Violent Femmes were one of the most inventive bands to emerge during the '80s college-rock boom. Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the stripped-down trio uniquely combined punk and folk, sarcasm and spirituality, on songs that acutely captured the turmoil of transitioning to adulthood. Though indebted to the Modern Lovers and punk rock, their sound was full of homespun idiosyncrasies that made them singular. Lead singer Gordon Gano’s reedy voice and caustic delivery, drummer Victor DeLorenzo’s irrepressible manic energy and Brian Ritchie’s frenzied acoustic bass riffs combined to forge a compellingly fresh and instantly recognizable sonic signature.
All of the songs on their enduring cult classic 1983 debut were written by lead singer Gordon Gano while still in high school, which may be key to its magic: Brash instrumentation; raw, anguished vocals and childishly sordid lyrics make for an exhilarating expression of adolescent growing pains. It’s something anyone who was ever a teenager can relate to. The most well-known songs are the post-punk standards “Blister in the Sun” and “Add It Up” and the rockabilly-tinged “Gone Daddy Gone,” but it’d be easy to mistake this remarkably well-crafted debut for a greatest hits collection. There isn’t a dud in the bunch–but we’ll get into our favorite deeper cuts later.
Violent Femmes achieved the extremely rare feat of going platinum before ever making an appearance on the Billboard 200. Pitchfork’s review speaks to the album’s slow-burning, but enduring power as a soundtrack for young outsiders–the kind of countercultural staple that moody teens are still adding to playlists for their (unrequited) crush.
Violent Femmes had none of the slickness prevalent in ‘80s music production. In fact, their sound was as unadorned and rough around the edges as it gets. But–so argues this essay–what made the DIY trio sound out of place among their contemporaries makes them sound timeless and “downright visionary” today.
Published in 1982 after the Femmes made their New York debut opening for Richard Hell, this rave review put the young acoustic-punk trio on the map, helping them land a deal with Slash Records.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Kiss Off” - This track’s charm comes from its fluid shifts between tender sincerity and vicious bitterness, something the Femmes have always excelled at. It begins with the intensely self-conscious plea, “I need someone/a person to talk to/Someone who'd care/to love/Could it be you” before a jagged riff signals a transition into sneering defiance: “You can all just kiss off into the air!” It builds to an infectious chant-along section that climaxes with Gano screaming “EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING.” Catharsis has never been so catchy.
“Prove My Love” - No one exorcises their demons with pop finesse quite like the Violent Femmes. On “Prove My Love,” for example, increasingly deranged and desperate verses build to a sing-along chorus with backup vocals that match Gano’s desperation lyrically (“What do I have to do?!”), but sharply contrast him in their sunshiney delivery.
“Good Feeling” - For the album closer, the band’s confrontational attitude subsides and they finally let their guard down. “Good Feeling” is a world-weary, violin-laced piano ballad that feels like a cross between Nick Drake and Lou Reed. As if too tired to fight anymore, Gano confesses his fears and beseeches ever-elusive contentment to “stay with [him] just a little longer.” It’s an achingly sweet moment that ends the album’s volatile emotional journey on a tender note.
DID YOU KNOW?
- The photo on the album cover, of a little girl in a white dress peering into the darkened window of a ramshackle house, is meant as a metaphor for the album’s lyrical themes.
- Brian Ritchie mostly played an Earthwood acoustic bass on Violent Femmes. Designed after the guitarrón, a four-stringed guitar used primarily in Mexican mariachi bands, this gargantuan instrument allowed Ritchie to improvise in what amounts to a guitar's lower range, often taking melodic leads.
- In August 1981, about a year before Violent Femmes’ big break, the Pretenders noticed the young trio busking outside the venue the Pretenders were playing later that night. Legend has it that Chrissie Hynde invited the Femmes to open their set. "We went from persona non grata to being onstage with a famous band," Ritchie told Double J in 2014. "It told us we were on the right track.”
- Brian Ritchie asserts that the Velvet Underground, along with Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps, were the biggest influences on Violent Femmes’ debut. He and Victor DeLorenzo were also influenced by jazz music in their desire to improvise and play acoustically.
- Drummer Victor DeLorenzo played an unusual instrument on Violent Femmes, too - During the band’s street busking days, he’d invented an easily transportable, ultra-minimalist drum kit he called a “tranceaphone.” It consisted of a metal bushel basket inverted over a floor tom.
Listen to Violent Femmes in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on fresh wax below.
Words: Katherine McCollough