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Femmes Facts: 9 Things You May Not Have Known About The Violent Femmes

The Violent Femmes have been making music for 35 years (give or take the occasional brief hiatus), playing shows whenever the mood strikes them, but they hadn't released an album in a decade and a half. That situation has finally changed, thanks to We Can Do Anything, the band's first album since 2000's Freak Magnet, and since their latest endeavor is actually their ninth studio album, we decided this would be a good time to take a look back at nine things you may not have known about the Femmes.

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1. Gordon Gano was not a founding member of the Femmes.

Via mtv.com

Bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo met more or less as a result of Ritchie playing for a band that had formerly featured DeLorenzo as its drummer, and when the two musicians actually chatted for the first time, they discovered how much they had in common. In turn, they started playing together, using a name which – in case you’ve ever wondered – was a spontaneous utterance offered by Ritchie when he told someone that his insurance-salesman brother was in a punk band and was pressed about the name of said band.

As the opportunities for a two-piece drum-and-bass combo were pretty limited in the Milwaukee area, Ritchie and DeLorenzo were open to the idea of bringing someone else into the fold, namely a frontman. According to Diffuser, “Ritchie caught a set by local high schooler Gordon Gano and was impressed enough to go over to the kid’s parents’ house and jam. The bassist discovered that Gano wasn’t only a singer and guitarist but also a pretty good songwriter: that night Gano played Ritchie ‘Country Death Song,’ which later became the opening track on 1984’s Hallowed Ground.”

2. The Femmes got their big break courtesy of The Pretenders.

Via fanart.tv

The tale is the stuff of legend in the Milwaukee music community, kind of a rock 'n' roll equivalent of the Lana Turner Schwab's story...which didn't really happen at Schwab's, but that's a tale for another time. Here's what happened: on August 23, 1981, the Femmes decided to try and make a few bucks by busking outside the Oriental Theater, and after James Honeyman-Scott caught their performance, he trumpeted it to his bandmates, which led to Chrissie Hynde inviting the Femmes to play a set after the Pretenders finished up. Hello, instant street cred.

Somewhat less often discussed, however, is Honeyman-Scott's initial remark to the band: "You blokes sound just like this band in the UK called the Stray Cats." Or at least that's what DeLorenzo said in a 2015 interview with Phawker, anyway. "Not only did we not know who the Stray Cats were, we didn't know who the Pretenders were," claimed DeLorenzo.

3. The band's self-titled album achieved the highly rare - and possibly even unique - feat of going gold before ever making it onto Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart.

There are bands that are cult successes, and then there's the Femmes, who managed to earn a gold record for their first album four years after its 1983 release, saw it go platinum at the eight-year mark, and when it finally did hit the Top 200 in 1991, it topped out at #171. Oh, well: it was a little anticlimactic by that point, anyway.

4. Ritchie got his feathers a bit ruffled over Gano's initial desire to explore his faith in his lyrics, but God bless him, he eventually managed to get over it.

Having grown up in the Baptist church, listening to gospel music, it's not so surprising that Gano had a tendency to delve into religion in his writing, but neither Ritchie nor DeLorenzo had any interest in such matters. "At the time, Brian was very aggressively anti-anything Christian," Gano told the Phoenix New Times in 1989. "He said he didn't want to be playing in a band that was expressing something that he felt so vehemently against."

So it went for the first Femmes album, but by the time the band started work on their sophomore effort, Hallowed Ground, Ritchie had changed his tune. As John Blanco put it in the aforementioned New Times article, "It was Ritchie who suggested that the Femmes change direction and commit some of Gano's punk-gospel numbers to vinyl. Not that holy roller Gano had made a convert out of Ritchie or anything. It's just that the bassist had come to admire Gano's thrashed-out spirituals musically --regardless of their 'Jesus saves' sentiments."

5. The alto sax, clarinet, and game calls on Hallowed Ground's "Black Girls" come courtesy from legendary avant-garde musician John Zorn.

Via musica.gulbenkian.pt

Given his reputation as one of the greatest avant-garde composers of his generation, it's a little odd to see Zorn's name listed in the credits of Hallowed Ground, but what's even more odd is that he was actually the Femmes' second choice: in an interview with Punk Globe, Steve Mackay - arguably best known for his work on the Stooges' Fun House album - admitted that he was originally supposed to play on the album.

