Punk rock has been around long enough to hold within its musical boundaries a slew of albums considered both classic and essential. We here at Dying Scene love and appreciate these classic albums, but every once and a while we have the urge to challenge what the community has deemed sacred. Every Saturday, two Dying Scene writers will square off head-to-head and either attack or defend one of these so-called classics. Up for slaughter today is The Replacements‘ “Tim.” Does the 1985 classic hold up today? You be the judge. Dustin Gates will be defending and Carson Winter will be attacking.
There are three bands that are often cited with creating the “alternative rock” scene, all of which were formerly punk bands. California’s Minutemen, and the Minnesota duo of Husker Du and The Replacements. While the Minutemen added elements of funk, folk, and car horn samples into their bizarre approach, and Husker Du went on to experiment with psychedelic and jazz elements before settling down into a more melodic style, it was The Replacements who took the most down-to-Earth route. Combining elements of power pop, classic rock and roll, heavy metal, rockabilly and country with front-man Paul Westerberg’s scratchy vocals and heartfelt lyrics, The Replacements crafted an eclectic style unlike their peers, which also happened to be more accessible because why the fuck not?
But this isn’t about The Replacements as a whole and their impact on music. This is specifically about their album Tim. I admit that Tim is hardly a punk album, at least in the traditional sense. Their previous album, Let It Be (which is a far superior album, in this writer’s opinion), completely shifted the band’s sound by adding in a range of instrumentation and a new approach to writing lyrics, and Tim is a continuation of that experimentation of new sounds and exploration of songs about loneliness and the frustration of not fitting in with mainstream society.
The thing that really stands out about The Replacements to me is Westerberg’s lyricism. He had his shining moments in his earlier work, but he was also known to pen lyrics like an obscene Ramone (try “I need a God-damn job, I need a God-damn job, I really need a God-damn job, I need a God-damn job” or “Fuck school, fuck school, fuck my school” on for size). Starting with Let It Be and bleeding out into Tim, Westerberg developed a taste for more poetic imagery and clever wordplay. Tim’s opening track, “Hold My Life” tells the story of a youth who just can’t ever seem to stick with a decision and would like someone to put his life on hold because he “just might lose it”. Sure songs about needing a job and hating school are relatable, but the words that Westerberg uses on “Hold My Life” (which includes a reference to an old cartoon) have actual thought put on to them and don’t seem like something that a 15 year old would have scribbled into the back of his Math notebook.
“Waitress in the Sky” is another shining example of Westerberg’s lyrics. Allegedly written as a tongue-in-cheek song for his sister, the song is told from the point of view of a flight passenger being a jerk toward his female flight attendant. Or perhaps it’s written about a rude flight attendant that Westerberg dealt with once. That part is up to interpretation, but whether it was intended as a joke or a direct insult, describing a flight attendant as a “waitress in the sky” is a pretty clever way of putting it. On the nicer side of things, “Left of the Dial” is a celebratory song about college radio stations and the smaller, independent bands and artists that would get played, titled as such because college stations would (get this) be on the left side of the radio dial. Continuing his clever wordplay, Westerberg tries his hand at double entendres and punning: “Dose of Thunder” appears to be an allusion for drugs of some sort, when in reality it’s a tribute to Johnny Thunders (of the New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers)… a man with a history of drug use. Closing acoustic ballad “Here Comes a Regular” is a slow anthem for recurring bar patrons, but the lyrics also describe your run-of-the-mill average Joe, or as some might describe, a very regular person. In a move that allows the music to play off of its lyrics, the song itself is mostly performed solely by Westerberg and his guitar… making it a pretty regular song in its composition. Westerberg may not have written about the most original topics, but it’s not quite the lyrical subjects of the songs that make Tim so fascinating; it’s the way in which he presents his lyrics that makes it so great.
Tim isn’t all metaphors and imagery though. While the lyrics are what make the album truly shine, the band as a whole also wrote some tight tunes that shifted from genre to genre without any song ever really feeling out of place. “Hold My Life” starts the album as Big Star-esque power pop, but Tim rapidly shifts gears into the more bluesy rock of “I’ll Buy”, the slower paced “Kiss Me on the Bus”, and the faux-heavy metal “Dose of Thunder”. By the time the album is over, the band covers their personal brands of rockabilly (“Waitress in the Sky”), crooning ballads (“Swingin’ Party”), gritty rock and roll (“Bastard of Young”), 50’s rock and roll piano riffs (“Lay It Down Clown), and a solo acoustic attempt (“Here Comes a Regular”). There are bands to this very day that try to experiment with so many different sounds and still can’t create such a coherent and well flowing album as Tim (I mean… it happens, some probably better than Tim, but considering how long ago this album was recorded you’d think that more bands could successfully cop their style).
Tim may not be very “punk” in its presentation, but much like Black Flag, Minutemen, and Husker Du alongside them, The Replacements showcased the spirit of rebellion by trying new things instead of limiting themselves to emulating the sounds of their peers and the scene that they originally spawned from. Tim does have a few missteps (“Swingin’ Party” in particular… the song does become slightly better once you know what a “swinging party” is, but that knowledge doesn’t really help to speed the song up in any way), but on the whole Tim has more hits than misses.
Oh yeah, and there’s also that protest music video for “Bastards of Young” that is mostly just a single shot of a speaker playing the song. I guess I should also mention how the exact same premise was then used for “Hold My Life” and “Left of the Dial”. The idea has since been used by a few other artists including some unknown bands called Against Me! and Green Day. The influence of this video on modern artists isn’t necessarily a key ingredient as to why Tim deserves to be recognized as a great album, but it does help to show off the longevity of that influence.
The recklessness, debauchery, and spontaneity of the Replacements’ live show has become something of punk rock legend. They’re looked upon as the early genesis for the heart-on-your-sleeve punk rock that dominates our scene today, and bands aplenty will attest to the Replacements influence on their music. But, I confess: I don’t get it. Where some hear punk rock changing and growing, all I hear is bland alternative rock.
Tim is one of their best known albums, and by that I mean it’s the one with “Bastards of Young” on it, not “Androgynous,” and while it may have its moments, those are few and far between– leaving anyone that’s only heard of their legendary live shows out in the cold and utterly confused.
Tim is hardly a punk album to begin with (although I won’t hold this against it), the sounds on this album are lifted from decades of rock, pop, and country. In a way, this was the most punk thing about the Replacements; while others searched for harsher and harder sounds, they looked back into rock history and developed a more melodic sonic palette, despite what was in vogue at the time. The Replacements were trying to break and subvert the mold punk rock had cast itself in, and to a degree you could say they did, but their ambition didn’t produce the excitement it suggests. On Tim they trade in hardcore sloganeering for insipid love songs and trite and twangy rockers. I’m not sure I could consider this moving forward.
“Kiss Me on the Bus” doesn’t hint at anything profound with its coy and repetitive lyrics, but what the band didn’t seem to understand was that it should. If you’re going to be introspective, dig deep; don’t rest on Norman Rockwell imagery and decide you’ve done enough. What makes Tim such a frustrating listen is knowing that the Replacements were an ambitious band– ambitious enough to turn their back on the scene and style that birthed them– and listen to them squander all their chances at something musically progressive and meaningful. The Replacements had a chance to do something great, but Tim is decidedly middle of the road.
The crowning achievement Tim has to offer is “Bastards of Young.” It’s a blindingly bright light that pierces through what is essentially a collection of unmemorable, under conceived tracks. I sometimes wonder if all the bands that claim the Replacements as an influence only ever heard this song. This is what the Replacements should’ve sounded like all the time: enraged, melancholy, and unpretentious. “Bastards of Young” may be the blueprint for much of today’s melodic punk, but the problem is that it’s an anomaly. It’s a stand-out that’s so good it shines an unforgiving light on the rest of the album’s flaws.
Essentially, my biggest problem with Tim is how safe it feels. There’s no sense of danger to this record. There were a lot of bands that were contemporaries of the Replacements that were interested in pushing punk forward into new and interesting directions, but the Replacements stand apart in their relative safeness. Husker Du and the Minutemen didn’t create any great works in my opinion, but their music holds a sense of enthusiasm and creativity that the ‘Mats never got close to. The Replacements were content to stagnate, playing rock music as it had been played decades before without a note of progression. If Tim had been a bit more daring, it still might not have been able to defeat its own idiosyncratic blandness, but it would have been a more interesting album.
But, despite how I feel about Tim, it does have an audience. And while I can’t vouch for its quality, it’s an objective fact that it has proven influential over the years. But, time has not been kind to it. Tim is a limp precursor to the weak and watery alternative rock that drowned the 90’s in samey riffs and droney vocals. If Tim offers us anything, it’s through its legacy: inspiring dozens of better bands to write vastly better albums.