Digging in the Underground

Every fall, as the Christmas decorations creep like kudzu into the malls, box sets and best-of retrospectives by old favorites start crowding out new releases on record-shop shelves. They’re sure sellers for the holiday season, and any profits are pure butter for the labels, which in most cases already own the material. Billy Joel, the Doors, the Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Costello, the Pixies, and Soundgarden are just some of the proven moneymakers that’ve been conveniently repackaged this year. But in a new twist, the list also includes a couple bands that, despite their huge influence on later “alternative” outfits, never quite succeeded on the same level: X and the Replacements.

With newer alt-rock entries stiffing left and right despite the industry’s best efforts, capitalizing on nostalgia for the progenitors is a logical move. But it’s certainly not as easy as slapping together another Billy Joel collection: fans of X and the ‘Mats tended to be obsessive about them–they bought all their records. So the compilers of each two-CD retrospective had to dig deep into the vaults to find stuff those listeners might be missing. X’s Beyond and Back (Elektra) pulls it off, including some genuinely relevant rarities in the context of a vivid portrait of the band’s history. But almost all the previously unreleased material on the Replacements’ All for Nothing/Nothing for All (Reprise) should have stayed that way, and the set brushes over some of the band’s best work as if it never happened.

Beyond and Back is a flashback to the last time the Los Angeles music scene really mattered, back when the city was an incubator for hardcore punk. The booklet is filled with fond, witty reminiscences by the band’s contemporaries, including Mike Ness of Social Distortion, Pat Smear of the Germs, original Black Flag singer Keith Morris, Concrete Blonde’s Johnette Napolitano, Go-Go Jane Wiedlin, and Flesh Eater Chris D. There are also some by famous fans–Jakob Dylan, Matthew Sweet, and, oddly, Jennifer Jason Leigh. While they’re all blatantly nostalgic, they do evoke the climate that spawned X.

In the late 70s and early 80s, Black Flag, the Germs, the Weirdos, Black Randy & the Metrosquad, the Minutemen, and many others were following their own highly personal visions of punk rock. X was the least hardcore of the bunch–songwriting couple John Doe and Exene Cervenkova (then Cervenka) were more into trash culture and poetry than self-destruction, while smiling, golden-maned Billy Zoom was a rockabilly guitarist lost in time. The band’s urgent, uncommercial mix of raw energy, hijacked roots, nonchalant combativeness, and poetic ruminations on alienation made friends of the punks, but X was ultimately bigger than the LA scene. In 1982, after releasing two superb records (Los Angeles and Wild Gift) for the independent Slash label, the band began a futile quest for mainstream success by signing with Elektra.

When Under the Big Black Sun (1982) and More Fun in the New World (1983) failed to attract anything more than critical acclaim, X responded by nudging its sound toward the mainstream. It proved to be the band’s undoing. Zoom left after the faux-metal flop Ain’t Love Grand (1985); 1987’s mild-mannered See How We Are, recorded with Dave Alvin of the Blasters on guitar, gained some middle-of-the-road converts but lost just as many of the faithful. After a five-year hiatus came the country-inflected Hey Zeus!, but by then it was obvious the band was running on fumes, and one middling live album and one tour later, X was done.

Beyond and Back captures the journey, speed bumps and all, though it wisely goes light on X’s later work. Of the 44 selections, 27 are previously unreleased, so rather than album versions of gems like “We’re Desperate” and “Blue Spark,” for example, we get the rare, prealbum Dangerhouse single of the first and a studio alternate of the second.

One crucial difference between the X set and the Replacements set is that the compilers of Beyond and Back–among them Doe, Cervenkova, and drummer Don Bonebrake–went the extra mile to license the early stuff from Slash. The only effort the Replacements made toward putting together All for Nothing/Nothing for All was approving its release, and the label rep who handled the job took the path of least resistance. The first disc acts as a greatest-hits package, collecting four songs from each of the band’s four Sire albums (Sire, like Reprise, is a Warner Brothers affiliate). The other disc is filled with B sides, unreleased stuff, and a live track from the same period, and apart from recording dates no context is given for any of them.

But the worst omission is that of the three albums and one EP the Replacements cut for the Minneapolis indie Twin/Tone between 1981 and 1984. Without that material, All for Nothing is nothing close to all, tracing only half the curve of the band’s career, and the downward half to boot. The Replacements at their best captured the inspired boredom and self-doubting honesty of singer and guitarist Paul Westerberg’s songs. As the pressure to crack the charts took its toll, he became more self-absorbed and gave the rest of the players less and less to work with. Even the excellent Sire debut, Tim, isn’t as good as its immediate predecessor, Let It Be. And as inchoate as their initial offering, Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash, may be, its accidental charms are still preferable to the polished final whimper that was All Shook Down (1990).

Let’s give Sire the benefit of the doubt and say Twin/Tone wouldn’t license the early material. But still, those years are barely even mentioned in the booklet. Founding guitarist Bob Stinson got the boot (reportedly for the substance abuse that eventually killed him) just before the band’s fourth album, Pleased to Meet Me, yet from the liner notes and photos you’d think his bland replacement Slim Dunlap was the principal guitarist. Actually, the set does include an outtake of “Can’t Hardly Wait,” a song ruined by the Memphis Horns on Pleased to Meet Me, that was recorded with Stinson during the Tim sessions, but it’s the only worthwhile rarity here.

Like X’s, the Replacements’ booklet is reminiscent rather than historical, but the voices are mostly industry types and critics, cooing about private moments they shared with Westerberg. None is more nauseating than the quote from critic Karen Schoemer, recalling the time she got to touch Westerberg’s shaggy do: “His hair was all ratty and knotted, like I expected it to be,” she confides, “but also very soft and clean.”

The Replacements themselves were without question half-assed; indeed, they were endearingly so. But that’s no excuse for a half-assed retrospective. As with X and so many other proto-alternative bands that tried to make the leap, their marginal success was their ruin, and the least they deserve is an honest eulogy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Replacements photo by Dan Corrigan/ X photo uncredited.