Why Violent Femmes' Classic Debut Still Seems So Young, 30 Years Later

Songs like "Blister in the Sun" and "Add It Up" don't sound like April, 1983—they sound like eternally sweaty, frustrated, neurotic teenagedom.
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Violent Femmes
"I hope you know that this will go down
on your permanent record"
Oh yeah?
Well don't get so distressed
Did I happen to mention that I'm impressed?
–"Kiss Off"

This Saturday, Milwaukee band Violent Femmes took the stage at the Coachella festival for what would be their first concert appearance in almost six years. But despite their almost two decades worth of recordings, it was their self-titled debut album, released by Slash Records 30 years ago this month, that made up all but three songs of their 56 minute set, which was received enthusiastically by the multi-generational audience.

Their debut represents more than just the height of the band's commercial success. Although virtually ignored upon its release, the album has since been regarded as emblematic of the teenage experience, youthful frustration pinned and preserved.

Part of the reason the album endures is the music itself: simply constructed songs with sticky melodies, sung by a young man with a conversational delivery and a voice like a fire-truck siren, backed by frenzied bass playing and primal, intuitive drumming. The performances are burning things, alternately spare and spacious, then suddenly taut and rigid and nervous. Things never fall apart, but they continually threaten to. The lyrics are gutting and funny, too: sordid but somehow pleasant teenage confessionals penned by an actual teenager. Even when the words temporarily slip into inanity, the off-kilter vocal performance lifts them, twists them, and lends them an extra edge of weirdness that pushes them back into the personal. "Blister in the Sun," the Femmes' bip-boppin' ode to drugs, "big hands," and nocturnal emissions, is clearly the single of the bunch, but nearly every track is powerful, deranged, and yes, likeable.

Another part of why the album endures, though, is the distance it stands from its own time. Not unlike our current era, the '80s were not a particularly subtle period for music production. Every song had a synthesizer, every drummer had to be either a robot or Phil Collins with a cannon for a snare drum. Not even otherwise aggressively against-the-grain albums were safe from the sonic morass. The Replacements' Let It Be, for instance, rough edges to the performances aside, could sonically be a Stryper album.

Much like the Modern Lovers sessions almost a decade before, the documentary nature of the Violent Femmes sessions was a choice neither purely aesthetic nor purely pragmatic. After some local success, the band self-financed the recording at the only studio they could afford, and then shopped the result to every label they could. But the band surely knew what they had when they were done: They accepted a contract with Slash Records, the only label that didn't suggest rerecording the material with a full drum kit, with synthesizers, or some variation thereof.

The unadorned aesthetic made them painfully un-hip at their own time, but at a distance of 30 years the approach seems downright visionary. It is, after all, in perfect service to the songs and to the band's ragged delivery. It isn't just the carefully portrayed lust and regret, the jolting ugliness of desire, and the impossibility of deliverance—it's that by eliminating the aural tics of the era, the record documents not a moment of time, but a time of life:

Broken down kitchen at the top of the stairs
can I mix in with your affairs
share a smoke, make a joke
grasp and reach for a leg of hope
–"Add It Up"

The world of Violent Femmes is a world of sex and streets and smoking and stained sheets and wandering around in the haze of the night trying to find your way back home. It's a world that'll always exist, no matter the year. So it's appropriate that the album forgoes that '80s snare drum sound, that remorseless companion to Dallas, to shoulder pads, to Ronald Reagan.

When I first heard the album, I was 15 years from its release. It might as well have been the Carter Family for all I knew about the genesis of the recording. Friends passed it around like a dirty magazine. I caught the infection from a mix tape made by my hip aunt, and it soon spread through the water polo team. This isn't an uncommon story. It's that kind of slow accumulation of attention that led the album to selling more than a million copies before even once appearing on the Billboard Top 200.

The unadorned aesthetic made them un-hip at their own time, but at a distance of 30 years the approach seems downright visionary. By eliminating the aural tics of the era, the record documents not a moment of time, but a time of life.

And despite the critical praise and commercial success, in many ways it's still an underrated album, at least partially because the kind of critics that compile "best-of" lists tend to shy away from associating themselves with bands with such a mixed bag of recordings to their name. The Femmes went on to release a bewildering array of albums, none of which managed to capture the verve and energy and consistency of songwriting of their debut. They would make at least one more excellent, if scattered, recording, 1984's Jesus-powered Hallowed Ground. But their third album is their first unmitigated disaster, a crassly commercial piece of pandering produced by Talking Head and former Modern Lover Jerry Harrison, who appears to have believed that, surprise surprise, commercial rock music means synthesizers and triggered drum kits in metronomic time, and, most importantly, giant snare drums.

But for now, I'd rather forget all that, forget the two decades the Femmes spent essentially functioning as their own cover band, forget their Wendy's commercial-inspired breakup in 2007, or their undoubtedly commercially motivated reunion.

And that in essence is the miracle of recorded audio, the reasons why "permanent record"s still matter, even if music consumers' enthusiasm for paying for them has dwindled. Because 30 years ago, three musicians gathered in a dingy little room and played some great songs together, and we can still hear it today, exactly as it sounded then.

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Sean Michael Robinson is a writer, musician, and co-author and illustrator of Down on the Hole: The unWired World of H.B. Ogden. His band is The Summer Januaries.

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