Welcome to the first installment of Rivals Revisited, a semi-regular column in which I will discuss rivalries involving musical artists both historic and contemporary. I come to this project after writing a book on the topic as well as hosting a podcast. I love writing and talking about music rivalries because 1) conflict is always interesting and 2) it’s a fascinating vehicle for exploring the abstract ideas that these feuds represent. Believe it or not, but there are still a lot rivalries I haven’t covered yet, starting with the one involving two of the best American rock bands of the 1980s: R.E.M. and The Replacements.
This is not a random selection. Both bands are the subjects of worthy reissues this fall. In September, Tim (Let It Bleed Edition) revived one of the most beloved Replacements albums ever with a new remix that made a classic sound like new again. On November 10, a 25th anniversary edition of 1998’s Up will cast a new spotlight on R.E.M.’s most underrated LP. These archival releases offer an ideal excuse to talk about two great rock groups, and the rivalry they had during the Reagan era.
Here’s how we will proceed: I will begin by explaining the beef between R.E.M. and The Replacements. Then we will explore the metaphorical significance of their dynamic. After that, I will make — with the dispassionate finesse of a trial attorney — an argument for both bands in this feud. Finally, I will declare a winner.
Oftentimes, rivalries between artists or bands only exist in the minds of the public. The most obvious example is The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones — the bands were publicly friendly in real life, but their relationship took on a metaphorical significance in the collective imagination as the musical personifications of good and evil. They were rivals because we needed them to be rivals. It made for better rock mythology.
This is not the case with R.E.M. vs. The Replacements. They were friends, kind of. But there were also authentic gripes at play, though they were pretty much entirely one-sided. Let’s review them.
1. R.E.M. “stole” The Replacements’ road manager
As detailed in Bob Mehr’s indispensable Replacements biography Trouble Boys, Peter Jesperson managed the Mats and functioned as Paul Westerberg’s greatest cheerleader early on. He was also an R.E.M. fan who bonded with Peter Buck during the band’s frequent trips to the Twin Cities in the early ’80s. This duality would not be permissible in the Replacements camp for long. It came to a head in the summer of 1983, when R.E.M. needed a tour manager and inquired if Jesperson would fill in temporarily. He asked the Replacements for their blessing and they said “yes.” But in classic passive-aggressive Midwestern fashion, they actually meant “no.” When Jesperson mistakenly took their words at face value and went on the road with R.E.M., it was viewed by The Replacements as an unpardonable act of betrayal. As Westerberg told Mehr, “For him to just up and leave us for a prettier girl — it was never the same after that, really.”
2. Paul Westerberg saw himself as the antithesis of Michael Stipe
Describing R.E.M. as “a prettier girl,” clearly, says more about Westerberg’s inferiority complex and tendency to project it outward than it does about R.E.M. For R.E.M.’s part, they were quick to praise The Replacements publicly, and Buck gamely agreed to play the guitar solo on possibly the greatest Mats song ever, “I Will Dare,” which at the time raised the lesser-known band’s profile. But Westerberg still viewed R.E.M., and particularly Michael Stipe, as his band’s more bookish (and presumably less rock ‘n’ roll) counterpart. “Stipe was definitely more of an intellectual than myself,” he says in Trouble Boys, “so I’d play the guttersnipe to his more cultured hoo-ha.”
3. R.E.M.’s audience didn’t like The Replacements when they opened for them
Again, we see Westerberg’s projected insecurities: As any Replacements fan will testify, a core strength of Westerberg’s songs is the witty wordplay evidencing his unmistakable literary sensibility. (The same can be said of a phrase like “I’d play the guttersnipe to his more cultured hoo-ha.”) But he’s right about the ways in which Westerberg and Stipe (and their respective bands) were perceived. And that was confirmed when R.E.M. and The Replacements briefly toured together in the summer of 1983, with R.E.M. as the headliner. Audiences gave a cool reception to The Replacements, which only encouraged their worst self-destructive impulses. At one show, Westerberg and Bob Stinson acted out by pouring beer on R.E.M.’s monitors. Tommy Stinson (who was 16 at the time and didn’t drink) was so frustrated that he almost quit; instead, he was persuaded to stay and coped by swilling vodka on the regular.
