Adding It Up: Violent Femmes' Debut Album Revisited
, April 29th, 2013 06:33
Thirty years after its release, John Freeman looks back at the newly-reformed Milwaukee trio’s punk-folk classic that perfectly soundtracked his teenage angst.
I arrived very late to the Violent Femmes. I didn’t hear a single song of theirs until 1989, by which time I had met a girl who blew my tiny musical mind. She was a DJ at the university I attended and (in my 18-year-old eyes) was a cool as an Eskimo’s frostbitten nadgers. She was one of those cherished people whose music tastes are so spectacular that my life’s purpose became one of holding onto her critical coattails and imbibing the rarified knowledge.
She was two years older than me (which in music listening terms was akin to an aeon) and would make me compilation tapes filled with aural nectar from the Gods of Noise. Prior to meeting her, I had based my reputation on a love of Prince, The Smiths, Pixies and Public Enemy – all solid choices but nothing like the chaotic exotica she unleashed on me. Her tapes were bursting with Front 242, Leadbelly, Black Flag, The Butthole Surfers, MC5, early Sonic Youth, Frank Zappa, The Dead Kennedys and even the bloody brilliant ‘Cathouse’ by Danielle Dax. I fell head over heels for her (record collection).
One of those fabled tapes contained a song, which, even in such exalted company, would become a huge favourite of mine. It was a song than began inauspiciously – a whiney voice stated “Day after day / I will walk, and I will play” before a ragged tune rushed the scene. And the music was distinctly unfamiliar to me. The song seemed to explode into thrashy punk, but sounded like folk music. The drumbeat appeared to have been bashed out on a cardboard box, while I could have sworn someone was playing double bass.
The song’s lyric went onto reveal a cheeky little story. The singer wondered out loud “Why can't I get just one kiss?” before moving onto the more carnal poser “Why can't I get just one fuck? / I guess it's got something to do with luck / But I've waited my whole life for just one.” It was a song born of frustration and warmed my soul to the core. It was the first punk-folk song I’d ever heard and I’d fallen in love with ‘Add It Up’ by a band called Violent Femmes.
A couple of weeks later another compilation appeared from my music heroine. It included ‘Mr Pharmacist’ by The Fall (which I took as a sign that she ‘really’ liked me as my degree course was in a pharmacy-type subject – 18 year-old boys can be stratospherically deluded) and also a tune which I would initially nickname ‘the mad xylophone song’. It was another track by Violent Femmes and contained an opioid hook and a (in hindsight) questionable lyric about a “Beautiful girl, lovely dress / High school smiles, oh yes.” It’s a song that borrowed a verse from a 1954 Willie Dixon track (‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’) and has since been covered by Gnarls Barkley. Back then, for me, ‘Gone Daddy Gone’ was an insanely additive slice of punk-pop and I needed more.
In 1988, before Google was the glint in a computer geek’s eye, my main source of information about any new music was a man with a mullet and a baseball cap who sat behind the counter at Jumbo Records in Leeds. The shop was a safe haven for music lovers and I would visit several times a week. When I professed my gushing, new-found love for the Violent Femmes, my record store guru sensibly suggested I started at the beginning and slipped me a copy of their debut album, the self-titled Violent Femmes. He was an expert in the art of peddling treasure.
The album artwork revealed only scant details about the band. The lead singer was a guy called (the rather heroic-sounding) Gordon Gano, who also played violin, and there were only two other band members – guitarist and xylophone ‘madman' Brian Ritchie and a drummer, Victor DeLorenzo, whose minimal kit would often include only a snare drum, a tranceaphone and steel brushes. All three contributed to vocals, and their twisted harmonies would add a slug of charm to Violent Femmes.
I also found out that the band hailed from Milwaukee, which I knew stood on the banks of Lake Michigan (get me, Mr Geography) and was a place that appeared to suffer from perpetual winters. The town made beer – much of it piss-awful lager brewed by the likes of Miller – and wasn’t exactly a global player when it came to pop music. While geetar-legend Les Paul hailed from Milwaukee, as did the diamond-studded, ivory-tickler Liberace, it is fair to say that in 1980 Violent Femmes weren’t exactly the lucky exponents of a fertile post-punk scene.
