Thursday, January 23, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Violent Femmes (1982)

Violent Femmes (album)
Violent Femmes (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"I wrote this song about Stefanie Jackson at Rufus King High School. There. I said it." 
- Gordon Gano, explaining "Gone Daddy Gone" in the liner notes of the 20th anniversary reissue of Violent Femmes, 2002
Nearly a dozen more years have passed since Gano's revelation/confession, yet it remains the perfect explanation for one of the most unique and entrancing three minute (and three seconds) singles of the 1980s. With its shuffling drum-brush beat, adenoidal vocals, faux-ambivalence swagger, nagging xylophone (!) line and mid-song hat-tip to Howlin' Wolf, "Gone Daddy Gone" remains one of the finest descriptions of a high school crush rejection ever written.  We've all had our Stefanie Jacksons...

Thirty plus years on, though, many people forget - or never realized - that "Gone Daddy Gone" was the single from the Violent Femmes' self-titled debut album.  The assumption often is that "Blister In The Sun" must have been the single; it's the better-remembered and more often chosen cut to be spun by the "classic alternative" stations these days.  Even "Add It Up" seems a more likely candidate looking back, if only the lyrics hadn't crossed that line and guaranteed no early-80s radio airplay at all by bluntly asking the question on every teenage boy's mind since time began, "Why can't I get just one fuck?"

But that's what makes Violent Femmes such a remarkable debut: of the ten songs found in its grooves, at least eight could have been singles.  From the sha-la-la "what have I got to do?" sing-along on the chorus of "Prove My Love" to the obsessive enumeration of reasons for taking pills in "Kiss Off" ("I forget what eight was for...") to the pseudo-reggae despair of "Please Do Not Go" ("what can I do?/I fall down dead/she never see the tears I cry") and on, each song has its own character, its own personality, its own reasons for being memorable enough to stick in your head.  Taken as a whole, no album has better captured what life is like when you're a 16 - 20 year old male who doesn't feel like he fits in, and yet been hook-filled enough for the 16 - 20 year old females to dance to.

It's somewhat amazing to me that today Violent Femmes is looked back upon as one of the essential albums of its time.  When it was issued in late 1982, the reaction wasn't so kind.  While radio was playing Rush and Journey and Def Leppard and Quiet Riot, Violent Femmes just didn't fit.  The sparse, minimalist, acoustic sounds that occasionally veered off into angular shards of guitar ("To The Kill") or collapsed into chaotic crumbles ("Confessions") wasn't the kind of thing the stoner kids could absent-mindedly strum along with on out-of-tune guitars in their black-lighted bedrooms.  The angst-ridden lyrics might have been just a tad too hip for that room as well, not to mention the fact that the guy singing sounds like a nerd.  Those of us who "got it" also got laughed at for listening to it.  Yet nowadays those same folks who laughed then are often among the first to shout "Yes!" when the opening da-da-de-dum-dum of "Blister In The Sun" pours out of a speaker somewhere.  Go figure.

For those of us who were there from the beginning, the album is an old friend.  My original copies of both the "Gone Daddy Gone" single and the album itself were nearly worn smooth from constant play; I know every lyric and every note by heart.  They remain my all-time favorite song and album, respectively.  The Femmes went on to release several more albums over the years of varying quality, but even the best of their later output pales compared to the debut LP.  The post-album UK single "Ugly"/"Gimme The Car" probably comes closest.  (In fact, another common misconception is that those two tracks were on the album originally as well, as they have been appended to every CD issue of the LP.)

The album stands up well three decades later.  If you don't own it, there is a gaping hole in your music collection which needs to be repaired immediately!

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