They were a cult band from Wisconsin in the ’80s who hit it big in the ’90s with their self-titled debut of brash, devil-eyed songs that hummed with sex, violence, and perverted religiosity.
Billie Jo Campbell was discovered at age 3 while walking down a street in Los Angeles with her mother. A photographer approached, told the mother that Billie Jo was adorable, and asked if she wouldn’t mind her daughter appearing in a photo shoot at a house in Laurel Canyon. The mother—“a free spirit,” Billie Jo explained—promptly set up an appointment. They later learned that the shoot was for the cover of an album by an obscure acoustic-punk trio from Milwaukee about to release their debut. In the photo, barefoot Billie Jo wears a cute white dress and strains to peer inside a darkened house through a window. She had no idea that this was an apt metaphor for the band’s songs, which capture that precise moment when childhood innocence is corrupted by the obsessions of the adult world—sex, violence, perverted religiosity, and omnipresent death.
Years later, when Billie Jo was a teenager in the ’90s, she realized that the album was pretty momentous. “This was my bragging point,” she recalled in 2007. “I’d be at parties, and if the girls in the dorm knew you were trying to meet cute boys, they’d tell them I am on the cover.”
What’s amazing about this story isn’t just that Billie Jo Campbell was still recognized, well into her college years, as the kid on the cover of the Violent Femmes’ self-titled 1983 LP. It’s that people knew what the cover even looked like. “I think the majority of people found out about our music because somebody had made a tape and played it at a party. I’ve heard that so many times,” said Violent Femmes’ singer-songwriter Gordon Gano in a 2016 interview, still cherubic even in his early 50s. “A few years ago, I had somebody that was a big fan say, ‘What does your album cover look like? I’ve never seen it because it’s always been on a tape that somebody made.’”
Violent Femmes are perhaps the greatest mixtape band of its era—they were to Maxell what Drake now is to Spotify playlists. Long after the Femmes’ initial wave of underground fame came and went in the mid-’80s, choice cuts from their first album kept popping up on countless tapes dispensed throughout teenage suburbia. For those that encountered the Femmes in this manner, the band’s songs were akin to outsider art—found musical data that offered bracingly unfiltered takes on lust and alienation and the yearning to belong, written on an acoustic guitar by a misfit kid who sang in an untrained pubescent whine. Mixtapes gave Violent Femmes renewed life divorced from the context of their own up-and-down career, infusing songs from their first and most successful record with the adolescent angst of each subsequent generation of middle-schoolers in search of a spokesman.
This is the art of the mixtape, finding songs that will expose your innermost self to whoever is receiving the tape. And Violent Femmes songs were catchy and simple enough to work especially well as plainspoken musical messages. If you wanted a killer kick-off for your “I’m an Edgy Outsider and Want to Be Appreciated As Such” mix—one of the most popular mixtape genres—a common choice was “Blister in the Sun,” in which Gano snakes allusions to heroin and premature ejaculation behind Brian Ritchie’s relentlessly busy bass line, like a shoplifter stuffing cigarettes down the front of his jeans. And the perfect closer for that tape would inevitably be “Add It Up,” a relentless rant that argues against involuntary celibacy on the grounds that it can make you homicidal. (“Gone Daddy Gone” also worked in this slot, particularly if the tape had an “all marimbas” theme.)
The other most popular mixtape genre was “I’m Into You and This Is My Way of Showing It,” and Violent Femmes delivered there as well. Gano wrote the most romantic song on Violent Femmes, “Good Feeling,” when he was just 15. An affectingly pure expression of fairy-tale love, “Good Feeling” is a rare moment of unfettered tenderness on an otherwise brash record, revealing the nice young man behind the bravado who was raised by a Baptist minister and a theater actress. Gano actually wrote a collection of gospel songs around the same time as Violent Femmes, but Ritchie, an atheist, refused to record them. He and excitable stand-up drummer Victor DeLorenzo—who was the oldest member by several years—were more comfortable with the nervy “Please Do Not Go,” in which Gano pledges to “patiently pray, pray, pray, pray, pray” for sex rather than salvation.
Gano and Ritchie later admitted that the members of Violent Femmes had virtually nothing in common except for music. But in the beginning, at least, that was enough to bond them together, because nobody else in their hometown of Milwaukee, Wis. took Violent Femmes seriously. The affectations that later endeared them to fans —the ramshackle instrumentation, the spitefully witty lyrics, Gano’s habit of wearing a bathrobe in public—stigmatized the Femmes in the Milwaukee club scene. They were forced to busk in the street with acoustic instruments because nobody would book them.
According to legend, Violent Femmes were “discovered” in 1981 by James Honeyman-Scott of the Pretenders, who invited them to open for his band during a performance at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre after seeing them busk outside the venue. Gano had just graduated from high school, and it was rare of the Femmes to perform indoors on an actual stage.
This story became an oft-repeated talking point in press releases after the Femmes became semi-famous in the American indie underground. But as the band members themselves were quick to point out, Violent Femmes were hardly set up for a professional career after that minor acknowledgment. As always, they were left to fend for themselves, eventually borrowing $10,000 from DeLorenzo’s father to fund recording sessions at a studio in Lake Geneva, about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Producer Mark Van Hecke later described the studio as being “in a state of collapse. You’d go into the studio and there would be this equipment, and the next day you go in there’s a piece missing because it got repossessed.” Van Hecke’s intention was to give Violent Femmes a classic Sun Sessions sound, though this naturalistic approach required lots of takes, as the band tended to move around a lot while playing. For Van Hecke, working with the Femmes was an act of faith—he had previously tried to shop a three-song demo to a few dozen record labels in New York and Los Angeles, and all of them said no. “A lot of people thought I was nuts and this was shit. I knew it wasn’t,” he said later.
Nevertheless, Violent Femmes were oddly confident in themselves. “When we made the first album, we thought it was destined to be considered a masterpiece,” Ritchie claimed in 2015. The first prominent person to agree that Violent Femmes were destined for greatness was New York Times music critic Robert Palmer, whose rave review of two performances opening for Richard Hell at the Bottom Line and CBGB in 1982 was instrumental in getting the Femmes a deal with Slash Records.
Palmer, a blues scholar who had just published the definitive history Deep Blues the previous year, compared Gano to his most obvious antecedents, Lou Reed and Jonathan Richman. But Palmer also heard a new strain of Americana in Violent Femmes’ revved-up, snotty confessionals, likening songs to “the discursive, rambling structures of folk-era Dylan.” In a subsequent review of Violent Femmes’ second album, 1984’s overtly spiritual Hallowed Ground, Palmer detected “a subterranean mother lode of apocalyptic religion, murder, and madness that has lurked just under the surface of hillbilly music and blues since the 19th century” in the Femmes’ knowingly primitive music. Perhaps Palmer was also thinking of Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” which lifts a verse from Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” or the teenage murder ballad “To The Kill,” in which Gano fantasizes about vengefully hunting down his ex in Chicago, like so many Delta musicians decades earlier.
Flash forward to the ’90s, and Palmer’s conflation of Gano’s songs with the timeless quality of the blues felt truer than ever, even as Violent Femmes also seemed more contemporary than ever. In the ’80s, Violent Femmes were strictly an underground phenomenon; a slow but steady seller, the self-titled debut finally went platinum in February of 1991, though it didn’t actually crack the Billboard 200 chart until later that year. By then, Violent Femmes had achieved a measure of mainstream recognition thanks to the alt-rock explosion. They became a fixture of nostalgic movie soundtracks—Ethan Hawke sang “Add It Up” to needle Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, and Minnie Driver blasted “Blister In The Sun” on the hip underground radio show that John Cusack obsesses over in Grosse Pointe Blank. Violent Femmes even appeared in an episode of “Sabrina The Teenage Witch”—mean girl Libby casts a spell on Gano, making him serenade her with “Please Do Not Go” while Sabrina and her aunts do an awkward skank.
Violent Femmes' influence was now discernible in the legion of underground rockers who had codified Gano's quirky vocal style into what is now commonly recognized as the "indie guy" voice. In years to come, Gano’s vocals—recently described by author J.K. Rowling as sounding “like a bee in a plastic cup”—would echo in Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Mangum, Colin Meloy, Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and countless less heralded reedy young men.
Violent Femmes remain a band out of time. They are rarely mentioned with the “canon” bands of ’80s American post-punk—lacking the sales and accolades of R.E.M., the Replacements, and the Pixies, the Femmes don’t signify an era so much as a time of life. Violent Femmes is children’s music for teenagers—uber-elementary sing-alongs that have their time and place, and then are set aside as facile once they’re outgrown.
But Violent Femmes deserves better. If the blues survived because of the oral tradition of passing down songs from one singer to another, Violent Femmes endured because the tunes were shared via word of mouth at dorm parties and high school keggers. (Even the girl on the cover learned about Violent Femmes that way.) And don’t discount those precious mixtapes, a primitive form of social media that worked exponentially slower than the internet but were ultimately no less effective at creating a lasting legacy.
For young people growing up in the internet age, Violent Femmes is part of a shared language. In 2013, after a period of estrangement marked by lawsuits and public in-fighting, Violent Femmes were persuaded to reunite for a performance at Coachella. “As soon as we started out the set with ‘Blister in the Sun,’ when that riff hit, it was like a swarm of insects coming towards our stage. They all started running from the other stages,” Ritchie recalled. All these years later, whenever teenagers listen to songs from Violent Femmes, they also hear themselves.