If you ever loved that first eponymous Violent Femmes record, don’t be afraid to revisit it. The album, first released in 1983, holds up as a work of singular vision and contains no cringe-inducing elements, no “What were they thinking?” moments. The delightful aspects remain delightful; the disturbing ones, disturbing. The ten songs, five per LP side, add up to slightly over half an hour yet are so perfectly executed that their impact far exceeds their physical, musical, lyrical, and conceptual bandwidth.
Yes, conceptual; Violent Femmes is a concept album. It doesn’t tell a story but paints a picture of just-postadolescent disordered psychology. It’s like a musical Catcher in the Rye without Holden Caulfield’s priggishness.
For its diehard partisans, the album enters into consciousness and never drifts far from recall. That infusion happens through the spirit of the work but also mainly to the letter in its unique turns of phrase. In other words, you never quite lose what you’ve taken from this music or these lyrics.
On both sides of the original LP’s inner sleeve, the lyrics are printed in what looks like handwriting. Forming two big blocks of words on a reproduction of ruled paper from a spiral-bound notebook, they connote the notebook jotting of a bored, distracted student, complete with misspellings such as “lier”. They also suggest the condensed, intense manifesto of a person with antisocial tendencies. They represent one person’s inner world, which can expand to contain multitudes.
Listening to Violent Femmes now feels like returning to a recognizable time that predates our 21st-century, technology-driven dystopia. It includes electric moments and exists because of technology, but its heart, sound, and aesthetics belong to an earlier, acoustic, analog, atomized rather than the Internet-connected world.
The world, or some subset in the know, now remembers this collection fondly as the source of that alternative anthem, “Blister in the Sun”. The song went unrecognized by the mainstream until it was used in the 1994-95 television teen drama My So-Called Life. John Cusack put it on the soundtrack of his 1997 comedy Grosse Point Blank, and the fast-food chain Wendy’s licensed it for a 2007 commercial. Those introductions to the wider world still raise eyebrows when everyone knows “Blister in the Sun” is at least partly about masturbation, even if the songwriter and singer, Gordon Gano, denies that, saying he was thinking about drugs.
“Blister in the Sun“
“Body and beats I stain my sheets / I don’t even know why my girlfriend she’s at the end she is starting to cry.” That’s not about masturbation at all, right? “Big hands. I know you’re the one.” Be that as it may, the album opens magnificently with the acoustic-guitar riff that those in the know recognize as “Blister in the Sun”.
Suddenly it’s 1983 again, Ronald Reagan is in the White House, yuppies and padded shoulders are simply in, cocaine is the glamorous drug of choice, greed is good, and in disgusted response to these facts and more, an underground culture thrives. At the time, that subculture was called indie, as in independent, and it represented an outgrowth of punk rock’s do-it-yourself ethos.
Picture the three Violent Femmes doing it themselves, maybe standing on a front porch or the street in their hometown, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They’re performing for the joy of it but also seeking to “entertain” passersby. Gano’s unadorned guitar playing, Victor DeLorenzo’s sparse bangs on a simple kit, and Brian Ritchie’s plunking bass make a rough-hewn yet confident noise as far as possible from what became and is now generally known as 1980s music. That music was characterized by big booms and whooshes: processed percussion, synthesizers, and electronic sheen.
Although Violent Femmes is unmistakably indie rock, it may be the missing link—a major one, anyway—between that amorphous genre, characterized more by circumstances than sound, and Bob Dylan. “Mr. Narrator / This is Bob Dylan to me / My story could be his songs / I’m his soldier child,” sang the indie giants the Minutemen, smack dab in the middle of the 1980s. Dylan’s singing style—or rather, his insistence that an unconventional voice, an unpretty voice that some would label “bad”, could move past folk-outsider status and into the mainstream—no doubt inspired Gano. So did the flawed vocal instruments of singer-songwriters who followed in Dylan’s wake, such as Lou Reed, Loudon Wainwright, and Patti Smith.
Surely the opening lines of “Blister in the Sun”—“When I’m out walking I strut my stuff / Yeah, and I’m so strung out”—owe a debt to the opening lines of Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”: “ Early one morning / The sun was shining / I was laying in bed.” The rhythms are similar, as is the swift scene-setting. Who is this person, and what’s going on with him that’s worthy of a song?
