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.
Last night Keira and I (plus just about everyone we know in the DIY scene!) went to see BikiniKill at Brixton Academy, and it was pretty fucking amazing. This is the band I completely fell in love with as a teenager – their songs were both a mirror and a hammer for a girl struggling to find her voice in the midst of a teenage cyclone of love, hate, abuse and sexual violence. I first picked up a guitar to play along with them, and they’ve been the biggest influence on all my musical doings as an adult – LOUDWOMEN would not exist without Bikini Kill, and certainly the back catalogues of mostthebands I’ve been in owe a huge debt to Bikini Kill. (Possibly quite literally – last night I realised quite how many lyrics seem to have hopped straight out of Kathleen Hanna’s mouth and into my songs, oops! KH, if you’re reading this, I owe you a few pints 🙂 )
A full review is coming once I pull myself together (pretty much lost my shit during ‘Feels Blind’ and haven’t recovered since), and after I’ve been back to see them again tonight because oh my, how could I not? There are still tickets available here – come and bounce/sing/cry/celebrate with me!
Huge thanks to Kelly, the Queen Bee of DHP Family, for passes that allowed us to put our girl Keira right at the front to capture these awesome photos of the three bands.
TICK TOCK, NEARLY BIKINI KILL BACK IN THE UK MOMENT… THE TFC LECTURE CONTINUES. DID YOU KNOW RIOT GRRRL IS THE ONLY MUSIC AND POLITICAL-SOCIAL MOVEMENT TO COME OUT OF ZINE CULTURE? THE STORY OF HOW FEMINISM REACHED THE FINAL BASTION, ROCK MUSIC, AND NORMALISED GIRLS IN BANDS.
YOU NEED TO KNOW
In the early spring of 1993, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail, Billy Karren, and Kathi Wilcox – Bikini Kill – arrive in the UK and hang out with Niki Elliot, Jo Johnson, Karen Hill, Chris Rowley, and Jon Slade – HuggyBear – and everything changes.
From now on, women in bands do not fuck my head up with their feminist statements that are completely missed by their boy and some of their girl fans (L7, Lunachicks and Babes in Toyland). Boys who wanna be Kurt Cobain wear tee shirts saying: “this is what a feminist looks like”.
Did you know?
Kat Bjeland (Babesin Toyland), and Courtney Love (Hole) were introduced to music journalists in conversations that started by first establishing their relationships with cool feminist men – Stuart Gray, frontman for experimental noiseniks Lubricated Goat, and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain – then telling us the name of their bands. It’s all so subtle, and really nice people do it: these women are cool and interesting because their men are cool and interesting. I have no plans for a musician boyfriend.
Bikini Kill, on the other hand, speak for themselves, and it’s clear they’ve got a feminist agenda which includes encouraging a relationship between bands and fans, fans and fans, for celebration, information and the organising of solutions, starting with: Girls to the Front, not just a safe space for girls and performers, but a place to bombard girls with information that they need to know.
TAKE OVER THE MEANS OF PRODUCTION IN ORDER TO CREATE OUR OWN MEANINGS
Girls to the Front is all about the girls at the front, but the community, the ‘experiment’ proved brilliantly free for the performers; it’s aces not having to worry where that photographer is going to point his lens next – as if we didn’t know. Also see Kat Bjelland, Babes in Toyland. Everything changes – even my opinion.
It connected to current feminist film theory of the era, meaning that the performers and musicians on stage were less likely to be subjects of the male gaze, becoming the bearer of meaning, rather than the maker of meaning
Laura Mulvey, 1974
Feminist theatre theory went as far as describing it as a spectacle of hysteria for the clinical gaze of men, referring back to Freud’s study of hysteria. According to Sara Marcus’, (2010), Girls to the Front, Huggy Bear’s Nikki, purposefully would not keep still long enough to stay in the frame, when being filmed for music TV programme The Word, a disaster by all accounts, and HG’s last tango with the mainstream media. That’s applying theory to practise! So cool.
On another level, applying a women-only space altogether avoided too many mixed meanings or deflection of meanings.
Feminist theatre theory was already debating the validity of any outcome, if the understanding relied on individual audience members, who bring their own cultural assumptions (that they think are natural), and will include men. A lot of feminist theatres were already opting for women-only audiences.
“Within a patriarchal culture, this exclusion may provide the only way certain elements of women’s experiences can be signified within the collective consciousness of the audience.”
Sue-Ellen Case (1988) Feminism and Theatre.
The artistic, socio-political and musical conventions and events run under the banner LaDIYfest emerged from riot grrrl and is still a force today all over the world, a place for women to express, ask, share, laugh, mosh together in a women-only space. In the UK, Bristol, Sheffield and Leeds are very active.
