Counterbalance: ‘Violent Femmes’

When I'm a-walkin' I strut my stuff and I'm so strung out. I'm high as a kite and I just might stop to check out the 304th most acclaimed album of all time. A 1983 acoustopunk bellwether is this week's Counterbalance.
Violent Femmes
Violent Femmes

Mendelsohn: I couldn’t tell you when I got a copy of the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut. I don’t even know where I bought it or why (it probably had something to do with “Blister in the Sun”). I don’t even recall listening to this album all that much. But going back to it for this week’s edition of Counterbalance, I realized that I had done an adequate job of internalizing the record. And then I had something of an epiphany as it dawned on me that the Violent Femmes may have very quietly been one of the most important rock bands of the 1980s, if not the past quarter century. Not so much for the band’s surprisingly varied catalog of material but for their legacy and the idea that a three-piece acoustic punk band is a viable vehicle for rock music. They are one rock band in a long line of rock bands who celebrated the simplicity of pop music from the fringes, attacking convention with a mix of humor and violence.

What’s your take, Klinger? Is the Violent Femmes’ debut worthy of its No. 304 ranking on the Great List?

Klinger: Probably. I know I’m going to lose a lot of cred with my fellow Generation Xers, but I’ve never really cared all that much for this record. Forcing myself to listen to it closely this time around (instead of just smiling politely while sorority types got their “punk” on to “Blister in the Sun”), I found myself getting sucked into some of the album’s lesser-known charms, like the quite nearly perfect Velvet Underground homage “Good Feeling”. And Brian Ritchie’s bass playing is a glorious force unto itself. But those more famous tunes that are all over the first side? Hmmph, I say. I know I could go the rest of my life without ever hearing “Blister in the Sun” again, and “Add It Up” had its final nail in the coffin driven in with that ridiculous scene in that stupid Reality Bites movie, where Ethan Hawke sings it and makes Wynona Ryder cry or something. (I know, Generation X. I’m sorry. I’ll turn in my card and see myself out.)

Anyway, Violent Femmes ends up coming close to working for me mainly as a function of its time in history. If I see it as a simulacrum of a Velvet Underground record, in which Gordon Gano’s impersonation of Lou Reed’s snotty suburban kid brother comes along at a time when no one particularly cared about the Velvets, then I’m able to talk myself into it. I’m old enough to remember when you could read an article in Rolling Stone about a group (which I did, about the Violent Femmes) and then have to wait around until you could hear it (which I guess I did, at some point) and then decide if you liked it (which I must have decided I didn’t, especially). What’s my point? Get off my goddamn lawn, that’s my point.

Mendelsohn: Well. Pardon me for standing on your rye fescue. It’s a hardy variety and rebounds from abuse fairly quickly, so take it down a notch.

I don’t really know where to start. That was an epic rant worthy of a monologue that would work really well in some mid-’90s RomCom where the main character feels disenfranchised by the lackluster promise of his generation and instead of bettering himself, takes his anger and frustration out on his friends. Then he matures and realizes his problem are his own and the movie ends. Also, Ethan Hawke is a terrible singer. If I had to listen to him butcher “Add It Up”, more than once, I would probably hate that song as well.

Here’s the thing about the Violent Femmes: without all those songs on the first side, those well-known tunes, this record isn’t very good. The Violent Femmes’ strength was their ability to marry the sweetness of pop music with the guttural tang of punk and bending strings. They couldn’t save all the songs. Check out “Prove My Love”. Its standard Violent Femmes acoust-o-punk until you hit the refrain (“What do I have to do?”) and suddenly, the bleak little number is a sunny little strummer. It doesn’t work because the song isn’t very good, but that ability to make heartbreak and relationship dysfunction sound hunky dory was the band’s sweet spot. Lead singer and songwriter Gordon Gano has the gift to turn bleak subject material into undeniable pop music. Lou Reed was good at that, too.

