In a city as relatively small as Milwaukee, certain people, places, or things can get saddled with bad reputations. Even if these reputations are somewhat deserved, Milwaukee Record strives to look past the negatives and focus on the positives.
The bad rap: There are two groups of Milwaukee music fans: the group that enthusiastically answers “Violent Femmes!” when asked to name the city’s most influential band, and the group that engages in a round of exasperated eye-rolling when confronted with the first group’s answer. (There’s a third group—Milwaukee music fans under the age of 25—who don’t give a shit either way.) Ugh. The Violent Femmes. Always the Violent Femmes. Why must a group that peaked in 1983 continue to overshadow [insert criminally under-appreciated Milwaukee band, and/or your band here]? The Femmes are the “beer, brats, and cheese” of Milwaukee music: old, outdated, cliché. Hell, they’re not even really a Milwaukee band at all. Gordon Gano and Brian Ritchie haven’t lived here in decades (original drummer Victor DeLorenzo remains), and both men have recently poo-pooed the “Milwaukee band” tag. Here they are in a 2015 Nerdist podcast:
Gano: “My extended family is not from there. My father went there for his work. And now, for forever, in the whole world, I’m from Wisconsin because, you know, that’s what it says when somebody looks up the bio, that’s where I’m from. Now that’s where I’m from because of the group, and that’s fine.”
Ritchie: “So the band started in Milwaukee, and so we’re considered a Milwaukee band, but none of us live there, and haven’t been there in a long time.”
Plus, goddammit, enough with “Blister In The Sun.”
The good rap: Okay, fine. Seeing the Femmes named Milwaukee’s most influential/famous/notable band for the 8,000th time can get old (and god help any writer who names them the city’s “best” band). But it’s worth remembering that the Violent Femmes—and their 1983 self-titled debut—are really, really, good. Your mileage may vary on the group’s later discography (there are plenty of gems, of course, and 2016’s belated We Can Do Anything is far better than it should be), but the Femmes in their prime remain a weirdly iconic, weirdly weird band whose influence has stretched far beyond the sidewalk outside the Oriental Theater (where they were “discovered” by members of The Pretenders in 1981). Maybe it’s faint praise, but we could do so much worse than being known as the home of the Violent Femmes. Consider that Des Moines, Iowa proudly claims both Slipknot and Stone Sour.
So let’s talk about that debut album. 1983’s Violent Femmes is a near-perfect introduction, on par with debuts like Please Please Me, Three Feet High And Rising, and Marquee Moon. “Blister In The Sun” is the near-perfect introduction to that near-perfect introduction, all rubbery riffs, clanging acoustic bass, and skittish drums. Gano’s lyrics—delivered vis his nasal-drip voice—manage to cram in references to getting high and masturbation. It’s par for the course for an album that reads like a desperate missive from every misunderstood teen’s hormone-addled brain: “Kiss Off” revels in misery and dismisses it (“They’ll hurt me bad but I won’t mind / They’ll hurt me bad they do it all the time”), “Please Do Not Go” pines after a “lovely girl” who’s with “another guy,” and “Add It Up” combines good ol’ sexual frustration (“Why can’t I get just one fuck?”) with one of the best musical climaxes of the ’80s. And those are just the first four songs.
Is there even a bad song on Violent Femmes? Not really. More than half of the tracks should be instantly familiar to any semi-seasoned music fan (see: “Prove My Love” and “Gone Daddy Gone”), and the ones that aren’t mixtape/jukebox favorites are rewarding deep-cut treasures (see: “Promise” and the lovely closer “Good Feeling”).
But more important are the sentiments behind those songs, and how they track with listeners old and new. Violent Femmes, both the band and the album, can sometimes be dismissed as “adolescent”—juvenile (if witty) concerns filled with, well, juvenile (if witty) concerns. They’re stepping-stones into a larger musical world, but stepping-stones best set aside when the pains of being young give way to the wisdom and the not-whining-about-not-getting-laid maturity of adulthood. They’re the musical equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut: youthful obsessions destined to be packed away and fondly remembered. Gano was all of 19 when Violent Femmes was recorded, which sounds about right.
Still, is there anything more honorable than being an artistic gateway drug for bright teenagers? Vonnegut didn’t think so, and neither should Milwaukee. At best, the umpteenth listicle mention of Violent Femmes can serve as an artistic gateway drug to the Milwaukee music scene of today (Soul Low, for example, shares some of the Femmes’ DNA). And even if it doesn’t inspire further digging, even if Milwaukee and the band remain forever, frustratingly synonymous, at least its a band like the Violent Femmes. At least it’s a band this good, this distinctive, this eternally young.