• Title: Will Femmes get a call from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall?
  • Author: Drew Olsen
  • Publication: onmilwaukee.com
  • Date: June 24, 2007

Everything about the Violent Femmes’ musical career has been so unconventional and avant-garde that diehard fans may be shocked to know that bassist Brian Ritchie once lobbied — openly and without shame — for the band to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

He was kidding, of course.

“We were recording at DV Productions in Shorewood and Jerry Harrison was also working there,” Ritchie recalled, referring to the former Talking Heads keyboardist, who is a Shorewood native. “The phone rang so I answered, ‘DV Productions.’ (A) Voice on the other end (said), “This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is Jerry Harrison there?”

“I said, ‘No he’s not here right now, but this is Brian Ritchie from Violent Femmes. When are you going to put us in the Hall of Fame?'” (The) guy says, “Well, um, I’m sure you’ll be inducted at some point, but not until you’ve been around for 25 years. After that, definitely! Can you ask Jerry what time we can come and pick up his organ?'”

As the Femmes prepare to headline the Miller Lite Oasis on Thursday, the opening night of Summerfest 2007, Ritchie’s question to the unsuspecting curator is worth revisiting:

When — if ever — will the powers that be put Milwaukee’s Violent Femmes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Bands are eligible for induction 25 years after their first record is released. The Femmes eponymous debut disc came out Nov. 30, 1982, which means the band will be eligible to be placed on the ballot next year. Nominees are chosen by a committee of historians and musicologists, then voted on by an international group of music industry professionals including producers, broadcasters, journalists and performers.

If the Femmes are elected, they could be enshrined as early as March 2009.

Will that happen? It depends who you ask. We asked a lot of different people and the answers varied widely, which is not surprising. Given the subjective and commercialized nature of such honors, many bands dismiss them as unimportant or revolting.

“I don’t like awards shows like the Grammys or other subjective things,” Ritchie said. “Simple concepts like platinum albums (1 million sold) are more meaningful to me, because there is no artistic judgment attached to it.

“Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is kind of different in my mind, because it basically means that a fair number of your peers think you are worthy. I just scanned the list of inductees and I can agree with most of the choices, except that many of them seem more like precursors of rock and roll rather than rock and rollers. There have been inferior bands to the Femmes inducted and superior bands who have not been. So, I wouldn’t really feel bad about it either way.

“I think we have been popular enough and influential enough to be inducted, but our influence has been subtle. We have been more philosophically influential than having a lot of bands imitating us and sounding like us.”

Back to the question at hand: will Ritchie, Gordon Gano and Victor De Lorenzo get the call?

“That’s an interesting question,” said Bob Babisch, Summerfest’s vice president of entertainment. “They changed music. They changed a style of punk that wasn’t around. There are a lot of bands that got stuff off of those guys. This was the first band that had a guy standing there hitting something. I think they belong the Hall of Fame. Sure.”

Greg Kot, longtime music critic for the Chicago Tribune, offered a different opinion.

“I don’t see the Femmes as being particularly influential, but I don’t think they’re a mere novelty either,” Kot said. “They are still pretty much defined by their first album for most people, and it’s undeniably great. (It) really holds up well with several ’80s anthems.

“What many people don’t realize is that Gordon Gano continued to write strong songs and the Femmes made several more strong albums: ‘Hallowed Ground,’ ‘The Blind Leading the Naked,’ ‘Why Do Birds Sing?’ Though I don’t think its Hall of Fame caliber, that’s a pretty solid career.”

Jim Henke, the chief curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, summed things up nicely a few years ago when an interviewer asked him to predict the outcome of an upcoming election.

“It’s impossible to guess,” Henke said. “I’m always as surprised as the general public. You really can’t predict with any degree of accuracy.”

At its core, the debate about the Femmes’ candidacy centers on whether the band should be a trailblazing group that broke new musical ground and inspired followers or a quirky-but-successful outfit whose songs struck a chord with young listeners of different generations.

“I definitely wouldn’t put them in a novelty category,” said Neil Walls, whose Web site — futurerockhall.com — is dedicated to figuring out which bands will get the call from the Hall. “They have a fairly strong case. It’s not a slam dunk like U2 or REM, but they produced one of the iconic ’80s albums, and that’s important.

“It may take the nominating committee to have a generational turnover before they will be elected, but there are bands in the Hall that have had less impact than the Femmes did.”

In a recent poll posted on Futurerockhall.com, 66 percent of voters (308 at press time) felt the Femmes were worthy of nomination. The site pegged the band’s chances for nomination at 38 percent.

“The Violent Femmes certainly deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” said Dallas Morning News pop music critic Thor Christensen, who worked for The Milwaukee Journal from 1985-’95. “They’re innovative, influential and their music still sounds as fresh today as it did 20 years ago.

“But, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Hall of Fame ignores them, since it has long track record of ignoring important artists who aren’t ‘name brands’ — people like Link Wray, the MC5 and Iggy Pop & the Stooges, etc.”

“In the long run, what does it matter if the Femmes aren’t voted in? Art — especially rock ‘n’ roll — is so subjective it’s absurd to try to shoehorn it into a hall of fame or an awards ceremony. A Hall of Fame might work for sports — where you can measure talent by statistics — but it doesn’t make sense for music.”

