Violent Femmes - Biography
By Brad Austin
As with the careers of Patti Smith, The Stone Roses, and countless other early achievers, the Violent Femmes’ career has often been measured against the impact of their debut album. It's probable that no one will argue that 1982's The Violent Femmes (1982 Slash Records/Rhino) is their single greatest contribution to music, though many overlook the nearly three-decade span this unique trio shared as one of America's best, and most polarizing, cult bands.
The Violent Femmes began in 1980 as a project between bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Ritchie came up with the name, taking the word “femme” and juxtaposing it with a contradictory adjective. The duo got their start busking on the streets of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When guitarist/vocalist Gordon Gano joined in 1981, the Violent Femmes made the leap from simple street buskers to street buskers with an original and catchy set of songs. One night, the trio was discovered by the Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeyman-Scott as they played outside a theater that was about to host a Pretenders show. Singer Chrissie Hynde offered the group an opportunity to play a short set on stage after the initial opening act. The band was soon signed to Los Angeles-based Slash Records, a label once home to seminal punk bands X and the Germs.
Their self-titled debut appeared on Slash in 1982, and today remains as fresh and appealing as it was when it first was released. The songs were part of a burgeoning, but ultimately short-lived, sub-genre known as folk-punk and the term suits the band as perfectly as their name. Gano's songs, written while he was in high school, masterfully combine a rollicking punk energy both lyrically and musically with a sensitive folk singer's mentality. Had these songs been played electrically, “Kiss Off” and “Add it Up” would certainly be louder but wouldn't necessarily pack as much emotional punch. The sharp acoustic guitars and brushed drums provide a deceptively soft musical base. Through their sudden bursts of volume, which sound almost accidental at times, the acoustic instruments give the songs an immediacy and excitement that makes the album as commanding and intense as anything that X ever put out. “Blister in the Sun,” “Gone Daddy Gone,” and the aforementioned “Kiss Off” and “Add it Up” were favorites on college radio and still receive significant airtime to this day.
Rather than milk the folk-punk aesthetic for what could have lasted another two albums or so, Gano instead took another batch of his high school-era originals and pieced together a collection of songs for 1984's Hallowed Ground (1984 Slash Records/Rhino). Primarily, the songs on Hallowed Ground represent Gano's longtime struggle with his religion. The son of a Baptist minister, Gano felt religion had been forced upon him and he wrestled with these feelings for most of his life. Unfortunately, many Violent Femmes fans were alienated by his lyrical musings, finding the songs either too serious or unfairly sarcastic. Another factor that hurt the album's sales was its musical direction; much of the album forsakes the debut’s youthful punk energy for down-tempo country and folk-tinged songs.
Changing directions once again, the Femmes enlisted fellow Milwaukee native Jerry Harrison (former guitarist and keyboardist of the Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers) to produce The Blind Leading the Naked (1986 Slash Records). The album charted at number 84 on the Billboard 200, and featured a tasteful cover of T. Rex's “Children of the Revolution.”
After The Blind, the band broke up to pursue solo endeavors. Gano's Gospel side project The Mercy Seat released its self-titled debut in 1987. Richie meanwhile recorded a couple of albums for the now-legendary punk label SST called The Blend and Sonic Temple & Court of Babylon in 1987 and 1989, respectively. It did not take long for the Femmes to reunite, and they put out another album of new material before the decade was over. Proving there was still an appetite for the Violent Femmes, 3 (1988 Slash Records) peaked in the Billboard 200 at 93, spurred on by its single “Nightmares,” which hit number four on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Standing in stark contrast to the moodiness of 3, the Violent Femmes' fifth full-length album Why Do Birds Sing? (1991 Reprise) was a sunny and upbeat affair, exemplified by its only real hit, “American Music” (number two on the Modern Rock Tracks chart). The album included a surprising cover of Culture Club's “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” Otherwise, the album was a commercial drop-off for the band, stalling out on the Billboard 200 at number 141. Interestingly enough, their debut that started it all for the Femmes back in 1982 suddenly appeared on the charts that same year, hitting number 171. Two years later, The Violent Femmes would finally achieve its well-deserved platinum status.
After the release of the greatest hits collection Add it Up (1981 – 1993) (1993 Slash Records/Reprise), DeLorenzo decided to split from the band and continue the solo career he began with 1991's Peter Corey Sent Me. He was replaced by former BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman. DeLorenzo would not release another solo album until 1996's Pancake Day.
The Violent Femmes released New Times (1994 Elektra) on Elektra in 1994. While they did break back into the Billboard 200 at number 90 and score a hit with “Breakin' Up” on The Modern Rock Tracks at number 12, the album would be their only release with Elektra. They found distribution for 1995's Rock!!!!! (1995 Mushroom Records) through Australian imprint Mushroom Records. The album would not see a U.S. release until five years later when Cold Front issued it in 2000. During the group's five-year break from recording new material, they made a foray into the sitcom world, appearing as themselves in a 1997 episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The small independent label Beyond put out the band's live album Viva Wisconsin (1999 Beyond Records) in late 1999. Soon enough, the Femmes were back with a new set of songs on 2000's Freak Magnet (2000 Beyond Records).
The career of Violent Femmes had pretty much come full circle. The group began with a folk-punk record that initially undersold, and then they began the new millennium the same way with Freak Magnet. However, a flurry of Femmes releases followed. In 2002, their now-classic debut was re-issued as a double album in celebration of its 20th anniversary. The re-issue featured 22 previously unreleased tracks. In 2005, Permanent Record: The Very Best of Violent Femmes (2005 Slash Records/Rhino) was released and then the Hux label released the BBC Live, a set that was recorded in 1991 at London's Town & Country Club. The crowd's audibly enthusiastic reaction to the set is a testament to the genuine affection many feel not only for the band's first album, but for their entire canon and the band itself.