Waxed Up Hair & Painted Shoes, by Jim Walsh and Dennis Pernu, presents a “photographic history” of one of indie-rock’s sloppiest, most frustrating and most important bands: The Replacements.
Next year marks the 30th anniversary of The Replacements’ Let It Be—the album that represents the ‘Mats’ greatest achievement and one of the vital rock recordings of the ‘80s. Interest in the band has increased in the last few years, perhaps in anticipation of this milestone. Walsh’s oral history of the band came out in 2007, and a documentary about the group, Color Me Obsessed, debuted in 2011. More recently, lead singer Paul Westerberg got part of the band back together to play shows and record an EP of covers to benefit stroke-ridden guitarist Slim Dunlap (the group’s second guitarist, after original member Bob Stinson).
Let It Be immortalized The Replacements, combining their roots in punk, hardcore and disaffection with newfound sensitivity and a distinct turn into hooky songwriting. The group bared an aching soul, something waved at in earlier songs (“If Only You Were Lonely” and “Within Your Reach”) but not articulated fully. It’s the last album the Mats recorded on a small local label, and the release that brought them a larger, more varied following.
The disco producer Tom Moulton once outlined an aesthetic theory about the importance of openings in an argument with Philadelphia soul savant Kenny Gamble. “He didn’t like…the intro, that big snare hit,” but “when they hear that slap, they’ll know this is a serious record…nobody’s going to slap me across the face and not follow it through with something.” The slap on Let It Be comes in the form of “I Will Dare,” with its irresistible swing and fist-pumping chorus (a rework of the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”), and “Favorite Thing,” a bracing explosion of care.
As Moulton predicted, the ‘Mats followed through after the initial slap. After some punk, a Kiss cover, a piano-driven (a first for this band) ballad about androgyny and the yearning “Unsatisfied,” the album ends with “Answering Machine,” in which Westerberg hammers away at his guitar as he yells into an answering machine about the difficulties of confessing love. The lone guitar duels with a flat, recorded message, totally impersonal, completely uncaring. Let It Be comes full circle, starting with initial romantic excitement and then coming up in the face of reality—he dared, but she didn’t pick up the phone. All that courage? For nothing.
This girl may not have cared for Westerberg, but as shown in Waxed Up Hair And Painted Shoes, a lot of other people did. Quotes about The Replacements appear from a series of adulatory articles written in prominent music publications, including The Village Voice, NME, Musician, and Melody Maker. (Walsh himself interviewed the band in 1987 for Spin.) In this book, each official ‘Mats release—including the eight-song Stink—gets some text, and plenty of photographs.
The ‘Mats present a complicated entity. “When we started, we definitely had a fear of success,” Westerberg told Walsh. “We had a fear of everything…We’d get drunk because we were basically scared shitless.” They played terrified, often antagonistically, towards audiences—purposely angering people who wanted hardcore or punk but who instead received a set of poorly played covers of radio hits from previous decades. The group usually played inebriated (hence the poor playing). Did this represent an honorable stance against an exploitative system…or an Iggy Pop-esque artistic statement?
Especially later in the career, though, this behavior verged on dismissing the dedicated people who paid good money to see the band. But not at one show: During a well-photographed performance at Friendship Station in Washington, D.C., the band helped make their followers’ dreams come true. How? By getting wasted, of course—so wasted that the group started handing instruments to the crowd. Soon the whole band disappeared, The Replacements replaced by a crew of fans.
Waxed Up Hair often captures the band in two modes, either goofing around before shows, or concentrating intensely during them. Sure, they could be drunken fools, but they didn’t play music only to piss people off. Stinson in particular has a winning smile. He also possessed an impressive wardrobe: Plenty of the concert photos show him in “dresses, polyester jackets” and “fur vests,” many ornately patterned.
Walking around Hoboken in April of 1983, the band exudes happiness while Westerberg flips off downtown Manhattan, the backdrop to a photo shoot. One flyer for a show reads “the Replacements: there’s nothing wrong with them,” a hilariously understated promotion. Another declares, “WARNING: Radio stations have determined that the Replacements are hazardous to your health.”
There are a few holes in the story. The book doesn’t talk much about the infighting that led to the departure of Bob Stinson, or Westerberg’s more obnoxious side. Like other Replacements narratives, this book also struggles to come to terms with the band’s later period, when the sound became slicker, sweeter, more polished.
Hardcore fans treat the last two ‘Mats albums differently. For some, just mentioning them feels indefensible, since Westerberg betrayed core principles in an effort to get more airplay. But the new sonics may have just been a natural evolution—most bands cool off as they get older. Age takes a toll.
Waxed Up Hair includes a quote from Westerberg that suggests this change might have been more than aging. “Most people don’t understand that our roots ain’t the Sex Pistols and they ain’t the Rolling Stones,” he said to Twin Cities Nightbeat. “It’s the Top 40 from like ’70 to ’74 when there really weren’t any bands,” and there was plenty of sweet, beautifully recorded stuff on the airwaves. Westerberg could be hinting at the late ‘80s sound here…or just angering people who want him to worship New York Dolls’ records.
As Westerberg sings in “Favorite Thing,” “I think big, once in a while.” The book captures the ‘Mats in these moments, when they’re at their best, thinking biggest—cheerfully disruptive, prodigiously talented.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.