Milwaukee Declares April 13 as Violent Femmes Day

Today honors the famous band, which was formed and discovered in Milwaukee.

It’s been four decades since the Violent Femmes released a ground-breaking first album that would eventually generate worldwide fame for the Milwaukee-rooted band.

The self-titled debut, released in April 1983, arguably became one of the most influential records in the history of alternative music and transformed the Violent Femmes into one of the most popular and successful bands ever to originate in Milwaukee.

On Thursday morning, outside the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in Riverwest, where the Violent Femmes first performed, the band was honored and remembered for that critically acclaimed first album, which features an array of songs that music critics would classify as “punk folk.” Those songs included “Add It Up,” “Blister in the Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Please Do Not Go,” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” 

“Because the band holds such a significance for the city of Milwaukee, we wanted to honor the band and the album,” urban historian and Milwaukee School of Engineering associate professor Michael Carriere said.

Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson proclaimed Thursday as Violent Femmes Day in Milwaukee and delivered a proclamation to the band honoring it for the success of the first album, and beyond, which he said has “left an indelible mark” on the city’s music scene.

Photo by Rich Rovito
Photo by Rich Rovito



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Bassist Brian Ritchie and percussionist Victor DeLorenzo founded the band in 1981 with lead singer and guitarist Gordon Gano coming on board a short time later. The band often played coffee houses and busked on street corners in the early days.

Photo by Rich Rovito

In and oft-told story, the band was playing in front of the Oriental Theatre on the East Side in August 1981 when James Honeyman-Scott, guitarist and founding member of the Pretenders, passed by. Chrissie Hynde, the Pretenders’ lead vocalist, invited the Violent Femmes to play a brief acoustic set later that night before she and her bandmates took at the stage for their headlining show at the Oriental.

John Sparrow, who has performed with the Violent Femmes for about 20 years and has been the band’s drummer since 2016, said he played that legendary first album over and over in his basement as a teenager.

“I knew the album front to back,” Sparrow said. “It spoke to me on a teenage level and it still speaks to me on an adult level. It’s timeless. That legacy is going to live forever.”

In a review in Rolling Stone in June 1983, music critic J.D. Considine described the Femmes’ first album as “the unnervingly precocious debut of a Milwaukee trio that not only acts like it just reinvented rock ‘n’ roll but somehow manages to sound like it as well.”

“It isn’t just the band’s unlikely instrumentation – electric guitar, acoustic bass and a solitary snare drum – that flies in the face of rock tradition; everything from Gordon Gano’s adenoidal lead vocals to the group’s flamboyantly absurd name indicates that this outfit ought to be both pretentious and utterly ineffectual,” Considine wrote. “Yet there’s a genuine dynamism to this music, a raw, gutsy power that is as enlivening as the best garage rock.”

Ritchie, Gano and DeLorenzo weren’t on hand for the recognition ceremony. Sparrow read the following statements from Ritchie and DeLorenzo:

Ritchie: “We’re here on the anniversary of the Violent Femmes’ release of the eponymous debut album, which was released 40 years ago today. I would like to thank Mayor Cavalier Johnson of our beloved hometown of Milwaukee for thoughtfully honoring us. It’s appropriate to receive this recognition at the Jazz Gallery, which is the incubator that enabled us to develop our repertoire and approach documented on the first album and beyond. Milwaukee music legend Paul Cebar invited us to perform here. Thereafter, I would ride the bus from my job at the Milwaukee Public Library to join Gordon Gano and Victor DeLorenzo for performances every Tuesday night. This continued until we recorded and released the first album and we began touring internationally. Victor also worked as the doorman, which enable us to see jazz legends such as Sun Ra and Dexter Gordan. This, in turn, enabled us to understand the value of improvised music and understand that approach. The hundreds of fans who we had coming for our early performances here soon became a concentric circle of thousands in Milwaukee, to tens of thousands in Wisconsin, hundreds of thousands in the U.S. and millions across the world. Forty years is a long time. The Violent Femmes are a metaphor for Milwaukee. Many things have changed but the essence remains. We are going to embark on a tour celebrating the album’s 40th (anniversary) in a matter of weeks but our focus is always on coming back to the place where we started – Milwaukee. We will be here again in the fall. We’d like to gratefully acknowledge the support of our musicians past and present and our associates, from recording production and engineering, visual arts, media, management, booking, concert promotion and the record companies. There are too many to mention by name, but you know who you are. Foremost, we’d like to thank the fans for their undying support of the first album, an album that resonates across generations that could only have been born here in Milwaukee.”

DeLorenzo: “Forty years ago, three young and hungry musicians from Milwaukee forged a place in Wisconsin music history by releasing a collection of music that would, in time, become a famous folk-punk document. It would go on to influence musicians all over the world and eventually would be award gold and platinum records. At the time of the record release, I was working at the Jazz Gallery, taking money at the door and doing stage sound. I had been talking to the owner about the possibility of the Femmes playing at the club but he wasn’t too sure about a punk trio performing at a classy jazz club. Eventually, I wore him down and he eventually agreed to let us play on a weekday night. Soon, we had at least one night a month booked and we were drawing good crowds and making money for the club. I will never forget those early formative nights at the Jazz Gallery where we learned how to perform and debuted many Femmes songs that later turned up on our studio albums. Many wishes of love and happiness to the marvelous Jazz Gallery and the people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin who have supported us for so many years. Music is a form for adventurous ideas and a powerful healing force in the universe. I’m thankful that I was a part of a group that had something to say and that people found our songs had the power to inform and challenge the norms of what was popular in the music world at the time.”

DeLorenzo took to social media on Thursday to mark the occasion: 

The band also posted a tribute to the original trio: 

DeLorenzo left the band in 1993 for an extended period and then departed for good shortly after the band reunited in 2013. He’s currently a member of a pair of Milwaukee bands – Nineteen Thirteen with cellist Janet Schiff, and Night Crickets, a group formed during the pandemic.

The Femmes have survived some intense internal strife, including DeLorenzo’s departures, and has lived through breakups and a legal battle between Ritchie and Gano. Through it all, they have continued to make music and still tour on occasion.

The current lineup includes Ritchie, Gano, Sparrow and multi-instrumentalist Blaise Garza. The band is set to embark on an 11-city spring tour of the Western and Southwestern U.S. and is playing the first album in its entirety at each concert. A new picture-disc vinyl edition of the album is being reissued for Record Store Day on April 22.

There’s not a Milwaukee stop on the spring portion of the current tour, but Sparrow stressed that the band will play in its hometown this fall but wouldn’t specify an exact date. The Violent Femmes played at Summerfest last year in front of hordes of fans who packed the bleachers and benches at Generac Power Stage for a spirited 21-song set that began with “Add It Up.”

“That first album is really good and brings you back to that time. It’s just amazing,” Shank Hall owner Peter Jest said.

Jest, who has promoted the Violent Femmes for years and briefly served as the tour manager in the early days of the band, said the influence of the first album is widespread. He noted that Ritchie’s opening chords on “Blister in The Sun” are played at sports stadiums and arenas around the world.

A Violent Femmes statue should be erected near the Oriental Theatre as a fitting tribute the band’s lasting legacy, Jest insisted.

“That would be great for the city and great for visitors,” he said.



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.