- Look Like That
- Out The Window
- Country Death Song
- Prove My Love
- Flamingo Baby
- Good Feeling
- Gimmie The Car
- Blister In The Sun
- American Music
- Kiss Off
- Life Is A Scream
It’s a strange but nonetheless happy coincidence that this note is being written with the stains of the violent femmes show at the forum in London on the 3rd of December 2004 still ringing in my ears – the same venue (then called the town& country club) where this live set was recorded some thirteen years earlier by the BBC.
You cant go wrong with the femmes when you see them in concert. Forge the year weather it be 1983, 1991 or 2004 it doesn’t matter because there’s always something magical about their live gigs. There’s always an element of spontaneity, they always manage to keep their audiences guessing. Lots of banter between songs, plenty of showmanship, overwhelming musicianship! Spontaneity, by the amp load! Bassist Brian Ritchie calling the numbers – there’s never a set list! Keeping it alive, keeping it real! Unlike most groups that have been around for a long time the femmes even today are still adding new followers if the forum date is anything to go by: 22 year old girls singing along to blister in the sun is not a bad achievement for a band fast approaching its first quarter century – they were seasoned players when they played this show in 1991, and now they are veterans.
The femmes have enjoyed a long, illustrious and, as you’d expect for a bunch of guys who’ve been around the block, a rather eventful career – they’ve come a long way from the young punks discovered playing on the streets of their hometown by the late guitarist james honeyman scott, who asked them to open for the pretenders in Milwaukee in the summer of 1982. All sons of the state Wisconsin, the group slowly came together in 1980/81 at a time when the Milwaukee scene was dominated by heavy metal and southern boogie bands. Brian and drummer Victor De Lorenzo (A former drama student) had been playing together in various outfits like the rhomboids and the ruthless acoustics.
Even the richie was working up his formidable musical chops – a guy with a penchant for free jazzers like john Coltrane and sun ra (his idol) but also somebody who devoured everything from Arabian music to the blues. His appetite also strayed to psychedelia and for.
A short time he played lead guitar with hometown paisley renegades, plasticland. Some years later in New Zealand, the femmes would record a notorious anthem written by various members of this sadly undervalued combo “Dance Motherfucker Dance” One of its composers John Franovic would also regularly appear in the femmes bass section – horns of dilemma – through whose ranks have passed many illustrious names, most recently stooges sideman Steve McKay and (onstage at the 2004 Forum Show) Dick Parry, legendary brit saxophonist whose biggest claim to fame is his playing on the Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon Album.
But the impetus that really gave birth to the violent femmes was when Brian met guitarist/singer Gordon Gano one night at a punk club. Gordon invited Brian to join him in a duo at his high school National Honor Society induction ceremony the next day. The teachers insisted Gordon perform only some of his self planned ballads but halfway through one of them, the pair burst into a rabid ‘Give Me The Car’. The Kids were instantly knocked dead but the staff blew a gasket and the incident was later immortalized in the tune ‘Kiss Off’ in the line ‘I hope you know, that this will go down on your permanent record’.
The trio set about making their eponymous debut long player in 1982, having borrowed $10,000 from Victors parents to record it. It was a masterpiece of minimally mostly acoustic Americana – ten of Gordons superb original compositions sung in his distinctive tuneful whine that seemed to owe a lot to the Only Ones’ Peter Peter Perret. In the main a collection of songs about girls and love, that were written in a style that borrowed from influences as diverse as 50’s rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop, gospel, old-timey folk music, the velvet underground and punk. No musical genre is sacrosanct for the femmes! Ritchie was already shaping up as a terrifyingly brilliant musician – his acoustic bass playing would become one of the femmes longstanding hallmarks, whilst Victor’s sparse percussion was another unique cornerstone – on this first waxing he played only snare, drum and a weird hybrid made from a steel washtub turned upside don on a floor tom-tom, which he christened to a traceaphone!
They licensed the finished results to claud bessy’s highly respected West Coast indie label, Slash Records – there was no advance, yet the album would eventually achieve platinum status without ever making the US top 200! It’s a testament to their capacity for hard work and self-belief as much as it is to their musical prowess, that the band has achieved so much in the ensuing years. Hard to believe that on this BBC broadcast they have a rabid London audience eating out of the palm of their hand, when only a few short years before their appearances were met with booing or indifference.
