Back in 1984 indie rock was the soundtrack of my college days. My nights too. Pretty much my everything. I would always be broke, but somehow have money every Thursday to stop in at Blue Meanie in El Cajon to pick up the latest records from any band from some obscure town that was being dubbed “The next Athens, Georgia.” I have no idea if Minneapolis was ever called that, or if Athens was once called the next Minneapolis, but I knew the Replacements.
This brings us to the Thursday I wandered in and asked the girl behind the counter if the Replacements had a new record out. “In fact they do,” she said. She pulled it off the wall behind her and handed it to me. I was amused. Here was an album called “Let it Be.” The name alone screamed “we have no shame.” Slagging the Beatles? This isn’t Liverpool, I figured, we should be fine. The cover photo was a great shot of the four guys on a rooftop. I took it home and put it on the turntable (ask your parents) and cranked it up, expecting more straight ahead punk like I had heard before. Instead I heard something almost pop. Almost hopeful. Almost a hit.
“I Will Dare” kicks things off with Paul Westerberg asking, “How old are you? How young am I?” while guitarist Bob Stinson, his teen-age brother Tommy on bass and drummer Chris Mars laying out a laid back, loose melody punctuated by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck soloing on guitar. It’s a song about love and bravery, about being willing to risk something for love. The fact that it was released as a single and did not get more airplay on the college charts was a crime. Next came three rapid-fire shots of punk that the band had previously been known for, at least by me. “Favorite Thing,” “We’re Coming Out” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” were great bits of guitar fury, galloping drums and Westerberg spitting out sarcasm, sincerity and “one more chance to get it half right.” I was not quite 21 yet, but I had a fake ID and had fallen in love with local music: N-E-1, Manual Scan, the Beat Farmers, the Electric Sons, the Shards… San Diego had a thriving music scene. But “Let it Be” was like nothing I was hearing on Friday nights. It was looser, and louder. It was a fusion of punk and pop and rock ‘n’ roll and the sound of a band growing up and not necessarily wanting to. It was smart and stupid at alternating moments. For a guy who spent most of his afternoons shooting pool at my friend Mike’s house and finding ways out of doing my homework, “Let it Be” was perfect in its shaggy-dog flawed way. The tracked that screeched the brakes and made me pay attention was “Androgynous.”
Westerberg sounds forlorn as he sings “Mirror image, see no damage/ See no evil at all/ Kewpie dolls/ and urine stalls/ Will be laughed at/ The way you’re laughed at now.” It’s a touching song that has since been covered by Crash Test Dummies and Joan Jett. While both versions are very good, the original is great. “Androgynous” moved “Let it Be” from a solid album of punk-flavored rock into the territory of music that mattered. Music that was reaching out to guys like me. Half a continent away, I listened while slumped over my portable Smith-Corona, typing away at my homework, smoking Marlboro 100’s, drinking cheap vodka mixed with strawberry Kool-Aid powder. It wasn’t long before the homework ceased and the hideous 400 word articles for local fanzines that littered the local bus stops and entryways to local bars would be coming out of the typewriter. And I would pause to chuckle and sing along with “Androgynous” every time it came on. Side one ended with something familiar to anyone who grew up in East San Diego County: A cover of a KISS tune, “Black Diamond.”
There is brutal honesty ending the first side of an album that “Dean Of American Rock Criticism” Robert Christgau ranked number two behind Bruce Springsteen’s multi-platinum-selling “Born In The U.S.A.” in his list of top ten albums for 1984. Much as I love Springsteen, Christgau was off by one. Side one is great, but side two cements “Let it Be” as an album that is not just a classic, but an album that matters to this day.
Leading off is the raw, aching, pleading, “Unsatisfied.” Westerberg groans in his tubercular voice, “Look me in the eye then tell me / I’m satisfied / And now are you satisfied?” Who is he singing to? Who is he singing for? Too many nights, I stood out on the shore at South Mission Beach, letting the Pacific wash around my legs, listening to this song, wondering if life would ever make sense. It concludes with “Everything you dream of / Is right in front of you / And Liberty is a lie.” Screw it, we’d never met, but Westerberg was singing to me. Me and all the other college students living on Top Ramen and rolled tacos. Every guy that ended up at Quelle Fromage around midnight and spent the evening talking about God, politics and art with the old hippies, young gays and middle-aged starving artists. It wasn’t a song, and it still isn’t; it’s a reminder that all the freaks, geeks, dorks and outcasts had a spokesman. And when he was sober, Westerberg spoke loud and clear.
The punk returns with the thudding major chord nuggets “Seen Your Video” and “Gary’s Got a Boner.” Great guitar from Bob, busy bass work from Tommy and Chris may have had the reddest hands on the planet after playing this stuff. But the band downshifts into romantic territory with “Sixteen Blue”, a song so pure and brittle, it might break if you listen too hard. The longing is palpable when he sings “Your age is the hardest age / Everything drags and drags / One day, baby, maybe help you through / Sixteen blue.” If that does not slay your heart, you have no heart to slay. But Westerberg is not through, he drives the point home with “Drive your Ma to the bank/ Tell your Pa ya got a date. You’re lying. Now you’re lying on your back.” I read that Rod Stewart’s label wanted him to record a cover of the tune. Kind of a completion of the circle, since a lot of the Replacements songs sounded similar to the Faces.
The album ends with the angry, grinding “Answering Machine.” Rock ‘n’ roll has produced two lyrics that sum up, for me at least, what it is that makes it the perfect summation of youth and hope. The first is Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.” The other is “Try to free a slave of ignorance / Try and teach a whore about romance. / How do you say I miss you / To an answering machine? / How do you say goodnight to / An answering machine? /How do you say I’m lonely to/ An answering machine?… I hate your answering machine.” Brilliant. Poetic.