“Tangled Up in Blue” opens Blood on the Tracks (1975), an evocation of romantic cataclysm—like the pain-laden portraiture of Violent Femmes but depicting people a decade or two older. Both Blood on the Tracks and Violent Femmes tend to be liked by people of various ages and genders. The works’ emotional politics mostly straddle particulars, and the themes are capacious enough to stretch in diverse listeners’ directions.
The early 1980s were a glorious time for small alternatives. There were independent record labels, films, and zines made with typewriters and photocopiers. There was no internet for information to travel on, and the idea of an information superhighway would have struck most of us as preposterous or science fiction.
In the early 1980s, alternative cultural products traveled by print, through word of mouth, or over independent radio, college radio, and listener-supported stations. If you followed hardcore punk, you could read the Maximum Rocknroll zine or listen to the syndicated broadcast Maximum Rocknroll Radio. Never mind the mainstream; here’s something by us and for us.
In “Kiss Off”, Gano encapsulates this kind of us-versus-them mindset: “They’ll hurt me bad, but I won’t mind they’ll hurt me bad they do it all the time.” These lines present the kind of internal contradiction that the punk rocker Dee Dee Ramone employed to convey mixed feelings, mental jumps from one track to another, drug-addledness.
But so much else is going on in Gano’s song, the singer’s brain cells must be overheating. “You can all just kiss off into the air behind my back. I can see them stare.”
He gleefully repeats the line that school administrators, a “them” if ever there were one, threatened troublemakers with: “I hope you know that this will go down on your permanent record.” Do they still use that line? Does anyone think in terms of permanent records kept by administrators when there’s so much more data floating around on each of us?
Even then, we didn’t really believe that time spent in the assistant principal’s office or detention would ruin the rest of our lives. Here, the singer’s drawl in delivering the line makes his disdain clear. “Oh yeah? Well, don’t get so distressed. Did I happen to mention that I’m impressed?”
After an instrumental breakdown, he begins a classic countdown that outdoes Dee Dee for drug-addledness, except Gano’s narrator uses a system: “I take one one one cause you left me and two, two, two for my family….” And so on, including “Eight eight I forget what eight was for” and finally, “Ten ten ten ten for everything everything everything everything.”
“Please Do Not Go”
Indie rock felt like a club you joined by understanding, feeling, and seeing. You weren’t formally accepted, signing on a dotted line, paying dues. You accepted this respite from the mainstream. (“Our band could be your life,” sang the Minutemen.)
By the 1990s, indie modes of transmission had been codified. MTV helped turn alternative into business, and record companies aimed to commodify what seemed too left-of-the-radio-dial to become a capitalist business as usual.
Indie became “alternative” in the sort of way that punk became “new wave”. Something grassroots and rough became marketable and smooth. For example, in the 1980s, the indie band Butthole Surfers seemed uncommodifiable. Then the shock-jock pioneer Howard Stern started talking about them, finding the name hilarious. Alternative might not have been born the first time Howard Stern mentioned the Butthole Surfers, but the brand alternative at least took root right there.
Violent Femmes’ “Please Do Not Go”, though, remains a straight-up pre-alternative indie lament with a gently faux-reggae hesitation. We now know that anything can be marketed, but in 1983, heart-on-the-sleeve music of this ramshackle kind lived in its own little world.
The king of that little world remains the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jonathan Richman. In the late 1960s, he was a Lou Reed acolyte, a Velvet Underground scenester. In 1988, he became famous as the troubadour in Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly’s comedy There’s Something about Mary. He earned that role through more than a decade of making largely acoustic music in which he unguardedly sang the praises of simple joys.
Richman is a character in the best sense of the word. On the cover of 1977’s Rock and Roll with the Modern Lovers, he looks like a soul of guilelessness, a gangly, beaming doofus wearing a hearts-bedecked oversized T-shirt and bell bottoms, stretching out his arms in a welcoming gesture. Surrounding him are the band: acoustic guitar player, the drummer sitting at a kit so simple it could be a toy, and the stand-up bassist. The musicians could be the Violent Femmes, and Richman could be singing Gano’s opening lines here: “Tell you man I’m stuck on this lovely girl / And to me, she mean all the world / But then she like another guy.”