"[I] was working San Francisco's several Sewage Treatment Plants as an on call Stationary Engineer, mostly at Sludge Control in Golden Gate Park, in 1983 when I got a call from Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, inviting me to sit in at the legendary I-Beam," said Mackay. "It was love at first song at the soundcheck, the beginning of a long friendship. In 1984, I was living in Amsterdam and playing with the Rex Reason Blues Band all around the Netherlands when The Femmes came through town. They had wanted me to come to New York to record on their second record, Hallowed Ground, but It didn't work out and they had to get John Zorn instead!"

6. Not only did Leo Kottke play acoustic 10-string guitar on the Femmes' The Blind Leading The Naked album, he also opened for the band at Carnegie Hall.

Via mtv.com

By the time he chimed in on the Femmes' third studio release, Kottke had already released a dozen albums of his own, making his appearance on The Blind Leading The Naked somewhat of a surprise. The big shocker, however, was when Kottke turned up as the band's opening act when they played Carnegie Hall on March 26, 1986.

According to Variety's review of the proceedings, Kottkie "got surprisingly polite treatment from this rambunctious crowd, probably because he's a guest player on [the Femmes' new album]." Billboard saw things slightly differently, however, calling the audience "largely indifferent," but they did concede that Kottke "deserves a medal for his performance," during which he "amiably played his two acoustic guitars for 45 minutes, seemingly oblivious to the occasional hoots and paper airplanes emanating from the half-filled hall."

7. The video for "Nightmares" was directed by the same man who helped design album covers for Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, and even the Bee Gees.

View this video on YouTube

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Although Martyn Atkins is arguably better known now for helming concert films for artists like Tom Petty (Live at the Olympic: The Last DJ and More), Seal (Live in Paris), Mark Knopfler and Emmylou Harris (Real Live Roadrunning), and John Fogerty (The Long Road Home in Concert), his first work behind the camera was as the director of music videos like Depeche Mode's "Strangelove '88," Alice in Chains' "Sea of Sorrow," and, yes, the Femmes' "Nightmares."

Before that, though, Atkins was a busy boy in the field of album cover design, collaborating with Peter Saville on the cover for Joy Division's Closer and subsequently working on albums by Depeche Mode (among them A Broken Frame, Construction Time Again, Some Great Reward, Black Celebration, and Music for the Masses), Echo and the Bunnymen (including Heaven Up Here, Crocodiles, and Ocean Rain), and the Bee Gees' E.S.P. and One albums.

8. The Femmes covered Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" without really knowing any of the lyrics beyond the chorus.

The liner notes for the Femmes' 1991 album Why Do Birds Sing? credit five individuals with writing "Do You Really Want To Hear Me": four members of Culture Club and one Violent Femme. "We had gone into the studio thinking we were going to do a cover song, and that was the most bizarre idea," Gano explained to Alternative Press in '91. Only one problem: he didn't know any of the lyrics within the song's verses.

"I just didn't know what Boy George was thinking about," Gano later explained. "I took it as a challenge as a writer to keep the same structure and format of the song, and yet rewrite the lines so that, as a singer, I could really be committed to it. I tried to keep in a lot of the same key words. For example, I believe the original line is , 'Choose a color, find a star,' and that doesn't mean anything to me, but 'What's your favorite color of your favorite car?' does. To me, that has more meaning and more feeling, because it's a relationship thing."

And how did the man who originally wrote the song feel about these changes? Your guess is apparently as good as Gano's: in '91, he told the Baltimore Sun, "Boy George OK'd it originally, but I don't think he ever heard the end result. At least not that I know of."

9. Dennis Rodman once joined the Femmes onstage to sing. It went...poorly.

Via cache1.asset-cache.net

A longtime fan of the band, Rodman invited the Femmes to perform at a charity event at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, and as the Chicago Tribune reported at the time, "Most partygoers were in their 20s and 30s and many appeared to be drinking beyond their limit, [and] as the evening wore on, some in the crowd became careless, spilling beer on the museum's floors, dropping bottles and defying the museum's no-smoking policy."

"He was just so drugged up it was crazy," Ritchie told Salient in 2005. "He gave us heaps of booze, which was fun, but he came up on stage and wanted to sing with us." (Rodman also asked to play bass and drums at various points, but by all accounts he was far better at playing instruments than he was at singing.)

For the best possible summary of the event, we have to jump back to an interview Ritchie did in 2001 for Rockzone, which creates such a wonderful / horrifying mental image that it's really the only remembrance of the proceedings that matters:

"By the end of the night, [Rodman] had fallen down, pushed wheelchair victims around on the stage while screaming at the audience, "Who says I don't have a heart," poured a beer on Gordon's head, and he was on the verge of exposing himself to the audience when he was hauled off the stage by his own bodyguards."

We hope Rodman knows that this went down on his permanent record.

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