Thursday, February 14, 2013

Why Runaway Town?

By Jay Stringer

This post was planned before we had a slight shuffle of the deck here at DSD. But I'd not be myself if I passed up the chance to throw a dedication to both Dave White and Dan O'Shea while writing a post about The Replacements. 

The title to my next book is taken from a song by The Replacements. It's a song that came to have a lot of personal significance to my wife and I (happy Valentines , yo) so it feels right to borrow from it the title for a book I'm very proud of. By why this band? Why do I shout more about them than about just about anything else in the world?

The promise of punk rock had been that any fucker could do it. Learn a few chords -maybe even just one- and take to the stage. By force in necessary. For so long the mainstream of music had become about art students and manufactured bands. And even within the punk that was breaking the mainstream there was a smell of manufacture. The rock and roll product was merely learning to repackage itself, and the art students were starting to wear safety pins. 

The Replacements were one of the bands to truly follow through on the promise of punk rock. A three-piece band formed by Bobby Stinson as nothing more than a basement jamming club to keep his 12-yearo-old brother off the streets and out of trouble. The band featured the unpredictable and troubled Bobby Stinson on guitar, young Tommy Stinson on bass (learning to play it songs by song) and a guitar player named Chris Mars filling in on drums to keep a rhythm while the Stinson boys jammed.  Paul Westerberg soon invited himself along to this club. A dyslexic loner who worked as a janitor at the local school and needed to be drunk to overcome his innate shyness and perform in front of anyone. He had been hiding in the bushes outside the house for days before he worked up the nerve to approach them. 

Anybody could have been The Replacements. They truly were the band from nowhere, the band with no rights and no hopes of producing music. They didn't even dress like musicians. Paul wore plaid, flannel, sensible shoes and he didn't rip his jeans. Bobby seemed to be on a mission to subvert 'cool' as much as he could, wearing unflattering clothes that were usually a size to small, wearing dresses and bin liners, wearing boiler suits. Quiet Chris dressed like any of the quiet Chris's you've ever known. The only one who looked the part was Tommy. There was no effort to fit in to something else, to be anything else. Later on, when record companies started suggesting such things, they started dressing in plaid suits, clown costumes, anything other than what was expected of them. The Replacements simply WERE.. A generation of musicians followed. Some were great, some were terrible. Some acknowledged the influence, some didn't even realise it. One of them -a three piece group from Aberdeen, Washington- took over the world for one brief moment in the early 90's. 

The trick, though, is also that nobody else could have been The Replacements. They were one of a kind. We are drawn to bands not just because of the music they make, but because they are the only people who can make that music. Buried away in human chemistry is the juice that gives each good band that 'thing.' To go back now and listen to Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash is to listen to an album that only those four snot-nosed brats could have made. It shouts it's influences at us, but they combine into something else. Has ever the spirit of the time, has ever the true spirit of street-level punk rock, been so purely captured as on this slab of vinyl. It works because of Tommy's jumping fingers on the bass. It works because of Paul's intelligent trickster vocals. It works because of Bobby's total lack of respect for music when he had a guitar in his hands. It worked because Quiet Chris somehow had to hold all of this together with his drums. Take any one of those things out of the equation and the album doesn't work. 

Calling the album 'punk' may be misleading. That's a word that means different things to different people. For some it's about a staccato rhythm banged out on a guitar that's only half tuned, or a voice carrying a nasal sneer. For some it's about a look, with bright hair and safety pins. For others it's about politics carried along by riffs. But the sound of those early Replacements riffs didn't fit into any of these ideas. It was D..I.Y, pure and simple, and it was a primal street-level roar that could be traced back via Johnny Thunders to Chuck Berry himself. It's a sound that is ageing very well. 

They were a band who never stood still, literally or figuratively. Once they'd captured that sound, there was no fun to be had in repeating the trick. They moved and evolved. Rock And Roll still wanted to sell you a very set version of events, and a very male version of lust and sex. The Replacements set about telling you it was okay to just be yourself.  It was okay to be lonely, it was okay to be fed up or angry. It was okay to be confused at 16.  It was okay to not fit into the simple gender roles of the glossy music magazines. You wanna dress like a boy? Cool. You wanna dress like a girl? Cool. You don't actually know what you wanna be? Cool. You can't articulate your hopes and fears? That's fine. Let's not belong together, whatever you are is the best thing there is. 

I found this intensely appealing a generation later, when all my friends were into Brit-pop, metal or punk. I didn't hear myself in the smug pretension of Blur, or the overcompensating machismo and sideburns of Oasis. The local metal scene talked proudly of being inclusive and open, but to walk into those pubs was to walk into a scene that wasn't being honest with itself. I could identify strongly with punk, but there were just too many cliques for me to feel completely at home. I saw boys and girls having to change who they were in order to fit into a scene, rather than having scenes that fit who they were. Then I heard this band.

Once a band like this 'made it,' that is, once they broke through into the members only club of Rock and Roll, they found another problem; the club had been run by a select group for so long that you needed to become one of them to get anywhere. You needed to play games, kiss ass, be packaged and be nice. Even rebellion was packaged- the false outrage of the Sex Pistols, the predictability of saying something controversial on cue. They just wanted to be themselves. In finding the one thing they wanted -and in fulfilling that promise of punk rock- they found it was the thing they least wanted. Failure became the challenge. Fans like me have often sat around and talked of how the band could have had a hit if they'd played along. Of how they could have broken the 1980's in half if they'd released the original band demo of CAN'T HARDLY WAIT, with Bobby's ripping guitar, rather than wait and put out the one with the horns. Of the MTV airplay they would have gotten if they'd made a 'real' music video for BASTARDS OF YOUNG instead of finding the loophole in the contract that meant they could just film a stereo speaker for four minutes. Of how they could have continued their fun rivalry with R.E.M to the world stage if they'd just played nice. But that would have been a betrayal of the whole message. It would have been rigging the game. 

If you're going to commit your life to anything, be it writing, music, art, film-making or interpretive dance, you should commit to being yourself while doing it. No matter what. There is no point putting in the hard work to get into the exclusive club and then letting them control how you behave. The Replacements were themselves to the bitter end.

The Replacements simply were.

1 comment:

Steve Weddle said...

One of my favorite groups.