The Roots of Indie: Violent Femmes
Imagine this: You're somewhere in the vicinity of 17 and 26 years old. You're playing coffee houses and street corners with your little three piece band, busking for change. One of the biggest bands on FM radio are playing a gig in your town one August night, so you and your buddies set up outside the theater in hopes of making a few bucks off of the loitering crowd.
The guitarist from the giganto band catches your act. He likes what he hears so much that he brings out the lead singer, who asks you to play a set that night after their opening act.
But before that fateful day in front of Milwaukee's Oriental Theater in 1981, Brian Ritchie, Victor DeLorenzo, and Gordon Gano were caught up in their local scene, bumping into each other through friends and gigs. Bassist Ritchie was playing in a band that DeLorenzo drummed for previously. The two eventually met through a mutual friend and found that they had a lot in common both musically and personally. Back in 2001 Ritchie told Rockzone:
This was in the punk era when sullenness and negativity were the norm. Victor's extroverted and slightly goofy persona were refreshing. So we hit it off and started playing in a number of different bands..... [W]hen Victor and I were playing with third parties in impromptu situations or if we were playing as a two piece we called ourselves "Violent Femmes."
The name was pure nonsense, fabricated by Ritchie on the spot after telling a friend that his insurance salesman brother played in a punk band. When pushed for the name of his brother's band, "Violent Femmes" popped out of Ritchie's mouth.
And so a rhythm section of twenty-somethings calling themselves Violent Femmes popped up now and then, but they need a frontman. Ritchie caught a set by local high schooler Gordon Gano and was impressed enough to go over to the kid's parents' house and jam. The bassist discovered that Gano wasn't only a singer and guitarist but also a pretty good songwriter. That night Gano played Ritchie 'Country Death Song,' which later became the opening track on 1984's 'Hallowed Ground':
In the same Rockzone interview, Ritchie recalls his first public performance with Gano:
I bumped into Gordon and he invited me to join him the next morning for a performance he was to give at school for the National Honor Society. Gordon was being inducted and they wanted him to perform a song....We were supposed to be playing "Good Friend", but in imitation of Elvis Costello, who had recently performed a similar stunt on 'Saturday Night Live' we broke into "Gimme the Car" after a few bars....Gordon was expelled from the society.
Within a few weeks Ritchie, Gano, and DeLorenzo played their first gig as Violent Femmes, sort of. Ritchie was on electric banjo, and the show was billed as "Gordon Gano and the Violent Femmes Plus Curtis." It was at that gig that DeLorenzo came up with the drum riff for what might be the most recognizable song in the alt-indie universe:
The band signed with Slash Records. One of the great indie labels of the early '80s, Slash grew out of the legendary punk zine of the same name. By the time the trio's eponymous debut was released in 1983, Slash had a distribution deal with Warner Brothers.
The album was slow selling out of the gate, but 'Violent Femmes' was the little engine that could. Although not met with commercial success at first, the band attracted a loyal and enthusiastic following. I was one of them, declaring them "the most important band of their generation" to anyone who would listen, which in small town South Carolina circa 1983 was a pretty small audience.
But the album had serious shelf life. Four years later, it hit RIAA gold, selling 500,000 copies. Another four years later, 'Violent Femmes' passed the one million mark -- platinum territory. It also reached its highest Billboard chart position that year, peaking at 171 eight years after it was released.
Why such a rabid following? It's the songs. Ritchie told the Village Voice:
Gordon was probably one of the first songwriters to write about these really painful adolescent awkward and really honest feelings without any kind of false bravado. His honesty was remarkable and I think the kids really respond to that because he was saying the things that they wished they could say but couldn't in such a direct way. They'd be embarrassed to.
Their live show didn't hurt matters, either. With DeLorenzo standing up behind his drum kit and Ritchie banging on an acoustic bass, the band didn't look or sound like anything else happening at the time.
Barring a short break in the late '80s, the original lineup stayed together until 1993 when DeLorenzo left the band, years later telling Modern Drummer:
We were a little frustrated not only with one another, but with our record company, and with the direction we each wanted to take this crazy thing called Violent Femmes. We all had personal reasons for splitting up, and I felt that it probably was the best thing for me to do at that time.
Wendy's introduced 'Blister In the Sun' to a whole new generation of fans when Gano allowed the song to be used in a 2007 television spot. The decision outraged Ritchie, who sued his bandmate. In the years since, the original lineup has appeared at Coachella and Bottlerock. Gano and Ritchie still tour as Violent Femmes with former Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Vigilione. Keep an eye on their tour calendar for dates.