Twenty-Six Violent Years

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

The Violent Femmes are perhaps unique among 1980s-era bands still touring.  26 years after the band’s formation, the original line-up remains intact.  Also, the band’s audience doesn’t consist solely of people in their thirties and forties looking for nostalgia.  Sure they are there, but they are rubbing shoulders with a new generation of high school and college-age fans – proof positive of the band’s continued relevance and lasting appeal.  You can discover – or rediscover – the Violent Femmes yourself on Thursday at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz.

The Violent Femmes had their earliest beginnings at a high school in Milwaukee, WI during the heyday of punk.  Bass guitarist Brian Ritchie and singer-guitarist Gordon Gano played in a band at Gano’s National Honor Society induction ceremony.  The assembled students’ response was likened to a riot, and Gano was suspended from school and expelled from the Society for his pains. 

In 1981, Ritchie asked Gano to join a new band he had formed with drummer Victor DeLorenzo.  The band’s name was the Violent Femmes, the word “femmes” being local slang for “wimps.”  The Violent Femmes’ earliest live performances were on street corners, playing for spare change.  One day they were spotted by James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders, who invited them to be the opening act at a Pretenders show in Milwaukee.  The audience’s initial reaction was far from encouraging – loud booing!  The band persevered, however, and by the end of their set at least some of the boos had turned to applause.

This early concert experience encouraged the Violent Femmes to persevere with their live shows and even record an album.  With money borrowed from DeLorenzo’s father, the band recorded tracks which were eventually released as “Violent Femmes” in 1982 on Los Angeles based Slash Records.  Although the album was not initially a strong seller, the band’s quirky, melodic folk-punk began to strike a chord with an increasing number of teen outsiders who related to the frustrated lyrics of songs like “Kiss Off” and “Add It Up.”

Over the subsequent years, the Violent Femmes’ music continued to evolve, embracing more traditional folk and country sounds, and even providing the band with a minor chart hit in 1986 with a cover of T.Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”  Following this single, the group temporarily disbanded, with the members all pursuing solo projects.  The band reformed again in 1989.

Over the course of their 26 years, the Violent Femmes have performed in all 50 US states in venues from gay bars to Carnegie Hall.  The band has also played at the North Pole and in 40 countries.  The Violent Femmes have recorded 10 albums, and their first album holds the distinction of being the only album in the history of Billboard magazine to achieve platinum sales without ever appearing in the top 200.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, February 2, 2006

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