START A GIRLS’ BAND OR BE A GIRL IN A BAND
Cuz it’s fun, it’s a good way to act out behaviours that are wrongly deemed ‘inappropriate’, this is a refutation of censorship and body fascism, this can deny taboos that keep us enslaved i.e. don’t talk about sex or rape or be sensitive or corny, to serve as a role model for other girls, to show boys others ways of doing things and that we have stuff to say; to discuss in both literal and artistic ways those issues that are really important to girls, naming these issues, specifically, validates their importance and other girls’ interest in them, reminds other girls that they aren’t alone; to make fun of thus disrupt the powers that be; it doesn’t have to be this intense dramatic self-righteous thing to affect change. It can be fun to talk about scary issues.
Kathleen Hanna (1991), Bikini Kill fanzine, A Colour and Activity Book, sourced Women Make Noise (2012)
UK’s Pussycat Trash, who formed in 1992 soon became significant players in the girl style revolution, as well as Sister George.
NO GENDER AGENDA
There was no gender agenda in riot grrrl. Multiplicity, in opposition to everything presented as binery, was the idea: don’t label people by their choice of sexuality, colour or class, well-meaning but naive (and giving critics fuel for the fire with regard to building a sometimes valid argument that riot grrrl was slipping into forms of white feminism. See Part 3, No hierarchy, no rules, everyone’s learning.) There was already a healthy lesbian punk scene, a community of experienced activists who knew the value of friendship, and their integration into the riot grrrl scene was very influential.
Jennifer (another RG who’s still an active musician in the current London underground music scene), and sister, Tammi Denitto, and Andy, of Linus, were great flag flyers of a girl-boy revolution, like HuggyBear.
“Linus the band has been a massive influence in many people’s lives yet they’re probably the most lo-fi, in terms of attitude, out of all the riot grrrl bands. Initially, it was the music that was the attraction, the first time I heard them being on the Linus 7” vinyl EP (Bone Records, 1993). But when I followed that up by seeing them live what I got was more than a great gig:
There are more girls than boys; girls running the show; girls at the door; girls doing the PR thing; girls on stage; girls giving fanzines. And they weren’t scary like the others – by which I mean I wasn’t intimated because they were ready and I was getting ready, which I often felt. Linus didn’t make me feel like that. I think they were the great levellers of that period.”
Ngaire Ruth (2015) GIVE ME 3, Charley Stone, Jennifer Denitto and Tegan Christmas.
Other bands included Heavenly, (Sarah Records) fronted by Amelia, BloodSausage (two of Huggy Bear) and numerous friends of RG, like RazorbladeSmile, Sleeper, Cornershop.
I want to find my own girl band!
TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME, FRANTIC SPIDERS
The cassette box, which arrives in an unsuspecting envelope in my pigeon hole at the Maker, is magical and sweet, decorated in florescent bold colours, words and symbols – open the box, sparkles fall out – has nothing dark, and fearful about it. The band name, on the other hand, is in yer face and real, a thing girls don’t talk about: Toxic Shock Syndrome. Love them before I’ve heard a thing.
They’re perfectly untarnished and genuinely interested in all contemporary music, locals at the resident music bar, The Cavern, no famous boyfriends, or well-placed friends in music journalism. They want input much more than they want fame; I relate.
One night I join Toxic Shock Syndrome on stage, at the Bull & Gate, London, wearing the second-hand wedding dress vocalist and guitarist Ronnie has acquired for me, with instructions to kill the plastic baby doll on ‘the eye’. This was tremendously exciting, having friends, and I wasn’t really looking and cut my hand. I’m proud to say that Ronnie reports the dress still has my blood on it. It marks an important night, it’s like I made some kind of girls in rock who are radical feminists pact with these women.
I take Charley to her first riot grrrl event, Huggy Bear, and encourage her to make contact with riot grrl band Linus, it’s a brave new world. She goes back to Exeter and pastes riot grrrl flyers and her own power statements all over the place, and reads the fanzines she’s collected.
FranticSpiders are four ordinary girls, including two of TSS. This is a celebration of girls voices, loud guitars, and new friends. Riot grrrl is in the UK! I think guitarist Charley Stone will move to London and forever be part of the music scene, changing lives, putting it out there, an accomplished and adored lead guitarist. This happens. I write about Frantic Spiders for the Maker. I love that they talk about their instruments. Guitarist Charley Stone has two guitars and names them Charlotte and Emily. This is fresh and thrilling for me, and hard to imagine if you’re a girl guitar ACM student carrying your baby around with you all day and assuming every woman guitarist has been like that for all time. There were no contemporary music schools for girls yet – the riot grrrl rock schools were the first.
