Sweet Misery Blues: Their Tale
by Pete Crigler
The tale of the Violent Femmes is one of the most frustrating, aggravating tales of alternative rock ever heard. It's a tale of infighting, laziness and frustration. But it's also a tale of great music and an album that has gone down as one of the most legendary pieces of vinyl in alternative rock history.
The band got started in the late ‘70's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, formed by guitarist/vocalist/primary songwriter Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and jack of all trades drummer Victor DeLorenzo. Inspired by everything from gospel to folk to punk, the band blended them all together in a nice little dish and started making a name for themselves around Milwaukee by busking around the city. One night, while playing downtown, they were ‘discovered' by James Honeyman-Scott, the late guitarist of the Pretenders who were in town to play a show. Legend has it, that Honeyman-Scott brought Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde down to hear the band play and she offered them a slot at the show that night. After playing the show and sending a demo tape around, they started getting noticed by record labels. But before they signed a deal, they headed into the studio.
In the summer of 1982, the band decamped to a small studio in Wisconsin with producer Mark Van Hecke and began work on what would become their classic self-titled debut. Working with a shoestring budget, the album came together quickly but labels were baffled by the result. They thought the record was a demo and that they should work with a big name producer and add horns and strings and basically make it sound ‘eighties.' The band refused and after the band signed with Slash Records, home of X and The Germs, the album was released as is in January of 1983. Immediately, college crowds took hold of Gano's personal lyrics and songs like "Blister in the Sun," "Add It Up," "Good Feeling" and "Gone Daddy Gone" became huge hits on college radio. Despite all this growing success, the album never entered the Billboard Top 200 until 1991 when it was re-released. About four or five years after it was released, it was certified gold and in 1991, the album was certified platinum. The band were riding high on the success but it would never be this easy again.
In the winter of 1984, the band relocated to New York to begin work on their second record again with Mark Van Hecke producing. Gano had written a large cache of material before the first album, some secular and some covered in religious imagery. Gano was a Baptist but the rhythm section were Agnostics and Atheists and they did not want to run the risk of pigeonholing themselves by filling their first album with religious material. So when it came time for the second record, they allowed themselves to go in and record his religious material. Songs like "Jesus Walking on the Water," "It's Gonna Rain" and the epic "Never Tell" describes a man who wants to be religious but feels torn along the way. Then there are tracks like "Country Death Song," probably one of the best Femmes songs ever; based on a true story, it tells of a man who throws his daughter down a well and then hangs himself as a result of guilt. Overall, Hallowed Ground was not a success when it was released in 1984 and is probably the most overlooked of all Femmes records. But it's my personal favorite, not only because it's the album that got me into the Femmes but the whole album with the exception with the overwrought horns on "Black Girls" is amazing and fantastic. The lyrics are exceptionally insightful and the music is simple and great. Over the years, the hardcore fans' respect for this album has only grown larger as some of the other records have decreased in respect.
By this point, the band were gaining notoriety and this attracted the attention of Jerry Harrison, best known as the keyboardist of Talking Heads. Slash Records thought this would be a great match and shortly thereafter, they went into the studio to begin working on their third record. Harrison began bringing in sounds that had never been heard on a Femmes record before such as multi-layered keyboards and horns and a string section. It was also around this time that Gano began writing new songs, having used up a good chunk of initial songs on the first two records.
When The Blind Leading the Naked was released in 1986, longtime fans turned their backs on it, disappointed by what was coming out of their speakers. The first single was a cover of the old T. Rex chestnut "Children of the Revolution." Aside from that track, "I Held Her in My Arms" and the thirty-six second "Old Mother Reagan," the only other good track was a song DeLorenzo wrote, "World Without Mercy" which was only available as a bonus track on the cassette version of the album. Overall, the record was seriously lacking in great lyricism and the musical punch that was so clearly evident on the first two records. The critical reception didn't end up being that great either and as a result of this and several internal things going on at the time, the band decided it would be best to break up.
