing with the emotional stuff. Here, he goes straight for he heart with a busted beer bottle, cribbing some chords from Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and imagining what life is really like for guys like Norm on Cheers. No wonder actor George Wendt was a ‘Mats fan.