Frantic Spiders release one of the best singles of that era ‘You’re Dead’.
“Riot grrrl actually changed a lot of lives, it was a key galvanising moment which got loads more women playing the guitar, changed the way we thought about ourselves and made a new space for women to not just be the “queen bee”, the token woman-in-rock, the Suzi Quatro in a man’s world. The effects were far wider reaching than any reading of chart/music press success would indicate.”
Charley Stone (2019)
Artist, dancer and filmmaker Lucy Thane filmed the whole Bikini Kill UK tour and produced a documentary, which includes conversations with fans and contributions from Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear, Sister George and the Raincoats.
Are you in a band?” they ask Layla Gibbon (15), Flossy White and Esme Young (14).
“Yes!” they reply with enthusiasm, lying out of teenage embarrassment.
Then they went home and they were a band, calling themselves Skinned Teen. Everybody wished they were a SkinnedTeen, the first band in the UK to only exist in the world thanks to Riot Grrrl.
Listen to ‘Secrets’, off the vinyl double single ‘Some Hearts Paid to Lie, Automation and Communication’ featuring UK riot grrrl bands Linus, PussycatTrash, CometGain and Skinned Teen (Wiiija, 1993)
FACT FANS: Comet Gain included Huggy Bear Jon Slade.
“A huge part of it was communication. Pre-internet, zines, pen-pals, flyers, all connecting girls with each other as never before. Never before did such targeted, individual to individual, personal, emotional, political communication proliferate, city to city, village to town, country to country. It was awesome to see. It was wonderful. It was an awakening that never went away, and now we have Decolonise Fest and Bent Fest and First Timers and Loud Women and all the outlaws are hooking up and it is marvellous for an old lady to see, having seen it from 1993 with my own daughter’s awakening and band. Girls respecting and supporting each other instead of competing, bullying or disparaging. love riot grrrls and Riot Grrrl. It never went away.”
Pearl Pelfrey, a Skinned Teen mum (May 2019)
START AN ANGRY GRRRL ZINE
You’re about to enter a whole new world; an absolute treasure trove of information, ideas, symbolic images and sketches, a fandom that is not adoration, but engaged and articulate in its representation.
Fanzines are synonymous with music, but they’re also a whole subculture by themselves, and zine writers, the true archivists of contemporary culture. Originally the realm of science fiction fans, who started to fall in love with rock n roll, they’re fun, imaginative, and full of information beyond the mainstream sources about your politics, rights, interests, favourite band, scene or genre.
The infamous Oz magazine – taken to court for obscenity charges (in the magazine) – and Rolling Stone magazine, with Hunter S Thompson as its political editor, talking anti-Vietnam with John Lennon, both started out as the underground press, DIY projects with an agenda that sought to challenge the structure of things. Boys Own fanzine, launched in 1986, about clubbing, football, tales of cocks shaped like a carrot, and clothes, did not a revolution make – influencing the consumer magazines for men, such as Loaded, which boomed in the 90s, pre-digital.
The psychedelic fanzines may seem more flippant and indulgent compared to the famously political and poetic hardcore punk fanzines, such as Sniffin’ Glue, but there’s no doubt that zines like Gong’s championed a new way of life outside the system just the same. Gilli Smyth and Daevid Allen, of Gong fame, met during the Paris 1968 riots and had to flee the city (Huggy Bear’s beloved Situationism).
“She met Allen in Paris where she was teaching at the Sorbonne. The pair, united by political motivations, performed a guerilla gig during the 1968 student riots, which led to them having to flee the city. Together, they set up the Gong community: a collective of musicians, artists, poets and writers.”
Ngaire Ruth, (2016) Gilli Smith remembered, an obituary dedicated to an underrated lyrical luminary, The Girls Are
In my opinion, the difference with Riot Grrrl and its relationship with fanzines is this: the bands and many of those involved front of house and behind the curtain, were running and writing for zines before they were in bands. Music was a medium for the message, and the mediation process (where it can all go wrong due to other skilled contributors, and collaborators, with different viewpoints and assumed cultural attitudes), maintained a clear feminist agenda, from inception to outcome. Hurray!
This doesn’t happen in mainstream media: photographers, subs, editors, production teams all contribute to the final piece of writing on the page and can change the meaning, demean a point of view or the subject of the writing. Consequently, riot grrrl is not a fan of the British music press or the broadsheets on either side of the Atlantic.
In the early 90s, bands started to use fanzines as a promotional tool, a way of making people feel they belonged to a club with shared values and lifestyle, and the privilege of direct access to the latest news about their favourite artists. This resulted in watered-down fanzines, with little comment, original art, or effort in the writing.
