Playing catchy melodies on beat-up instruments, Violent Femmes rollicked their way from the midwestern suburbs of Wisconsin across 1980s America, and quickly earned cult status among alt-rock fans all around the world. A college-radio sensation, the three-piece’s debut record hung around long enough to become the stuff of legend.
For the legions of fans who embraced his sarcastic pessimism and acid-tongue, frontman Gordon Gano’s antsy songs were their soundtrack, a musical narrative that blew the lid off the pent-up frustrations of being young. They took cues from ‘50s bebop and the jerky, rhythmic energy of their era’s new wave acts, but the Femmes were a little too wild to be considered clean-cut. Instead, they leaned into the sleazy, scuzzier side of rock and roll’s pantheon, taking influence from the likes of Iggy Pop and The Velvet Underground. Check out 10 of their gutsy best.
10. Country Death Song
Like all prolific creatives, Violent Femmes’ songwriter Gordon Gano penned such a vast batch of songs during his early writing bursts, he had cuts to spare once he’d decided which ones were fit for the band’s frenetic debut. The follow-up record, 1984’s ‘Hallowed Ground’, allowed Gano to make use of some leftover ideas that went beyond his own boredom and missed opportunities. Plodding along steadily like an early Johnny Cash number, ‘Country Death Song’ is a tale of the Southern Gothic variety, about a man who goes insane and kills his daughter. Not for the faint hearted, Gano has described it as “a traditional ballad, a form that goes back hundreds of years.”
So far-reaching is the influence of the Femmes debut album, even hip-hop heads were drawn to it. In 2006, soul duo Gnarls Barkley, made up of rapper CeeLo Green and producer Danger Mouse, covered ‘Gone Daddy Gone’ for their debut album. Repaying the compliment, Violent Femmes covered the pair’s smash-hit ‘Crazy.’ Like a lot of bands who found it hard to match their tireless early days as they approached middle age, the noughties was a largely inactive period for the band. Their rendition of ‘Crazy’ was a welcome return, and Gano’s unchanged raspy voice rolled back the years for Femmes fans. Slowed down and stripped off its dancefloor-friendly pace, it sounds like the kind of pining number Gano might have written in his younger days.
8. Color Me Once
Gothic superhero film The Crow was released in 1994, and its soundtrack featured over a dozen tracks from bands like Pantera, Stone Temple Pilots, and Nine Inch Nails, metal and heavy rock acts whose careers were in full swing. The Femmes contribution was equally as moody as their peers — starting with a downbeat, meandering bassline, it could be any number of grunge acts. Written before they’d been invited to the party, Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie told MTV’s Alternative Nation the song was an “ethereal sort of musical extravaganza.” The lyrics seem to be about the cruelty of relationships as Gano sings “color me once, color me twice, everything gonna turn out nice” in his usual wry tone.
7. Please Do Not Go
Gano wrote the entirety of the band’s hailed eponymous debut album while he was still in high school. The collection of songs balanced a fevered, nervous energy with a worldly wisdom: despite his youthful exuberance, Gano had wit and wisdom beyond his years. ‘Please Do Not Go’ slows the record’s tempo down, and is one of the Femmes’ more playful songs. Sounding somewhere between Jonathan Richman (who the band were often compared to) and Lou Reed on ‘Andy’s Chest,’ Gano pines for a girl who doesn’t seem interested. “Tell ya’, man, I’m stuck on this lovely girl,” he sings, as we discover she “like another guy.” A fan favorite, it’s a simple, acoustic, with the titular refrain providing the chance for a catchy sing-along.
6. Good Feeling
The Femmas have been open about their love of The Velvet Underground since they first emerged, and cite them as one of their main influences. ‘Good Feeling’ is the closing track on the Milwaukee three-piece’s 1983 debut. With its wistful, ruminating lyrics like “good feeling, won’t you stay with me just a little longer?” and loose pace, it could easily have been written by the avante-garde New Yorkers, particularly one that Nico sings. Delicate keys and strings carry the song, and it eventually breaks into a whimsical ‘la la la’ end section reminiscent of something from John Cale’s ‘Paris 1919.’ For such a young songwriter, it’s a great example of Gano’s considered approach to the craft.
5. American Music
A crop of indie-rock bands from the 2000s, like Wolf Parade and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to name a few, adopted the vocal style that the Femmes’ Gordon Gano pioneered. The frontman’s yelps are iconic, and the missed notes when he attempts to sing in a higher range only contribute to the band’s often chaotic sound. The opener from 1991’s ‘Why Do Birds Sing?’ begins casually, with Gano asking if he can “put in something like ‘American Music’ take one.” It’s a half-sarcastic song that simultaneously mocks and adores their home nation, with mentions of proms and bands doing “too many drugs.” The video finds the band sending up ‘50s rockabilly — with quiffed hair and velvet tuxedos, they play in the hall of retirement home while elderly onlookers slowly fill the room.
4. Gone Daddy Gone
Featuring not one but two xylophone solos, ‘Gone Daddy Gone’ is Violent Femmes at their quirky best. This up-tempo rocker is a regular live staple, and with its tight groove and catchy hook, could easily be mistaken for Ohio new wave giants Devo. Another Femmes number about unrequited love, this song is held together by minimalist drummer Victor DeLorenzo’s steady snare beat. DeLorenzo actually invented a whole new drum, the tranceaphone, which he plays on this track. Made up of a bushel basket sat on top of a tom, he hits it with steel brushes to create a percussion sound that’s all his own.
3. Add It Up
‘Add It Up’ was the title of the Femmes compilation album, named after this pulsating rocker from the band’s debut. The song begins with Gano singing the acapella line “day after day I will walk and I will play” before catapulting into an unabashed anthem about sexual frustration. Gano has said of the song, “I was in my bedroom—that’s where I wrote it—feeling frustrated. I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. It just happened to feel good lyrically, and it still does.” The songwriter bemoans his inability to attract the opposite sex, and his snarling vocals make ‘Add It Up’ sound comparable to Californian punks the Descendants.
2. Kiss Off
The National’s Matt Berninger is another Violent Femmes fan, admitting he often sings other bands lyrics over the songs he’s working on. He decided to keep the line “they can all just kiss off into the air” in their song ‘Hard to Find’, inspired if not outright lifted from our second place pick. ‘Kiss Off’ begins with searching, strummed acoustic guitar as Gano declares he needs “someone, a person to talk to, someone who’d care to love.” It’s a neurotic, bitter number about his lack of success in love with lyrics like “behind my back I can hear them stare.” Built around Brian Ritchie’s funky bass licks, it erupts into a tense countdown that finally explodes “for everything, everything, everything.”
1. Blister In The Sun
Easily Violent Femmes most iconic song, ‘Blister In The Sun’ is an ode to adolescence that continues to resonate with people the world over. There’s even a bar in Manchester (‘Big Hands’) named after the object of Gano’s affection, who he claims wanted to form a band with him. “I just thought of Big Hands because mine are small,” Gano has said of the mystery woman. Ritchie’s opening bass riff meets DeLorenzo’s famous snare hit to kick the song off, a spontaneously made beat the drummer made during his first practice with the band. ‘Blister In The Sun’ got a second revival when it was used for the soundtrack to late ‘90s assassin film ‘Grosse Pointe Blank,’ which helped cement it as the ubiquitous alt-rock classic that caps off our list.