Songs of adolescent sexual frustration have riddled the airwaves since the inception of rock and roll. Rarely, however, does a band combine teenage longings with the seemingly discordant theme of religious awakening in such a collision of musical genres as the Violent Femmes. The Femmes have been preaching this formidable combination of sounds and images with their unique brand of neo-punk, hardcore acoustic music since their formation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the early 1980s.
The band’s unusual album content sets them apart from the crowd and forces listeners to reassess the dividing lines between rock, punk, folk, jazz, and country and western. Musician contributor David Fricke hailed the band as “a fresh wind of post-punk originality rooted in rockabilly simplicity. [Their] songs vibrate with an almost psychotic tension underlined by the Femmes’ naked acoustic force.... The fatal charms of the Violent Femmes are a secret Milwaukee shouldn’t keep to itself.”
Lead vocalist and songwriter Gordon Gano grew up playing violin and guitar while writing tunes that alternately seethed with religious imagery and poignantly repressed sexual desire. Gano, the son of an American Baptist minister, presents a split vision of the world that expresses an almost psychotic self-depravation. It was during his senior year in high school that Gano met future bandmate Brian Ritchie when they both performed at the same variety show. Ritchie, who played guitar and bass, later attended another of Gano’s performances and asked him to open for his Irish folk duo. Gano, in turn, asked Ritchie to join him at a high school assembly where they belted out the pleading “Gimme The Car,” a teenage supplication for the wanton use of dad’s coveted vehicle. As Ritchie recalled in Musician, “It erupted into a near-riot. It was fantastic!”
In 1981 jazz-trained percussionist Victor DeLorenzo joined Gano and Ritchie and the Violent Femmes were officially formed—their name gleaned from an early 1970s grade-school insult. They rapidly became a Milwaukee mainstay, performing at coffeehouses and nightclubs across the city. Their ascension came one night in 1981, when members of the popular rock band the Pretenders noticed the Femmes performing outside of that evenings’ concert venue and asked the trio to open the show. While most bands recall such stories with nostalgic repose, however, the Femmes maintain that their so-called breakthrough was just a matter of time. They told Melody Maker: “It’s been passed
For the Record…
Members include Gordon Gano (born June 7,1963), lead vocals and guitar; Brian Ritchie (born November 21, 1960), bass; Victor DeLorenzo (born October 25, 1954; left band, 1993), percussion; Guy Hoffman (born May 20, 1954; joined band, 1993), percussion.
Group formed in Milwaukee, WI, 1981; signed with Slash Records, 1982; released debut album, Violent Femmes, 1983; terminated contract with Slash Records, 1993; released New Times (produced by Gano and Ritchie), Elecktra, 1994.
around the press to the point where it’s like Chrissie Hynde [lead singer for the Pretenders] ‘discovered’ the Violent Femmes, when all she did was give us one gig. Which was great, it was the first time we ever played to 2,000 people. [But] we’d have gotten here without that.”
A contract with Slash Records followed in 1982. In 1983 the band made its debut with Violent Femmes, a trend-setting album fraught with raw sexual frustration and teenage fears. A writer for Billboard ‘deemed the album “a seminal document of hormonal angst and black humor.” Cuts from Violent Femmes such as “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” and “Kiss Off—fueled by lyrics like “Why can’t I get just one screw/Believe me I know what to do/But something won’t let me make love to you” (“Add It Up”) and “You can all just kiss off into the air/Behind my back I can see them stare/They’ll hurt me bad/But I won’t mind/They’ll hurt me bad/They do it all the time” (“Kiss Off”)—quickly gained cult status around the world.
The album’s minimalist arrangements were for the most part created with just acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, snare drum, and the “tranceaphone,” DeLorenzo’s invention of a tin bucket suspended over a torn. Gano’s youthful, whining vocals emphasized loneliness, anger, and tension, which caused many reviewers to label the album as a “teenage record.” Gano disagreed. “One thing I’ve often thought of certain songs, is that, rather than saying that they’re the result of teen or adolescent (thinking), they’re often not being expressed from the most mature of viewpoints, which to a greater or lesser degree people carry with them all their lives,” he commented in the St. Louis Riverfront Times.
The Femmes’ follow-up album, 1984’s Hallowed Ground, took a new, more introspective direction with an emphasis on religious imagery and a strong gospel tone. Many of the tracks focus on biblical themes, such as “It’s Gonna Rain,” an upbeat version of the Noah’s Ark story, and “Jesus Walking on the Water,” a straightforward tale of spiritual awakening. These songs are contrasted with unsettling tunes like “Country Death Song,” a psychotic confessional of a man who throws his daughter down the well and then hangs himself, and the sexually explicit “Black Girls.”
The album’s atypical content led reviewers and fans to question the motives and musical direction of the band. DeLorenzo, however, explained the groups’s stylistic choices in a 1986 interview with Musician: “Those songs are part of Gordon’s make-up, and the idea of this band is to indulge ourselves musically and also to remain real people in doing so.”
Hallowed Ground was also the group’s first album to feature The Horns of Dilemma, an aggregation of woodwind, brass, and string instruments which supplement the Femmes’ basic acoustic unit. The Horns of Dilemma would later mutate into different musicians and/or instruments, depending upon the requirements of a certain album or a particular live show. “We’ve had people come up and play comb with wax paper, a tabla player played with us in Boston,” said Gano in Melody Maker.”We’ve had oboe, sackbut, toy piano, Melodica, banjo—just about any instrument that you can think of.”
