Classic Music Review: Let It Be by The Replacements


The year before I was born, the citizens of the United States of America, stricken by high inflation, gas shortages, massive unemployment and a long, drawn-out humiliation at the hands of the Iranians, elected a lousy B-movie actor named Ronald Reagan to lead them out of the wilderness. Reagan’s strategy was to cut the crap out of federal spending on social programs and pour billions of dollars into defense. When Reagan took office, the unemployment rate was 7.1%. Four years later, as he faced a re-election campaign, the unemployment rate was 7.6%, after peaking at 9.7% in the middle of his first term.

Not much of a record to run on, you might think.

But this was 1984, the Orwellian year. In Orwell’s world, the government defined what was true and what was not, and the same dynamic was in play during the 1984 presidential campaign. In a brazen use of selective statistics, the Reagan team exploited the gullibility of fearful Americans and capitalized on their desire to return to a mythic past where only straight, white people had any significance. They produced a perfectly-Orwellian campaign film with the theme, “Morning in America”:

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Orwell, P. T. Barnum, whatever. It worked like a fucking charm. Reagan won in landslide, taking every state in the union except Minnesota.

That same year, an obscure hard punk band from the only state to vote for Mondale-Ferraro decided that they were sick and tired of the restrictive cultural and musical norms imposed on them by punk purists and instead chose make the music they wanted to make and say the things they wanted to say. They said things that all those people who voted for Reagan didn’t want to hear: that your family doctor is a greedy pig, that gender identity is flexible, and that it’s okay for old and young to get intimate with each other. Most shockingly, they had the gall to express deep dissatisfaction at a time when everyone else believed it was Morning in America.

America would be a much happier place today if people had listened to Paul Westerberg instead of Ronald Reagan.

Let It Be is one of those great liberation albums where a band finds its true voice and expresses it with the special exuberance of self-discovery. Somewhat mislabeled by the music press as a “coming-of-age” album, Let It Be is that and much, much more. It expresses truths about life and American culture that still have validity to this day—truths that most Americans would rather avoid. Thirty years after its release, it still sounds fresh, alive and full of creative bursts that delight and astound the listener. It’s passionate, playful and intensely honest. Let It Be and its follow-up, Tim, are among the few great albums to appear in the 1980’s, a decade dominated by overproduced crapola. If it weren’t for Joan Jett, The Replacements and Pixies, rock would have died a horrible death at the hands of U2 and Duran Duran.

Let It Be opens with exuberance, in the form of the endlessly delightful “I Will Dare,” a song that immediately gets your toes tapping and your ass shaking. There’s some debate over who’s playing the lead guitar and when, but that’s a topic for the musical archaeologists to figure out—all I know is that the dominant riff is fantastic and the instrumental passage containing the lead solo, with its rhythmic shifts and the unexpected but inspired insertion of a mandolin, raises this song to the level of greatness. Paul Westerberg’s lead vocal is a masterpiece of phrasing and dynamics; he doesn’t just reproduce the lyrics but intensifies their meaning. My take is that this is a first-person narrative by an older man trying to connect with a younger woman, and the mature gentleman in question is suffering from a combination of body shame and cultural taboos that frown on such relationships. Accordingly, the first verse is more restrained and reflective; in the second verse he appears to be gaining confidence with the chick until Paul inserts a split-second pause before the word “dumb” in the couplet “How smart are you? How . . . dumb am I?” That line and that delivery floors me every time I hear it: it’s so unusually empathetic. The desirous gentleman oscillates between unease and confidence throughout the song, burdened by schedules and self-doubt but trying to convince both himself and the girl to take the leap:

Call me on Thursday, if you will
Or call me on Wednesday, better still
Ain’t lost yet, so I gotta be a winner
Fingernails and a cigarette’s a lousy dinner
Young are you? (old . . . )

Meet me anyplace or anywhere or anytime
Now, I don’t care, meet me tonight
If you will dare, I will dare

The upbeat finish to the song implies that they both took the dare, but that may be wishful thinking on my part. What is undeniably true is that “I Will Dare” is delightfully underproduced: the rough edges sound like heaven in comparison to the sanitized records that dominated the 1980’s. The ‘Mats (as they are called fondly by their fans) knew that too much polish snuffs out the life in a rock song, and all of Let It Be captures the gloriously raw feel of great rock ‘n’ roll.

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The ‘Mats began life in punk and they didn’t throw the baby out with the bath water when deciding to expand their musical reach. “Favorite Thing” contains many echoes of punk from the opening shout to the surf-punk feel of the riff to the sound of Chris Mars’ bashing drums. What’s unusual about the song is the delayed appearance of the chorus, which is itself played in a different rhythm than the verses. The contrast between the stuttering bash of the verses and the thumping, steady rhythm of the chorus is absolutely killer, the effect heightened in the first chorus by stripping the guitars from the arrangement and leaving only Tommy Stinson’s high-speed bass, drums and harmonized vocals. After a superb guitar solo from Bob Stinson, the second chorus amps up the excitement with pizzicato guitar and background power chords that put you right on the edge of orgasm. That’s a more-than-appropriate analogy for a song where the fragmented lyrics capture that moment of blessed departure from the behavioral restrictions of the routine, when you find yourself immersed in the wonderful evils of sex, alcohol, cigarettes and rock ‘n’ roll.

