“Unsatisfied.” That’s the title of one of the Replacements’ greatest songs, and also a word that describes how serious rock fans feel every year when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations come around, realizing that bands like this and fellow Minnesotans Husker Du apparently don’t stand a chance of even coming up for contention, despite passing the test for combined influence and greatness several times over. The hall perpetually passing over brilliant proto-punk is really enough to give you the moody blues.
But as consolation this week, by sure coincidence, there is the release of “For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986,” finally seeing the light of day as an actual professionally recorded document instead of bootleg after 31 years. It’s an amazing collection of 29 songs — most of them classics (“Bastards of Young”), a few of them not (“Gary’s Got a Boner”) — that helps remake the case for the Replacements as a band that should at least be considered in a three-way tie with U2 and Nirvana for the greatest to have come along in the post-‘70s era.
Roll over Justin Hayward; tell Jann Wenner the news!
The conventional wisdom for a lot of the last three decades is that Paul Westerberg was one of the top 1980s songwriters, and that the Replacements had their blazes of glory in the studio, but that they were hot messes live, putting on shows that were huge fun but also soused and shambolic. This recording puts the lie to that… or to that being the nightly truth, anyway. The crowd may be drunk; at one point on disc 2, somebody yells out a request for “Color Me Impressed,” which the band had already played. But the band’s performance, while naturally spontaneous and a little rough around the edges, is the work of pros who, after five or six years on the road, had arrived at that perfect nexus point of seasoning and fire in the belly — which was also the formula for their best shows.
As the writer of their recent celebrated biography (“Trouble Boys”), Bob Mehr, explains in the liner notes, guitarist Bob Stinson was to be pushed out of the quartet by the end of 1986, due to being a wild man among wild men. The group went on for a few more terrific years after him, with the best replacement Replacement possible in the form of Slim Dunlap. But it was never exactly the same without Stinson playing his own signature riffs and solos, and we get him here in his last blast of surprising precision, turning on a dime —a very grimy dime, maybe, but a dime nonetheless — with the rest of the band.
At this point in early ’86, they were four albums and one EP into their career, and not yet to have a hit with “Can’t Hardly Wait” — although that yet-to-be-recorded song does turn up in the set, sans its future horn section, of course. The first two of those albums had been young, loud, and snotty, with the latter pair representing a Westerberg caught somewhat between his own maturing instincts as a singer/songwriter and the pressure to not get above his punk-rock raisin’. In the years after, when the band graduated to much bigger joints, you’d be less likely to hear the magnificently juvenile likes of “God Damn Job” and the Maxwell’s set closer, “”F— School.” That these goofy picks show up alongside all-timers like “I Will Dare” and “If Only You Were Lonely” — not to mention a handful of half-serious-at-best covers of The Sweet’s “Fox on the Run,” T. Rex’s “Baby Strange” and others — makes this the ideal time for a label to have parked a fully equipped sound truck outside a Replacements gig.
After Stinson got the boot, and with a slightly slicker new album with an altered lineup (1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me”) in the works, it made sense that Westerberg wouldn’t want to put this out as a live album as planned after all, representing as it did a chapter he was in the process of leaving behind. But without this as part of their catalog, that meant the only live albums the ‘Placemats ever did put out in their lifetime were the cassette-only “The Sh– Hits the Fans,” which consisted mostly of unrehearsed cover songs (hello, self-defeating live legend) and the so-so, promo-only “Inconcerated.” They, and fans, deserved better, and now it’s here, better 30 years late than never.
Speaking of better late than never, there’s still time for the Rock Hall to start considering punk’s great transitional bands — the ones that could still send a mosh pit to the ICU but also proved there was room to incorporate a wide wealth of songwriting styles, whether it was the poetic impressionism of Husker Du or X or the direct emotionalism, tempered with sly wordplay, of Paul Westerberg. It was a blue day that Green Day, who’d be first to tell you they never would have existed without the Replacements, got in before their idols were even put on a ballot.
Yet rock and roll as thrilling as the kind you hear on “Live at Maxwell’s” is its own reward. Westerberg keeps shouting “Murder!” through parts of the set, for no apparent reason other than that he knows they’re killing it. This collection, one of the best live rock albums anyone could own, keeps the slaying alive.