Like any aggregation of individuals, the Femmes are the mass of contradictions – on the surface they might seem wholesome middle American boys singing about cars and teenage angst – as has been regularly been pointed out, Gano is a devote Baptist – but scratch beneath the surface, dig into their records and you’ll unearth a dark vein of pure American Gothic. There’s something positively Lynchian (as in American Film Director) about their personalities and about their music. Gano can write songs like / Jesus Walking on the Water’ that undoubtedly spring from his religious beliefs, but he can also be brutally vindictive on tunes like ‘fat’. By turns the Femmes can be mean, sardonic, tender and sometimes downright weird. They sing about subjects that run the gaunt from suicide to backwoods multiple murders, yet all are delivered with an ironic twist that has singled out the group from their American contemporaries. As Gordon told the Melody Maker ‘ we are aware of the ridiculous of a lot of things, and I think that’s good, healthy and really important and doesn’t in any detract, in my mind from the seriousness or earnestness of what’s being said. It goes together. I think if someone doesn’t have a scene of humor about themselves or what they’re doing, then they can start to appear ridiculous and silly’.
The year this BBC concert was redirected was an especially significant one for the band. As Ritchie quips midway through, it was the trio’s 10th anniversary. With Five Studio albums and a ‘best of’ under their collective belt plus a hiatus in 1986/87, when the group temporarily split, the femmes bounced back as if nothing had happened, more popular than before. That summer ’91 visit saw them play three London gigs including a Sell-Out at the Royal Albert Hall. As Brian observed: ‘it was the most we ever toured in England. We were on a roll at the time. It was pretty tight. It was a good time for us in the terms of technique because the more you play out, the tighter you are’. Did they prepare for the Beep date accordingly? Brian: ‘we didn’t make any special provisions, we just said, “OK you do your thing and we’ll do ours and good luck!
This CD captures the essence of the band live and the powerful relationship with its audience. Asked about this show, Victor Says: “it’s difficult to remember back that far how the audience was, but in general it seems as if we always have a pretty consistent level of audience participation wherever we play’ Indeed, he thought the recent Forum crowd was ‘really listening, almost analyzing it but still involved in a heartfelt rather than a criminal way!’ On the BBC recording, the dementia may have subsided a little from the early days but the chaps are full-on from the word go, and by the sound of it, having themselves a real good time. Its a nicely balanced, well played selection. It flows so smoothly , it’s hard to believe that they have such an aversion to rehearsal and forward planning. About their legendary improvising, Brian Jokes: ‘we have to or we’d go crazy. Why pretend you’re the same every night, ‘you’re not’. It features a generous selection from that much loved debut and a nice scattering of other goodies. Things get off to a solid enough start with the sarcastic ‘Look Like That’, the first of a batch from the then just released album, Why Do Birds Sing? For many, a record up their with their first two Lp’s and one victor now describes as ‘a fun album to promote too, there was a lot of good material on it’. As you can hear, the fan obviously thought so too!
‘Promise’ from the Violent Femmes is about as straight-ahead garage rock as the band has ever got, whilst a second offering from Birds, ‘Out The Window’ takes the temperature up a notch – great sing along chorus here and a furious pumping bass outro from Ritchie! Next up is one of Gordon’s finest tunes, written in a tenth grade study hall apparently, ‘Country Death Song’ from Hallowed Ground set and an obvious crowd pleaser, which they then manage to top with a furious “Prove My Love’ from the glorious debut waxing – deft stick work from victor and some fine vocal interplay here. The bitchily comic ‘Fat’ from the Album 3 is the signal for
Further communal singing from the audience whilst the band request that everybody get up and dance on ‘Flamingo Baby’. This humorous tune from Birds has a faintly Dylan-esque feel to it and features a truly mad guitar break from Gordon!
As a breather the band then offers up the exquisite slow love ballad. ‘Good Feeling’, another ‘hit’ from that first LP before launching into the A and B sides of a single they Cut in London 1983, ‘Ugly’ and the infamous ‘Gimme The Car’ You’d have thought they have saved their anthem, ‘Blister In The Sun’, voted no. 1 song in a listener poll on LA’s influential KROQ Station, for an encore – not the Femmes. By The end of it, the delirious audience really does sound as if it’s high as a kite! Top That? How about the rockabilly twang of ‘American Music’, the single taken off Birds? It’s the home straight from here on in. The aforementioned ‘Kiss Off’ (with some fabulous flashes of psychedelic guitar) and then, as an encore, one more from the Birds, ‘Life Is A Scream’, where the band gets the fans to immortalize themselves on the radio by yelling along. They need little prompting.
