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Tom Phillips on Violent Femmes

“I forget what eight was for...”

Like a dusty snapshot of 1986, I’ve still got the shoebox of cassettes that I brought home from university. All the usual suspects are there: The Smiths, The Cure, Orange Juice, Talking Heads, Tom Waits, The Fall. This was the era of ‘Rain Dogs’, ‘Stop Making Sense’ and ‘Meat is Murder’, after all, the kind of literate pop that was obligatory listening for students who surfed the tail-end of punk at school, made self-conscious forays into poetry and lay down on pavements to protest against grant cuts, cruise missiles and sundry other Thatcherite atrocities.

In the same shoebox, though, are three albums by another band who, despite having been likened to leftfield icons like the Velvet Underground and Jonathan Richman at the time, rarely seem to get mentioned nowadays. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because they came from Milwaukee. Or admitted to busking. Or eschewed an overproduced 1980s sheen in favour of songs which pieced country, punk, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll together in ways that sounded both obvious and unlikely – squalls of Zorn-esque noise bursting in on frantic rockabilly, T Rex played as funk. Or maybe it was simply because they sang about infanticide, sexual frustration, suicide, predation, obesity and, most discomfiting of all, religion. Either way, it’s probably fair to say that Violent Femmes won’t be cropping up on many 80s-related TV list shows in the near future – as least not in the UK.

To be honest, that’s almost a good thing. The obsession with pigeonholing reduced the majority of music criticism to the level of a clerical exercise several decades ago, and so what if most people go to their graves assuming that 1980s pop extended only so far as the corporately endorsed ‘rebellion’ of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club and U2? Or that Morrissey and David Byrne were the most articulate (if not always entirely comprehensible) voices of a frustrated generation? Better in a way that category-defying bands like Violent Femmes remain under the radar and not yet written into the anodyne ‘history of pop’.
Not that they’ve disappeared completely, of course. It’s not as if the three cassettes in my shoebox are the only surviving recordings. There are CD reissues on sale at Amazon and video clips on YouTube, even a fairly recent download of a peculiar version of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’. In fact, it was stumbling across a decidedly unnerving online film that used the Violent Femmes’ even more decidedly unnerving ‘Add It Up’ as a soundtrack which reminded me I hadn’t listened to them for a very long time. So that’s why I dusted down the cassettes and played those first three albums back-to-back.

And what do they sound like now? Well, maybe not the works of unalloyed genius they seemed to be at the time. There’s the odd moment that grates, and you could probably argue that the law of diminishing returns had started kicking in as early as the third, Gerry Harrison-produced record: ‘The Blind Leading The Naked’ might well be the sound of a band being stifled by someone else’s idea of how their creativity works, much like a publisher stifling the work of a young but paradigm-staggering poet. Perhaps the title unwittingly reveals the relationship between producer and musicians.

Before this smoothing-out process began, however, there still remains something uniquely disquieting about this band. Put on second album ‘Hallowed Ground’, for instance, and it starts with a pedestrian two-note bass line and what sounds like it’s going to be a cheery country & western singalong. Except that frontman Gordon Gano’s voice sounds strangely strained, on edge – as well it might: ‘Country Death Song’ soon has its anguished porch-dwelling protagonist confessing to killing his lovely daughter by pushing her down a well. Why? It’s never really clear – possibly because of some deranged belief that this is only the way he can guarantee she’ll get to heaven. Even now, when I know what’s coming, it’s as dysfunctional, painful and compelling a lyric as any more obviously melodramatic murder ballads.

Dysfunction, though, is something of a Violent Femmes speciality. Love is haunted by lust, obsession or just plain old incomprehension (‘Why can’t I get just one screw?’ asks Gano in a tone that hovers uncomfortably between a teenager desperate to lose his virginity and a prowler looking for a victim), while angst is shaded by the threat of violence as a sexually frustrated son begs his father to let him use the car or a would-be suicide counts out his pills, tallying off the reasons for his imminent self-destruction, both of them descending into a semi-articulate rage.

It’s a volatile world of skewed emotions, and listening in on it again, I can see why, in the dismal days of the 1980s, when the world was still defined by Thatcher, Reagan, the Berlin Wall and mutually assured destruction, and when political correctness was first making its baleful influence felt, it exerted a fascination which, paradoxically enough, bordered on reassurance – not just the simple reassurance that there seemed to be people out there who were as confused as we were, but that there were Americans who were as confused as we were and that you could write about these things without worrying about the ideological implications. Curiously, even though they hardly ever mentioned politics directly (unless you read ‘Old Mother Reagan’ as a parable damning the then president), seemed to veer dangerously close to misogyny and racism at times, and occasionally threw in references to god, they appealed to the bunch of Marxists, Trotskyites, Gramscians, atheists, feminists and one-sort-of-lefties-or-another that we thought we were far more readily than bands who wore Lenin badges and little red wedges in their lapels. Maybe that was because they expressed what it felt like to be live in bad times rather than simply shouting about how awful they were. Either way, I’m not putting the shoebox back in the cupboard just yet. 

Tom Phillips is a Bristol-based poet and journalist, and regular contributor to Eyewear.
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