4. The Replacements viewed R.E.M. as goody-goody hypocrites
On that tour, most of R.E.M. partied with The Replacements and kept up the pace when it came to backstage debauchery. And yet on stage, R.E.M. could still present themselves as a reliably professional outfit while The Replacements remained a public shambles. And, in Tommy Stinson’s view at least, that made R.E.M. seem “a bit phony,” as he relates in Trouble Boys. “We didn’t hide the fact that we did drugs and drank and were fucked up. We wore our shit on our sleeve, and they hid their shit. Those guys hid it pretty well. And we know that, because we did their drugs and drank with them.” The Replacements subsequently outed Buck (sort of) on the maligned Tim deep cut “Lay It Down Clown,” which is supposedly about doing speed with the R.E.M. guitarist.
It’s my theory that for a musical rivalry to truly matter, it has to function as a proxy battle between opposing ideas. Again, we circle back to Beatles vs. Stones — when people compare them, they’re really having a conversation about what they value in a band. Do you prefer musical innovation or archetypal “rock ‘n’ roll-ness”? Should a band appeal to everyone or should it consciously alienate the “right” people? Is a functional band boring, or is a dysfunctional band merely inept? Is it more artistically valid to be inherently beautiful or deliberately ugly? Is “fucked up” an attribute or a defect? Is it better to burn out or to fade away?
This template can be applied to numerous other musical rivalries, but it especially works for R.E.M. (The Beatles) and The Replacements (The Stones). R.E.M. was more musically innovative, they appealed to more people, and they were probably the most functional (i.e. well-run and psychologically sound) band of their era. Meanwhile, The Replacements were the most rock ‘n’ roll rock ‘n’ roll band of the 1980s American underground. They pissed off lots of people, they were unabashedly dysfunctional, and they made being fucked up seem like an art form. Only on the “burn out vs. fade away” equation were the roles reversed: The Replacements (like The Beatles) flamed out, while R.E.M. (like the Stones) eased into middle age (and beyond). And that might be the most essential difference of all. The conversation about R.E.M. vs. The Replacements is really an inquiry about whether you want a rock band to be professionally admirable or romantically un-admirable.
The Case For R.E.M.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, R.E.M. essentially was perfect. Their knack for seemingly always making correct decisions was both uncanny and surprisingly not annoying. (Unless you were in The Replacements.) R.E.M. was easy to cheer for. When they formed, they decided to evenly split their publishing, an ingenious move that instantly exempted them from the typical tensions that derail most bands. Their rise to mainstream popularity was steady and methodical; their fifth album was the first to go platinum, at which point no one could accuse them of not paying their dues or otherwise begrudge their success. When they became superstars in the early ’90s, they were making the most experimental records of their career. Like The Beatles, they stopped touring for several years to focus on studio work. On the business side, they finagled the largest recording contract in history right before the commercial collapse of alternative rock in the mid-’90s, ensuring their lifetime financial security even as many of their peers slipped into obscurity. When they finally decided to break up in 2011, they did that perfectly, too — they claimed they were still friends but didn’t want to be rock stars any longer. There would not be reunions in the future, they insisted, and (so far) it looks like they meant it. Today, you can find some members of R.E.M. on the road playing songs about baseball. They seem happy. It’s a perfect retirement.
There is disagreement on what constitutes R.E.M.’s “golden” era. Old-school stalwarts will argue that it was over once they left the indie world in the mid-’80s. Others claim that Automatic For The People marks the end of their best work. The exit of founding drummer Bill Berry is another commonly cited departure point. Personally, I put it slightly after that, with the release of Up, which I think is their last truly great LP.
Up represents another kind of perfection — it is perhaps the best and truest rock album ever about processing the trauma of your friend leaving the band you started together. Unlike virtually every other rock band that has lost an essential member — including The Replacements — R.E.M. did not pretend like it was business as usual on their next record. (They actually didn’t make a conventional rock album for another 10 years.) On Up, they deliberately leave holes in the middle of the songs as constant reminders of who is not there. Drums either are absent or replaced with drum machines. R.E.M. doesn’t even sound like a band much of the time; sounds are layered in a manner that recalls the late-’60s Beach Boys, one of the album’s obvious influences. (Another touchstone is OK Computer, though Up ultimately sounds like a prequel to Kid A.)
What’s apparent is R.E.M.’s thoughtfulness about rethinking their musical milieu in the wake of becoming a trio, and how correct their choices seem. They absorbed a critical loss and somehow spun it forward as the next logical step in their creative evolution. The resulting record simultaneously mourns the version of R.E.M. that no longer exists, while also positing that this latest incarnation is a perfect next step. That the next two albums were less successful reiterations of Up shouldn’t diminish this achievement. (Especially since those records, 2001’s Reveal and 2004’s Around The Sun, are better than their reputations suggest.) Even when R.E.M. fell apart, the pieces fell in all the right places.
