At the Peak of Their Powers: On the Replacements' Most Volatile and Rewarding Period

Rock music thrives on legends and lore, and few bands of the past forty years produced more of it than Minneapolis' Replacements, four scruffy outcasts who came together to create one of the truly enduring and beloved catalogs in recent history. Tragic and comedic in equal measures, the story of the band's sideways lurch towards commercial stardom is the stuff of Russian novels, replete with mayhem, triumph, excess, death and family dysfunction. That story is told with moving acuity and forensic detail in Bob Mehr's 2016 account Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, a book that wrestles brilliantly with both the group's music and the larger implications of their desperate struggle, marking it is an instant classic of the band-bio genre. 

Recently, Rhino Records announced the release of For Sale: Live At Maxwell's 1986 (out 10/6), a long-shelved live album that finds the Replacements both at the precipice of chaos and the peak of their prowess. Thirty years later, the two-disc set remains a revelation of off-hand genius: a cabaret of punk, show tunes, power-pop and Country & Western that both underscores the uncanny weight of Paul Westerberg's writing and attests to the band's unstable future.

In honor of the occasion, we spoke to Trouble Boys author Mehr, as well as Michael Hill who served as the Replacements A&R man at Sire Records and was witness to the live show's recording.

1986 was a pivotal year for the band in so many ways. They had released their major label debut and recently appeared on SNL. At the same time relations were fraying between lead guitarist Bob Stinson and frontman Paul Westerberg, and they were predictably finding the challenges of conforming to mainstream tastes profoundly difficult. What do you think was the prevailing mindset as the group took the stage that night? Anxious, frustrated, triumphal or some combination?

Bob Mehr: As performers, the Replacements were so much a product of the moment, of whatever Paul's moods were, and whatever they may have been imbibing and ingesting that it's unlikely they carried any of the bigger internal/external issues into the recording. They were definitely aware that the show was being taped and that Warner Bros. had some expectations, or at least a hope, that the recording would be usable on some level. But that didn't mean they were going to be sipping herbal teas, doing vocal exercises or group meditation before the gig to insure a good show.

Michael Hill: I don't recall the mood being any different than that of most Replacements performances, though there was a lot of anxiety among those of us responsible for organizing the recording. The band went to the club's basement to "warm up," and I did worry about what condition they would be in when they emerged. They got through it without any spectacular screw-ups and did great versions of some of the older material, along with the covers. The label didn't find what it was looking for in terms of marketing a live promo, but now we have this wonderfully intact performance to enjoy decades later.

Mehr: Certainly, very little was planned in terms of the set list — you can clearly hear that they’re choosing songs as they go, and even honoring audience requests. And yet, when you look at the results, the 29 tracks touch on all five of their albums with an ideal emphasis on the two most recent in Let It Be and Tim. They play a couple rare cuts and B-sides as well, and offer an interesting selection of covers. It's a pretty perfect summary of their catalog, whether on purpose or by accident. With Westerberg you never really know — he was always someone, even then, who was more aware of what he was doing than he'd ever let on.

Men's Journal: Even thirty years after the fact, the band's 1986 SNL appearance remains a sort of musical Rashomon — depending on your perspective it was either a brilliant act of rock and roll transgression or a complete catastrophe. Do you have a sense of how the band thought they did and what sort of effect that level of exposure had on an already fragile dynamic?

Mehr: It was both a brilliant moment and a kind of catastrophe. They knew after the first song — when Lorne Michaels came in and bawled them and their managers out in the dressing room backstage — that at least from the network and label perspective they'd probably pushed things a bit too far. But I think the band understood what the SNL opportunity represented and they were bound and determined to leave a lasting impression, regardless of the consequences in the moment. The fact that it's become this touchstone moment for fans, is still talked about 30 years after the fact, and always ranks as one of the most famous musical performances on the show in any SNL retrospective piece, tells you the band's instincts were right. Even at the time, the SNL spot and the word of mouth instantly helped boost album sales and increase buzz on the band.

Hill: I was at the SNL taping. I don't think the band or anyone there at the time felt it was a catastrophe, even if they didn't think it was the breakthrough moment of their career. Paul had said the f-word. I thought it would get bleeped out along the way; to many of us that didn't seem quite a big deal, but clearly the producers of SNL were upset, the network was upset and the label was upset. To this day I don't believe that was a premeditated act on Paul's part. He just said it. The more transgressive — and funnier — aspect was that Bob had put on a poorly fitting jumpsuit that I believe belonged to one of the other guys. It split up the behind during one of the songs... and he wasn't wearing anything underneath it. That didn't make it on camera but it was a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen. Anyone behind the scenes – so to speak – was worried about that.

Mehr: The other direct impact of SNL was that it effectively ruled out American television as a viable promotional outlet, at least for a while. And since the band was still refusing, for a little longer anyway, to film a music video, it led to some different kinds of discussions about ways to promote them by the record company. There was some talk of a satellite concert broadcast that would be shown and filmed, but I think Warner Bros. thought that was too big a risk. A more modest and manageable idea was to record them live. They were, on a good night, an incredible rock and roll band: loud, tight, and powerful. So the idea became let's put the Replacements in a familiar small club environment, let's get the best possible recording set up going and then let's roll tape and see what happens.

Hill: As for the cursing, maybe it was nerves or maybe it was excitement. No one would have thought twice about it at a Replacements show. Waiting between rehearsal and showtime, without being able to leave the building, would be nerve wracking for anyone and it was more acute with these guys, especially for Bob, who had extreme difficulty being cooped up. And, if I recall correctly he wrecked both his dressing room and hotel room. So it was a combustible situation and that came out in the performance, which I still find raw and exciting in a way few SNL music performances were. At the after-party, we were all pretty much shunned. That's when we began to understand the nature of what happened. People were angry, but now it's a legendary moment from live television. Time heals.