Of course, the one thing that isn’t captured here is the Femmes powerful visual appeal. Live Gano and Ritchie cut striking opposites – stage left and right respectively. Gordon – diminutive, quick-witted, the bands sex symbol; in contrast Brian – usually be-hatted, with his hulking intimidating presence. And centre, upfront , kit right against the lip of the stage, Victor – the ultimate showman, a font of kinetic energy, a whirling dervish, the scene stealer, grabbing the crowds attention with his crazy antics – leaping about during the quiet numbers, shoving his drumsticks up his nostrils, the consummate clown! Every band has it’s fare share of egos but in the Femmes there seems to be an overabundance! All three members constantly vie for the spotlight. Whoever can commandeer the ‘microphone first in between the songs? There’s that lovely moment after ‘Blister’ on this recording where Brian announces: ‘We’re having a band Argument up here. Excuse us. Look the other way, we don’t want you to see this!’
it seems as if the Violent Femmes are unstoppable – undaunted and undeterred by nervous breakdowns, divorces, bankruptcy, solo albums, record company disasters and boards, most notably as the sheriff in the horror movie The unearthing, (reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival), and release a clutch of Solo LPs, most recently The Blessed Faustina. He finally returned to the fold in the Summer of 2002, his place having been admirably taken by Guy Hoffman (from the Oil Tasters, which also featured Femmes sound-man Caleb Lentzner), about whom Gordon once jokes ‘A lot of people won’t know there’s a different drummer. Victor used to wear a hat, Guy does too. They even look similar – I’ve had people asking me, “Is victor sick, hes gotten so skinny?”
The Femmes have played the Carnegie Hall, The North Pole and Woodstock ’94; they’ve played in over 500 cities and cant even remember the names of half of them; they’ve shared bills with the likes of Lou Reed, Nirvana and INXS, and even former President Jimmy Carter; they’ve had jazz greats like Don Cherry ask to sit in with them. When they heard Morrissey was in the audience for one of their London gigs, they even came out and performed the Smiths’ ‘I Would Go out Tonight but I haven’t Got a Stitch To Wear’ in only their underwear! The stage is literally their Home from Home.
This live set from HUX Records makes a more than fitting companion piece to 1999’s Viva Wisconsin (which featured Guy Hoffman anyway!) – So sit back and enjoy the Femmes in their element. Vintage Stuff: great tunes, raw, energetic rock ‘n’ roll and bags of that Milwaukee attitude and humor. It’s no wonder that in David Lynch’s Movie, the straight story, there’s a running gag that Wisconsin is ‘a real party state’!
Nigel Cross December 2004
Jackie Edwards, Rebecca Cross, Darren Brown, Victor, Brian & Gordon, and my good mates John F and Glenn R.
All Songs Composed by Gordon Gano (Gorno Music. ASCAP)
All Tracks (P) 2005 BBC
The BBC word mark and logo are trademarks of the
British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under license.
BBC logo © 1996
Released by arrangement with BBC Music.
Mastered by Russell pay at The CD Clinic
Photography by Rocky Schenck – Design Ryan Art
Barren Brown, Brian, Gordon & Victor. Nigel Cross & Rocky Schenck
GORDON GANO – guitar, vocals
BRIAN RITCHIE – bass, backing vocals
VICTOR DE LORENZO – drums, backing vocals
Willy Maclnnes – Tour Manager
Caleb Lentzner – sound
Peter Chritchley – lighting director
Digby Cleaver – backline
Paul Boswell, Free Trade Agency – booking agent
Darren Brown – Good Feelings Artist Management
©&(P) 2005 HUX Records Ltd.
Hux Records Ltd. PO Box 12647, London, SE18 8ZF
Made in the UK
Almost 10 years after the release of their platinum selling debut album, The Violent Femmes performed this sell-out show at The Town & Country Club, London on 20th July 1991. It was recorded by the BBC for broadcast on the Radio 1 ‘In Concert ‘series. This CD has been digitally mastered from the original transcription tapes and is now released here for the first time.