The Violent Femmes have played a particularly important part in my musical education over the last sixteen or so years. Like most – I was introduced to them by their novelty output; like Blister In The Sun. That song’s status as a prerequisite for drunken hens nights and youth dance parties at suburban RSL clubs is unfortunate, but for me – that song spurred an enthusiastic spate of back-collection, deeper appreciation and ultimately the amassing of around eight studio albums now, of mostly remarkable quality. They enjoyed a really loyal following on these fair shores and could easily sell out twenty shows nationally. Bassist Brian Ritchie even lives here now and is part owner in a tea shop (of course) in Surry Hills.
That first album is an absolute classic. It deserves to be spoken about in the same sentence as ‘Nevermind’ and ‘Unknown Pleasures’ (personally is means more than the sum of both of these) – in a correspondingly hushed and reverent tone. It’s sheer, unabashed, anguished, genuine, DIY, teenage catharsis captured on record.
Add It Up, Kiss Off, Please Do Not Go, Prove My Love – utter classics and so different to anything around at the time, or since, really. Mostly penned by distinctive and curiosity-arousing crazy singer Gordon Gano when he was still at school, it confused people. With no box to put it in, no musical label to slap on it, explicitly uncommercial content and indeed no radio format to play it; it was a sleeper hit – taking nine years to hit platinum in the US. I dare say even this was propelled by the strongest marketing tool music has; word of mouth.
This track however is taken from their (even more uncommercial) second album. The opening song was a country ditty about a farmer who kills his daughter and then hangs himself in a barn. It’s followed up by a largely a capella gospel song about salvation through rainfall.
Track three is Never Tell – this sprawling seven minute masterpiece. It’s just simply overflowing with ideas, brimming with unconventional instruments, style changes, time signature experimentation and downright kooky noises. It takes the idea of a three minute pop song and annihilates it utterly. Among the Violent Femmes catalogue, particularly amid the wealth of punky pop dissertations – it’s very easy to look past this and not appreciate it’s genius.
I feel like I need some sort of chart or diagram to map out the strange and twisted musical journey this song takes us on. I think there’s five parts; first from 0.01 to 1.43 (setting up the story), then 1.44 to 2.52 (musical experimentation), 2.52 to 4.48 (perhaps the most haunting), 4.48 to 5.33 (like a death march) and 5.30 to close (the manic finale).
The sounds are so (unsurprisingly) Femmes! Gano’s characteristic nasal whine – his voice an instrument, here used as a whisper, a scream and everything in between. That deep acoustic bass that is such the trademark of Brian Ritchie. The production on the drums giving them a deep, deep pounding echo. The guitar sounds that are twisted and abrasive.
Lyrically – some really kooky, abstract lines, which with repetition, only get even more confusing:
‘It’s of utmost importance, we’re dealing with volatile substance’
‘Don’t You Know Nothing, You Never Tell On Someone’
‘Sink down, sink down, sink down – down, down to the bottom of the river, sink down sink, sink down down’.
The net meaning? Well, it’s so twisted, I’d rather not delve. It defines haunting, dark and macabre.