So while the album isn’t solid from start to finish, the Violent Femmes are one band in a long legacy that has helped to shape the rock ‘n’ roll landscape and that’s probably why, much to your chagrin, this record won’t go away. The linage is as follows: it starts with the Velvet Underground, goes to the Modern Lovers, then the Violent Femmes, followed by the Pixies and finally Nirvana. You could make arguments to further that list or add off-shoots, but we can do that at the bar later, once I have a chair in my hands and several beers in my belly.

Klinger: Sure, I see how you might make that connection, although I think that the main thing those groups have in common is the idea that they’re all bands that people might feel like they discovered on their own, which forms a strong bond between the band and the listener. I fully get the idea that the Violent Femmes are that type of group for a lot of people, and in a better set of circumstances I might have been one of those people. I certainly do appreciate the little touches that made the group stand out — Victor DeLorenzo’s brush drumming meshes perfectly with the acousticishy feel.

Mendelsohn: But couldn’t you say the same thing about every group? That’s the great thing about music — the connection it forges between the listener and the band. It’s why so many early fans disavow fandom of certain groups when they hit the big time. It’s the reason that some people get all blubbery and weird when you bring up Michael Jackson. Grateful Dead and Phish fans follow the band from town to town for entire tours. And if you want to talk about deranged devotion, take a look the fans of Insane Clown Posse. It doesn’t matter what type of music it is or who the fans are, music transcends all of that. People make music their own. With the Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers, Violent Femmes, and the Pixies it is a little more pronounced because they never really hit it big. But where they lacked in album sales, they excelled in influence, helping extend their chosen music further into the future.

Klinger: I think you can say that about most groups, yes, but there’s always going to be something special about that group that you think you discovered all on your lonesome. That’s the music that’s going to lead you to believe that you found some hidden treasure that you can’t believe no one else picked up on (and when you do find someone else, you’re going to feel some special bond). The Violent Femmes never broke big — their reputation grew little by little back in those pre-Web days when cassettes were dubbed and passed around like secret messages. And that has a lot to do with what’s made this album the beloved icon that it is today.

And yes, if forced, I can concede that there is quite a bit to like about the album. It’s no coincidence that I still know all the words to “Kiss Off” and I have to admit that “I forget what eight was for” is a really funny line. So what’s my deal, Mendelsohn? Why don’t I feel like I can genuinely like an album that’s massively beloved by my peer group? Was I just being salty because the Violent Femmes got the love over the groups I was championing? I ask you. I don’t want to be all surly like this. It makes me feel unpleasant.

Mendelsohn: The only real choice you have in the matter is either double down on your distaste for the Violent Femmes or just let it go and admit that the problem resides inside your head and there isn’t any reason to dislike this band. If you need a little help, look to the quantifying powers of the Great List. Elvis Costello has two albums in the Top 200 and 11 total albums compared to the Violent Femmes’ two albums, neither of which rank better than No. 300. Elvis Costello is obviously the better, even if none of your peers think so and look at you strange when you bring it up.

Klinger: I was thinking more about bands like the dB’s (whose Stands for Decibels is hanging on by a thread on the Great List at No. 2355) and Let’s Active (who are nowhere to be found). But yes, I think I’m going to have to concede that it’s probably me. I was remembering Gordon Gano’s voice being a lot whinier than it actually is and the lyrics doing a lot more simpering than they actually do. In fact the more I know, the more I realize that they were more clever than I gave them credit for. Quoting Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” in “Gone Daddy Gone” took me aback, for instance, in a good way. This almost makes me wish we had another week to mull this over, but duty calls.

Mendelsohn: I understand where you are coming from. I had the same problem with the White Stripes. Everyone I hung out with in the early 2000s wouldn’t stop talking about the band and it made me nuts. I thought there were better bands doing more interesting things. I’ve come to realize that the White Stripes were deserving of the praise and played an important role in forwarding the music they chose to champion, much in the same way that the Violent Femmes helped push the DNA of the Velvet Underground and the punk/pop ethos into the ears of a new listening generation.

Klinger: I suppose you’re right. Now I’m going to have to figure out a way to make it up to my fellow Gen Xers, who I assume clicked away in disgust a few paragraphs ago. This is going to take a lot of muffin baskets.