Violent Femmes

Original Milwaukee Rock for more than two decades

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2004

As with most great albums, the circumstances behind the Violent Femmes' 1983 self-titled debut seem improbable.

This much is true:

• Lead singer and guitarist Gordon Gano wrote most of the album and the band's second release, "Hallowed Ground," while he was still a high school student in Milwaukee.

• Gano and bassist Brian Ritchie were kicked out of a National Honors Society awards ceremony in 1981 for breaking into an impromptu rendition of "Give Me the Car."

• Though all the material for the first two albums was already written, the band somehow decided on the 10 songs for its debut when it sat down to record in 1982.

"We thought the songs we chose for the first album formed a cohesive whole and posterity has borne that out," Ritchie said. "We wanted to expand the listeners' minds with the next albums and sometimes it works, sometimes not."

"About 70 percent of the material we have recorded was written by Gordon when he was 15 to 18," he said. "He had a remarkable creative streak when he was in high school."

Other claims, such as Ritchie's assertion that "Blister in the Sun" is actually about a "herpes blister on a mastodon's ass," are outright lies. But after 21 years, the truth becomes cloudy.

"Violent Femmes" is famously full of anthems about devastation, vengeance, triumph and fervent glances. And perhaps that, along with its semi-acoustic instrumentation, is why it remains timeless. The album has sold more than a million copies despite never entering the Billboard Top 200.

They have 10 albums (eight studio, one live, one of outtakes), but they still play the songs off the debut. The Violent Femmes play Marlintini's at 9 p.m. Saturday, June 19. The group has played in Anchorage twice before, but this will be their first trip to Fairbanks and Juneau. (Their first appearance in Anchorage, in 1995, marked the 50th state they had played in.)

"Having such an enthusiastic crowd props us up and keeps us energized," Ritchie said. "Also, traveling extensively and playing for different people all the time reinvigorates us and allows us to play the same songs with some freshness."

"Usually about 75 percent of the people sing along, and it's a wonderful sound and feeling we get from that," he said. "If they didn't we would really miss it."

The Femmes - Gano, Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo - left high school in 1981 and began performing and busking throughout Milwaukee and parts of the Midwest. According to legend, they were playing for change on Farwell Avenue one day in 1982, outside the Oriental Theatre before a Pretenders show, when Pretenders guitarist James Honeyman Scott noticed them and offered them a chance to open.

"The music scene in Milwaukee was and probably still is hair bands, metal, blues rock and the sort," said Ritchie, who moved back to Milwaukee from New York in December. "But there has also been a strong bohemian musical streak in Milwaukee because of the high amount of eccentrics there. It's cheap to live and pursue your own ideas there, but you need energy because you won't get much from the environment."

Later in 1982, they played their first show in New York City and recorded their debut album. It was released on Warner/Slash in early 1983.

Early reviews were superlative.

"What this boils down to is that the Femmes are the newest, and possibly the truest, scholars of both the sanguine and ribald periods of Jonathan Richman," wrote Cary Baker in an August 1983 interview in Trouser Press magazine. "Add an acrid aftertaste from sitting out many a sockhop to an antipathy to the modern world matching that of Jim Skafish or any other rock 'outcast.' Embellish with a skiffle sound windburned on the diagonally intersecting Milwaukee streets, and dynamics from a whisper to a scream. The rest is open to suggestion."

By the mid-1980s, the Femmes were touring with the most well-known college rock bands of the era. Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison produced their third album, "The Blind Leading the Naked," in 1985 and 1986. The recording process led the band to break up for two years, but they reformed in 1988 and released their fourth album, "3." One of the songs, "Nightmares," was the first Femmes song to start showing up on the radio. They were soon back on the road, playing with bands such as Mojo Nixon, Public Image Limited, the Sugarcubes, New Order. But as Ritchie says, they "never considered ourselves part of any scene and no scene has tried to claim us either."

"We're just three weird guys playing hillbilly punk rock jazz," he said. "Not being identifiable

has allowed us to survive for 24 years. Last night (Friday, June 11) we played with the Strokes, Beastie Boys, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Other times we've played with the Grateful Dead. We fit in anywhere and nowhere."

Recently, the Femmes have continued to tour. Their latest studio album, "Freak Magnet" came out in 2000, after being delayed for two years when they were dropped by Interscope Records. A live concert album, "Viva Wisconsin," came out in 1999. Slash/Rhino put out a two-disc commemorative release of the band's debut in 2002.

"We have recorded a new version of the Batman theme, which will be coming out soon," Ritchie claimed, "and we will be touring until someone dies."

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