Violent Femmes - Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of "Violent Femmes" | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Violent Femmes - Reflecting on the 40th Anniversary of “Violent Femmes”

The Album First Came Out On April 13, 1983

Apr 13, 2023 By Ian Rushbury Web Exclusive
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When one thinks of the early ‘80s, a number of visual images come to mind: enormous shoulder pads, extravagant and expensive hairstyles, conspicuous opulence. However, the three members of the Violent Femmes must have missed the memo and happily sported thrift shop, hand-me-down clothing and unusual, partially homemade musical instruments. A recipe for disaster, right? Nope. Situated among other greats from 1983 like ZZ Top’s Eliminator and Def Leppard’s Pyromania, the Femmes’ self-titled debut record sticks out like the sorest of thumbs. Violent Femmes was not “produced,” it was “recorded” with none of the tomfoolery which nails much of the music from that era to a precise moment in time. And that is why, 40 years later, it still sounds fresh, vibrant and relevant.

Violent Femmes is the punkest of punk rock. Guitarist/vocalist Gordon Gano was an 18-year-old high school student when he wrote most of the songs and it’s fairly safe to assume that he struggled to get a date for the prom. There’s a tangible angst which leaps from the groove of the record. Gano thrashes his (often acoustic) guitar and sings in a strident whine while bassist Brian Ritchie fills in the gaps by playing like a folk version of the Who’s John Entwistle on an unwieldly, acoustic bass. Drummer Victor Delorenzo tended to ignore a conventional drumkit, choosing to beat on a metal bushel basket balanced on top of a single tom, which he dubbed the tranceaphone. We’re a long way from the gated snare and glamourous reverbs of Def Leppard.

The 10 tracks on Violent Femmes serve as a self-help resource for insecure high school kids. The record expresses teen angst in such a sharp, unapologetic and erudite manner. From the opening shot of the now iconic “Blister in the Sun” to the wistful lullaby of “Good Feeling,” Gano articulately expresses the deepest fears and wishes of a certain type of young person. In “Kiss Off” he sums up the experience of being an outcast at a time in one’s life when being accepted was everything: “Well, you can all just kiss off into the air/ Behind my back, I can see them stare/ They’ll hurt me bad, but I won’t mind/ They’ll hurt me bad, they do it all the time.” This is quickly followed by “Add It Up,” where Gano rails at his mother, the girl spurning his nervous advances, and society in general. It ends with the chilling lines, “Day after day, I get angry and I will say/ That the day is in my sight/ When I’ll take a bow and say goodnight.”

In the ‘80s, the mainstream mantra was “too much is never enough.” The Violent Femmes took a very different path. The band cut their teeth busking wherever they could find a crowd. In fact, they got a major career break when Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman-Scott saw them busking outside the theatre that his band were playing at later that evening. They were quickly invited to do a short acoustic set as a support. Wisely, when they entered the studio to record their debut album, they kept their less-is-more approach. Acoustic instruments—occasionally augmented by electric guitar, bass, and on one of their most famous songs, “Gone Daddy Gone,” a xylophone—are at the core of the album’s timeless feel and sound. When teamed with Gano’s lyrics revolving around the ever-present subject of teenage relationships, the album is simply future-proof.

Violent Femmes is both naïve and knowing, both self-assured and tentative, striking a balance that many emo successors in the ‘90s would fail to keep. Gordon Gano held up a mirror to millions of disenfranchised teens and they responded vociferously. He sang entirely from the heart, and fortunately, his cohort supported him perfectly. For better or worse, Violent Femmes depicts truths and realities that feel as necessary today as they did 40 years ago, and I’d wager it’ll sound just as timeless in another 40 years.


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