The post-punk DIY underground press and the music scene had dissipated as all the indie bands sought to sign to majors – bringing us to the generic insipid form of indie recognised by the mainstream today. Melody Maker and NME were no longer gatekeepers of contemporary music culture, but music scouts for the majors.
LANGUAGE IS MAN-MADE, SO MAKE A NEW ONE
Bikini Kill came out of Jigsaw, and Bikini Kill, the zines, Bratmobile came out of the fanzine Girl Germs. Many of the women who helped shape riot grrrl were writers before they were musicians in cool grrrl bands. Layla Gibbon of Skinned Teen, the first original riot grrrl band in the UK and inspired by the experience of Bikini Kill in the UK live in 1993, at 15, went on to write for MaximumRockNRoll where she recruited many more women writers into the citadel of macho hardcore music.
Tobi Vail has been writing zines for over 20 years, starting out in 1988/89 with Jigsaw. The legacy retells how she would use the expression angry grrrl zines. Like many of the riot grrrls, Tobi has taken some pains to archive her material and comment in a blog – this link goes right back through the decades and up to 2013, at the time accessed [May 2019].
According to legend, riot grrrls “deliberately used grrrl instead of girl to remove the passive association with the word girl, as well as to display the anger behind the movement, reminiscent of a growl”. Rosenburg, (1998), RiotGrrrl-Revolutions-From-Within.
Jen Smith, musician, artist and zine writer, is credited with being the inspiration behind the term riot grrrl.
While living in Washington DC she wrote to Girl Germs about the riots happening in her city, predicting a girl riot for the upcoming summer. Bratmobile moved to Washington DC and Jen joined the band, proposing they do a zine called Girl Riot. Molly Neumann began the zine, with contributions by Jen, Allison, and members of Bikini Kill, who had also relocated to Washington D.C. (Jen Smith, ZineWiki)
Angry grrrl fanzines excelled. Every slogan, article, sound byte and image in these zines reflected a fresh and relatable political agenda; for RG, a feminist viewpoint, great zine names, and a sense that feminism is fun. Examples are Riot Grrrl, Jen Smith’s Red Rover, Nerd Girl, Impossible Schizoid Girl, GERLL Press. Trouble Girls, Red Stocking.
Subjects included poetry and short stories, grrrl manifestos, news of girl band gigs, workshops, new RG chapters or other fanzines, alongside slogans, images and articles about body image and consciousness, women’s health, rock music and punk music, violence against women, sexual identity, homosexuality, and bisexuality.
Sara Marcus, in Girls to the Front (2010), includes a list of fanzines related to riot grrrl in the 90s but there are countless other fanzines out there, written by girls (and boys) that just did it, for a month, a year or so, stored in shoeboxes, or dusty folders, in picture frames, and record shop walls, all over America, UK, Europe, Canada and Australia. Anyone could/can be a riot girl or boy.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Write about what you love, what’s important to you and lace everything with a distinct personal point of view that your future tribe can identify with. It’s all about sharing the love, communicating and celebrating action/reaction through words, art, music.
It’s something you can do on your own without any money, all you have to do is write it, photocopy it, staple it together, and give it out for free, or sell it super cheaply, at the next gig you’re at. They work better in the company of friends who can also write, draw, sketch, organise and administrate.
Serious fanzines had PO boxes or even home addresses for people to send a self-addressed stamped envelope inside another, with a cheque for everything from one Pound to three. It worked – less instant than new media and there was something in the waiting, the one copy, the commitment it takes to organise SAE’s.
EVERYTHING CHANGES – NEW WRITING
SUPPORT EACH OTHER, COLLABORATE, AND COMMUNICATE, DON’T COMPETE, USE THE POWER OF FEMALE FRIENDSHIP, AND “MAKE YOUR VOICES HEARD TOGETHER”.
Girl love in the UK went the same way as it did in the States, triggering a sudden influx of women singer-songwriters, musicians, artists and designers, new writing in fanzines and magazines, books, documentaries, academic theory and writing, managers, independent press agents, sound engineers, and producers.
Where there had once been a dearth of women represented in a usual band environment – live shows, rehearsals, studio time – and therefore open to more everyday sexism from the fans, colleagues, promoters, and other bands, now there was majority women, on the stage, behind the scenes and in the audience.
Here’s a flyer from a Leicester chapter
The girls and boys who joined the Leeds, UK Riot Grrrl chapter, founded by Karen Ablaze, creator of the fanzine Ablaze! put on shows, “made more fanzines, and formed bands”. (Cherie Turner, 2001) Karren went on to form CopingSaw and WhackCat.
