The Shit Hits the Fans
(Twin Tone, 1984)
It’s a fairly common rock ‘n’ roll tale (I think): kid gets caught bootlegging concert, engineer confiscates tape and delivers it to band, band listens to tape, likes it, and considers releasing it legitimately. That’s basically what happened with the Maxell XL II-S cassette Replacements soundman Bill Mack swiped from some poor schlub at the Bowery in Oklahoma City, OK, on the chilly evening of November 11, 1984. The twist in this version, however, is that the performance in question wasn’t very good—80% of the Replacements’ lethargic, tuneless set that night was spent half-assing Led Zeppelin and BTO cover songs. They decided to release the tape anyway, under the funny-the-first-time-you-hear-it-but-not-so-much-the-next name The Shit Hits the Fans.
Such was the nature of those scruffy rapscallions known colloquially as the Mats. Those guys had just as much fun attempting to sabotage their own career as they did writing angsty proto-grunge anthems of frustration and regret. Whether it was painting extra dots on their lead guitarist’s fret board or getting the drummer drunk enough to believe he was a circus clown or following up their critically-acclaimed third album with a lo-fi, ramshackle bootleg full of decidedly unhip ‘70s rock tunes, Paul Westerberg and company took sick delight in the art of wrench-to-engine throwing. Oddly, this strategy worked in their favor, endearing the band to a generation of like-minded losers and lending their recorded output an even greater credibility. If the group with the clown drummer who can’t get through “Iron Man” can craft genius songs, who’s to say yours can’t?
The title of this tape seems apropos, but it also sort of suggests that a riot or bust-up was captured forever on that storied night. Nothing could be further from the truth; the small crowd seems generally supportive of the band’s slipshod musical dabbling. Perhaps they were placated by the strong showing of neo-Mats classics at the beginning of the show. “Sixteen Blue”, “Can’t Hardly Wait”, and “I Will Dare” are all fired off with an intense vigor and passion. “Hear You Been to College”, a blues shuffle, sways along nicely but is unfortunately marred by a post-production error. Apparently, Westerberg was listening to the master copy of the tape one day when he accidentally hit “record” instead of “stop” at the beginning of “College.” You can hear him muttering something briefly, but it most assuredly is not, “Oh shit, I just messed up the master copy of this bootleg” or anything else indicating acknowledgement of a thoughtless goof.
The Shit Hits the Fans quickly descends into a garbled classic rock sampler as the Replacements rev up greats by Skynyrd, Sabbath and Tom Petty, generally stalling after only one or two verses. At first, it strikes me as odd that these indie icons would waste so much time wanking out on Bad Company and Thin Lizzy, but the fact of the matter is that meat and potatoes radio rock was the basic foundation for the grimy, everyman style of punk the Replacements championed. Let’s be honest here: the Westerberg/Stinson guitar sound was always closer to Johnny Winter than Johnny Ramone, and they did cover a Kiss song on Let It Be. Maybe “Stuck in the Middle” had nothing to do with the Midwest after all. Maybe it was about being torn between the underground and overblown arena jams.
There are a couple of more “modern” covers towards the end of Shit, including a stab at R.E.M.’s “Radio Free Europe” and X’s “More Fun in the New World.” The tape officially ends right as the fellas launch into the Beatles classic for which they named their previous album, “Let It Be.” Fitting; the one influence no rocker would be ashamed to wear on his or her sleeve gets cut off, buried beneath a smattering of lesser music gods. This ironic accident perfectly ends the listener’s beery, breezy night.
The Shit Hits the Fans does not boast the strangest assortment of covers the group once known as Dogbreath ever played live. A month after this legendary performance, the unwashed Twin City rockers rolled into New York and tossed off a concert that included the likes of “Hippy Hippy Shake”, “I Got You Babe”, and a number of television theme songs, including “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Apparently ‘60s kitsch was just as important to cutting edge ‘80s musicians as the teachings of Bachmann, Turner, and their Overdrive.
Watch: Interview with the Replacements [at youtube.com]
Listen: clips of tracks from The Shit Hits the Fans and more [at last.fm]
Originally published June 20, 2007