“We’re Comin’ Out” is more traditional punk, an energetic display of rough edges perfect for slamming your honey in the mosh pit . . . but even here The ‘Mats depart from tradition by downshifting and decelerating just after the midway point to create a relatively quiet space where Paul Westerberg’s vocal floats over finger snaps and piano. They restart the acceleration process almost immediately, ramping up noise and speed by degrees until returning to high-energy bash. It’s followed by the equally punk-friendly sounds of “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” a song that exposes the American medical system for what it is: a cash cow for physicians who have more important things to do than care about their patients:

Open wide, the doctor’s here
Everything is fine, got nothing to fear
Strap ’em down, we’re outta gas
Stop your bawling, you little brat

Get this over with, I tee off in an hour
Didn’t wash up, yesterday I took a shower
Get this over with, I’d be off in an hour
My Cadillac’s running, let’s

Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out now
Rip, rip, we’re gonna rip ’em out

The song is not only a hoot, but damn, the rhythm produced by Chris Mars and Tommy Stinson is a fabulous example of air-tight power.

Now we get up-close-and-personal with “Androgynous,” a song that means a great deal to me because I am a bisexual female with dominant tendencies. This means I not only qualify as “sexually abnormal,” but also something of an oxymoron. I’m intensely feminine and intensely assertive, a concept that many people have a hard time grasping or accepting.

The point is that I’m different, and many of those who love differently or who choose to express their gender through the way they feel and think instead of through the cultural meaning attached to their plumbing are viewed with suspicion, disdain and even hatred by the majority of the human race. Right-wing Christians try to deprogram homosexuals; certain African nations would rather execute them instead. Bisexuals like me have very little legal standing anywhere in the world, and I’ve had a great deal of venom shot my way by straights, both male and female.

This is why “Androgynous” is one of the most beautiful and tender songs I’ve ever heard, and if Paul Westerberg had never written another song in his life, I would still rank him near the top of my favorite songwriters list for this one song. He gets it on so many levels. People who choose to love differently pose no threat to anyone. People who choose to explore life through the lens of the opposite gender should be celebrated for their courage and curiosity. And that what we should respect about those who love differently is that the bond created by two people who choose to love in defiance of social norms involves a level of trust that most people can hardly imagine:

Here comes Dick, he’s wearing a skirt
Here comes Jane, y’know she’s sporting a chain
Same hair, revolution
Same build, evolution
Tomorrow who’s gonna fuss

And they love each other so
Closer than you know, love each other so
Androgynous . . .

Mirror image, see no damage
See no evil at all
Kewpie dolls and urine stalls
Will be laughed at
The way you’re laughed at now

In addition to the words that make me tear up with a combination of bittersweet feelings and personal liberation, the arrangement is perfect: lots of hiss in the background with the right touch of reverb on the vocal and piano as if the scene is a late night club where gender benders congregate. Equally perfect is the tone of the song: this isn’t a sanctimonious rant about equal rights but a playful song that humanizes the characters and makes them accessible.

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Whether it’s the position between two great Westerberg songs or the fact that it’s a cover of a Kiss song, I don’t think much of “Black Diamond.” It’s a competently-played rendition that demonstrates that The Replacements were more than capable of going heavy, but it lacks the verve of the other tracks, especially the following track, “Unsatisfied.” Though Westerberg thought it was a “throwaway” song that could have been better had they worked on it a bit more, I think “Unsatisfied” is a tremendous song and that adding additional lyrical exposition or a more complex production might have ruined it. As it is, “Unsatisfied” is the perfect expression of modern existential ennui, and if you need more technical information on that subject you can always read Sartre or Camus. But it’s the experience of ennui that matters, and Westerberg captured that experience more accurately than the two great existentialists. It is a dissatisfaction that has no specific object, no identifiable reason; it’s the moment you experience after doing the same-o, same-0 for years and one day you wake up and you know something is out of sync:

You look me in the eye
Then tell me, that I’m satisfied
Hey, are you satisfied?

And it goes so slowly on
Everything I’ve ever wanted
Tell me what’s wrong . . .

Look me in the eye
And tell me that I’m satisfied
Were you satisfied?

Look me in the eye
Then tell me, that I’m satisfied
Now are you satisfied?

Everything goes
Well, anything goes all of the time
Everything you dream of is right in front of you
And everything is a lie

“Unsatisfied” opens with arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords that resolve into a solid, unintrusive beat and a pattern marked by sustained chords that express intention through the continuity of the shared note. That continuity creates a solid platform for Paul Westerberg’s vocal, a compelling expression of deep-seeded disgust with life-as-is. Rather than coming across as a bitchy, poor-me rant, it sounds more like a wake-up call to self and other. Routine and tradition can numb a person’s senses to a slowly deteriorating reality, and the timing of the release of Let It Be couldn’t have been more appropriate. My read of history is that Reagan and his pals sold the American people a façade of mom and apple pie to direct their attention away from a crumbling society, and that the majority of Americans voluntarily entered a period of deep denial that still pervades the culture to this day. I’d love to become the Queen of America for a week, because then I could order my minions to blast out “Unsatisfied” from every available loudspeaker across the whole fucking country.

