Review by Kris Smith
Won’t fit your definitions
Won’t fit into your dumb plan
Not in to win the majority
Won’t meet your demands
I want to say something: about a sold-out gig, about a band I’d never seen before, about a scene, reunions, possibilities. Some of it will probably State The Obvious (which I’ll keep as brief as possible) and the rest will be thinking out loud. Anyone who attended the two Bikini Kill gigs in Brixton on 10th & 11th June will have their own narrative and I’ll state for the record here that I am a cisgender white male and your.experience.may.vary. (Write your own review! Get in touch with Loud Women if you’d like to publish it here.) While we’re on the subject of disclosure regarding the gaze I might also admit that I mostly identify as straight although I’ve been given the queer-theory explanation of why I shouldn’t (not limited to a lifetime’s experience of homophobia) but even from my thus-limited perspective I’ll assert that you don’t have to be a womxn to find a crowd of men a deeply unsafe space. What a huge fucking treat then, to attend a sold out gig at a 5000-capacity venue in a major city with a womxn-majority audience, a demographic far from usual even at the most DIY of gigs, and feel none of the usual queasiness or threat. More of this sort of thing, and thank you.
I miss the opener Child’s Pose (promising myself to catch them another time) who sound great on bandcamp and feature members of Dregs and Woolf (I also miss Tuesday night entirely and therefore the other openers The Tuts but tbf I’ve seen and eulogised them before).
Big Joanie are next and are the perfect support band, bringing as they do something completely different from the main attraction. I haven’t seen Big Joanie for far too long; they have Estella on bass now, Niadzi from Screaming Toenail on keyboards, and a successful album of songs behind them. They sound tight, look super-stylish and perform an efficient set, extremely well received.
Without much delay, Bikini Kill are on stage, and songs come sick and vast. Double Dare Ya, Feels Blind, Carnival, Suck My Left One from the first EP; Jigsaw Youth, This Is Not A Test, Don’t Need You, Resist Psychic Death, Rebel Girl from the split LP; Alien She, Sugar, Hamster Baby, For Tammy Rae from Pussy Whipped; New Radio and In Accordance To Natural Law from the singles; No Backrub and For Only from Reject All American (not in sequence, and others no doubt missing from a 90 minutes-or-so setlist: I didn’t take notes).
The sound is pummelingly effective, the songs aural brickbats. At times the hard contours of guitar are somewhat lost in the huge proscenium arches of the old Astoria theatre, the bass an over-reverbed squall, but that aside it’s a tight punk rock gig; lyrical communication is clear and if you do miss the point of the songs there are handy preludes from Kathleen and Tobi.
Not cursed with a media spotlight to the extent that Kathleen was, it’s relatively easy to forget that Bikini Kill has always had More Than One Vocalist, and an incredible frontperson in Tobi Vail. (That’s to take nothing away from Kathleen, but she has her own documentary after all and gets all the mentions; I’m adding some balance.) Alternately funny, humble, razorsharp-articulate and somehow ridiculously, unattainably cool in a uniquely self-deprecating manner, Tobi brings the theory, cites the herstory, breaks the fourth wall, and credits everyone including the UK riot grrrl/DIY punk scene then and now, a good proportion of which is in the audience. At one point I’m sat between Tobi’s mum and Tobi’s bandmate’s mum and there’s a fair bit of beaming going on. Tobi Vail makes me want to form a band, and I’m already in two and really don’t have the spoons. I can’t even play the spoons – but I digress.
Bikini Kill play punk DC hardcore-style. It’s strange to think, having been for so long a phenomenon, almost a myth, for generations of younger fans and musicians (it may’ve only been twenty-odd years, but the generation-generator has sped up considerably), that at the heart of this is simply a garage band. There’s very little blues in their sound, and very little pop, although the later singles and last album were certainly more produced. It’s all rough as fuck, in the best possible way: the songs break down or just stop, having made their point in 2 minutes flat. Bikini Kill could’ve been any early 80s Dischord outfit but for the third-wave feminist mission, the fierce female sexuality, and their skill for slogan-as-chorus. (That first EP set the standard: Suck My Left One, Double Dare Ya; instant classics, memorable and singable, and equally perfect for a placard.)
Punk reunions. At this point it’d be easier to list the bands who haven’t reformed, although tbf some bands just plain keep-on-going. Probably our nearest equivalent in cultural importance was the Sex Pistols; when they reformed in the 90s it would have been churlish to deny them their right to reclaim their legacy, tell their own story, fill venues, get paid. Unfortunately at the time the UK was in the throes of post-peak Britpop and a band that started out playing dive bars to a small tribe of freaks, genuinely upsetting the establishment while getting physically attacked by ‘patriots’, had somehow become a Great British Rock Band, a Day Out For The Lads. They went away as one thing, came back as something completely different. Bikini Kill, in contrast, are still not part of any canon, their music hasn’t been anthologised or reissued by major labels over the last few decades (in fact they run their own record label, control their own archive), and they represent the same principles as they always did. The Pistols meant nothing by the time they reformed; Bikini Kill arguably mean far more now than ever.
How many times did Bikini Kill play the UK? There was the Huggy Bear tour in ‘93, and a short final tour in ’96; was that it, can this really be only their third visit? In 2019 they’ve played just 6 gigs in 3 cities, two of them here in London. In the 90s they played the same kind of pub back rooms many of us still play, so where did their five thousand-plus crowd come from? A small slice of media coverage but a huge wave of word of mouth: YouTube, blogs, and a long-overdue mushrooming of female participation over the last few years in DIY punk, indie and alternative rock. UK riot grrrl was tiny, defiantly uncommercial, short-lived. But a small wave of bands formed around the Ladyfests at the turn of the century, and various DIY scenes have kept the flame since, all influenced by riot grrrl, with everything from bands and blogs, to club nights and dissertations named after Bikini Kill songs and lyrics. More importantly, their return chimes perfectly with what the media call the #metoo generation, in a socio-political context of right-wing backlash simultaneously forcing a refight of battles from thirty years ago, as the band themselves weren’t slow to point out on stage.
This gig didn’t feel like a band cashing in, collecting plaudits, resting on laurels, or taking anything for granted. The politics remain intact. Not just a party, this was a call to arms. A fierce statement of communal validation. Not bad for a Monday night, that.