The Violent Femmes: Wisconsin's Musical Claim to Fame  
Marissa Klaff

A loud voice whines. A frenetic acoustic bass thumps. A loud cymbal and snare drum pound. A band looks out at an audience. Two-and-a-half decades after they began, the trio known as the Violent Femmes sees the same energized faces that crowded their early shows as Milwaukee’s premier punk band. But next to those faces are the 54-year-old lawyers and 40-something mothers, who represent the first generations of Femmes fans.

Meet the Violent Femmes, a group that so clearly defined their genre, they never went out of style.

“It’s weird to go to a show with my friend’s mom who is just as big of a fan of the band as I am," Kevin Kopplin, a 27-year-old UW-Madison student said. "You can look at generations up or down and the music still seems to relate."

It’s the experience that counts, both as a member of the band and as a fan. One fuels the other. In the case of the Violent Femmes, as long as there are new and old generations of fans that continue to identify with their music, they will continue to play the music they love.

The unique sound and lyrics in combination with an equally unique fan base that spans generations make the Violent Femmes one of the most captivating musical acts of all time. According to Steve Dietz, a 47-year-old sales representative, the Femmes still put on live shows that are “as good today as they were 20 years ago.” The Femmes still capture their audiences and transcend generations because “their music and style is unique and timeless. It never surprised me that younger generations came to love the Femmes, especially since there are so few newer bands as creative and captivating as the Femmes, ” Dietz added.

Violent Femmes
Paul Natkin/WireImage
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Founded in Milwaukee in 1980, the then-duo consisted of bass player Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. In 1981, Ritchie and DeLorenzo discovered singer-songwriter Gordon Gano, who completed the trio that became known as the Violent Femmes. As the band began to form their sound, they took their talent to the streets of Milwaukee in hopes of building a fan base. Eventually they scored a house gig every Tuesday night at the Jazz Gallery, a now-defunct jazz club, which helped the Femmes develop their sound.

According to Ritchie, “Milwaukee’s music scene was not geared very much toward one kind of music or another. Therefore, there was no trend for us to follow. We ignored everybody and did our own thing.”

In 1981, the Femmes were doing their “own thing” outside the Oriental Theater in Milwaukee when the band the Pretenders asked them to be one of the opening acts at their concert that night.

“The fact that there were no record labels in Milwaukee forced us to reach out to New York and Los Angeles, which helped us break free of Milwaukee,” Ritchie said.

The Femmes ultimately had to leave the city in which they grew up to follow their dreams and achieve success in the music industry. In 1982, the Femmes were signed to Slash Records and immediately recorded and released their first self-titled album. Gano wrote the majority of this album's songs during his time as a student at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. The Femmes were a breath of fresh air in a music scene that was oversaturated with rock and pop bands. They were everything mainstream music wasn’t expecting but everything angst-ridden teenagers in the United States were waiting for.

It was their first album that helped establish the Femmes’ cult following and also produced four of the Femmes’ most well-known songs: “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” Although fans were excited by and supportive of the Femmes’ first album, it never reached The Billboard’s Top 200 album chart. However, the self-titled album is acclaimed as one of the best debut musical efforts of all time, and the fans agree. As a testament to the Femmes’ intergenerational popularity, the album went platinum in 1991, nearly 10 years after its release. Dietz, a long-time fan who was fortunate enough to first experience the Femmes in 1981 at the very show where they were discovered, recalled “buying the first album and falling in love with the music right away," adding, "I think it’s all I listened to for two years.” Although Dietz is a fan of everything the Femmes have put out since, he said, “The first album is still the best.” Kopplin agreed, “The first album was my favorite.”

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