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Big Hands, I Know You’re The One

If you immediately got the reference in this subject line, you were a weird teenager in 1983, or somehow, through the grace of God, became a Violent Femmes fan. In which case you will love, and love hard, this appreciation of the Femmes’ eponymous debut album, which came out 30 years ago this month. Thirty years! I remember seeing them play a VFW hall in an extremely unhip part of Baton Rouge in the summer of ’84, I think it was. Anyway, from Sean Michael Robinson’s piece:

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…

Yes! When I read this, and learned that the album’s raw sound was because of the band’s poverty, I thought that they were like a beautiful old part of town spared destruction by modernizing urban renewalists, because there wasn’t enough money to tear down the gorgeous old buildings and construct something expensive and antiseptic.

Robinson’s discussion of how horribly overproduced, synthesized, and drum-machined 1980s pop music was is a point that really came home to me driving last week from Asheville to Atlanta, and listening to an Eighties station on satellite radio. The era’s production values were really distracting to hear today, though I suppose at the time I might have thought they were pretty slick.

Below, a videoclip for a slightly-off remake of “Blister In The Sun” that the band did for the Grosse Pointe Blank soundtrack. Gordon Gano’s voice is so singular, and so deranged. Man, that is such a touchstone of my youth, that album. When I get home and off this tour, I’m going to buy it again — I haven’t been able to play the album since my last turntable died in the early 1990s — and introduce my 13 year old to it. Thank you, Sean Michael Robinson!

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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