“The Replacements represent the complete antithesis of all my dreams for the future of pop. And yet, I can’t help myself. I love them so much it hurts.” (Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, 1987)
Back in the late 80s, if Simon Reynolds loved it, then I usually bought it. And when I finally got round to buying Pleased to Meet Me in 1988, I felt just like he did. In so many ways it was everything I hated, still hate in fact, and I had no idea that the legendary Jim Dickinson produced it (had no idea who Jim Dickinson even was), had never heard of Alex Chilton, had no idea what the skyway was or what the hell ‘shooting dirty pool’ meant, hated anything that had even the slightest whiff of Americana about it, not that the term had been invented then, and of course hadn’t heard any of the band’s previous records; and yet the album’s mood swings – from giddy, dancing-on-tables drunkenness to morning-after melancholy – touched a nerve in a way that few other bands ever have. As an apprentice depressive (not that I knew it at the time), living for a year in a creaking 1930s time capsule of a house in a mining town in Northern France, with my landlady’s mentally disturbed son locked in a room just across the landing, and some mysterious, unseen hand keeping the cellar constantly filled with cheap vin de table and beer (mysterious and unseen, only because the delivery guy showed up before midday which was when I used to get out of bed), meeting Pleased to Meet Me was pure fate.
I won’t go on about the myths, legends and facts around its recording for they have been adequately and frequently detailed elsewhere, most entertainingly and thoroughly in Bob Mehr’s superb 2016 book Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements, a tome that makes Hammer of the Gods seem like Mills & Boon; suffice to say it’s a story of excess, self-sabotage and reluctant genius that just makes me love them even more than I did 30 years ago. No, let’s talk about why I fell so hard for the album back then and why I still listen to it at least once a week.
I bloody loved ‘IOU’ of course, that gleeful opening riff, “Exile on Main Street at 78rpm” as Paul Westerberg described it, very probably a fuck-you to sacked guitarist Bob Stinson who thought the band were going soft – they responded with their loudest, punk-est song in years.
Despite not knowing who he was (I’ve more than rectified that since) I loved ‘Alex Chilton’, and after all who couldn’t love a song whose chorus – “I’m in love – what’s that song?” masterfully articulates the sheer joy of finding a new band to get all excited about?
I really loved ‘I Don’t Know’, the wilfully dumb call-&-response anthem with that line – “One foot in the door/the other one in the gutter” – neatly summing up the band’s bizarre status of simultaneously being the hippest band in the US at the time and being persona non grata at most of its gig venues and radio stations.
I even loved ‘Nightclub Jitters’, even though it was basically jazz and I fucking hated jazz (I’ve rectified that one too).
And oh god did I love ‘The Ledge’, that spine-tingling tale of a young man finally getting people’s attention by throwing himself off a building (“I’m the boy they can’t ignore/For the first time in my life I’m sure”), Westerberg’s harrowing vocal delivery (famously he got it right first time; just as well as he was too wrung out for further takes) perfectly offset by the band’s spidery, almost gothic rock arrangement.
I loved the two ‘pop’ songs – the meaty beaty ‘Never Mind’ (its title later filched by a band who couldn’t hold a candle to the ‘Mats) and the cutely romantic ‘Valentine’ (though only in the Replacements’ universe would a line like “If you were a pill, I’d take a handful at my will” qualify as ‘romantic’).
I also loved the generally reviled ‘Shooting Dirty Pool’, a hard-rockin’ (yuck…but I still love it) tale of unwelcoming gig venues, especially the bit where some redneck says “Why don’t you get a haircut sister?” and then the bottles start flying, even though it was so far away from my personal experience it may as well have been sung in Serbo-Croat for all I could relate to it.
Naturally, given that well-stocked cellar and my leisure activities at that time (at that time…ha) I absolutely ADORED ‘Red Red Wine’, the greatest drinking anthem ever written, and, I am convinced, the reason I hardly ever touch white or rose to this day. How could you, after so often yelling along to words like “As long as it is red, you can set ‘em up until we’re dead…I didn’t come here to fight, just as long as it ain’t white”?
I loved tender acoustic ballad ‘Skyway’, even though I’ve always hated tender acoustic ballads; it’s just that Westerberg is so bloody good at them whilst also sounding faintly guilty that he’s performing them, as he damn well should.
And of course I loved the closer, and arguably the band’s finest moment, ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. 3 minutes and 21 seconds of pure guitar pop genius from that strangely affecting opening line – “I’ll write you a letter tomorrow/Tonight I can’t hold a pen” – to the joyous climax, with soaring strings, Alex Chilton’s guitar and some of Memphis’ finest horn players carrying these shambolic drunken arseholes to such a lofty peak of empathic, heart-stirring greatness it still brings a lump to my throat even today.
And yet Pleased to Meet Me remains a rock & roll footnote rather than a touchstone. The band didn’t help themselves of course, pissing off pretty much everyone who came near them, turning down Scott Litt as producer (he went off and produced REM’s Green instead, and we all know what happened then), refusing to make videos, releasing ‘The Ledge’ as a single just as a teenage suicide panic broke out…and so on. But fuck it – if Pleased to Meet Me is a failure, it’s a glorious one.
And 30 years later, I still can’t help myself. I still love them so much it hurts.