I always thought that, for music nerds, clubbing presented a number of challenges. Principle among these was how on earth to retain the air of authority and composure which surely set you out as a mastermind among dunces when literally any track could be coming up next, bearing in mind that constantly trekking over to the booth to ask “what’s this?” wasn’t an option. With the invention of acid house things got simpler – no-one cared – and nowadays, one imagines, the invention of the portable telephone and the applications therein has rendered anyone able to surreptitiously fire up SoundHound or Shazam a total know-it-all.
My heyday (and what a day of heys it was) was from 1987 to 1992 and for that period, by and large, I had the Student Indie Disco Canon pretty much nailed. Nonetheless there would always be one or two tracks I couldn’t quite place, or hadn’t heard before. And sometimes these felt gripping, even life-changing. So it was with ‘Add It Up’ by Violent Femmes, which was in irregular rotation through the Saturday Night crates at DeVille’s in Manchester. It’s hard to imagine a song which would make more of an impact on an unfamiliar crowd, with it’s plaintive accapela intro, brusque, irresistible ignition and point blank lyrics. It came and went like a mysterious superhero, there and gone some weeks then absent for months, leaving half the dancefloor wondering what it was (and presumably the other half wondering why they couldn’t get just one screw).
When we found out, the album it came from was also both a mystery and a revelation. ‘Violent Femmes’ is the work of three teenagers from Milwaukee, with most of the songs apparently written whilst singer Gordon Gano was in high school. It’s almost all acoustic, including the bass guitar and brushed snare drum, but it’s played with the pace and spirit of heads-down punk rock. It’s completely distinctive, one of those records that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard, but also, from the moment you hear it, entirely archetypal, like it had to happen.
Musically, it’s undeniable. The songs rattle and tumble and jerk along with such momentum and gusto that there’s nothing to do but give in. The sheer energy and brio of the playing communicates itself directly to the listener. It takes real magic to use these three instruments over and over again and turn in such a delirious, captivating set.
Add to this Gano’s lyrics and vocal performance and the album deserves every little bit of its late-bestowed classic status. He is the bratty loner with a spiteful comeback for every girl who ever ignored him, every jock who ever got there before him. If there’s a better encapsulation of teenage angst and self-loathing then I haven’t heard it. Which is not to say that this is just a hormonal splatterfest. Take ‘The Promise’ for example, its lyrics following Gano’s half of an imagined dialogue (“Could you ever want me to love you?/Could you ever want me to care?”) and spiraling in on themselves as he tortuously talks himself into and out of the reckoning (“You know that I want your loving/But Mr logic tells me ain’t never gonna happen/But then my defences say I didn’t want it anyway/But you know, sometimes I’m a liar”). There is simply no better evocation of what it is to be a lovelorn teenage boy.
‘Violent Femmes’ achieved what is claimed to be a unique feat by going gold in the States four years after its release, without ever making an appearance on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. It’s one of the records that, when I play it, make me feel glad, giddy even, that I love music. Treasures like this are out there. They can give you a charge like nothing else on earth, and ultimately be life-changing. I still cling to ‘Violent Femmes’ 25 years after I first heard Gano snarling “Why can’t I get just one kiss?” across a packed Manchester basement. I don’t wonder that anymore, but I do wonder what I’d do without this record.
Nick listened: Being that bit younger than Rob, I was at youth clubs playing board games and pool or playing round at friends houses when he was hearing this in nightclubs, and so my first exposure to Violent Femmes came when I saw Grosse Point Blank (still a great film) several year later in the mid-to-late 90s. Blister In The Sun featured prominently in the soundtrack, and I loved it; I seem to recall that the album was either hard to get or else expensive at the time though, so I never picked it up. Plus, there was something so bizarre, so snotty and compelling and hooky and weird and alternative, about Blister In The Sun that I think my brain decided it must be some kind of freaky one-off. Hearing the whole album for the first time, it clearly wasn’t; there are hooks and energy and great moments all over the place. Brilliant.
Tom Listened: My oldest mate, Alex Phillips, went to Camp America and brought back, amongst other things, this weird record by some band with a weird name that featured weird little songs and a VERY weird singer. I couldn’t stand it!
Of course, I was wrong and the record was The Violent Femmes and I went on to really like it; for me it is one of those records that I could do quite happily without but that I always enjoy whenever I hear it (usually by chance as I rarely seek it out). There’s a great energy to the songs and a playfulness and lack of pretentiousness that lifts the material into something unique and delightful.
That said, I definitely get something different from the record to Rob. We discussed this on the night but, for me, when I listen to The Violent Femmes I have always pictured snotty frat boys who are a little too clever for their own good (part of the problem I have always had with the musically very dissimilar Vampire Weekend). I’m not sure where this image has come from as Rob has assured me that the truth couldn’t be more different (and he is usually right in such matters) but it seems to remain unshakably in my mind and it always slightly mars my enjoyment of this excellent record a touch.
Graham listened: Despite being older than Rob, four years in work before I went back to being a student means my days of hey were fairly similar. It was a joy to hear this again. Somewhere lurking in a box is a TDK C90 (those were the days) with this on. I’m not sure they featured so much on the student nightclub scene “daan sarf”, but were certainly on my radar at the time.