Retrospective: The Violent Femmes, Pioneers of Acoustic Punk
If you’ve always looked at “punk rock” with confusion (or disgust), wondering what exactly makes it so appealing to so many people, the answer is simple. Literally, the answer is “simple.”
What punk rock really is, and was, is a musical form of reaction; a return to basics. Whatever it may be, and musically it can certainly be any number of things, its typically made on a low budget.
It's a form of musical independence; a loose genre where you carve out your own path.
It's not about being loud, fast, or obnoxious; its about being part of a community of like-minded people who may have different tastes than you; but have the same desire for creative independence, the same desire to make their own music their own way.
Violent Femmes, in many ways, were as punk as it comes. Their music was raw, passionate, and completely unique. They came from Milwaukee, Wisconsin of all places; not exactly LA or London. They never fit into any sort of genre, other than the arbitrary, encompassing “post-punk” label the music industry used for bands that didn’t sound like anybody that had come before.
But most impressive of all, they turned their backs on one of rock music’s most basic elements, volume. Violent Femmes were raw and unhinged in the classic punk spirit; and they did it acoustically.
Comprised of lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Gordon Gano, bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo, Violent Femmes sang aggressively of teenage angst, unrequited love, and numerous other gothic subjects.
Gano’s acoustic playing was typically frenzied and aggressive. Ritchie got a unique tone from playing a massive mariachi-type acoustic bass, while DeLorezno stuck almost entirely to a snare drum. The result was an entirely homespun take on punk rock that resonated immediately with folks who were looking for something different in their rock music. Their self-titled, 1983 debut album is a treasure trove of classic songs.
“Blister In the Sun” has an irresistible acoustic riff immediately unforgettable to anyone whose heard it. “Kiss Off” is a brilliantly off-kilter song of romance and heartbreak. “Please Do Not Go” is a hilarious waltz-type song that simultaneously shows the band’s zany humor and incredible musicianship. Ritchie’s acoustic bass playing carries the song, and perfectly demonstrates that many punks had chops to go with their attitude.
"Blister in the Sun"
“Add It Up” is a masterpiece of sustained tension. Gano’s stunning a capella intro sets the stage for the band’s best song. Singing desperately and in incredibly frank language of unfulfilled sexual lust, Gano puts on a performance for the ages. Not to be outdone, Ritchie throws in more than a few scarcely believable bass lines, while DeLorenzo holds down the fort effortlessly on the snare. Its one of the most powerful pieces of acoustic rock ever recorded, and is the album’s emotional and musical centerpiece.
The record also contains “Gone Daddy Gone,” an ultra-catchy song later made famous by pop duo Gnarls Barkley, and the aching ballad “Good Feeling.” With these songs, Violent Femmes showed that punk’s attitude wasn’t limited to Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. They never spat on anyone or declared their love of anarchy.
With amazing musicianship, fantastic songs, and an entirely unique style; this is the band to play for a “serious” musician who may not think any sort of “punk rock” is worth their time of day. Searing, brilliant-played, and packed to the brim with great songs, Violent Femmes’ first album is a masterpiece of acoustic rock.
Find out what they're up to now at vfemmes.com
Jackson Maxwell is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is a staff writer for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled “Two Dudes, Two Computers” with his friend Zach Newman. You can follow him here at twodudestwocomputers.tumblr.com/ or http://themotorcade.tumblr.com/