Saturday, April 07, 2012

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: It's Time to Put in The Replacements

You can see all Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees here
(Note: As this piece is primarily about The Replacements, at bottom there is a sequential video playlist of some of their best songs, which you may wish to listen to as you read. Most of the videos are audio only.)

Next Saturday, April 14, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will hold its 27th induction ceremony in Cleveland.

As you can see at left, Guns 'n Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Donovan, Laura Nyro, The Small Faces/Faces and Beastie Boys head the inductee class of 2012. 

I have no real argument with any of these artists as being worthy of induction--FYI, artists in the "Performers" category become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first record. The Rock Hall Foundation’s nominating committee, composed of rock and roll historians, selects nominees each year, which are voted on by an international voting body of more than 500 rock experts. Those performers who receive the highest number of votes, and more than 50 percent of the vote, are inducted--and it's not that I really care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For while its inductees are generally among rock music's most celebrated practitioners and pioneers, as an arbiter of artistic merit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is inconsequential compared to my own tastes. And yours.
Heck, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, the actual hall of inductees is one of the least conspicuous attractions, tucked away on an upper floor.

And yet I do care. In the way that I care about the Oscars--not as gospel but as a catalyst of consideration, exploration and conversation--I care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and who its voters choose to induct.

Or more irksomely, not induct.

For my money, or lack thereof, here is my updated list of the Top 20 eligible artists who are not yet in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: 
1. The Jam
2. The Replacements
3. Stevie Ray Vaughan
4. Warren Zevon
5. Cheap Trick
6. The Zombies
7. Hüsker Dü
8. The Monkees
9. Rush
10. Midnight Oil
11. Peter Gabriel
12. Roxy Music
13. Dire Straits
14. The Smiths

15. Love
16. KISS
17. Deep Purple
18. New York Dolls
19. The Cars
20. ELO and/or The Move
(they're linked via Jeff Lynne)
Oops: Meant to include The Cure at about #12
Having recently written a review of ex-Jam leader Paul Weller's new album, in which I extol the brilliance of his band that ruled England from 1977-82 but made few inroads in America, here I will focus on another magnificent group that has been criminally overlooked by the Rock Hall: The Replacements.

Hailing from Minneapolis in the early '80s, the Replacements were critical darlings--if never commercially huge--which makes their omission a bit more puzzling.  

- Rolling Stone called them "one of the all-time great American garage bands" in their album guide and ranks both Let It Be and Tim among the top half of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time (this list, like Hall of Fame inclusion, was based on surveying a panel of rock experts)

- gives 5 of their 7 albums 4-1/2 or 5 stars, and another--perhaps the one I like best, Pleased To Meet Me--4 stars.

- Trouser Press, the self-proclaimed but widely respected "Bible of alternative rock" opens their bio of The Replacements by saying "For a time the world's best rock 'n' roll band..."

- Robert Christigau, the "dean of American rock critics" wrote this about the band's chief singer & songwriter (in a review of Tim): "No songwriter in memory matches Paul Westerberg's artful artlessness."

So with these kinds of accolades from the rock press, who is denying 'The Mats'--as they were colloquially called, playing off "Placemats"--entry into the Rock Hall?

According to the helpful site, the Replacements, like many on my list of snubs, have never even been nominated.

If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction process was based directly on popularity with the general public, I'd better grasp why the Replacements have been overlooked. Although they eventually toured decent-sized venues--such as Chicago's Aragon Ballroom--the Mats were never truly superstars. But I can't imagine many rock journalists nor even fellow musicians who are unaware of The Replacements--and most people who know of them seem to hold them in high regard.

I can't help but wonder if there is some unspoken requirement about American mainstream popularity being a criteria for nomination and induction into the Rock Hall, although the Ramones never sold that many records and I don't know if the late Laura Nyro was ever truly a star. But it somehow seems that perhaps the Replacements, Jam, Smiths, Cheap Trick, Hüsker Dü, Warren Zevon and others are being shunned because they weren't "big enough."

Although I didn't become aware of the Replacements until about 1987, with Pleased to Meet Me, I know that they were notorious for often being drunk and sloppy during live shows. But as Christigau alludes, Westerberg's songwriting is some of the best ever in a rock vein. Consider this verse from "Bastards of Young," off Tim:
The ones who love us best are the ones we'll lay to rest
And visit their graves on holidays at best
The ones who love us least are the ones we'll die to please
If it's any consolation, I don't begin to understand them
I love too many of Westerberg's lyrics to do them justice here, but another of my favorites is the opening of "Never Mind," off Pleased to Meet Me:
Absolution is out of the question
It makes no sense to apologize
The words I thought
I brought I left behind

So never mind
All over but the shouting
Just a waste of time
As no less a master songwriter than Stephen Sondheim has articulated, saying something enlightened with an economy of words is one of the hardest things for a lyricist to accomplish. From my perspective, few rockers have ever matched the wit and wisdom Westerberg brought to the Replacements' best songs.

Originally comprised of Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars, the band initially had more overt hardcore punk leanings. Though their first album, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out The Trash has certain charms, the Mats' prowess pretty closely correlates with Westerberg's evolving maturity as a songwriter. Glimpses of true greatness were seen on songs like "Color Me Impressed" and "Within Your Reach" from Hootenanny, though much of brilliance of 1984's universally praised Let It Be comes from its amalgamation of the band's thrashy past and more contemplative future.

The album opens with the jangly-guitar romp of "I Will Dare" (courtesy of R.E.M.'s Peter Buck), followed by a Ramonesque love song, "Favorite Thing." But while Westerberg's plaintiff ode of angst, "Unsatisfied," hints at his tackling of bigger themes, any suggestion of the band becoming overly introspective are offset by "Gary's Got A Boner" and the KISS cover, "Black Diamond." One of the most unique songs of wistfulness ever written, "Answering Machine," closes the album.

While many critics seem to suggest that the combo of Let It Be and Tim--their first major label release, from which "Hold My Life," "Bastards of Young" and "Little Mascara" are among many true gems--was the band's high water mark, I'd fully include Pleased to Meet Me as part of the plateau. There's not a bad song in the bunch and a pretty diverse range of textures, from the stomp of "I.O.U." to the loungy "Nightclub Jitters" to the unique desperation plea that is "The Ledge."

1989's Don't Tell A Soul is commonly derided as being overly slick, there is much here I like, including probably the band's best pop song, "I'll Be You." And though their 1990 swan song All Shook Down was essentially a Westerberg solo album in everything but billing, it still rises above most of his subsequent solo material. (Westerberg, like Weller, is part of my Paul Principle, as even though he's done much impressive work on his own, it's never quite matched the magnificence of his inaugural band).

Somewhat infamously, the Replacements broke up on stage at Taste of Chicago on July 4, 1991, letting their roadies finish out their set. Though I was living in L.A. at the time, I was actually in Skokie that week but passed on the show for a more personal gathering. I rue that I missed it, especially as another great, short-lived band, Material Issue, opened the show, but I heard the live broadcast on WXRT.

I had seen the Replacements at the Hollywood Palladium in January 1991 and also as openers for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers--who nicked Westerberg's "rebel without a clue" lyric from "I'll Be You" for "Into the Great Wide Open"--at Poplar Creek near Chicago in 1989. I've also seen Westerberg on his own a number of times.

And I would like to see the Replacements rightfully enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Even if it doesn't really matter. (I would also like to see someone make a documentary about the band--I would if I could--and a classic concert get released on DVD, as none are available.)

A few weeks back Steven Van Zandt was on Howard Stern's radio show and Howard asked him about the Rock Hall, intimating that it was somewhat nebulous and wondering why the E Street Band wasn't inducted along with their boss, Bruce Springsteen. Little Steven danced around the latter question, saying that a technicality kept E Street out, but opined that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was particularly important for smaller bands who might not get due recognition otherwise. I think he may have been referencing older acts such as The Midnighters in this year's class, but it struck a chord with me given my consternation over the Replacements, Jam, etc.

I guess I should take some solace from the fact that from a list I made of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame omissions in December 2009, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, The Faces, Neil Diamond and the Beastie Boys have now gotten in. So hopefully the voters will soon see the light about the Replacements and the others on my list above. I think they may have to as once we get past acts that released their first album in 1991--such as Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day and Blur, though they'll likely get ignored too--the well of newly eligible Hall-worthy artists will likely start to really dry up.

But for now, I'll amplify my advocacy by letting the music do the talking.

As I referenced up top, the video below is a sequential playlist of 14 great Replacements. I also made a Replacements playlist on Spotify that anyone connected to me there can access, and if not, anyone using Spotify can find all the Replacements albums.

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