The collective hearts of Replacements fans everywhere have been aflutter since the announcement that the reunited band would be returning to the small screen, as they are due to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon September 9th. Naturally, there’s been much talk of their infamous Saturday Night Live performance in 1986, when they got drunk, stumbled around, and generally behaved like one would expect the Replacements to have behaved. Singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg even committed the ultimate TV sin, shouting the F-word during “Bastards of Young.” It was awesome. SNL producer Lorne Michaels was, of course, not amused, and reportedly banned the group for life from 30 Rock (The Tonight Show is filmed at the same address and Michaels is the executive producer).
The Replacements only performed in front of television cameras a handful of times, and while there’s no topping the SNL gig, their appearance on a long-forgotten awards show in 1989 is a close second.
ABC aired the International Rock Awards live on May 31st, 1989. Lou Reed, Living Colour (who took home the “Newcomer of the Year” prize), Keith Richards (there to be presented with a “Living Legend” award), and David Bowie’s ill-fated super-group, Tin Machine, all performed at the event. Winners were handed a bronze “Elvis” award.
The reason I was plopped in front of the family television that night was to see my favorite band, the Replacements. I had watched a crappy videotaped copy of the SNL show hundreds of times and was ready for anything. I was excited, to say the least.
The lights lower and an announcer says, “We apologize; here the are: The Replacements.” Wow, a more hilarious (and ultimately fortuitous) opening couldn’t have been imagined. It’s already a classic clip and the band hasn’t played a note! But then “Talent Show” begins and Westerberg walks up to the mic and manages to one up their introduction: “What the hell are we doing here?” And they’re off!
“Talent Show,” from their then most recent album Don’t Tell a Soul, couldn’t have been a better choice for this event. The song—about feeling vulnerable and scared to get up on stage only to be judged by and against your peers—suddenly becomes more literal than intended. The band were booked on a silly awards show with hip young acts and rock royalty, and the Replacements, a group of outsiders and punks at heart, perversely thrived on these sorts of moments. Instead of rising to the occasion and doing their best to “win,” they instead become the little engine that won’t.
But that’s not to say what transpired wasn’t great. Heck, any Replacements fan knows that half the fun is watching the band gleefully launch themselves off the stage ledge, flipping the bird to showbiz protocol. Bassist Tommy Stinson can barely keep from laughing throughout the performance and Westerberg is at least a couple of sheets to the wind—it’s rough and raucous for sure, but isn’t that’s the way its supposed to be?
Before the show, they were told they needed to change the line, “We’re feeling good from the pills we took.” Well, fittingly, Westerberg did no such thing, and the censors were obviously ready for it, as the tape goes silent during that section of the song. What the censors at ABC didn’t anticipate was this: Near the conclusion of “Talent Show” the lyrics address the time when the band hits the stage and there’s no retreating: “It’s too late to turn back, here we go” is repeated twice on the album version, but here Westerberg has changed the line to “It’s too late to take pills, here we go”—ha! The censors missed it and they’ve pissed everyone off again! To add insult, the line is sung three times.
The clip ends with a shot of movie star (and big ‘Mats fan) Matt Dillon enthusiastically whistling and clapping in the audience. Perfect.
I imagine the Tonight Show appearance will be a more orderly affair. Heck, it’s been 25 years since the International Rock Awards, the last time they were seen by a national television audience. People mature. Another famous admirer of the group, Keith Richards, will also be on hand (to promote his children’s book!), so the Replacements will surely be on their best behavior. Or not.
Mr. Michaels just might have to institute another lifetime ban. Fingers-crossed!