“This is how I felt girl love turn into girl action,” explained Karen Ablaze to Cherie Turner (2001) The Riot Grrrl Movement, The Feminism of a New Generation
Karren now owns her own publishing company and reviews of her book, The City is Ablaze! The story of a post-punk pop-zine, a collection of ten issues of Ablaze! crammed together in a big book you can keep proudly on a shelf, got rave reviews with titles like Karren Ablaze made the best pop-zine ever!
There had always been a boys club in the underground, at last girls united in common goals. We could make a commitment to a long-term, alternative lifestyle, outside the system, because riot grrrl created the options of a global, national, and local community to which we belonged. Whoop!
THIS IS HAPPENING WITHOUT YOUR PERMISSION (IN THE UK)
No one waited to be told/asked. I’ve heard stories of girls going into major newsagents and slipping riot grrrl feminist manifestoes and flyers between the pages of the girly mainstream magazines. New chapters hosted their own riot grrrl events in their local towns and cities. Bands and billings began to support new charities (to rock’n’roll), such as women who’ve suffered domestic abuse, campaigns to fight the anti-abortionists, the bully promoter, the indifferent sound engineer.
Jennifer and sister Tammi from Linus set up a post box for girls who wanted to launch their own zine. Their own fanzine was called It’s Unofficial. Jen’s philosophy was if you wanted to be a riot grrrl you were one.
“You didn’t need to sign up to anything. You just got out of bed and you said, ‘I am.’ I had the idea that if you told two friends, your two friends told two friends, you could really change the world.”
Jennifer Denitto, interview with Sara Marcus, (2010) Girls to the Front.
DIY TRADITION (MAKE A NEW SYSTEM)
CREATE NON-HIERARCHICAL WAYS OF BEING AND MAKING MUSIC FRIENDS: COMMUNICATION + UNDERSTANDING INSTEAD OF COMPETITION + GOOD/BAD CATEGORISATIONS
Riot Grrrl feminism is anti-capitalist, does not judge women by how much power they’ve achieved in the system, or by financial success. Huggy Bear was also concerned that the whole ethic of punk was getting lost, as indie bands raced to become mainstream indie pop stars and get a major deal, and a house in the country.
“If we don’t challenge the unhealthy forms of competitiveness that capitalism breeds, or the way it teaches us to objectify ourselves to each other, then we’re just selling ourselves out … We need to at least create new structures and new ways of dealing with things.” Kathleen Hanna (1998), interview extract, Punk Planet magazine, sourced Cherie Turner, The Riot Girl Movement.
PUNK LEGACY A
The boys found riot grrrl’s feminism easy to relate to because it adopted everything good about punk, loud, rebellious, and most of all, the do it yourself ethic, a place to belong outside the system in a community using anger as an energy.
Ian McKay, (Fugazi, MinorThreat), produced the first Bikini Kill EP, Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991, demo format, re-issued by Bikini Kill records, with unreleased material, 2015). Nation of Ulysses were massive supporters of the girl bands, as were Nirvana and Mudhoney.
Even though both riot grrrl and punk had the drive to make new structures at its root, the traditional typology of a rock and roll band – in it together, a gang, shared viewpoints and lifestyle choices – still fit in with riot grrrl philosophy as it did with the punk movement. Except people didn’t always have shared backgrounds. This made some elements of riot grrrl utopia difficult on a day to day basis, as it did in the days of punk.
PUNK LEGACY B
Punk had shown mainstream a new kind of representation of women singer-songwriters, and musicians, as individual performers with anger, outrage, and an alternative style and fashion.
Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, showed us how to delight in the fury. Frontwomen such as Pauline Murray, of Penetration, Debbie Harry, of Blondie and Siouxie Sioux, of Siouxie and the Banshees, Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, were all super sexy women in full control (this is not aspirational for a teen girl, in general). They were one woman in a band of men, and that’s how they seemed to like it. Even my own icons did not escape this comparison, Patti Smith, and my alter-ego heroine Gilly Smyth (from Gong) referred to as the Mother of the men. Moe, drummer of Velvet Underground, and older than the pack, was a welcome exception.
The confident girls were inspired to pick up instruments and formed punk bands and girl guitar bands though – such as the still current, Raincoats, out about a feminist agenda from the start, and author and philosopher Lucy O’Brien’s band The Catholic Girls. Lucy went on to join the NME team. My copy of Lucy’s She Bop, The definitive history of women in rock, pop and soul (1995), is much loved and used, currently has 11 bright green post-it notes marking pages full of need to know things. (FACT FANS: more recently, Lucy hosted two in-conversation shows with Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene’s daughter, The Poly Styrene Story.) There was all girl gang supporting The Clash called The Slits, who really showed us something entirely new. Both these punk bands were for dancing, The Slits using a dub backbone to their punk, and signed to Chris Blackwell’s Jamaican Island label, at the time one of the largest independent labels, and starting to make a move on the UK music scene. The band Mudhoney used the idea from The Slits debut album image Cut (Island 1979), ten years later for the single, You Got It (Keep It Outta My Face) b/w Burn It Clean (SubPop 1989).
