Footnotes of fandom: I was the Violent Femmes’ first California follower. My family lived in Milwaukee for a couple years before we moved to San Diego in time for junior high. I kept friends there, though, and that’s how I ended up seeing the Femmes at Milwaukee’s Jazz Gallery in June 1981, just a few months after the band formed. On August 23, 1981, the Pretenders spotted the Femmes busking in front of the Oriental Theatre and invited them to open that night; the rest is college-radio history.
If you’re interested in Violent Femmes prehistory and the Milwaukee scene at the turn of the ’80s, here are five bands you should know about:
- Oil Tasters. The toast of the Milwaukee underground, Oil Tasters headlined many bills at venues like the Starship on North 5th St. where the Femmes opened; Oil Tasters boasted a similarly skewed lyrical vision and minimalist lineup (bass, drums, saxophone). “Oil Tasters were my favorite Milwaukee band,” writes Ron Faiola of Milwaukee Rock Posters. “They were totally unique, clever, fun and you know, they made great music and had a good beat. I didn’t get to know [bassist] Richard LaValliere at all really — too scared to talk to him. Same with Guy Hoffman — great drummer, he also made really cool posters so I was intimidated. [Saxophonist] Caleb Alexander, on the other hand, did the live sound at various venues, so I got to know him better: well enough to yell ‘More kick in my monitors!’ So here’s to a great fucking band and more kick in the monitors!”
- The Haskels. Before there were Oil Tasters (or much of a punk scene in Milwaukee), the Haskels galvanized local crowds at venues like Zak’s, “Milwaukee’s first punk club,” according to Milwaukee Rock Posters. (The band also featured future Oil Tasters Richard LaValliere, a bassist and songwriter still venerated by veteran Milwaukee scenesters, and Guy Hoffman, who drummed for both groups and would replace founding Violent Femmes drummer Victor DeLorenzo from 1993 to 2002.)
- Tense Experts. Tense Experts actually got their start in Rockford, Illinois (home of Cheap Trick), but soon embraced the scene in their adopted hometown of Milwaukee. In his book The Cease Is Increase: An Oral History of The Milwaukee Punk & Alternative Music Scene, Steve Nodine writes, “The Tense Experts truly had their own sound and their own look. They all wore second-hand shop black suits, dyed their hair black and had the bad boy reputation usually reserved for rock stars. The Tense Experts were really the most interesting band on the scene. Their shows were events.”
- Locate Your Lips. While I haven’t been able to locate any audio record of this band, this bass-and-drums combo reflected the minimalism of Milwaukee’s early-’80s scenesters. A contemporary article in the Milwaukee Sentinel describes the band’s sound as “somewhere between the rock of the mid-1960s British Invasion and that of the recent new wave explosion.” Drummer Kenny Baldwin also played an important role in the scene as founder of the Starship, a venue that hosted a mighty roster of punk bands during a couple short years of existence. Baldwin was subsequently a member of Colour Radio, which one article (that also included the “innovative young trio” Violent Femmes) suggested could be “America’s answer to Duran Duran.” Here’s some Color Radio featuring Kenny Baldwin.
- Snopek. A quintessential and enduring Milwaukee connection to the Violent Femmes, Sigmund Snopek III has been a local fixture since founding the psychedelic Bloomsbury People in 1968 at the University of Wisconsin Waukesha. On keyboards, Snopek (as well as frequent Stooges sax player Steve Mackay and Peter Balestrieri, also on sax) supported the Femmes for many years as the Horns of Dilemma. For an early glimpse of the Snopek-Femmes connection, check out his cameo on keyboards for the Violent Femmes’ video of T. Rex’s “Children of the Revolution.”
Want the inside scoop from Milwaukee’s veteran scenesters? Check out the Facebook group Lest We Forget: Deceased Milwaukee Scene.