I’m seeing the Replacements at the Roundhouse tomorrow night, so I’ve decided to take a break from our bass-player series and repost this piece from a year or so back on my favourite Mats song. More bassists on Thursday, unless I decide to write about the show instead.
To a certain cast of mind, the Replacements’ self-sabotaging drunkenness and apparent disregard for professional advancement is endearing, and makes everyone else look careerist by comparison. Such a mindset doesn’t take into account the possibility that Paul Westerberg and his bandmates knew the value of their image as beer-sodden losers, and maybe got ahead by affecting not to care whether or not they got ahead – after all, it’s difficult to end up signed to Warner Bros. by accident. But when I was a kid, working backwards from my beloved Nirvana, trying to work out who influenced them so I’d know who to listen to next, stories about the Replacements and their exploits made them seem cool and exciting. The band weren’t widely known, but well-known enough for their records to be available, and they had some influential rock-critic voices speaking up for them: Gina Arnold dedicated a chapter of her On the Road to Nirvana to them; a few years later Michael Azerrad would do the same in Our Band Could Be Your Life. In October last year they were even included in the list of acts eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, along with Peter Gabriel, Nirvana, the Meters, NWA, Chic and Hall & Oates.
Like Big Star, the Replacements have birthed a mythology so pervasive, it becomes hard to consider the band’s music without also considering a whole load of extra-musical stuff that’s commonly taken to be crucial to understanding them: their various addictions, the tension between Westerberg and the rest of the band, their hazing of unfortunate record producers, the commercial compromises of the band’s latter albums and of course the death of Bob Stinson, the group’s wayward lead guitarist. When we respond to the Replacements, we’re not just responding to the music; if we were, I think it unlikely they’d be quite so highly regarded. Their status as the perpetual losers and professional underdogs from a second-tier city is a crucial part of their appeal*, hence the enormous cognitive dissonance of their even being nominated for the R&R Hall of Fame.
None of which makes Westerberg any more or less talented as a songwriter. I Will Dare; Unsatisfied; Here Comes a Regular; Bastards of Young; Left of the Dial; Alex Chilton (the cult of Big Star goes up a notch with this song); Skyway; Can’t Hardly Wait; Aching to Be; I’ll Be You. That’s a list that just about anyone would be happy to have written. But for me, Westerberg created his masterpiece early when he wrote Unsatisfied and cut it for 1984’s Let It Be.
The crucial thing to me isn’t that Unsatisfied is cleverly crafted and universally relatable, although it is – it’s Westerberg’s performance of it and his band’s empathetic playing (especially Chris Mars’s drumming). It’s why every cover of it I’ve hear falls flat. Westerberg’s voice was not a tutored one, and was quite a limited one, but his hoarse bellows on Unsatisfied are the song. His performance is perfectly judged, rising in intensity all the way through the second verse and chorus (which ends with a discordant reading of the line “Are you satisfied”, in which only the last word is enunciated), until he reaches the song’s key line: “I’m so, I’m so unsatisfied”. It doesn’t look like much on paper, but Westerberg’s delivery of it will make your hair stand up. The tension-building of that first unresolved “I’m so” – you know that the resolution can’t be a positive one – lasts only a few seconds, but the whole song rests on that one moment.
Very few things about great singing or songwriting (and Unsatisfied is an example of both) are unconscious, and Westerberg’s fully in charge of his craft here. When writing the song, he must have known how hard he’d be able to bite down on that line in performance. The genius of the recorded version of Unsatisfied is how fresh it sounds, as if he’d never sung the song before, as if the thought was occurring to him for the first time as he gave voice to it.
Foremost in their slim canon of truly great songs, Unsatisfied is the one that will keep people coming to the Replacements’ music to see what all those critics are making a fuss about. It’s a perfect little moment.
The Replacements live: Tommy Stinson (seated), Chris Mars (drums), Westerberg (horizontal), Bob Stinson (guitar)
*They’re aware of it too, and know how to play it up for writers, hence bassist Tommy Stinson in a Spin profile a few years ago: “We were all nowhere – we came from nowhere, we were going nowhere. And the band gave us something.”