The best rock ‘n’ roll is the kind that pisses your parents off. The kind that’s snotty, loud and sounds like it was recorded in a garbage can. Unintelligible lyrics are the only acceptable ones, of course, and don’t even think about tuning that guitar. Think “In Utero.” Think Nirvana.
But let’s take a trip in the way-back machine to the ’80s, to the age of hair bands and synth-pop. What a trying time it was. The Clash sold out, KISS took off their makeup, and Boy George decided to make music. Yet among all the fads and missteps, rock was somehow alive and well. You had to dig a bit to find it, but it was thriving, and the Replacements are solid proof.
Voted the No. 1 album you won’t hear at the Safety Dance, Let It Be is a 34-minute middle finger in the face of the establishment. The cover says it all, with the ‘Mats sitting on a roof and thinking: “So what if there’s a Beatles album with the same name? Who cares if we look like we just woke up? Don’t bother to buy our record, you won’t understand a word we say anyway.”
Unlike most music of the ’80s — even the good stuff — nothing on the album sounds dated. Front man Paul Westerberg’s growl is as fresh as ever (Ryan Adams tries, but he just can’t sing this well). It’s desperate one second, apathetic the next, scratched by too much beer and too many cigarettes. “How do you say I’m lonely to an answering machine?” he almost screams on the album’s final track.
Released in 1984 on indie label Twin/Tone, Let It Be represented a new direction for the ‘Mats. It abandoned the outright punk of fledgling albums Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash and The Replacements Stink for an actual stab at song craft. Check out the acoustic “Unsatisfied,” a perfect tune about having residual teen angst when you’re 23: “Everything goes or anything goes/ All of the time/ Everything you dream of is right in front of you/ Liberty is a lie.”
The album still has its share of thrash, with the violent couplet of “We’re Coming Out” and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” not to mention the anti-MTV anthem “Seen Your Video.” Throw in a deadpan cover of KISS — hated at the time — and Let It Be becomes pure rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. It was good enough to make a fan of Winona Ryder, who insisted the high school in “Heathers” be called Westerberg High. It was good enough to inspire the formation of the Vagrant record label, home to the Get Up Kids. And with another rock ‘n’ roll void forming, it’s even better now.