Even nearer to the riot grrrl era, and influential, were the women bassists because that was one of the few ways in, Tiny Weymouth, Talking Heads, Kim Gordan of SonicYouth, Josephine Wiggs of That Perfect Disaster (later of Breeders fame), Gina Birch (Raincoats).
An alternative rock band, Ut, compared to The Fall by John Peel, were my first review in the mainstream music press the Melody Maker, November 1989. I realised my perception of the women-powered band was completely different to the boy journalists when I read the album review of the band by a colleague. That night I wrote my own manifesto, just in time for the arrival of the US girl bands, Lunachicks, L7 and Babes in Toyland and the boy grunge bands, Tad, Mudhoney, Nirvana.
THE EARLY GIRL BANDS FROM THE STATES – LUNACHICKS & BABES IN TOYLAND
Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon, (replaced by Maureen Herman in 1992), Babes in Toyland, were filling out the Brixton Academy in 1990, played Reading 1991. Through the album cover, Fontanelle (Reprise, 1992) and the EP Painless (Reprise, 1993) I learnt about artist Cindy Sherman because the artwork pays homage.
Babes in Toyland rebellion comes in the form of delightful confusion: an accomplished hardcore sound from a pre-riot grrrl band who are majority women, women powered too, an unrelenting force as musicians, performing live in the kind of pretty flowery dresses made for skipping through sun-kissed cornfields. Vocalist and guitarist, Kat with her Snow White hair and bright red lipstick is a force. This is new and preparation for what’s to come. It ties in with the current academic trend to deconstruct fairy tales, as a patriarchal conspiracy, e.g. they don’t want us to go off the path – what happens is Kat Bjelland. Some tales of the riot grrrl legacy claim that Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna admired and was influenced by Babes in Toyland. Kat joined Crunt in 1993, with husband, Stuart Gray, another crazy and wonderful Jon Spencer (BluesExplosion) project.
EVERYTHING CHANGES – EVEN MY OPINION
Gina Volpe, Theo Kogan, Sydney Silver and Sindi Benezra, New York’s Lunachicks, are also the bomb, musically and as performers, tongue in cheek rather than angry. With regard to the modelling of cool girls rocking out, and the success of debut album Babysitters On Acid (1990, Blast), Lunachicks changed lives for many women who love loud guitars. Blast records were the baby of Mute records, which came out of punk and ended up being acquired by E.M.I. records (2002), then returned to an independent label again (2010), with EMI keeping the archive catalogue. Ouch.
Apparently, Kat Bjelland and Courtney Love are mates. Or not mates. Which means there’s some element of truth to a real relationship.
There are references to Babes in Toyland’s ‘Bruise Violet’ being about Courtney. And Courtney’s ‘Violet’ being about Kat. At least we know that the entire conversation didn’t revolve around their cool boyfriends. (A current film feminist theory is the Bechdel Technique: are there two women on the screen taking up space, and not talking about men?)
Nina Simone and Anita O’Day, a lesser known jazz singer and drug addict, used to score together; friends in a crazy world of shit consequences for both that was none of their doing. The all-girl band Lunachicks were first introduced to Mute by Kim Gordan’s Sonic Youth, (also with Blast). Crissi Hynde met Joan Jett when one was beginning their career, and the other thought her life in music was over because she had given up on herself. Girl love changes everything.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO KNOW
THE EARLY GIRLS IN BANDS IN THE UK
I have feminist friends! Awesome vocalist Lesley, re Silverfish, an art student dancing hard in her DM’s, and ramshackle Th’ Faith Healers, fronted by Roxanne, a hippy girl in a punk band with razor-blade guitars, an excellent combo. Now at least when a girl’s in a band of men, the men can be feminists too.
I go on tour with Silverfish in a silver bus. We are slowly being poisoned by fumes getting back into the bus, but we look cool going all the way to Scotland from north London. We roll down green hills together and eat good home cooking at Lesley’s mum’s Scottish B & B.
The Faith Healer’s Roxanne makes me a badge with her own craft set with the words GIRL POWER on it. Life on the underground live circuit is good. (FACT FANS: Silverfish member Fuzz is the resident sound engineer at a well known Camden venue these days.)
We talk about P. J. Harvey and the women bands in the States.
