By Jeff Maisey
This year marks the 40th anniversary of American folk/punk band Violent Femmes.
The Milwaukee-based group made an impressive debut in 1983 with the self-titled album which spawned the longtime classic singles “Blister in the Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.”
Bassist Brian Ritchie recalls the era of slowly building an audience.
“For us it was popularity in most of the western world,” said Ritchie. “It was before so-called Alternative Rock gained a lot of critical mass. There were devoted fans, but not the mass general public.”
In the early ‘80s, commercial radio stations spinning newly released punk rock, New Wave, and all of the mini-genres that sprang out of that movement were far and few between. The radio alternative at the time was heard on university campuses across the nation. That was good timing for the Violent Femmes.
“In 1983, we were enjoying quite a bit of airplay, but only on college radio,” Ritchie shared. “Aside from a few commercial stations, almost all of our airplay was on college radio, which was, obviously, more creative. The DJs were able to play what they wanted to. That was the basis of our popularity at the time, really.”
Ritchie noted two college DJs were fired for playing Violent Femmes tunes because of the language, but on the whole “College Rock” as it was called enhanced and gave life to many careers of bands such as REM, Camper Van Beethoven, The Smiths, Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Connells, They Might Be Giants, The Cure, Dinosaur Jr., Throwing Muses, Kate Bush, and The Dead Milkmen.
College Music Journal (CMJ) was an industry magazine created to share news and playlists from university stations across the nation. There was a CJM Music Marathon — part convention, part live music showcase — in New York City, which was the predecessor of SXSW in Austin.
One of the most played songs was “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes. Ironically, it’s popularity came as a surprise to the band.
“It wasn’t a hit and it wasn’t a single,” said Ritchie. “That song’s popularity came strictly through word-of-mouth. The record company did not release that as a single because they said a song with no bass drum could become a hit single. That’s the reason they released ‘Gone Daddy Gone.’ Can you believe the idiocy of this kind of thing? It (‘Blister in the Sun’) is one of the biggest songs of the last 50 years.”
The Violent Femmes were frequent performers at The Boathouse, a beloved yet rugged music venue in downtown Norfolk located on the river next to where Harbor Park stands today. The Boathouse was a favorite stop for The Femmes.
“It was one of our most frequented venues in the world,” said Ritchie. “We did shoot a video there in 1991. It was remarkable. They had a thermometer on stage and in the video it shows it was 120 degrees on stage that night. That was hellacious.”
Crowds were packed in tight to The Boathouse, which lacked in air conditioning, and had chicken wire and a chain link fence at various times to separate underage concertgoers from those drinking tons of draft beer.
“The audience was pretty rowdy that night,” Ritchie recalled. “One of the fans started climbing on the snake. The snake is a piece of audio gear that’s basically a bunch of chords running all the microphones from the stage to the soundboard. It was running along one of the wooden beams of The Boathouse. The sound man went berserk, yelling, ‘Get off of the fucking snake.’ It was total chaos.”
The Boathouse was severely damaged by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 and the venue was eventually torn down. The Violent Femmes would play The NorVa after that.
“We’ve played The NorVa three or four times,” Ritchie said, “and we really like that venue. Surely there are people coming that were part of that Boathouse crowd. I would say Norfolk remains one of our strong markets.”
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