“Let it Be” landed at No. 241 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 greatest albums of all time even though it did not break sales records. They always seemed just about to break it big, only to shoot themselves in the foot. The band got exiled from Saturday night Live, at a gathering of record company execs at CBGB, they played aborted versions of cover tunes and half-assed their way through the set on purpose. They went on to release more albums, “Tim” being excellent and “Pleased To Meet Me” being a rockin’ great time. But they were never so poised to grow up and face the world as they were on “Let it Be.” Of course, that was also the moment they said “Screw you” to adulthood and turned up the amps and let “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy I got Love in my Tummy” fly. A band that looked at maturity and wanted no part of it? Yup, they were talking to me all along.
Eddy Popravina is bassist and vocalist for the touring band The Popravinas. He served the same function in legendary Los Angeles rockers, The Mutts. The Mutts were often said to be the West Coast version of the Replacements and were labelmates with the Mekons, a band that could blur the line between music and mania with the best of them. The Mutts spent years making great music and throwing after-gig parties that are the stuff of ancient lore. Eddy is a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates and a huge fan of the Replacements. We got his thoughts on “Let it Be” and more.
“I first heard the Replacements after ‘Tim’ came out. I heard part of it once, and the next time I heard it drunk in a car (‘Swingin’ Party’, in particular) I flipped out. The Mutts were in transition at the time, and Kevin (Grover, Mutts guitarist/vocalist) and I had wanted to go in that direction. Well, that helped to push us in the right direction. Shortly after that, I heard ‘Let it Be.’ I thought it was great, though ‘Tim’ (and ‘Pleased to Meet Me’) has always been my fave. You can’t quite beat the feel of ‘Unsatisfied.’ What a way to open a record! One of my fave (more recent) stories would be them playing the first night of two at the Palladium. [They] started out with ‘Seen Your Video’. They were behind the curtain till Paul’s singing part started. [I] almost flipped my lid when the lights came on him and he started in on ‘Seen Your Video’. Then one of the greatest lines ever. Live. ‘The phony rock’n’roll’….’We don’t wanna know.'”
“Let it Be” was released on Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone Records. The label was home to too many great bands to list, but the Mats were my favorite of the bunch. The label was founded by Paul Stark, Peter Jesperson and Charley Hallman in 1977 and left an imprint on musical globe. Not only was Jesperson co-founder of the label, he was the guy that signed the Replacements, managed the band and co-produced their first four albums. From the opening wail of “Takin’ A Ride” from “Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash” anyone with ears could hear that this band was on to something huge. In 1991, he created Medium Cool Records (an imprint of Twin/Tone) that released a series of great records from a variety of talent: The Leatherwoods, Slim Dunlap, The Dashboard Saviors, Perfect and (my personal favorite of this bunch) Marlee MacLeod.
In 1995, Peter moved to Los Angeles. Four years later, Jesperson joined forces with indie label, New West Records as VP A&R / Production. He served in that role until 2011 when he became VP Production / Catalog. The man has spent a career bringing new, unique music to the masses. Because he co-produced “Let it Be” with Steven Fjelstad, I thought it would be a good idea to get his thoughts on an album that has never been far from my stereo since the day I bought it, 32 years ago. That and he is an all-around interesting guy to listen to. Here is what he had to say.
Barry Benintende: What were the recording sessions like? Were they any different than previous recordings with the band?
Peter Jesperson: The first sessions for what became ‘Let It Be’ were in August of 1983 and were very exciting. We were back in the studio – Blackberry Way – where we’d done Sorry Ma and Stink (we’d done Hootenanny elsewhere). It was clear to all of us that the band had grown considerably from the previous album. And it was very clear that Paul had come up with the best songs he’d ever written. The sessions were different, the band was more focused and determined, because of both of those things. Also, Peter Buck joined us. His role wasn’t really defined in advance. We were just looking for his input as someone who had made records with his own band and thought he could maybe play guitar on a song or two. But I think just having him there made the Replacements work harder than they might have otherwise.
Were you, Steve Fjelstad and the band happy with the finished product?
Yes, we were all extremely happy with how the album turned out. It came together so well, there was no question in our minds that it was the best thing the band had ever done.
What was the music scene in Minneapolis like at the time?
The scene in Minneapolis then was going strong. So many great bands, some established and touring like The Suburbs, Husker Du and Soul Asylum. And up and comers like the The Wallets, The Magnolias, Safety Last and Rifle Sport, among others.
What was the local reaction to the record?
There was an almost unanimously enthusiastic response. There was an immense amount of local pride. The Mpls/St. Paul audience knew as well as we did that the band had painted a real masterpiece.
What do you think of Let it Be 32 years later?
I think it holds up very well! In my opinion, it’s the Replacements definitive album, primarily because the material is so strong. ‘I Will Dare’, ‘Unsatisfied’ and ‘Sixteen Blue’ are landmark songs in the band’s career and ‘Androgynous’ and ‘Answering Machine’ are right up there too. As musicians, the band had come a long way. Sometimes I wish the production was better but … it is what it is, we did the best we could at the time.
What are you up to these days?
I recently left New West Records after nearly 17 years. Due to restructuring and the owner wanting to move the HQ to Nashville, a move I could not make. I am currently doing freelance writing for a few record labels and am in discussions with three other companies about doing curation/catalog work. I love New West, had a great long run there but am thrilled and exhilarated to be starting a new chapter. Things are quite exciting for me at the moment!