Bill Janovitz, guitarist and singer for Boston-based band Buffalo Tom, also expressed doubts about the notion of a Hall of Fame for musicians. He did not, however, have reservations about the Femmes.

“I think the Femmes were very influential on us on a band,” said Janovitz, whose group will release a new CD next month. “I don’t know if it shows directly, but they were a big influence on me. I moved to Massachusetts during my junior year in high school and they were one of the first bands that was sort of underground but all of the kids kind of found about them at the same time.

“It was exciting. I remember sneaking in to see them when I was 17 or 18. After that, they became a very reliable ‘go-to-see-them-at-the-spring-music-fest’ bands. The first album, obviously, is a classic. But, I liked the second album (‘Hallowed Ground’) a lot. That second record had a really haunting vibe to it. Nothing they did really grabbed me after that and I kind of lost touch with them, but I liked those first two records a lot.”

Mike Gent, guitarist for The Figgs, vividly remembers the first time he heard the Violent Femmes. “I remember being at a party in a basement with many girls singing along to the whole thing,” Gent said. “Girls in my high school loved that record.”

In the introduction to his iTunes playlist, Ben Kweller wrote the following about the Femmes song “Add it Up”: “This is acoustic punk, something the Femmes basically created. They are probably the greatest minimalistic band of all time. Acoustic guitar, mariachi bass, snare drum, a cymbal. This album is pure energy; teenage angst at its best. Key lyrics: ‘I look at your pants and I need a kiss.’ and the ol’ curve ‘I waited my whole life for just one … day.'”

Dejan Kralj, bass player for The Gufs, cites the Femmes as an influence for his band.

“They came out in the early ’80s, did something completely unconventional and original and created a soundtrack to everyone’s teenage angst filled years,” Kralj said. “I used to listen to them a lot when I was in high school and could totally relate to and understand their sound and their lyrics.

“The interesting thing is that kids over the past two and a half decades have been doing the same. They created a sound and a message that is still relevant and resonates with today’s younger audience. I think that is quite an achievement. As far as an influence, it was more personally than as a band. We were always aware of the Femmes, but never really took any cues in terms of style and sound.

“For me, they were more of a cultural influence similar to other bands of the day like The Replacements, Husker Du, etc.”

Over the years, Ritchie has heard similar things from various artists. Asked to list a few, he said: “Just among people who have spoken to me about it I could list Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies, Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Robyn Hitchcock, REM, U2, Aztec Camera, Midnight Oil, Pink, Gnarls Barkley, Al Gore, Tracy Chapman, Lou Reed, John Cusack, Ween, Bic Runga, Liz Phair, White Stripes, and who knows who else?”

The idea of “influence” is a critical component to any band’s viability for the Hall of Fame. Another factor to consider is the competition. The list of first-time eligibles joining the Femmes in the Class of ’08 includes: Anthrax; The Art of Noise; Bananarama; Big Black; Billy Bragg; Bon Jovi; Butthole Surfers; Corrosion of Conformity; Dio; Europe; Frankie Goes to Hollywood; Howard Jones; James; k.d. Lang; Katrina and the Waves; Lita Ford; Naked Raygun; New Edition; NOFX; Pantera; Paul Rodgers; Pulp; Queensryche; Ratt’ Run DMC; Slayer; The Smiths; Social Distortion; Stevie Ray Vaughn; Suicidal Tendencies; Wham! and Zebra.

“(The other groups eligible) can have a big impact on a band’s chances,” said Walls of futurerockhall.com. “You can’t underestimate that.”

Gent, who remembers seeing the Femmes live in Burlington, Vt., during the tour for “3,” said the Femmes are worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame “right after Graham Parker, Nick Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Squeeze and (Milwaukee’s) The Frogs.”

Walls adds bands like Rush, KISS, The Cure, Joy Division, Moody Blues, Tom Waits and others to the list of bands “snubbed” by the committee.

Much like in sports, the debate about who belongs in the Hall of Fame and who doesn’t can percolate for years as fans debate factors like record sales, chart position, the whims of the nominating committee and voters and the influence of TV, which now broadcasts the induction ceremony.

“That’s all part of it,” Walls said. “That’s why we started our site — to kind of see who was worthy. You look a band that formed three years ago and wonder if they’ll still be relevant after 25 years.”

The Femmes have passed that test.

“Twenty-five-plus years have passed so quickly it’s difficult to believe,” Ritchie said. “Maybe we have changed, but the music hasn’t very much. It’s amazing, because we routinely play for audiences which consist mainly of fans who were not born when we released the first album. It’s like “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” We are very lucky to have a fresh crowd reinvigorating us all the time.”

Ritchie and bandmates can expect the crowd to be fresh — and festive — Thursday night at the Miller Lite Oasis.

“We always enjoy playing in Wisconsin, but we don’t really do anything differently or carry a higher burden here,” he said. “We’ve traveled the world so much that we have similar relationships with fans in many different places. But of course we have a special feeling for Milwaukee because it’s home.”

One day, maybe the Femmes will find a home among the rock and roll’s immortals at the museum in Cleveland.

“I have been there several times,” Ritchie said. “At one point, there was a display of drumsticks of famous drummers and Victor had the only brushes. That was really nice. Otherwise, I don’t think we are mentioned anywhere. One thing that really stuck in my mind was how tiny most of the costumes were. Like Jimi Hendrix — his clothes were ridiculously small.”