September 1984: It’s my freshman year in college; I’m lonely, I feel out of place, I’m 2,500 miles from my Oregon home, etc., you’ve heard it all before. Much of freshman week is spent standing in line, and that’s where I was when I heard these two cute punk girls in front of me launch into a riff I knew very well: “Da na-na-NA-na da na-na-NA-na da na NA-na-na-na.” It was quite obvious to me what to do next—I yelled out my best impression of four snare hits: “Boom-boom! Boom-boom!”
They whipped around, amazed that this geek in a high school letterman’s jacket knew the beginning to “Blister in the Sun”, and repeated their riff, giving me the opportunity to do the double drum hit thing again. We launched into the song together, doing every lyric and fill and rim shot between the three of us, to the disgust and approval of the other people in line for whatever it was we were in line: “Body and beats / I stained my sheets / I don’t even know why / My girlfriend / She’s at the end / She is starting to cry”. At the end, we didn’t become best friends forever or go off and have a threesome or anything like that. Instead, we bonded on a much more primal level: we traded “I first heard the Femmes” stories.
Everyone who went to high school and/or college in the 1980s has an “I first heard the Femmes” story; some of us remember that day the same way Boomers remember where they were when JFK was shot. If this sounds trivial to you, then you’re either too old or too young-the Femmes’ first album is that important to many of us. If you knew this record, you were part of something, a freaky underground network of proud losers, taking shape around our perfect soundtrack, with Gordon Gano our god. He wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out there, his whiny nasality sounding just like we did on the phone in our most desperate moments: “Could you ever want me to love you? / Could you ever want me to care? / Disregard my nervousness / Please ignore my vacant stares”.
It almost became a litmus test in those days of Reagan youth and people whose future was so bright they had to wear shades. You could judge who someone was based on their reaction to “Kiss Off” or the sine non qua of geek-punk, “Add It Up”-anyone who turned up their nose at lines like “Words to memorize / Words hypnotize / Words make my mouth exercise / Words all fail the magic prize / Nothin’ I can say when I’m in your thighs” was uncoolly cool instead of being coolly uncool.
And when I found a woman who knew this record and loved it as much as I did, I married her. But that’s another story.
Rhino Records, in all of its infinite wisdom and cash flow, has reissued this classic album in a new two-disc format that includes extras galore, and I’ll talk about that in a second. But let me just make one more plea for the original ten tracks: This, my friends, for better or worse, was the birth of emo. Argue all you want to about your DC punk scene and all that-the Femmes proved that you could be honest about your emotions and still rock out, and that playing soft music to express sadness was the coward’s way. I bristle every time I hear someone claiming that the Femmes weren’t an accomplished group of musicians-hearing this record now in remastered form just brings home how radical their interplay was. Gano’s acoustic guitar work touches on folk and country and surf and reggae, but ends up sounding harder than hardcore; Brian Ritchie’s touch on his acoustic mariachi bass is right in the pocket on the ESP tip. And the drumwork by Victor DeLorenzo is often derided-even the liner notes say he’s “not exactly Buddy Rich”-but I find it deep and jazzy and heroically atypical. Plus, he was the guy who did “Boom-boom! Boom-boom!” For which he shall live forever in my heart.
So when a band sings about being sad but does so in a way that kicks total ass, they owe a big fat debt to my Femmes, even if they’re too young or too callow or too stupid to know it. I revel in their triumphs: Ritchie’s extended bass solo on “Please Do Not Go” and his xylophone studliness on “Gone Daddy Gone,” the sound that DeLorenzo on his “tranceaphone” (a floor tom with a metal basket on top), Gano’s aching breaking voice suspended over that flat-out new wave groove. Essential. All-time Top 10.
Okay, so if you already have this album, why should you drop more dimes for this new version. I already mentioned that it’s been remastered, but it already sounded pretty ace, so that’s not really it. I’ll start with the extras: Disc One contains not only the original ten songs, and the two singles that have been attached to it in every CD reissue (“Ugly” and “Gimme the Car”, both of which might as well have been on the first record), but demo versions of six of the album’s songs, including a nice gentle “Blister in the Sun,” a deranged solo from Ritchie on “Please Do Not Go”, and nearly identical versions of “Kiss Off” and “Confessions”. What strikes me is how well-formed these songs were from the beginning, even though most of them were written and recorded when Gano was barely out of high school. That’s what honing your craft by performing on the street in cold square Milwaukee will do for you; it’s no wonder that James Honeyman-Scott plucked them off the curb and had them open for the Pretenders that fabled night.
The first disc also includes three more obscure songs in their demo versions: “Girl Trouble” is a freaky country blues featuring the splendidly childish refrain: “Girl trouble / Up the ass!” The ominous “Breakin’ Up” would have been an instant classic if it had ever been on an album, and “Waiting for the Bus” is a song that any of us could have written but just never bothered: “Let’s call the mayor / Let’s complain / Looks like the city’s done it to us again / Tied up in traffic / Whatta ya know / This damn city bus moves so slow”. When they lapse into a crappy little bus-board skit, you’re in heaven . . . or Milwaukee, which could maybe just be the same thing.
And then there’s disc two, the real treasure here. It’s 56 minutes of the band live, all recorded before the album really broke nationally. The first two sets are absolutely revelatory; they’re recorded in small Milwaukee clubs in front of with-it cult audiences, and prove without a doubt that these three guys couldn’t be beat in any small venue in the world. They’re loose and sloppy, they’re out of tune, Gano forgets his own lyrics, they make fun of each other and their audience constantly-and they’re mesmerizing. Listen to their version of Hallowed Ground‘s “Country Death Song”—the one with the classic couplet “I threw my child down a bottomless pit / Screamin’ as she fell, but I never heard her hit”—and marvel at the Chet Atkins breakdown in the middle, and giggle along with the audience at Ritchie’s aside: “This is sad stuff! You people are macabre!” You also get the silly little “Her Television” and the even sillier and littler “How Do You Say Goodbye” with its classic guitar solo and whispered “Hey! Hey!” background vocals, which have never been released before.
The next set illustrates the truth that the Femmes weren’t cool enough for New York City—which, of course, proves that they were way too cool. This Folk City performance is received by the Big Apple hipsters like a shower of tacks for a couple of tracks, but they eventually catch the vibe after a furious electrified version of “Promise” with a bass solo that might be Brian Ritchie’s finest recorded moment. And it’s pretty clear that some of the crowd had heard “Add It Up” before, as they keep interrupting Gano’s opening “Day / After day” like true Femmes-loving smartasses. The ensuing chaos takes up the better part of six minutes, and I’m surprised that Wang Chung and Mr. Mister even happened after this performance. What happened to America?
And it closes with one of the cooler things this fan has ever heard: a live radio interview and performance hosted by Michael Feldman from 1982. Yes, it’s that Michael Feldman, host of NPR’s “Whattaya Know”, in his previous incarnation as a midday AM jock in Madison-and yes, he was just as corny and cool then as he is now. He introduces “three young men who play acoustic rock and roll”, takes his time with each one; they are revealed as really nice Wisconsin guys who briefly ruled the world, and who still rule a lot of our hearts. After that, the incendiary “Kiss Off” that follows (is Madison the only place in 1982 where “Kiss Off” could have been played live on the radio?) feels like icing on the cosmic cake that is this perfect reissue.
Wow, that metaphor truly sucked. Gordon probably woulda said it better, somehow. I can’t wait for his solo record this year. Keep the faith.
And if you run into a woman named Viveca who looks like she’s in her middle thirties and looks like she was a pink-haired punk rocker 18 years ago, tell her Oregon says “Hey”. Do the riff. She’ll do the rest.