Violent Femmes – from Pretenders to Kings of the Heap

27th July 2021

I have sometimes wondered how the Violent Femmes career would have panned out if they hadn’t decided to busk where they did on the 23rd August 1981. The spot they had chosen just happened to be where Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders were going to be performing later that day. Pretenders guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott, heard the band and was impressed, as was Chrissie Hynde who invited them to play an acoustic set after the opening act that night.

Violent Femmes – Masters of Dark Americana

I only really got to know Violent Femmes music in the late 90s thanks to my housemate. Today’s article takes a look behind the band and how they became the masters of their own brand of dark Americana.

The band was founded by their bassist, Brian Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo at the demise of the American punk scene. When lead vocalist and guitarist, Gordon Gano, joined the duo fresh from school, Violent Femmes was officially born. Although first regarded as folk-punk, they showed they had something deeper up their sleeve later in their career.

Gano and Ritchie admitted some years later that the members of the Femmes had very little in common with each other apart from their music, and thank goodness they had that, because nobody in their hometown of Milwaukee took them seriously. All of the trappings that endured them to fans in later years just wasn’t understood or appreciated at the time. These quirks included Gano sporting a dressing gown in public and playing on a collection of ramshackle equipment – it was just too much for the local scene, especially when combined with witty (but dark – very dark) lyrics that made you smile guiltily while squirming in your seat. Nobody would book them, so the pavements were their main stage.

This wonderful back-story has often been repeated in interviews after (of course) the band became famous. The band members admit that at the time of their ‘discovery’ they were little prepared for a professional music career, but it was the impetus needed for DeLorenzo’s father to lend the band $10,000 to record their first album.

The production was taken on as an act of faith by Mark Van Hecke who had tried to shop a three track demo for the band previously with no takers. Van Hecke described the rented studio as being in a state of collapse. Equipment that was there one day would have been repossessed the next. The band had little idea of how to handle a recording session and tended to move around a lot as they did in their busking. This gave the first self titled album the natural sound that they became known for. As Van Hecke said in an interview “A lot of people thought I was nuts and this was shit. I knew it wasn’t.”

I’m starting with a favourite track of mine from their first album. Here’s ‘Gone Daddy Gone’

His faith paid off when New York Times music critic Robert Palmer caught two performances of the Violent Femmes opening for Richard Hell in 1982. His subsequent review was instrumental in the band getting a deal with Slash Records. Palmer was quite an important voice in the music press world having recently published ‘Deep Blues’, the (then) definitive book on the genre.

Some of his comments are classis. He compared Gano’s songwriting and delivery to Lou Reed, but also picked up a new strain of Americana in the bands “revved-up, snotty confessionals”. In a review for the Femmes second overtly spiritual album ‘Hallowed Ground’ (1984) he wrote of “a subterranean mother lode of apocalyptic religion, murder, and madness that has lurked just under the surface of hillbilly music and blues since the 19th century” in the Femmes’ knowingly primitive music.

Violent Femmes remained an underground phenomenon during the ‘80s and were a slow but steady seller. Their debut album finally proved to be the masterpiece they thought it was in 1991 when it finally achieved platinum status, but by then the band had achieved some mainstream recognition thanks to the alt-rock boom.

The third album ‘The Blind Leading the Naked’ was produced by Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison and saw the band developing a more mainstream, pop-orientated sound. Their take of T Rex’s ‘Children of the Revolution’ from the album was a mild hit.

1987 saw a brief disbanding to give both Richie and Gano the chance to release respective solo albums as a side project. They reformed in 1988 to release ‘3’ which saw them return to their stripped-down sound. They were signed to Reprise in 1991 and released the album ‘Why do Birds Sing?’ which featured the song that would go on to become a concert staple – ‘American Music’

Founder member Victor DeLonzeo left in 1993 to pursue his solo career and was replaced by Guy Hoffman for the tour that resulted in one of the band’s biggest selling records ‘Add it Up (1981 – 1993)’. Over the next nine years the band released another 5 full length CDs. To coincide with a 20th anniversary reissue of their first album DeLonzeo re-joined the band for what was supposed to be a farewell tour. After touring the 2000 album, ‘Freak Magnet’ Gano announced that Violent Femmes wouldn’t be writing any new music but would continue to play shows when booked.

My second choice is a perfect example of the band exploring Americana in a very dark way. Here’s ‘The Country Death Song’, performed here live for a 2017 KEXP recording.

You can’t keep a good band down and 2005 saw two collections ‘Permanent Record: The Very Best of Violent Femmes’ on Slash/Rhino and a DVD, ‘Permanent Record – Live & Otherwise from Rhino’, which showcases a concert performance from 1991, along with many of the group’s videos.

Something that always manages to cement a band into popular culture is when their songs are used in TV shows, movies and series. Violent Femmes have been no exception. Ethan Hawke sang the Femmes song ‘Add it Up’ in the movie Reality Bites, Minnie Driver pumped ‘Blister in the Sun’ in ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’, and Gano even had a cameo in ‘Sabrina, the Teenage Witch’. SpongeBob SquarePants also got the Femmes treatment when they recorded a 34-second cover of the theme song for the Complete Season DVD. South Park also included the band into their long list of contributing musicians with a one-off recording of ‘I Swear It – I Can Change”.

J.K.Rowling of Harry Potter fame once likened Gano’s vocals as sounding “like a bee in a plastic cup”, however, his style of whine has gone on to influence a slew of reedy-voiced artists like Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Mangum, Colin Meloy and Alec Ounsworth.

I’d like to finish this blog with an extract from Pitchfork’s excellent article by Stephen Hyden.

‘Violent Femmes remain a band out of time. They are rarely mentioned with the “canon” bands of ’80s American post-punk—lacking the sales and accolades of R.E.M., the Replacements, and the Pixies, the Femmes don’t signify an era so much as a time of life. Violent Femmes is children’s music for teenagers—uber-elementary sing-alongs that have their time and place, and then are set aside as facile once they’re outgrown.

But Violent Femmes deserves better. If the blues survived because of the oral tradition of passing down songs from one singer to another, Violent Femmes endured because the tunes were shared via word of mouth at dorm parties and high school keggers. (Even the little girl on the cover of their first album learned about Violent Femmes that way.) And don’t discount those precious mixtapes, a primitive form of social media that worked exponentially slower than the internet but were ultimately no less effective at creating a lasting legacy.

For young people growing up in the internet age, Violent Femmes is part of a shared language. In 2013, after a period of estrangement marked by lawsuits and public in-fighting, Violent Femmes were persuaded to reunite for a performance at Coachella. “As soon as we started out the set with ‘Blister in the Sun,’ when that riff hit, it was like a swarm of insects coming towards our stage. They all started running from the other stages,” Ritchie recalled. All these years later, whenever teenagers listen to songs from Violent Femmes, they also hear themselves.’

The final choice of song has to be that Femmes concert classic, ‘American Music’.

I think that Violent Femmes have carved themselves a well deserved place in American music history that isn’t so much fixed to an era than in tradition. Thanks for joining me in this trip into Violent Femmes territory. I hope you enjoyed it. Catch you soon.

The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that does more than just share a song.

The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.

Words © Andrew Knapp 2021

Published by Loving the Music

I am a music-lover who has been fortunate enough to live through six-decades of ever-changing musical styles and genres. Loving the Music is my eclectic collection of regular music-related mini-features and whatever else tickles my musical fancy. You can also find me on the Loving the Music Facebook group and page. Happy listening - Andrew Knapp

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