The Case For The Replacements
This is how the argument for R.E.M. ends: They made an album like Up, a.k.a. an excellent mid-career work that is unlike anything they put out before. And this is how the argument for The Replacements begins: They didn’t make an album like Up, a.k.a. a rueful record that is unmistakably the work of a “mature” rock group.
The Replacements collapsed long before they had the chance to record their 11th album because they weren’t perfect and they didn’t make great decisions and they had no clue how to evolve over the course of several decades. And these short-term deficiencies have paid unexpected long-term dividends. The greatness of R.E.M. feels settled in a way that it does not for The Replacements. Which means that liking them seems more interesting, particularly for younger listeners. And bands that are more interesting for younger listeners to like have a way of growing in esteem the further we get from the past.
It’s not fair to compare the Tim box set with the Up reissue, because Tim is commonly regarded as one of the best (if not the best) Replacements albums while Up does not come close to achieving that distinction in R.E.M.’s catalog. But as someone who has dutifully kept up with archival releases from both bands, I think it’s fair to say that the Replacements reissues have consistently been more revelatory than the ones from R.E.M. And this, perversely, is related to how well-made R.E.M.’s greatest records are. My main takeaway from listening to all of the outtakes and all of the remixes on all of the R.E.M. reissues is that the original albums can’t really improved upon. The extras add little to my appreciation of the records, because my appreciation was already deep and, more importantly, complete.
The Replacements, however, have benefitted greatly from the reissue industry. The remix of Tim transformed an album I already loved into something even greater than it was before. The Dead Man’s Pop box set, which reimagined 1989’s Don’t Tell A Soul, similarly put a sonically flawed album in a more vibrant context. Unlike R.E.M., The Replacements’ music feels incomplete in a manner that invites contemporary listeners to finally “solve” (or resolve) it. And that gives their records a weird kind of recency bias over R.E.M., where their old albums magically sound like “new” albums.
And then there’s the matter of mystique. That “archetypal rock ‘n’ roll-ness” thing The Replacements have has only grown more unique as the years go by. If that is what you are looking for, there are very few modern bands that credibly operate in that lane. And yet, paradoxically, The Replacements’ mystique also seems attainable for any new band that wears flannel shirts and drinks too much. (The very few modern bands that operate credibly in this lane are essentially copying The Replacements.) “Copying The Replacements” will be a staple pose for young rock bands for as long as there are rock bands, because it’s easy and also because it’s fun. (Even if it won’t actually make you as good as The Replacements.)
Put another way: Emulating a band made up of four extraordinarily talented and level-headed individuals who recorded (at least) 11 great albums while making more money than virtually any rock group who ever lived is basically impossible. Acting like The Replacements, in comparison, is as easy as drinking beer for breakfast.
I love both bands. I suspect that most people who love one also probably love the other. So I will attempt to answer this question diplomatically without skimping on the truth.
In Trouble Boys, Westerberg is quoted as saying the following about R.E.M.: “I’ve had to mention them in every interview I’ve done since 1981. The problem is, they don’t have to mention [The Replacements]. They simply don’t have to acknowledge us anymore. They won.”
This is an honest, and insightful, accounting of The Replacements’ public relationship with R.E.M. It also describes a common dynamic in musical rivalries — whoever has the upper hand plays a central role in the subordinate’s narrative, while the actor in the subordinate role is usually absent from their counterpart’s story. It’s impossible to find a recounting of Pearl Jam’s story in which Nirvana doesn’t play a significant role, and yet Pearl Jam rarely if ever comes up in books and documentaries about Nirvana. Britney Spears must be mentioned with discussing Christina Aguilera’s rise, but Christina is not integral to Britney’s arc. Jay Z is a major foil in the saga of Nas, but Nas need not make a cameo in the epic that is Jay Z’s life story. I could go, but the examples are endless.
By that standard — and many others — R.E.M. won. But by losing The Replacements … also won? They won because they didn’t want to be R.E.M., and they succeeded at not being R.E.M. They won because they set out to lose. R.E.M.’s achievements are heightened when compared to the haphazard path taken by The Replacements because it illustrates how hard it is to be R.E.M. But this binary also benefits The Replacements, because they’re more relatable than R.E.M. The more cultured hoo-ha elevates the guttersnipe, and vice versa.