Violent Femmes

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Violent Femmes

Rock band

Opportune Gig Sparked First Album

Steady Output Marked the Decade

Changes Hit Band

Selected discography


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 bands 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 shouldnt 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 Ganos 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 dads coveted vehicle. As Ritchie recalled in Musician, It erupted into a near-riot. It was fantastic!

Opportune Gig Sparked First Album

In 1981 jazz-trained percussionist Victor DeLorenzo joined Gano and Ritchie and the Violent Femmes were officially formedtheir 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: Its 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.

Addresses: Record company Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Management Borman Entertainment, 9220 Sunset Blvd., Suite 320, Los Angeles, CA 90069.

around the press to the point where its 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] wed 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 Offfueled by lyrics like Why cant I get just one screw/Believe me I know what to do/But something wont 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/Theyll hurt me bad/But I wont mind/Theyll hurt me bad/They do it all the time (Kiss Off)quickly gained cult status around the world.

The albums minimalist arrangements were for the most part created with just acoustic guitar, acoustic bass, snare drum, and the tranceaphone, DeLorenzos invention of a tin bucket suspended over a torn. Ganos youthful, whining vocals emphasized loneliness, anger, and tension, which caused many reviewers to label the album as a teenage record. Gano disagreed. One thing Ive often thought of certain songs, is that, rather than saying that theyre the result of teen or adolescent (thinking), theyre 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.

Steady Output Marked the Decade

The Femmes follow-up album, 1984s 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 Its Gonna Rain, an upbeat version of the Noahs 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 albums atypical content led reviewers and fans to question the motives and musical direction of the band. DeLorenzo, however, explained the groupss stylistic choices in a 1986 interview with Musician: Those songs are part of Gordons 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 groups 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. Weve had people come up and play comb with wax paper, a tabla player played with us in Boston, said Gano in Melody Maker.Weve had oboe, sackbut, toy piano, Melodica, banjojust 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 stylesfrom the 33-second political outcry Old Mother Reagan to the cover of T. Rexs Children of the Revolutionthat chronicle the bands 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). DeLorenzos 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 wholl 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 Clubs 1983 hit Do You Really Want To Hurt Mea song Gano performs like the vocal equivalent of the film Psycho s sexually repressed Norman Batescontrasted with songs such as the lyrical Hey Nonny Nonny, based on a sixteenth-century shepherds poem. The band also supplemented their album tours with appearances at the Earth Day festivities in 1992 and 1993.

Changes Hit Band

In 1993 the bands 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 tracksnot 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. DeLorenzos 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 were 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 Ritchieon 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 bands growth and the continued maturation of Ganos 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 weve never had before. The first single from New Times was Breakin Up, an angst-ridden commentary on relationships that nearly was included on the bands first album. Other selections include Mirror Mirror (I See a Damsel) that borrows a polka sound and the rocking Dont 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 doesnt perpetually keep itself open to the possibility of unfaith isnt even faith. I respond to that, but I feel that Violent Femmes songs do more good than bad when you hear them. But perhaps Im totally wrong ... I could really be what some people already think of mea borderline mentally ill person whos adding to the troubles but deludes himself hes doing some good.

Selected discography

Violent Femmes (includes Blister in the Sun, Add It Up, and Kiss Off), Slash, 1982.
Hallowed Ground (includes Its 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.

Debra Power