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Violent Femmes

+ {Gordon Gano}

With their acoustic cow-punk assault and sarcastic, angst-ridden lyrics, VIOLENT FEMMES were taken into the heart as post-LOU REED/MODERN LOVERS/ONLY ONES flagbearers for American indie wimp-rock; the likes of `Gone Daddy Gone’, `Blister In The Sun’, `Kiss It Off’ and `Add It Up’ – all from their debut LP, ironically – were classic slices of adolescent alienation. When other acts around them had taken the hardcore-punk route, the spiritual V-Femmes captured a fun-folk motif that college kids could adhere and latch on to.
Main man Gordon Gano (singer/songwriter/guitarist) was the son of a Baptist minister and a mother who’d listen to country and blues in equal measures. Flitting from Connecticut to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the mid-70s, Gano was a keen student, but there was also a rebellious side to his nature once he’d graduated and met the like-minded Brian Ritchie (bass/vocals/keys). They’d performed together at Gordon’s riotous National Honor Society induction ceremony, for which he was duly expelled from high school.
Along with drummer/percussionist Victor DeLorenzo, 1981 was really the year that the garage element of their musical musings turned VIOLENT FEMMES into a serious proposition; incidentally, the moniker had been chosen by Messrs Ritchie and DeLorenzo prior to Gano taking up an invitation to join. Discovered that August 23rd by guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, when the acoustic trio busked outside the Oriental Theatre (where The PRETENDERS were playing), they were soon performing in support to Chrissie Hynde and Co.
After being signed to Slash Records soon afterwards, the group delivered their much-loved eponymous debut, VIOLENT FEMMES {*9}, in April ’83. Licensed from Warner Bros to Rough Trade for a UK release that September, the LP went on to sell more than a million copies with the barest of promotion and no hit singles. Naïve new wave or campy cow-punk, even the lesser-known beauts on board, such as `Prove My Love’, `To The Kill’ and `Good Feeling’ (the Brit 45 `Ugly’ and flip `Gimme The Car’ were duly added), had an appeal all of their own.
1984’s follow-up, HALLOWED GROUND (1984) {*7}, was met with a more muted response from the faculty; save the definitive opener, `Country Death Song’ (a true tale), the record lacked the downtrodden impetus of the debut and disappointed many who had raved over their seminal debut. Mixing up a spooky cocktail of Christian country and ominous, weather-beaten parodies (`I Hear The Rain’, `Sweet Misery Blues’ and the single, `It’s Gonna Rain’), Gano and group were straying off their righteous path to pop/rock glory. Not.
The ‘Femmes redeemed themselves somewhat with the JERRY HARRISON-produced THE BLIND LEADING THE NAKED (1986) {*7}, an album that fired them into the US and UK Top 100 lists. Confrontational and cathartic, two of its best pieces (`I Held Her In My Arms’ and `Good Friend’) were squeezed between an exhilarating cover of T. REX’s `Children Of The Revolution’, illustrating what they were capable of when they managed to focus some of their schizophrenic zeal.
Yet it was too little too late, and the band chose to lick their proverbial wounds – separately. BRIAN RITCHIE had already recorded a solo album for S.S.T. Records the previous year, while Gano and DeLorenzo worked on separate projects; the former with the one-set quartet, The Mercy Seat, the latter also as a solo artist.
The trio eventually returned with fourth album, 3 (1989) {*6}, another directionless Top 100 set of teen-angst cow-punk ditties which failed to add much to the band’s cult status. Stripped back to its bare-bone element, highlights were few and far between; only `Nightmares’, `Dating Days’ and `Mother Of A Girl’, came up to scratch.
With his distinctive detached whine, 1991’s unsettling WHY DO BIRDS SING? (1991) {*6}, was self-indulgence and one guilty pleasure (CULTURE CLUB’s `Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’) all rolled into one. Bouncing upon the apex of rock’n’roll insanity, the frustratingly kooky and backward were here in abundance on `American Music’ (very EVERLYs) and the strum-friendly `He Likes Me’.
