Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jim Walsh, _All Over but the Shouting: The Replacements: An Oral History_

ON THE EVIDENCE of this and McNeil's and McCain's superb Please Kill Me, the oral history form admirably suits the task of chronicling the fortunes of the Cool-but-not-Big rock band.

The Cool-vs.-Big dynamic has defined rock music in my lifetime, I would say. In the 1950s, Cool and Big tended to align: Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everlys, Little Richard...all both Cool and Big.  Thanks to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and quite a few others, Cool and Big kept frequent company throughout the 1960s, even though we also saw such Big-but-not-Cool phenomena as Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon at the beginning of the decade and  the Grassroots and Three Dog Night at its end. More importantly, though, the 60s saw the advent of the first important Cool-but-not-Big band, the Velvet Underground.

The rift really opened in the 1970s. In addition to the usual wave of Big-but-not-Cool acts (the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Boston, Peter Frampton), we had an unprecedented wave of the Cool-but-not-Big: Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, the Modern Lovers, Television, Patti Smith.  (The Sex Pistols would make the list in  the USA, but in the UK I gather they were actually pretty big.) The Big-and-Cool category was getting underpopulated. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, perhaps Pink Floyd. (Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, it seems to me, only became Cool later. Critical respect for them was sparse at the time.)

By the 1980s, Cool and Big had essentially divorced. Prince was Cool and Big; Madonna, possibly, though the only Madonna song I myself love is "Ray of Light." Some basically Cool 1980s bands hit the jackpot in the 1990s (REM, U2), but by and large the Cool Bands--Husker Du, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, and the irreplaceable Replacements--came not within miles of being Big. (Partly because a Cool band that betrayed any glimmer of a wish to be Big got pilloried in print by Steve Albini or Gerard Cosloy or some other self-appointed guardian of integrity.)

So back to my first point: would anyone ever want an oral history of Bon Jovi, which would be from the outset a tale of ambition, aesthetic compromises, opportunistic positioning, and eventual poisoned success?


But an oral history that included the one cool record store in town, the bands practicing in basements, the xeroxed homemade flyers and zines, the van knee-deep in empty beer cans, the sticky-floored dives with a two dollar cover, the wing-and-a-prayer record labels...and, crucially, the passion? That is a story made for oral history, my friends, and Walsh puts together a nice one here. It was a story happening in much the same way all over the country, as Michael Azerrad's beautiful Our Band Could Be Your Life illustrates, but the Minneapolis version has an appeal uniquely its own.

Who knew Slim Dunlap was so thoughtful and articulate?  He is the real revelation here.

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