The release of The Blind Leading the Naked— produced by Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads (also a Milwaukee native)—in 1986 marked a turning point for the Violent Femmes. Blind is comprised of a diverse group of songs and styles—from the 33-second political outcry “Old Mother Reagan” to the cover of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution”—that chronicle the band’s musical growth. Blind also featured the widest range of instruments yet to appear on a Femmes album, including a greatly expanded Horns of Dilemma, and boasts vocals by all three band members. Ritchie summed up the Femmes’ four-year evolution in Musician: “We imposed a stylistic approach upon all the songs on the first album. Then we imposed a philosophy on the second album. On the third album we threw all our previous ideas out the window and decided to do each song as an individual song, the best we could do it.”
A two-year separation followed the release of Blind, with the bandmembers pursuing their own interests. Gano formed the rock-gospel band Mercy Seat and released a self-titled album in 1988, while Ritchie recorded three solo albums: The Blend ( 1987), Sonic Temple and the Court of Babylon ( 1989), and/See a Noise ( 1990). DeLorenzo’s sole effort, Peter Corey Sent Me ( 1991 ), included his talents on guitar and keyboard on one track.
The Femmes’ next two albums, 3 (1988) and Why Do Birds Sing? (1991), both represented a return to their earlier, characteristic style. The rebirth of the Femmes led Rolling Stone reviewer David Browne to praise their efforts: “Gordon Gano seems like the creepy kid next door who’ll go off the deep end any minute, and the more he acts that way, the better the Violent Femmes are.” Why Do Birds Sing? includes a skewed cover of Culture Club’s 1983 hit “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me”—a song Gano performs like the vocal equivalent of the film Psycho ’s sexually repressed Norman Bates—contrasted with songs such as the lyrical “Hey Nonny Nonny,” based on a sixteenth-century shepherd’s poem. The band also supplemented their album tours with appearances at the Earth Day festivities in 1992 and 1993.
In 1993 the band’s contract with Slash Records ended with the release of the compilation album Add It Up (1981-1993). Citing their incompatibility with Slash, Gano told the Phoenix New Times that “they kept asking us if we could sound like R.E.M.” Still, Add It Up is more than just a greatest hits collection. It is a testament to the Femmes 12-year musical odyssey and includes unreleased songs, demos, and live tracks—not to mention the humorous answering machine message left by Gano explaining that he had become locked inside his own house and hence would be late for the very first Femmes recording session.
Drummer DeLorenzo left the band in 1993 and was replaced by Guy Hoffman, a founding member of another Milwaukee band, the BoDeans, and a member of the new-wave band The Oil Tasters. DeLorenzo’s apparently amicable departure signaled the end of an era for the band, but the future of the Femmes seemed intact as Ritchie told the Milwaukee Journal that “Guy understands where we’re coming from. He knows the history of the band without having been a member.”
In 1994 the regrouped Femmes released New Times-produced by Gano and Ritchie—on the Elektra label. A Billboard contributor noted that this seventh album “should please both the diehard fans of Violent Femmes’ first album as well as those devotees who relish the band’s growth and the continued maturation of Gano’s songwriting.” Gano revealed to Billboard that the change in labels is like “going from a minor-league contract to a major-league contract.... We have a level of respect artistically that we’ve never had before.” The first single from New Times was “Breakin’ Up,” an angst-ridden commentary on relationships that nearly was included on the band’s first album. Other selections include “Mirror Mirror (I See a Damsel)” that borrows a polka sound and the rocking “Don’t Start Me on the Liquor.”
With every album, the Violent Femmes have attempted to simultaneously confront the dichotomies of life and expand the definition of rock and roll. Although their combination of purity and depravity may be controversial, Gano explained his antithetical approach in Melody Maker: “Heidegger said that a faith that doesn’t perpetually keep itself open to the possibility of unfaith isn’t even faith. I respond to that, but I feel that Violent Femmes songs do more good than bad when you hear them. But perhaps I’m totally wrong ... I could really be what some people already think of me—a borderline mentally ill person who’s adding to the troubles but deludes himself he’s doing some good.”
Violent Femmes (includes “Blister in the Sun,” “Add It Up,” and “Kiss Off”), Slash, 1982.
Hallowed Ground (includes “It’s Gonna Rain,” “Jesus Walking on the Water,” “Country Death Song,” and “Black Girls”), Slash, 1984.
The Blind Leading the Naked (includes “Old Mother Reagan” and “Children of the Revolution”), Slash, 1986.
3, Slash, 1988.
Debacle: The First Decade, Liberation Records, 1990.
Why Do Birds Sing? (includes “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me” and “Hey Nonny Nonny”), Slash, 1991.
Add It Up (1981-1993), Slash, 1993.
New Times (includes “Breaking Up”), Elektra, 1994.
Solo albums; Gordon Gano
The Mercy Seat, Slash, 1987.
Solo albums; Brian Ritchie
The Blend, SST, 1987.
Sonic Temple and the Court of Babylon, SST, 1989.
I See a Noise, Dali-Chameleon, 1990.
Solo albums; Victor DeLorenzo
Peter Corey Sent Me, Dali-Chameleon, 1991.
Billboard, April 9, 1994.
Melody Maker, March 10, 1984; September 28, 1991.
Milwaukee Journal, September 23, 1993.
Musician, December 1982; May 1986.
New Times (Phoenix), November 17, 1993.
Riverfront Times (St. Louis), November 16, 1993.
Rolling Stone, February 23, 1989.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Elektra Entertainment publicity materials, 1994.