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Let It Be came out about three years after MTV entered the scene and began to have an enormous influence on music and the music industry, all for the worse. Most videos served as nothing more than visual titillation, using the camera’s manipulative ability to imbue the artist and the music with a veneer of depth and sex appeal. From a marketing standpoint, it was a brilliant move, because the industry needed a gimmick to gussy up the really shitty products they were trying to peddle at the time. From an artistic standpoint, few artists took advantage of the medium to enhance the artistic message; most used it to raise their public profile and their own sense of self-importance. “Seen Your Video” exposed the bullshit in brilliant fashion with a demonstration of bass-heavy hot guitar rock in an extended instrumental passage featuring a stop-time segment of dissonant piano that ends with the severe poetic economy of eight direct lines:

Seen your video
The phony Rock ‘n’ Roll
We don’t want to know
Seen your video

Your phony Rock ‘n’ Roll
We don’t want to know
We don’t want to know
We don’t want to know

Amen, brother.

“Gary’s Got a Boner” is an all-out bash that always makes me laugh because it perfectly captures the male obsession with their members. I’m not one of those girls that go “ooh baby” when she sees a stiff prick, because frankly, I think the penis is the most ridiculous-looking human appendage of them all. They can be very useful, though, and I have no problem helping a male fulfill his destiny once I get over the giggles. Sexuality aside, I love the way the bass fills my headphones on this song, and the guitar work is delightfully rough and raw.

“Gary’s Got a Boner” falls into the category of coming-of-age songs, and The Replacements do an even better job in that sub-genre with “Sixteen Blue.” Bob Stinson’s varied counterpoint guitar fills and lead solo are simply fabulous, and Paul Westerberg’s empathetic vocal is one of his best. I read that this was written about the young Tommy Stinson, but the experience described in the song is shared by both genders. The lyrics relate the story a teen with a strong post-puberty sex drive trapped in a world where talking about sexuality is taboo: he or she fucks her way through life but doesn’t have anyone to talk to who can help her get his/her head around the experience. I don’t think most adults understand or accept their own sexual urges, which is why I think the identity crisis described here is universal and not simply limited to teenagers:

Brag about things you don’t understand
A girl and a woman, a boy and a man
Everything is sexually vague
Now you’re wondering to yourself if you might be gay

The sensitive, tender tone of the song is really what makes it so beautiful. Westerberg simply captures the experience without expressing judgment.

Let It Be closes with “Answering Machine,” and if you can get past the antiquated technology, you’ll find another well-written song about human disconnection, something we experience every day we go online and communicate without access to a person’s face, tone or body language. The angst experienced in having to talk to a machine instead of a human being is echoed in the tense arrangement, a duet of lead vocal and lead guitar. You keep waiting for the drums and bass to enter to relieve the tension but they never do; the song leaves you on hold, permanently. The couplet, “Try and free a slave of ignorance/Try and teach a whore about romance,” captures the image of a chasm so wide you could never hope to cross it, and when you’re lonely in a far away place, the chasm you experience when you hear that impersonal, invalidating voice mail message leaves you feeling utterly helpless. “Answering Machine” is a timeless song that poses a problem that will continue to worsen as long as we allow technology to substitute for human contact.

One of the other things I love about Let It Be is that the selection of the title was a statement in itself—one in which I find myself in complete sympathy. Paul Westerberg said it was “our way of saying that nothing is sacred, that the Beatles were just a fine rock & roll band.” After having slogged through the mountains of astonishingly trivial detail in what is only the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-volume Beatles bio, I find the ongoing adulation of The Beatles both puzzling and troubling, just as I find the continuing obsession with Marilyn Monroe totally weird. The groveling, masochistic tendency of human beings to elevate entertainers to godlike status is one of the worst features of today’s human race.

Look. The Beatles had about five years where they recorded some of the greatest music in rock ‘n’ roll history. Their last few years together were characterized by well-produced mediocrity and group dysfunction. They then went their separate ways and capitalized on their fame by making what was largely a pile of completely unforgettable crap, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt they were as human as you and me. When you figure in their solo careers, their collective bad years far exceed their collective good years, something that is true for most artists in any genre. They made a lot of money. McCartney achieved knighthood. Whoop-de-do. End of story.

And if you want to do a comparison between competing Let It Be albums, well, there is no comparison. The Beatles’ Let It Be is a piss-poor collection of weak music by a bickering bunch who were already past their prime. The Replacements’ Let It Be is a daring, powerful, sensitive and truthful work that is both endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking. Had that same music been packaged with the four mop tops on the cover, it would be universally celebrated as a masterpiece of the highest order.

I’m glad that didn’t happen. I like the thought of four regular guys winning in the end.

Original post on altrockchick.com 

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Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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