A Replacements reunion? If you had mentioned the possibility to the band’s primary songwriter and singer, Paul Westerberg, over the last couple decades, he’d come thisclose to cracking you over the head with his guitar.
But now Westerberg and original Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson have announced that they’re playing at least three reunion shows this year, including a date at Riot Fest, Sept. 13-15 in Humboldt Park. The pair got together last year to record a benefit EP for ailing Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap. Now, after years of resisting big-money offers to reunite at major festivals such as Lollapalooza and Coachella, they’ve decided to play a few shows at a festival with a punk pedigree.
Once upon a time, anything could happen at a Replacements gig – and often did. The quartet teetered between genius and idiocy each night, their anarchic spirit buzzing around some of the best rock songs of the last 30 years. For all his seemingly slapdash attitude, Westerberg crafted songs that could be achingly vulnerable and sweetly melodic one minute, and hit like an out-of-control bus the next. Part of the fun was not knowing which Replacements would show up on any given night. Even the disastrous shows played into the myth: a night entirely composed of covers because the band was too drunk to play its originals, an appearance by Bob Stinson in a tutu, the on-stage fist fights, the outrageous and often self-deprecating heckling. Can a band heckle itself off the stage? The Replacements often tried.
Then there was the time they ended a show by handing their instruments to their roadies and walking off, apparently for good. The Replacements broke up on stage July 4, 1991, in Grant Park. For many fans, it was the perfectly imperfect ending to a career defined by spontaneity and surprise. Anything else – a choreographed farewell tour, a formal announcement, a tearful final bow after being showered with gifts from the fans – would’ve been a letdown.
The only swan dive that rivals it in rock annals was the Sex Pistols’ supposed final concert in San Francisco, to cap their first North American tour in 1978. “Ever feel you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten sneered, and walked off into the night, sealing the Pistols’ place in rock infamy.
But even the Pistols eventually came back, in 1996, dubbing their return the “Filthy Lucre Tour.” In typical Rotten fashion, it was a brutally honest assessment of a comeback that allowed tens of thousands of fans to see the band for the first time, and the Pistols to fill their pockets – an opportunity they never got the first time around. It’s difficult to begrudge any revered band the opportunity to finally cash in, but it did put a dent in the quintessential punk outfit’s outlaw credibility. Now that even the anti-everything Sex Pistols had “sold out,” anybody could.
The purists who believe that once a rock band breaks up, it should stay broken have been having a rough go of it lately. The thinking goes that no band is ever as good the second time around, and that reunions only tarnish the legacy rather than enhance it. It’s impossible to name more than few reunions where the music made during a band’s cash-in phase rivaled, let alone surpassed, what it did during its prime. But, as the Pistols proved, the idea of one last go-round, or several, is often too difficult to resist.
In 1976, American promoter Sid Bernstein offered the Beatles the then-staggering sum of $1 million to reunite, which they resisted. But that’s chump change by today’s standards. The Police made an average of more than three times that amount per night on their 2007-08 comeback tour, as they replayed 30-year-old hits for customers willing to pay more than $100 a ticket for the privilege. The Eagles patched up their differences to hit the road after more than a decade off in 2008-11 and raked in more than $250 million in revenue.
The Eagles and the Police were hugely successful the first time around, but the reunion circuit has allowed a number of bands to have second acts far more lucrative than their first – even without the benefit of great music, or any music at all in some cases. The Pixies were widely considered one of the most influential underground bands of the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but didn’t really start raking in revenue until they came back together in 2004 after a decade apart. In its first incarnation, the band’s peak audience in Chicago as a headliner was 2,500 at the Riviera. In 2004, the band played to 23,000 fans in five straight sold-out concerts at the Aragon. The quartet consistently played to audiences five to 10 times the band’s original peak and made more than $9.5 million in revenue that year.
The Pixies’ reunion train has been rolling ever since, even though the band has clearly been at a creative impasse; it only recently announced plans to release a new studio album – its first in two decades -- after founding bassist Kim Deal departed. A few years ago, songwriter-guitarist Black Francis acknowledged he was reluctant to release new Pixies music because he didn’t want to screw up the band’s legacy. He knew anything he did now would be compared to his classic material. “You want anything you do to be at least as good as what people remember you by, but how many bands have been able to that?” he said.
Like the Pixies, the Replacements are a band with an off-the-charts cool factor, a trove of indelible songs and the potential to draw from an expanding fan base. They’ll not only attract many of the original followers nostalgic for the ‘80s, but subsequent generations eager to see a legendary band perform live for the first time. But as Black Francis suggested, “legendary” can be a double-edged sword.
When last seen more than 20 years ago, the Replacements were selling out 4,000-seat theaters. By then, founding members Bob Stinson and Chris Mars were long gone, and only Westerberg and Tommy Stinson remained from the original lineup. The ramshackle charm of the early days had long since been replaced by a steady professionalism – until that one final shot of chaos in Grant Park.
Any great band deserves a victory lap after a few – or, in the case of the Replacements, 22 – years off. A brisk, spirited sprint through the hits and almost hits is what’s in demand. But the Replacements have never been much for meeting expectations. So how will they confound and delight their fans this time? How will they simultaneously undercut and live up to their myth? It may prove to be the band’s greatest challenge.
Reunions that clicked:
Mission of Burma: The Boston indie-rock trio left behind an obscure but hugely influential studio album and an EP in the early ‘80s, then picked up right where they left off with an excellent 2004 comeback, “OnOffOn.”
Led Zeppelin: It’s not Zeppelin without drummer John Bonham, whose 1980 death broke up the band in the first place. So it was fitting for Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones to play one final gig (a 2007 benefit concert in London) with Bonham’s son, Jason, sitting in on drums, and bring down the hammer of the gods one final time.
The Feelies: The New Jersey post-punk quintet would probably assert that it never reunited because it never actually broke up. But the 2011 album “Here Before” was its first in 20 years, and it found the band sounding as sharp and buoyant as ever.
Reunions that flunked:
The Who: After a series of “farewell” shows in the early ‘80s with the band running on fumes in the wake of Keith Moon’s death, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry and John Entwistle regrouped a few years later. Moon, unfortunately, was still dead, and the band turned into a karaoke caricature of itself.
The Doors of the 21st Century: The Doors without Jim Morrison? Yes, Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger apparently thought that would be a good idea. Even drummer John Densmore sued his former bandmates to try to stop this travesty.
INXS: Michael Hutchence died in 1997, which should have ended the band forever. It didn’t. The Australian group decided it would be a wonderful idea to reconvene in 2005 with a new lead singer, J.D. Fortune, winner of the band’s own reality TV series. It wasn’t.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun