Their legion of followers may not be aware of it, but the Violent Femmes are the best band never to have a hit song.
Even lead singer Gordon Gano admits it.
“If we had been connected to some kind of trend in the ’80s or ’90s, we might’ve been in the Top 40 or whatever, but then it probably wouldn’t have the staying power,” Gano said recently. “We’ve never been a hit singles band, but we’ve had a song like ‘Blister in the Sun’ be voted the No. 1 all-time favorite among the listeners of a few radio stations, which is an unbelievable thing. Of all the songs ever in rock ‘n’ roll, this is the No. 1 pick?! Over ‘Stairway to Heaven’? But it was never a single, it was never a hit.”
Neither was the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album in 1982. And, yet, the Milwaukee punk-folk trio owns a piece of rock ‘n’ roll history: That album (on Slash Records) was the first ever to sell more than 1 million copies without hitting Billboard’s Top 200 sales chart.
“That’s the truth unless or until somebody says ‘No, you forgot about so-and-so,’ ” Gano said. “At the time, when that happened, there was somebody at Warner Brothers that we were connected with who looked into it. I thought it was a great little historical footnote. It speaks to the popularity of the group, and it goes through years, how we’ve hit different generations.”
The “Violent Femmes” album did briefly chart nine years after the fact in 1991, due largely to the continuing resurgence of “Blister in the Sun,” the ode to masturbation. A subsequent hits collection, “Add It Up (1981-1993),” was another shining moment for Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and original drummer Victor DeLorenzo: The album of unreleased demos, album tracks, alternate takes, B-sides and live performances was a gold-seller (more than 500,000 copies).
So, let’s add it up again: The Violent Femmes have an established fan base; without any hit songs, they have one platinum album and one gold to their credit; “Blister in the Sun” popped up on the “Grosse Point Blank” film soundtrack in 1997; they have toured the world and then some, proving they’re not some regional phenomenon; even losing DeLorenzo, who got the acting bug and also wanted to try a solo career, didn’t affect the band’s popularity (He was replaced in 1993 by Guy Hoffman).
Then why has it been five years since the Femmes’ last album, “New Times” (Elektra)?
“The reason we didn’t have a new record,” Gano said, “is because we were signed to a record label that didn’t want to put out anything that we were doing. It doesn’t make sense. If you try to think logically or sensibly about it, it doesn’t work. A lot of my experience in the music business has been that something that would make sense to anyone it means almost it won’t work in the music business; it won’t make sense to the music people.
“For years and years, we’ve had lots of fans. In fact, the fans keep increasing in numbers when we go play shows. A record company unwilling to put anything out, I guess what they wanted to hear was not just one song they thought could be a hit single; they wanted to hear three songs that they thought would be hit singles to even make it worthwhile to putting out a record. If they thought the album would go gold, even that’s not worth it. So why do you sign a group like that?”
The Violent Femmes didn’t stick around long enough to find out.
“The good thing is that it didn’t go to any lawsuits or the courts,” Gano said. “We were able to part and have the music we’ve been working on and go somewhere where people are having the obvious thoughts, ‘Here’s a group that has established fans and it’s good music.’ “
The Femmes were well prepared when they approached Beyond Music for a deal. They had two projects already in the can: their first live album, titled “Viva Wisconsin,” and a full-length studio album, “Freak Magnet.”
Beyond didn’t waste any time in signing them. “Viva Wisconsin” will be released Nov. 23, and “Freak Magnet” will be out in March, a month after a 40-city U.S. tour begins.
“Viva Wisconsin” is a fun, 20-track unplugged romp, featuring such fan favorites as “Blister in the Sun,” “American Music,” “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up” and “I’m Nothing,” as well as the soul-purging “Don’t Talk About My Music” and a seven-and-a-half-minute version of “Confessions” (off the Femmes’ debut album).
Recorded Oct. 25-31, 1998, at a variety of venues in Wisconsin, the album finds the Femmes stripped down to the basics: two guitars, two drums and three voices.
“We played smaller places, both the venues and the towns, in Wisconsin where we hadn’t played before,” Gano said. “The idea was to do it all acoustically, recording each show. The way we recorded it is something we’re very proud of, the sound, the engineering and producing. (Co-producer) David Vartanian did a tremendous job.
“In the past, we often played places that weren’t good acoustically. When you play at a college, it’s usually at a gym, which was built for basketball not for music, or other kinds of places where it’s hard for people to hear subtleties in music even if they wanted to. The places we played in Wisconsin were old opera houses and theaters, some very nice sounding places.
“On this tour, at all the shows the audiences were listening audiences. We were able to play with the dynamics, play the music loud or soft, and play off the audience. It makes for such a great experience. It’s great when they’re listening and also very enthusiastic.”
The best part about the Femmes’ longevity, Gano said, is that it’s not just the diehards showing up at concerts looking to rekindle memories. They’re attracting a whole new generation of faithful.
“It’s great that the music speaks to people in the now, as opposed to nostalgic,” Gano said. “If somebody puts on a Violent Femmes record, the only way they feel something from the 1980s is that they first heard the Violent Femmes in the 1980s. If they first heard the Femmes in the 1990s, it’s the ’90s for them, not the ’80s. Twenty years from now, people are going to say, ‘I first heard the Femmes when Y2K happened.’ You couldn’t ask for a better way to maintain a career.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “I’m not sure if I bought it or I got my parents to buy it. I remember at some point I had to have a Partridge Family record. But I do remember the first single I bought, ‘Bennie and The Jets’ by Elton John. No matter how many times I listened to it, there were certain parts where I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but I loved the way it sounded.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Jethro Tull. A friend of mine had a mother who always went to concerts. My brother and I were begging and pleading with my mother to let us go, and this woman agreed that she would take us and look out for us. She actually let us go, couldn’t believe it.”
BWF (before we forget): Develop a blister in the sun with the Violent Femmes on the Web @ www.vfemmes.com. … The Violent Femmes album discography – “Violent Femmes” (Slash, 1982); “Hallowed Ground” (1984); “The Blind Leading the Naked” (Slash/Warner, 1986); “3” (1988); “Why Do Birds Sing?” (Slash/Reprise, 1991); “Add It Up (1981-1993)” (1993); “New Times” (Elektra, 1994); “Viva Wisconsin” (Beyond, 1999).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc