Ask any music listener which artist they associate most with Minneapolis, and you will get the same answer every time: none other than the iconic pioneer of funk, pop and the Minneapolis sound, the artist famously known as Prince. Throughout the ’80s, Prince challenged stereotypes, both of music and society through his flamboyant performances and songs ranging from dance rhythms to deeply emotional ballads of love and loss — it is no wonder he is still worshipped post-mortem. However, while Prince was spinning on stages before colorful lights and cheering crowds, two bands composed of scruffy students were rocking for the misfit audiences of Minneapolis, inspiring and influencing alternative and punk rock for the decades to come.
South Minneapolis, 1979. Twenty-year-old janitor Paul Westerberg walks past the Stinson’s basement, stopping to listen to the informal band Dog Breath rehearse for the hundredth time. Eventually, brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson emerge from their house and invite Westerberg to jam with them. In a week, Westerberg had kicked out their original vocalist and taken control of the band. The Replacements are formed. Chris Mars, The Replacements’s drummer, explains how the band chose their name in his memoir — “Maybe the main act doesn’t show, and instead the crowd has to settle for an earful of us dirtbags … It seemed to sit just right with us, accurately describing our collective ‘secondary’ social esteem.” This was the manifesto of The Replacements — expressing their ideas with self-deprecation and raw honesty, and designating themselves to the status of scruffy hooligans that society expected them to be.
The Replacements, affectionately known by fans as “The Mats,” drew heavily on ’60s rock artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, but they were also excited by the emergence of punk rock in the ’70s, taking notes from The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. Through piecing together elements from the musical eras of their past and putting their own self-deprecating spin on it, The Replacements created a new strain of rock that would eventually become iconic to the Twin Cities sound. Between Bob Stinson’s energetic guitar riffs and Westerberg’s emotionally raw vocals, the genre of The Replacements fits somewhere between power pop and punk rock — structured yet gritty, catchy yet emotional.
On their most iconic album, Let It Be, The Replacements throw everything into a passionate punk track with simple and vague lyrics, “We’re Comin’ Out.” Two songs later on “Androgynous,” Westerberg alludes to a queer couple, musing over the stupidity of gender expectations. Then, later in the same record, The Replacements get invested in their friend’s erect penis on “Gary’s Got a Boner.” In one record, the band explores every end of the social and emotional spectrums as if to say both “screw you” and “we care about you” to their listeners. Not pretentious nor humble, The Replacements were completely themselves — which allowed them to produce incredibly honest music but also led them to fly under the commercial radar, never fully gaining the following they deserved.
The same year The Replacements formed, three college students in Saint Paul founded a band that would parallel and rival The Replacements in the years to come — Hüsker Dü. Named after a Norwegian board game, Hüsker Dü’s mission — similar to that of The Replacements — was to defy societal boxes and labels, and that is not where the similarities ended. Like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü’s first albums, Everything Falls Apart (1983) and Zen Arcade (1984) lean toward hardcore punk, whereas their sequential records tend to favor a more alternative, melodic rock that borrows from power pop.
Hüsker Dü also experimented with a wide array of expression, singing metaphorical, poetic lyrics like, “Sometimes I see her sitting on the rooftop perched in a lawn chair and staring into the sky, I know that somewhere in some faraway galaxy that some gray men with telescopes are gazing right into her eyes” on their hit “Books About UFOs.” They also went the other way, simply repeating the same phrase, “new day rising,” over and over again in their song “New Day Rising.” While Hüsker Dü’s tracks tend to be less structured than The Replacements’s, they are somewhat more musically experimental. Despite any differences, however, The Replacements and Hüsker Dü maintained a friendly rivalry during their active years.
Lettered in black paint on two white stars on the wall of First Avenue in Minneapolis are “The Replacements” and “Hüsker Dü,” stars floating among a sky of Prince, Radiohead, The Pixies, The Kinks and other artists whose famous names ring recognizable. Despite this tangible proof of their greatness and audible evidence available on all streaming platforms, these bands remain underground, perhaps more so than their genre implies. The legacies of The Replacements and Hüsker Dü and all bands like them are not solely in their music but in their message — being yourself may not always result in success, but it will produce something authentic and beautiful.
Daily Arts Writer Bella Greenbacher can be reached at email@example.com.