Without wasting any time, the three started other projects, Gano began the so-called ‘gospel punk' of Mercy Seat, releasing a self-titled record on Slash, Ritchie began recording a series of solo records and DeLorenzo began getting involved with other bands. But the break didn't last very long and in 1988, the band got back together and hit a small studio in Connecticut and began work on their next record. Working with a friend and featuring a more stripped down sound than had been heard on the previous record, 3, as it came to be called once released in 1989 was more of a back to basics record. Songs like the smash alternative radio hit "Nightmares" recalled a sound more similar to the first record. There were also a lot more songs of a joking nature like "Lies" and "Fat" that clocked in at less than two minutes. No one thought much of this at the time, but over time it would grow to be a bit of a problem. When 3 was released, it did moderately well on the charts and the band were hailed as true college rock heroes.
After two more solo records from Ritchie, the band regrouped and hooked up with producer Michael Beinhorn, fresh off recording the Red Hot Chili Peppers and began work on their strangest record yet. Why Do Birds Sing? was released in the spring of 1991 and was preceded by the smash single "American Music," which went to number two on the modern rock charts. Though the record seemed to have a lot going for it, it was deemed a colossal disappointment by the fans and the critics. There were too many strange songs present including "Flamingo Baby," "Girl Trouble" (a song Gano had written in the sessions for the first album and had been demoed years earlier), "Life is a Scream" and the inexplicable cover of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" Asides from "American Music," "Used to Be" and "Hey Nonny Nonny," the latter of which was based on a 16th century poem, the album is pretty much useless.
After coming off the road, the band decided it was time to leave Slash Records, so after a decade, band and label split. In 1993, the label released Add It Up, the band's first Stateside greatest hits. Deciding to forgo the standard greatest hits release, the album combined album cuts, previously unreleased songs, demos and live stuff. Some of the unreleased stuff like the immortal "Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!" the simple "I Hate the TV" and "Johnny" were great additions to the catalog, others like the five minute freeform jam bullshit on "Lies" and "America Is" were just useless crap. But the record was a huge success and ended up going gold. Not long after the record was released, DeLorenzo decided it was time to part ways with the band. In late 1993, the band began searching for a new drummer. Fortunately, they didn't have to look far; former BoDeans drummer Guy Hoffman was the perfect fit for the job and soon after the band signed a new deal with Elektra Records and began work on their sixth record.
Before the record was released, the band released an outtake of one of their last sessions with DeLorenzo on the soundtrack to The Crow. The song, "Color Me Once," ended up becoming one of their most well-loved songs. In the spring of 1994, New Times was released by Elektra. The record was a marked improvement over Why Do Birds Sing? and the fans seemed to agree. The first single, "Breakin' Up" was a song that Gano had written years before but was given a modern facelift and came close to cracking the top ten on the modern rock charts. While there are a lot of songs on the record, nothing really seems to work except for "When Everybody's Happy," a collaboration between Gano and Ritchie that would have been perfect on the first album. But unfortunately, while the album was building momentum, Elektra's President Bob Krasnow was forced out of the company and was replaced by Sylvia Rhone. As a result, the label's rock efforts were less than satisfactory and almost all promotion for the record was shut down and by 1995, the band found themselves without a home once again. Thus would begin the strangest period in the band's history.
Rather surprisingly for the band, they quickly reentered the studio and in 1995, released what is undoubtedly the oddest record in their catalogue: Rock!!!!! Right down to its cover which features the three Femmes in what appears to be ‘80s glam makeup and full drag, the record is just bizarre. Without an American deal, the album was initially only released in Australia, where the band's fanbase was still strong. It didn't end up scoring an international release until 2000 when it was released by an imprint of K-Tel. A strange amalgamation of songs, the album was loudly dismissed by fans and in the future, overlooked by the band during live shows with the exception of the thirty second "Dahmer is Dead."
It was about this time that the band had kind of quietly resigned itself to touring the college and radio festival circuit. Drifting along for a few more years with no new material forthcoming, the band seemed resigned to their fate as an oldies act when suddenly in 1997, it was announced they'd signed with Interscope Records and would have a new album to be titled, Freak Magnet available in the spring of 1998. Fans were overjoyed until the spring of 1998 and there was no Freak Magnet. About a month before the record was due to be released, the band and label went their separate ways with no real explanation as to why. The fans were kept in the dark and the band said nothing, they just back out on the road to earn their bread and butter.