Brian Richie’s bass solo in this track comes as a surprise because, except in jazz, who plays bass solos? The bass has always commanded attention in Violent Femmes, but in retrospect, this instrument stands out from the trio’s work. It’s the vital element that burrows in, pulls back out, and then dances around, illustrating the thoughts and feelings that Gano’s lyrics convey and the ones they can’t.
“Add It Up”
The Butthole Surfers recorded for the Dead Kennedys’ label, Alternative Tentacles, and that name was one of the touchstones of the era. They later recorded for another touchstone, Touch and Go, which also gave the world Big Black and the Jesus Lizard. SST released the groundbreaking work of Hüsker Dü, the Minutemen, the Meat Puppets, Black Flag. Twin/Tone had the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Yo La Tengo. IRS gave us R.E.M. There were myriad lesser-known independent record labels, often dedicated to local music scenes, with names such as Epitaph, Homestead, Ace of Hearts, and Taang!
Perhaps the most far-sighted, wide-ranging, and ultimately influential of the 1980s indie-rock record labels was Slash. The label originated in the Los Angeles punk scene of the late 1970s, releasing music by the Germs, the Plugz, and X. It quickly embraced the roots music that became alt-country and now gets classified as Americana: the Blasters, Rank and File, Los Lobos. In 1982, the Dream Syndicate’s The Days of Wine and Roses grew from different roots: the Velvet Underground and 1960s psychedelia. The next year, the Violent Femmes’ debut offered yet another take on American music, something like Buddy Holly gone punk.
Not that the Violent Femmes sounded like Holly or punk. Those comparisons came to mind because of Holly’s inventiveness with simple music materials, the way he carved a whole new kind of pop-rock song out of rockabilly, and his still-surprising combination of cool and heart-on-the-sleeve nerdiness, and because of punk’s confrontational sound and attitude.
There were many other precursors in the Violent Femmes’ mix, of course. But at the time of Violent Femmes, the band’s influences didn’t seem salient. Their debut sounded so fresh that it made more sense to focus on the boldness of the vision, the intensity of the performances, and the rightness of its world of hurt.
In retrospect, with the smoke cleared, the similarities ring out. Still, the originality remains. For example, Gano was riding some mysterious wave of inspiration, not following a formula, when he opened “Add It Up’s” a capella: “Day after day I will walk, and I will play / But the day after today I will stop, and I will start.” Then the band kicks in, playing a kind of jazzy rockabilly shuffle. The singer’s repeated questions—“Why can’t I get just one kiss,” “Why can’t I get just one screw”, and so on—bring to mind the English punk band the Buzzcocks.
Past their initial EP, the Buzzcocks never sounded like a traditional punk band. They were among the most inventive of the punks, drawing openly on pop-rock and on progressive rock, especially its English incarnation in the Canterbury scene and its German incarnation as krautrock. That prog side of their music might not have spoken to the Violent Femmes, who instead sprang from the Buzzcocks’ standout power-pop singles, such as “Ever Fallen in Love” (“with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with”), “What Do I Get?” (“I only get sleepless nights”), and “You Say You Don’t Love Me” (“but that’s all right with me”). The two bands share a penchant for sounding both innocent and wised-up, and Gano’s sneery whine or whiny sneer derives at least in part from that of the Buzzcocks’ primary singer, Pete Shelley.
The Buzzcocks’ punningly titled Love Bites (1978) includes “Sixteen Again”, which perhaps set the template for Gano’s meditations. Musically it sounds like a celebration, but Shelley’s none too happy about still feeling like he’s a teenager: “Look at me; here I am for your eyes / Mirrored proof of love’s suicide / I know I never will feel quite like you / And I know you won’t treat me right till I do / But at least we’ll know it’s true / That we’re 16 again, oh no.”
“Add It Up” moves past its opening questions, taking a sinister turn as the singer admits to getting “angry and… the day is in my sight when I’ll take a bow and say goodnight… the city’s restless it’s ready to pounce.” He envisions going downtown, buying a gun, and threatening his “momma”, who also appears to be his lover and whose life seems as messed up as his mind is. The episode ends inconclusively—“She said wait a minute honey, I’m gonna add it up.” The real or fantasized threat, recalling Travis Bickle’s vigilantism in Martin Scorsese’s neo-noir Taxi Driver (1978), was disturbing in 1983 and is all-too-realistic forty years later, when mass shootings have become epidemic in the US.