Julianna Hatfield has also come out saying she’s not a feminist, an American artist on a cool label (Mammoth). I share my copy of the Melody Maker, August 8th, specifically the Julianna Hatfield album review of Hey Babe, and the photo comment, which is bigger than the capped artist name, the brilliant photographer or, the writer’s name, David Bennum. SCHWWWING! There is no big band musical influence or bell features in the album. I wonder why she thinks she doesn’t need feminism?
NEW INDIE LABELS
A lot of the current UK bands are with the new independent labels, Wiiija and Too Pure, the latter is also the promoter of the Sausage Machine @ The White Horse, Hampstead, referenced in Part 1. Wiiija’s riot grrrl bands are handled by Olympia’s Kill Rock Stars label, and viz-a-viz.
A band called Tsunami and an American label, Simple Machines, founded by singer and guitarist Jenny Toomey and run with bandmate Kristin Thomson, is a lovely thing to discover. I’m also a little bit in love with anything that comes out of the New York Shimmy Disc label, owned by musician Kramer. One of his artists, Lida Husik, stays at my north London flat during a short UK visit to vaguely promote her album, and leaves me the most fabulous thank you present: Angry Women, (1991) The inscription reads:
Next, Part 3
Media: Ngaire Ruth’s playlist
Text: What happened next
No hierarchy, no rules, everyone’s learning – white feminism 😦
Bikini Kill released an EP Revolution Girl Style Now! (1991, Kill Rock Stars), and two albums Pussy Whipped (1993, Kill Rock Stars), which includes ‘Rebel’ , no 27 in Rolling Stone’s list of Most Excellent Songs of Every Year since 1967. Later, Reject All American (1996)
For Charlotte Horton, Lucy Jordan, KitKat, Maedb and all the women I know, and am yet to meet.
BEFORE THE DAYS OF FULL TIME CONTEMPORARY MUSIC SCHOOLS THERE WERE ONLY SUMMER ROCK CAMPS. FINALLY, IN THE PRE-DIGITAL 90S, ROCK SCHOOLS FOR GIRLS ARRIVED, THANKS TO RIOT GRRRL.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Riot Grrrl is the name for a pre-digital 90s feminist movement, which has been a major influence on alternative music, arts and academia across the world for boys and girls.
Riot Grrrl feminism was action/reaction in a world where feminist news or opinion was otherwise described as post feminist, assumed to be a movement which belonged to a whole different generation.
The term is, arguably, incorrectly used as a genre, associated with a style of punk and grunge.
In began in the 90s, Olympia, Washington, US, where there was an emerging scene of fresh independent bands, notably Nirvana and Bikini Kill, and labels K Records and Kill Rock Stars, later home to Beth Ditto’s Gossip and the fabulous Sleater-Kinney. It wasn’t long before the Olympia crowd melded with the DC scene, home of DischordRecords, where it continued to grow into a worldwide phenomena, including in the UK. Watch out for rare vinyl releases under the mixed moniker DisKord.
Riot Grrrl had at its heart, girl love: support each other in friendship, celebrate differences and organise, create, collaborate on creative projects, protests, ideas and events. Out of this came action groups and organisations that survive to this day, such as LaDIYevents (UK and the US), new writing, new music, a slow steady normalising of girls in rock and indie bands. (See part 2)
Riot Grrrl feminism was about creating whatever form of beauty was comfortable for you, and not having to declare your sexuality or gender (my perspective). The essential part was don’t wear make-up and girly clothes because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys. Be a girl. Don’t be a girl, if you want to be a boy. Fall in love with a girl or a boy, today, tomorrow. The era was reflected in the mainstream (Blur‘s hit track ‘Girls/Boys’).
Riot Grrrl pioneers Bikini Kill launched the first Girls To Front (in the mosh pit/at the gig) campaign as an experiment on the UK tour with HuggyBear.
It’s met with confusion, aggression, disdain, cynicism and outright rudeness by boys in the audience and in bands. Today, women’s safety at gigs is STILL A PROBLEM, as pointed out in the recent article in The Guardian, even though there are many organisations and bands out there championing women’s safety at concerts, for example the excellent music site and promoter, Get in Her Ears, The Loud Women collective and Safe Gigs for Women. (Post your links and recommendations of similar organisations and groups that support women’s safety at gigs in comments. Go!)
In 1992 EverettTrue wrote a controversial article in the Melody Maker, Why Women Can’t Rock (Reading festival issue). He didn’t blame the women, he blamed the traditions of rock n roll, and the music press. Nirvana, who had been sixth below headliner IggyPop on the Friday the year before, were now top of the bill on Sunday, soon to become one of the most legendary Reading performances of all time. Kurt wore dresses, and talked about women punk bands both as his contemporaries, and having been inspirational to his art (e.g. TheRaincoats).