As a kid I had a slightly odd ritual when listening to a new record for the first time – I’d begin with side two (I put it down to my Jewish roots which extended to a habit of flipping through magazines starting from the back page). It meant that the next song I heard by Violent Femmes was two minutes and 38 seconds of perfection. ‘Prove My Love’ oozed lo-fi style – a heady mix of snottiness and self-deprecation caught up in a roar of addled punk and neat one-liners. “Just last night I was reminded of / Just how bad it had gotten and / Just how sick I had become,” admitted Gano in the opening exchanges, as he begged for a chance at romance. I’d grow to love Gano’s suggestive wit – the song’s line of “Special favours come in 31 flavours” being a classic quip of teenage sauce.
Elsewhere, Violent Femmes brimmed with bounty – it was a constant punch of proto-anthems bathed in a simple, earthen allure. ‘Blister In The Sun’ and ‘Kiss Off’ were rabble-rousing stabs of gristly punk-pop (one play would cement each of their choruses into the nether regions of my cortex for the rest of the day), while ‘Please Do Not Go’ added a reggae beat to Gano despairing lyric. It was a classic album in the sense that it demanded to be played from start to finish – Violent Femmes didn’t need any skipping or (god forbid) shuffling in order to provide its defiant joy.
Details about the early history of Violent Femmes are sketchy. The band was formed by Ritchie and DeLorenzo in 1980. Gano would join a year later and arrived replete with a sackload of song outlines. The trio began practicing in DeLorenzo’s basement but soon took to the harsh Milwaukee streets in search of cash. One afternoon, busking outside The Oriental Theatre, they were ‘discovered’ by the late James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders, who were playing at the venue that evening. Suitably impressed, an invite was issued for Violent Femmes to play an acoustic set after the support act.
It’s easy to see why Honeyman-Scott was seduced. The early incarnation of Violent Femmes blended the energy of punk with the spirit of Fifties doo-wop harmonizing and coated it in the warmth and intimacy of American folk - Violent Femmes was aural catnip.
Another major reason for my love of Violent Femmes was the caustic candour of Gano’s lyrics. His words resonated deeply with my teenage self. Whether it be the bug-eyed embarrassment of “Body and beats I stain my sheets / I don't even know why” on ‘Blister In The Sun’ to the knowing self-flagellation of “Disregard my nervousness / Please ignore my vacant stares” on the track ‘Promise’ (a song which practically begged for - as my Leeds friend remarked - a randy bunk-up), these were lyrics which accurately portrayed my gangly, immature mind.
I also thought some of Gano’s couplets were highly seductive. I remember dancing to ‘Add It Up’ at a student disco and trying to catch a girl’s attention when Gano sang “Words to memorize, words hypnotize / Words make my mouth exercise / Words all fail the magic prize / Nothing I can say when I'm in your thighs.” I thought she might be impressed with such a sexually enticing tactic. She just rolled her eyes. When it comes to what he thinks may attract women, there is nothing quite like the absolute cretinous fuckwittery of a teenage boy’s mind. But, hey, I still think it’s a great lyric.
The original line-up of Violent Femmes would go onto release two further albums, but neither reached the heights of their debut. The 1984 album Hallowed Ground was a little too country and overtly religious to my urban atheist ears, while a third album – 1986’s The Blind Leading The Naked, produced by Talking Heads’ and fellow Milwaukean Jerry Harrison – reverted back to their punk-pop style but lacked the magic dust of Violent Femmes. The band would then undergo a series of fall outs, splits and reincarnations but little of their later work would recapture the early joyous brilliance. In my head, I’ve filed the band alongside The Stone Roses and The Strokes, who also never managed to surpass a stunning debut album. The first impression of Violent Femmes was the best impression.
In recent years the original Femmes have been firing lawsuits at each other (Ritchie had been particularly knarked when Gano allowed ‘Blister In The Sun’ to be used in a Wendy’s commercial), but earlier this year announced a(nother) reunion that would see them play shows at this month’s Coachella and at the famous Summerfest shebang in their hometown in June.
Thirty years on, the Violent Femmes’ debut album still possesses more charm than a hive of buzz bands. One of its many glorious songs, ‘Kiss Off’, contains the line “I hope you know this will go down on your permanent record.” Violent Femmes would leave an indelible mark on me.