The release of a compilation album in ’93 marked the premature closure with Slash Records, whilst the band (De Lorenzo making way for ex-BoDEANS drummer Guy Hoffman), subsequently signed to Elektra for 1994’s other Top 100 breaker, NEW TIMES {*5}. Neither this nor the following year’s glammed-up ROCK!!!!! {*3} – initially only issued in Australia! – added much to the VIOLENT FEMMES legacy, and the band remained victims of that first-album-classic syndrome.
Gano and Co celebrated their birthplace by releasing a live album entitled, VIVA WISCONSIN (1999) {*7}, a cracking “best bits” recording that was spoiled slightly by the rush-released studio return, FREAK MAGNET (2000) {*5}. An album displaying their folk-punk roots in full bloom (`Sleepwalkin’’, `I’m Bad’ and `Mosh Pit’), only the avant-jazz/R&B of ALBERT AYLER’s `New Generation’, pointed to anything effective and non-filler.
An outsider who’d perforated the punk and nu-indie elite by way of his not-inconsiderable teen angst vox, GORDON GANO’s inaugural solo release, HITTING THE GROUND (2002) {*6} was not so much solo, but a who’s who collaboration with his idols and peers. Almost every track a shimmy and a shake with the likes of PJ HARVEY, FRANK BLACK, LINDA PERRY, MARY LOU LORD, THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS et al, the maverick GG sucked up mixed reviews for everything bar the adventurous `Don’t Pretend’ (with JOHN CALE) and `Catch ‘Em In The Act’ (with other VU: LOU REED).
Although VIOLENT FEMMES returned to the fray in the mid-00s, it counted for little when RITCHIE claimed he’d been part of the songwriting process from the on-set, and was due some credit and finance. De Lorenzo had reconvened with the group at this stage, but in effect, a live in Iceland mini-set and a 7-inch cover of a GNARLS BARKLEY song, `Crazy’, only cut tensions even further; Gordon had also licensed `Blister In The Sun’ for a Wendy’s ad.
Patching up their differences a few years on from a GORDON GANO & THE RYANS set (on Yep Roc Records), UNDER THE SUN (2009) {*5}, the original VIOLENT FEMMES celebrated their out of court settlement by reuniting for live shows in 2013. Another acrimonious bail-out was when De Lorenzo parted company after playing that year’s Coachella Festival; his berth taken by the 30-something Brian Viglione (ex-DRESDEN DOLLS).
So, 16 years after their so-called swansong set, the trio were back with the addictive half-hour+ set, WE CAN DO ANYTHING (2016) {*8}. Recalling LOU REED’s Transformer track `New York Telephone Conversation’, for `Issues’ (well, slightly) or The EVERLY BROTHERS-meets TELEVISION a la `What You Really Mean’, the gleaming Gano glommed – even on the Batman-themed `Travelling Solves Everything’. Not necessarily the high spots (that would go to `Holy Ghost’, `Memory’, `I’m Not Done’ and the weirdly wonderful, dragon-slaying `I Could Be Anything’), the ‘Femmes were once again top-drawer folk-punk. Despite this, Viglione bailed; his place taken by John Sparrow (ex-Horns Of Dilemma).
More than just an obligatory concert album (represented by tracks from the WXRV, WFUV or KCMP), the ragged and un-gagged 2 MICS & THE TRUTH: UNPLUGGED & UNHINGED IN AMERICA (2017) {*7} swaddled nearly 35 years of er… ones that got away.
The wry and witty VIOLENT FEMMES returned to the fold for 2019’s back-to-roots set, HOTEL LAST RESORT {*7}. Guest spots for visionary TELEVISION man TOM VERLAINE (on the title track), skateboarder/sneaker designer Stefan Janoski (on a rousing re-vamp of 1994 track, `I’m Nothing’) and long-time studio auxiliary/saxophonist, Blaise Garza (another from Horns Of Dilemma), spruced up the trio’s folk-punk credence. Gordon Gano’s volatile VERLAINE-esque vocals were of course the band’s forte, and dismissing detached sing-a-long opener, `Another Chorus’, the groove-sters swung into first gear through `It’s All Or Nothing’, a quirky cover of `I’m Not Gonna Cry’ (from Greek act Pyx Lax) and `Not OK’. If times were indeed hard for a decidedly divided US of A, Gano pored out an emotional, heartfelt finale by way of a sinister/cynical overview of Irving Berlin’s `God Bless America’ – the latter half of the dirge edgy and purposefully sprawling and chaotic.
© MC Strong 1997-2003/GRD series // rev-up MCS Mar2016-Jun2019

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