There was always a sense of Paul Westerberg as a guy who was on some level eager to leave behind punk rock and establish his bonafides as a successor to Dylan or Ray Davies or Ronnie Lane. And yet the Maxwell's set list draws heavily from the exceedingly fast and loose pre-Let It Be records, so he clearly had not given up on those songs. Do you have a sense of where his head was at this time in terms of his evolution as a songwriter? Are there any songs on the set list that surprised you?

Hill: I don't think Paul ever repudiated his older material — he just opened up as a songwriter and showed a greater range as he matured, one that was hinted at in the first few records. Those earlier songs were, and are, a lot of fun to hear, and they were a great cathartic part of Replacements shows throughout their career. It's what got the band, and got Paul, noticed. The setlist didn't surprise me; it's what they did.​

Mehr: What you hear on For Sale is the essence of the band during what was maybe their best, certainly one of their best, periods. A lot of that was a matter of pure sonics. They had better gear by this point, had bought their Marshall stacks by then. They'd always had volume, but I think by early '86 they also had a kind of heft and wattage to go along with it on stage. That's why the recording has such a sense of force and dynamics. I think the original recording by the Effanel mobile unit and the mix by Brian Kehew and Bill Inglot really captures what the band sounded like, particularly in the way that Bob and Paul played off each other and the way Chris and Tommy played off each other. Their interplay is what stands out on For Sale — you get that in a way that their studio albums maybe only hinted at. That's the thing I'm most impressed with and probably proudest of — For Sale gives you the full experience of hearing the Replacements playing together as a band, on a great night, in an intimate club, at arguably the peak of their powers.

I wanted to ask about the cover songs from the set. The Replacements were known for wild covers and in this instance chart a pretty crazy ride between the Beatles' "Nowhere Man" to T-Rex's "Baby Strange" to Vanity Fair's "Hitchin' A Ride". While I'm pretty sure the band would respond to this idea dismissively, I always felt that the Replacements' choice of covers was on some level a deliberate attempt to re-write the canon of music criticism. Their view of great rock and roll seems purposeful and populist in its direct juxtaposition of glam and trash rock with the sacrosanct Beatles, Dylan and Stones. Do you have a sense of how they decided on covers and do you think we can learn anything about the band's mindset from them?

Mehr: There was probably nothing articulated or especially well thought out about their covers, though that's not to say their choices were without meaning. They played songs they liked, songs they heard together in the van, and songs they grew up with as kids. Something like "Hitchin' a Ride", is the sort of early 70s bubblegum AM radio fare that both Paul and Bob dug – I also think the riff from "Hitchin'" was a kind of inspiration for the riff in "Can’t Hardly Wait". T-Rex was definitely a Westerberg favorite and the band would later cover Marc Bolan's "Raw Ramp" live as well. The Beatles were always lurking in the background; the band's first manager Peter Jesperson loved them and the Replacements delighted in being cheeky with the sacred Fabs – hence, Let It Be as an album title. But "Nowhere Man" certainly fits into the group's self-deprecating worldview as well. And of course, they'd recorded KISS' "Black Diamond" – which definitely was a calculated decision to subvert the idea of what was considered a "cool" cover for an alternative rock band to be doing.

Hill: I think they chose what they liked. Paul and the band always had pretty wide-ranging tastes – old rock and roll, glam rock, heavy metal, country, jazz, AM gold. They always chose well – their choices struck me as smart and funny, though never "ironic." Smart, but instinctively so. I believe they really enjoyed everything they played – they weren't sending it up in any way. I doubt they saw some critical line of demarcation between, say, KISS and the Rolling Stones. The fact that could barely play some of the songs they liked, but did it any way, attested to their own fandom. That was part of the fun. And empowering, I would imagine, for the audience, like the early punk bands were. The Replacements were well ahead of the curve in terms of covers and their mix of what some may view as "high" and "low." Though I doubt they ever consciously made that distinction. And they were right about that!

The show itself sounds remarkable. It was loose but brilliant with the kind of inter-band chemistry that could only be achieved through years of trial and error. Within the next several months Bob Stinson would be fired. A few years later he would be dead. In artistic and personal terms, was that ever a situation that could have been resolved by anything other than his firing?

Mehr: In writing the book, I thought about that a lot — the "what if" of Bob somehow remaining in the group. And really, as much as I've turned it over, I don’t think there was a scenario where that could've happened. I spent a lot of time in Trouble Boys trying to show that Bob’s personal issues were bigger than the band, in fact had very little to do with the band, and yet totally affected the history and direction of the group. That’s the rub, of course.

Hill: Bob's difficulties — clearly stemming from bi-polar disorder — were not of a sort that could be easily dealt with by the band alone. One can argue about how it all went down among the band members, but I don't think anyone in the band fully grasped the nature of his problems at the time. Bob played brilliantly at that Maxwell's show and it is wonderful to have this testament to his gifts as a guitarist. Perhaps in our contemporary world, where mental health problems are discussed more openly, information is more widely available, and medications more effective in these situations, a circumstance like this would have turned out differently.

Mehr: Listening to this record it's hard to imagine how a band this good, a lineup this connected, would cease to exist just a few months later. I guess the happy takeaway here is that this live record exists, that a real high-fidelity document of the Replacements with Bob at this point in their history survives. Now everyone can hear it and for 90 minutes listen to these songs and their playing and live back in that moment. That's the beauty of a really great live album — it captures something ephemeral, and in doing so it becomes an eternal thing.

Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements is available in paperback and audiobook now.