Was "I'll Be You" a Chance for Pop Gold from The Replacements?

The Replacements in 1989
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Ebet Roberts/Redferns

For all their punk bona fides, The Replacements actually snuck one single onto the Billboard Hot 100: the immediately catchy "I'll Be You," released in 1989.

In the invaluable tome Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, author Bob Mehr details the history of the ‘Mats, a task aided immeasurably by the surviving members of the band discussing their career. During the course of the book, Mehr leads readers through the intoxicated shenanigans of the band’s indie years and how all the buzz surrounding them led them into a major-label contract with Warner Bros. Records. By the time the ‘Mats were recording their third album for the label, however, it was clear that the suits were looking for a hit.

Enter “I’ll Be You,” deemed the most promising new tune written for Don’t Tell a Soul. Per Mehr:

At Bearsville [Studios], it had been a pleasant, if slight number. Over time the ‘Mats pumped it up, adding piano, a call-and-response chorus, and a vocal jump in the third verse to heighten the song’s drama. Listening back, [Warner Bros. president Lenny] Waronker agreed that "I’ll Be You" had hit potential, but he felt that something was still missing. They didn’t know what else to add.

At a loss, they began messing with the pitch. Westerberg became enamored with the vari-speed effect and wanted to make it go faster and faster. In the end, [producer Matt] Wallace barely altered the track at all. But when Waronker heard the song again a couple of days later, suddenly he was sold. "Lenny couldn’t figure out what we’d done to it, but he loved it," laughed Westerberg. "So we really felt like we’d pulled one over on the old man."

As for the video, the biggest surprise for anyone who’d seen the band’s previous videos is that it actually featured the band prominently, although they make precious little effort to actually lip-sync with any accuracy. Mehr describes the proceedings as “a catalog of old ‘Mats tricks – switching instruments and clothes, destroying gear – as well as a few bits of comedy (including a very real and painful Westerberg fall from atop Chris Mars’s drum kit). It wasn’t ‘Thriller,' but for The Replacements it was a quantum leap forward.”

Was it worth it? Well, the song topped Billboard's modern rock and album rock tracks chart, and on the Hot 100...okay, fine, it only hit No. 51. But as noted, it was the highest the band ever got, and given that they did it on their own songwriting terms, that ain’t bad.

READ MORE: The Replacements' Debut Celebrates 40 Years with New Box Set

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