For this down-tempo side-one-ender, Gano borrows the chords and twisted-burlesque tempo from Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” (1965). In place of that song’s surreal narrative and repeated question, “You know something’s happening / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?” the singer takes us into a world of “worry worry worry”, where the singer is “so lonely I don’t think I can take it anymore.”
It turns out that Richie and DeLorenzo recruited Gano when he was still in high school. So Gano wasn’t just delivering a concept record about postadolescent misery. He was doing on-the-ground reporting, as though born to this role as a chronicler. He wasn’t singing about “teenage wasteland” from the perspective of an adult (“they’re all wasted”), but looking at it from inside the maelstrom (“I’m gonna hack it apart”).
On the one hand, you imagine that in 2023 the same concerns pertain to people in their teens and 20s. Surely they can relate to this mix of misery, lust, frustration, anger, happiness, and acceptance. In that sense, Violent Femmes is at least temporarily timeless (oxymoron intended).
On the other hand, you think matters must be so much more complicated 40 years later. For example, social media, opioid addiction, global warming, and the rise of right-wing quasi-fascism as a form of self-help or at least grievance-settling didn’t exist in 1983. Google didn’t exist. In those days, you had to put effort into gathering information, knowing things, getting to know people, and forming an identity. Getting to know yourself seems like such a more fraught endeavor now, when a gazillion factoids beckon, yet structures and strictures have been removed. The more freedom, options, and multiplicity, the more difficult the choices.
Compare the complexity of life in 1983 with life in, say, the Middle Ages. That same degree of complexity, the distance between then and now, may run through 2023 in relation to 1983. Or at least, it feels like life has sped up that much. So while younger people might be able to appreciate what Gano’s expressing, they might also see his problems as comparatively more straightforward than their own. They might even see his persona as naive. The forces he was struggling against have been internalized, or in the face of their own weakness and lack of power, those forces have massed for a counterattack against the alternatives.
Beware, misfits, for the clampdown may be nigh. This song illustrates the conflict.
“Confessions” includes the album’s first electric-guitar solo. Gano’s playing suggests that he might have listened to Television’s Marquee Moon (1977), but he imagined what it would have sounded like if the band’s founding member Richard Hell had remained and the band had retained its anarchic Richard Hell and the Voidoids side. Television’s clean guitar lines would have gotten all tangled up, not necessarily in blue.
Then the song’s perspective shifts. That anarchic side has drawn the attention of the authorities, who need to rein things in. Suddenly we hear from them: “Have we got an army? We’ll teach you how to act like a man.” The struggle goes on between the forces inside and those outside.
After a complete instrumental breakdown, Gano employs his purest Lou Reed deadpan: “No, you see, I’ve learned my lessons, and i don’t even wanna hear about your confessions.” Faced with all that “worry”, he has shut down. Again, 40 years later, that response seems prescient.
“Prove My Love”
The shuffling rhythm of “Prove My Love” sounds nothing like the Buzzcocks, but its headlong dive may be the Violent Femmes’ version of pop-punk. When the backup singers ask, “what do I have to do” and Gano completes the thought with “to prove my love to you”, the sophistication exceeds what most people would expect from a high school-age songwriter. “but it could change with this relationship de-derange we’ve all been through some shit and if we’re a thing I think this thing’s begun.”
Gano clearly was a whiz kid, preternaturally gifted. But like so many of us, he either took a wrong turn when he discovered rock and roll, or he’d already taken the turn and was saved from oblivion by rock and roll.
Lou Reed wrote the classic tribute to having one’s life saved by rock and roll. But when Gano injects “Third verse, same as the first” here, he’s playfully acknowledging his spiritual debt to those patron saints of being both damned and saved by rock and roll: the Ramones. Their song “Judy Is a Punk”, on their eponymous debut album, repeats the line “Second verse, same as the first” from Herman’s Hermits’ 1965 recording of “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”. It also adapts that line as “Third verse, different from the first.”
Gano’s voice might not quite fit the streetwise punk of Ramones, but his perspective must have been informed by its world—another little world that can stand in for anybody’s world. Violent Femmes could have performed twistedly effective covers of that debut album’s “Beat on the Brat” (“with a baseball bat”) or “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” (“Hey, Daddy-O, I don’t wanna go / There’s something down there”).