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As someone who eagerly purchased the Replacements’ 1985 major label debut, “Tim,” on the day of its release, I can assert with absolute confidence that had the remixed and significantly enhanced version of the album, which was released recently, been available in 1985, the band would have faced a harsh backlash from the indie-rock community. It might have even spelled the end of their career.
Let’s be clear: the new version sounds fantastic. The original, produced by the late Tommy Erdelyi (the original Ramones drummer) in a nod to Phil Spector, was a muddled mess. The instruments blended together with an indistinct, heavily reverberated sound. In the remixed version, engineered by Ed Stasium, you can now hear guitar parts and backing vocals that were once nearly inaudible, not to mention the bass, which was entirely lost. You can also understand about 70% of the lyrics instead of just half. While the drums still have that tinny mid-’80s snap, it’s been toned down to reasonable levels. The new version has lifted a sonic veil from “Tim,” and fans have raved, claiming this is how it should have always sounded. Some even speculate how different the band’s career might have been if it had.
However, what these voices may not remember or realize is how judgmental and dogmatic the indie-rock scene of the 1980s was. While it was mostly a vibrant, exciting, and supportive community, it also had a militant streak. The most heretical act one could commit was to “sell out,” and for most of those bands, that meant signing with a major label.
The Replacements, led by singer-songwriter Paul Westerberg, were among the glorious exceptions. They left the beloved indie label Twin\Tone to sign with Warner-owned Sire Records. Sire had an impeccable alternative roster, but the indie morality police were unforgiving. To many in the scene, the move was seen as a betrayal.
“Tim” marked a turning point for the Replacements. It showcased Westerberg’s growth as a songwriter and singer, yet it also hinted at the band’s unraveling. Songs like “Hold My Life,” “Dose of Thunder,” “Waitress in the Sky,” and “Swingin’ Party” demonstrated their versatility. But it was the closing track, “Here Comes a Regular,” recorded in a single take, that became a tear-jerking losers’ anthem and a highlight of Westerberg’s career.
The band’s internal strife was reflected in the album’s sound, which was far from corporate despite the Warner label. It retained a blurry, indistinct quality that made it far from what anyone would consider “corporate.” The band may have had a corporate logo on the album, but the audio aesthetic was defiantly non-corporate. In essence, they could say, “See? We didn’t sell out!”
During this time, appearing in a beer commercial was considered worse than signing with a major label. The backlash against such appearances was intense, with bumper stickers proclaiming “Corporate Rock Sucks!” and even songs like Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You” condemning the practice. The Replacements managed to dodge this particular bullet, but their time in the limelight was short-lived.
The Replacements released one more classic album, “Pleased to Meet Me,” in 1987, but Westerberg’s songwriting began to shift toward a softer, schmaltzy sound. It was as if he had grown tired of being a hero and just wanted everyone to leave him alone. The band’s clock was ticking.
Around the same time, Sonic Youth, the patron saints of the indie scene, signed with Geffen Records in 1989, and the transition to major labels began in earnest. Nirvana’s emergence further blurred the lines, and indie ethics were left in the dust.
The Replacements missed the chance to ride the alt-rock wave they had helped create. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, who came from the indie scene but embraced the mainstream, grabbed the golden ring that Westerberg wouldn’t. Ironically, one of the Replacements’ final shows saw them onstage at Madison Square Garden, but they were down to two original members and playing mostly their schmaltzy new songs. Yet they still had moments of their bratty brilliance.
While there was no happy ending for the Replacements, many from the indie scene thrived and changed the music industry. Artists became savvy about business, and the industry evolved. As the music landscape shifted with illegal downloading and streaming, what was once considered “selling out” became a matter of survival.
In retrospect, “Tim” remains a classic, and the remixed version provides newfound clarity to the band’s music. While it’s tempting to wonder what might have been had this version been released in 1985, it’s essential to appreciate the album in its historical context, as it was instrumental in shaping the indie-rock scene of the time.