Then in 1999, the band got really busy, contributing cover songs to the soundtracks of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Mystery Men. They also signed a new deal with Beyond, an indie label basically known as a place where former major label artists could go and release new music. The label was also home to Blondie, Motley Crue, Veruca Salt and Jill Sobule. That fall, the band released their first full-length live album, Viva Wisconsin, taken from dates played around Wisconsin in the fall of 1998. The album was enthusiastically received by fans but failed to sell in large quantities. Still it got the band back out there and in the spring of 2000, Freak Magnet was finally released by Beyond more than two years after it was initially due.
Once it was released, hardcore fans noticed some things had been changed since the 1998 Interscope promo CD's that had been made and swapped. Four songs were dropped, including a Bob Dylan cover and four other songs were put in their places including a re-recording of "I Danced," another poem turned into a song by Gano, that had originally appeared on Rock!!!!! Although the album had a strong single in "Sleepwalkin'," it wasn't enough to stop the band's commercial slide. The record was lacking a serious amount of good material and it ended up as one of the weakest records since The Blind Leading the Naked. The record failed to chart in America and by the end of the year, they'd split from Beyond and had reached a crossroads in their career.
Asides from releasing a collection of songs in 2001 called Hitting the Ground, which featured artists including PJ Harvey and others singing songs he'd written, Gano declared the band would not be releasing any more new material and would focus solely on touring. Fans met this news with loud groans but the band still managed to pull in crowds over the years even as the venues got smaller. In 2002, in anticipation of the twentieth anniversary of the debut album, Victor DeLorenzo rejoined the band on drums as Guy Hoffman amicably decided to leave. With the original lineup intact once more, the band hit the road again and continued playing the older songs while occasionally dropping in some rarities and newer material. But for the next couple of years, as no material of any kind was forthcoming from the band, fans began wondering if there was any chance the band would release even a single. But all those thoughts were for naught.
In 2008, "Blister in the Sun" showed up in the most unlikely of places: a Wendy's commercial. Immediately upon its first air date, fan reaction was 100% negative and all the apathy was dumped upon Gano. Fans were absolutely disgusted by the commercial but no one was more pissed than Ritchie; a few months after the commercial's airing, he filed a lawsuit against Gano decrying him for allowing the song to be used in a Wendy's ad and also alleged that Gano was denying him co-writing credit on a handful of songs as well as songwriter's royalties. This was when the shit really hit the fan as their fans began wondering whether the band would be able to stand all this bad publicity. It didn't help when Ritchie was going around giving interviews about the lawsuit where he called Gano lazy and said he hadn't written anything in years, which seemed true because of the band's lack of material.
Amazingly, the band kept touring but everybody wondered how much longer it could go on. Finally in 2009, the silence was broken by the release of the first new song in nine years: a cover of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." It was a nice gesture in return to Gnarls Barkley for having covered "Gone Daddy Gone" on their smash 2006 debut album St. Elsewhere. The track was only released online and didn't get a positive reaction from the fans. Less than three months later, Gano announced he'd started a new band with members of the Bogmen and that they were planning on releasing an album that fall. In the same interview, he announced that the Femmes had disbanded and everyone was going on with their own projects. He didn't elaborate on what caused the breakup but everyone already knew what had brought it on.
Gordon Gano & the Ryan Brothers as they came to be known released their debut album, Under the Sun in 2009 and after a short tour, nothing more was heard from Gano for a few years. DeLorenzo continued his solo career and began producing new artists and Ritchie moved to Australia and started a surf band with former members of Midnight Oil. For a few years, it was uncertain as to whether or not there'd be a future for the Violent Femmes but in the winter of 2013, it was announced that they had reunited and were booked to play both weekends of Coachella. They also announced they'd be playing some hometown shows in Wisconsin. At this point what the future holds for the band beyond these summer shows is unknown but fans are holding out hope that there might be a chance for new material in the near future.
So while the band are heralded for their first album, subsequent ones are less than praised and are singled out for a few tracks. It's usually not a good thing when a band are praised for the first album and then almost nothing else. It feels weird to lump a band like Violent Femmes in the same category as say Kansas, Atlanta Rhythm Section and J. Geils Band but that's what it's come down to: a band that plays the ‘oldies' circuit for years with seemingly no intention to record new studio material. Maybe that will change but luckily for the band (and its fans), they have an impressive enough back catalog to rely on.
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