My friend Mark returned to Helena in the summer of 1987 after a stint in the Navy and brought with him a cassette case filled with tapes of albums by bands I'd never heard of. One of them was "Tim," by a four-piece from Minneapolis called The Replacements. Mark was insistent that I listen.
The album and the band -- singer-guitarist-songwriter Paul Westerberg, guitarist Bob Stinson, bassist (and Bob's half-brother) Tommy Stinson and drummer Chris Mars -- have been in my life ever since, and there are more days than not when the Replacements are my favorite group of all time.
The band's origin dates to late 1979, when Westerberg began jamming with the Stinsons and Mars. After three LPs and one EP of noisy, often poignant, thrashy, pop punk for Minneapolis indie Twin-Tone, they'd become critic's darlings and amassed a small but loyal fan base. They were working-class high school dropouts with few career options; a hard-drinking bunch whose concerts ranged from transcendent rock 'n' roll glory to drunken debacles and would go on to inspire groups like the Drive-By Truckers, Uncle Tupelo, Soul Asylum, Green Day and others.
After the much-acclaimed and snarkily titled "Let It Be" was released in 1984, major labels came calling. They signed with Warner Bros. subsidiary Sire Records, home of Madonna and Talking Heads, and began making what would become "Tim."
Their hero Alex Chilton, who had been a teenage pop star as frontman for The Box Tops before forming the highly influential Memphis outfit Big Star, worked with them on a few early demos but it was Tommy Erdelyi, former drummer of the Ramones, who would get the job to produce the album (Chilton produced and added vocals to the "Tim" track "Left of the Dial" and would be immortalized in the song "Alex Chilton" on the band's next album, 1987's "Pleased to Meet Me").
"Tim," released on Sept. 18, 1985, was a collection of some of Westerberg's finest songs and remains an all-time alt-rock classic that was heaped with critical praise when it came out. Despite the accolades and much-deserved love from fans, the album has been plagued by complaints over its tinny and muddy sound, a result of Erdelyi's mix.
Now, 38 years after it was released, we finally get to hear a version of "Tim" that is absolutely revelatory. "Tim: Let It Bleed Edition," a four-disc boxed set from Rhino Records, includes a new mix of the album made by longtime Erdelyi collaborator Ed Stasium, a remastered version of the record, a disc of rare and unreleased tracks and a Jan. 11, 1986, concert at Cabaret Metro in Chicago. There are also rarely seen photos and extensive liner notes by journalist Bob Mehr, champion of the band, co-producer of this boxed set and author of the indispensable 2016 biography "Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements."
The treasure here is Stasium's remix. Mars' drums have energy, Tommy Stinson's nimble bass is upfront and there are whole passages of songs that are finally seeing the light of day. "On the Bus," that shuffling ode to a crush, has a brightness to it now, especially on its wonderful bridge; a heretofore unheard guitar line adds a thoughtful texture to the mournful "Swingin' Party"; the jokey, country-folk "Waitress in the Sky" benefits greatly from more prominent backing vocals; there's a piano (or something) and a bunch of slide guitar on "Lay It Down Clown." Who knew?
"Left of the Dial," Westerberg's love letter to college radio and Lynn Blakey of indie pop band Let's Active, is much more muscular, as is leadoff track "Hold My Life" and "Bastards of Young," that anthem for a generation that didn't know it needed one. Bob Stinson's chaotic guitar shows up on the character study "A Little Mascara" and a tinkling piano appears among the acoustic guitar and strains of synths on "Here Comes a Regular," Westerberg's haunting self-portrait-as-barfly and one of his greatest songs.
I'm no audiophile. I spent years listening to "Tim" on a second-generation cassette on cheap car stereos. I eventually got it on CD and picked it up again in 2008 when the band's entire catalog was remastered. Since 2011 or so I've listened to it almost exclusively through ear buds on Spotify. The mix on "Tim" was like wallpaper in a familiar room. I didn't notice it. I just loved the songs and figured that's how they were supposed to sound. Hearing them in this new form, though, is like experiencing them for the first time. There are new revelations with each replay.
The rest of the box is not to be missed, especially the third disc, "Sons of No One: Rare and Unreleased." There are alternate versions of "Tim" tracks, like a revved-up run through of "On the Bus" complete with razor-wire guitars. "Having Fun" is an early original by Tommy Stinson (who was about 13 when the band started). Beloved rarity "Nowhere Is My Home" shows up in a couple of forms and there are several stabs at "Can't Hardly Wait," a signature Replacements tune that would end up on "Pleased to Meet Me."
The live disc, "Not Ready for Prime Time," is a snapshot of the group on a loose, raucous night and is a nice companion to another "Tim" era live set, "For Sale: Live at Maxwell's 1986."
"Tim" wasn't exactly a commercial breakout for the band, not that they really cared (famously adverse to MTV, the video they made for "Bastards of Young" was a static, black-and-white shot of a speaker that a guy kicked a hole into as the song ended. They got themselves banned from "Saturday Night Live" after a chaotic appearance to promote "Tim" on Jan. 18, 1986).
It was also a time of change for the group. Bob Stinson wasn't involved much with the recording sessions and was out of the band not long after "Tim" was released. He died in February 1995 after years of drug and alcohol abuse. The Replacements would record three more studio albums before quietly calling it quits after a festival appearance on July 4, 1991, in Chicago (Westerberg and Tommy Stinson were the only original members left. They reunited in 2013 to play a series of festivals and toured the U.S. and Europe in 2015).
This is the fourth time Rhino has delved into the Replacements' catalog for a boxed set, all co-produced by Mehr. "Dead Man's Pop" revisited 1989's LP "Don't Tell A Soul" and, like the "Tim" set, offers a new mix of that album that is a vast improvement over the original. The others are lovingly expanded editions of the 1981 debut, "Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash" and "Pleased to Meet Me."
The 40th anniversary of "Let It Be," the band's final album for Twin-Tone, comes in 2024. Here's hoping that will be the next one up to get the deep-dive treatment.