It certainly wasn't the most glamorous way to make a name in the music business, but for the Violent Femmes, being discovered on the streets of Milwaukee while performing for a crowd in line for a Pretenders' concert was as good a beginning as any.
"It's been kind of romanticized a bit," lead singer Gordon Gano says. "We had been trying to get gigs anywhere -- to play for free just so people would hear the music -- and no one wanted us because we were a three piece band. It was just so unusual at the time."
So it was out on the street in front of the Olympia Theatre in 1981, passing the hat for some money and attention, that the Femmes got their big break.
James Honeyman Scott, guitar player for The Pretenders, who has since died, saw them and brought out Chrissy Hynde and the other members of the band. Two hours later, the Violent Femmes were The Pretenders' opening act and later that year they signed a record deal.
"We were playing a lot of the same songs that day that we still play," said Gano, whose band will perform at Shriver Hall Saturday night. "And they still get the biggest response."
Two songs in particular from that first self-titled album -- "Add It Up" and "Blister in the Sun" -- have become alternative-rock classics.
The band's latest effort, "Why Do Birds Sing?," has spawned their biggest hit since the early days. The patriotic bandwagon tune called "American Music" features Gano's whiny, nasal drawl, the sound that makes the Femmes so distinct.
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Gano also has penned a send-up of Culture Club's "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" with the same music but completely new lyrics that is well worth checking out.
"We wanted to do a cover for the album because sometimes hearing something familiar will draw a listener to the music," said Gano, whose band also includes bassist Brian Ritchie and drummer Victor DeLorenzo. "But we didn't want it to be anything TC straight from the book. We just used the title and the tune and changed everything else around. Boy George OK'd it originally, but I don't think he ever heard the end result. At least not that I know of."
Even though the band has defeated the stigma of its own wild name -- the folksy, simplistic music in no way reflects a title like "Violent Femmes" -- Gano says growing popularity hasn't been a problem.
"We never get recognized when we go out," Gano says. "We were down in Fairfax [Va.] for that WHFS show on the Fourth of July and we were the headliner, the big band everybody came to see. It was an all-day festival and people waited around until after dark to see us, and the fireworks as well, I guess. But I walked around all day, checking out the sights and the people and no one said a word to me. I couldn't even get a funny look. Maybe someone recognized me when I was on stage and said "Hey, that guy was just standing next to me.' "
The concert calendar:
Merriweather Post Pavilion has Chicago and The Triplets (tomorrow), Gordon Lightfoot (Saturday), Frank Sinatra (Monday) and Lynyrd Skynyrd '91 (Tuesday).
The Capital Centre welcomes Yes (tomorrow) and Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine (Aug. 24). Tickets for Estefan are $22.50 and go on sale tomorrow morning at 10 through all TicketCenter locations. Call 481-6000.
Pier Six Pavilion opens next week with Ben E. King (Thursday), Hall and Oates and Pat Benatar (Friday) and John Denver (Saturday).