In the previous month, Jo Johnson, of UK underground Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear, is photographed with RIOT GRRL written on her knuckles in the Melody Maker. I really engaged with the Riot Grrrl slogan: this is happening without your permission. Nice.
On the day of the festival, to add to the MM festival spread, I walk around the site with my walkman asking people about the women artists (on the billing), a low representation (no change there). “Can women rock?” I ask. It’s hopeless. Even the girls define the artists from the male viewpoint –
“Shonen Knife are crap. They only get away with it because they’re playing up to being girly. It makes boys feel secure.”
“I thought P J Harvey was a bloke, she’s so fucking ugly.”
“Lunachicks don’t have to get their tits out on stage to grab our attention. they deserve their success.”
Tears. We’re hardwired to take these things too seriously, that’s the nature of the job.
Heart already broken. In an interview with P J Harvey (Siren, 1992), pre her major signing that spring, and my new favourite artist, she’d said to me:
“I hate the word feminist. It can do so much more damage than good. All I want to do is write honestly, and I’m a woman, so I guess you can’t avoid it.”
P J Harvey, 1992
I write in my diary:
I’ve seen Huggy Bear five times in a month. Where are they when we need them? Where’s the revolution? Is anyone else out there a fucking feminist? It’s too bloody weird growing up in the old-skool, male-dominated world of music, not least because women are described according to a typology, and I’m expected to like anything created by a woman because I’m one. So many women rock bands are just shitter versions of the men’s crap bands! I want a new sound and a new language that challenges my creative writing and critical thinking skills. I want to avoid generic muso words, like ‘seminal’ and ‘undulating’. I want more feminist men like Mudhoney and Nirvana! I want more songs like Kat Bjelland’s Bruise Violet and more bands like Babes in Toyland so that I can shout Liar Liar Liiiiiiiiiii errrrrrrrrrr again in a pack of women, at a big gig.
On the 14th March 1993 US band, Bikini Kill play at the ULU, London with Huggy Bear and Witchy Poo.
I loved Bikini Kill’s KathleenHanna most of all, because she did not say excuse me.
She did not make me feel I needed to be clever or get educated to be able to join in, and she didn’t care if I bought the records or not (but the debut album Pussy Whipped sold an estimated 75 000 copies late 1993) . She wanted revolution, and somehow it sounded possible coming from her. I related to her hard hitting lyrics, more so than Babes in Toyland, and more than the UK Riot Grrrl bands already here who had stolen my heart: Huggy Bear and Linus. But there were more coming. More fanzines, organisations, events and changes to the structure of underground music culture. (See part 2)
OUR LANGUAGE, OUR PROBLEMS, OUR DECLARATION OF NOT TODAY, TOMORROW, OR EVER AGAIN
Out of all the early active US bands – Bratmobile, (Allison and Molly, originally the women behind the fanzine Girl Germs, and later Erin), Heavens To Betsy (Corin Tucker and Tracy Sawyer) Kathleen Hanna and her band Bikini Kill, are credited as pioneers of the revolution, for good reason.
They produced a Bikini Kill fanzine, and flyers and leaflets which they gave out to the girls at every show, in case the message was lost through the joy and noise. Tobi Vail, drummer, ran a fanzine called Jigsaw. (2010, Sara Marcus). As a singer songwriter and performer Kathleen was one of the first to Just Do It, and always was the most powerful communicator in interviews and panels, and on the stage; a primal scream that grew to fill the room as the audience joined in. What a fucking relief, pure shared joy, a mutual fury, a declaration and warning that we/I/her/him/they will not
KEEP QUIET BE POLITE LISTEN NICELY BE TOO EMBARRASSED TO CALL YOU OUT
All wrapped up in alternative rock swagger and sass.
CHALLENGE (AND TOTALLY IGNORE), THE TRADITIONAL STANDARDS OF BEAUTY IN MAINSTREAM CULTURE
The new thing about Riot Grrrl feminism was the freedom to be who you wanted. Just don’t wear make up and girly clothes because you think that’s what makes you attractive to other girls and boys.
Another declaration of Riot Grrrl and Bikini Kill, which tallied with academia of mainstream third wave feminism, and could be applied to both creative and commercial products and images, was the question: is the woman a maker of meaning or the bearer of meaning?
Riot Grrrl did not get away without the media and bands like the Spice Girls, “co opting their style and language”, (Cherie Turner, 2001). The term Grrrl Power was the title of an issue of a Bikini Kill fanzine.
After an extensive UK tour, the deal is sealed at a tiny venue, the Sausage Machine, my local in Hampstead, (where I first reviewed the unsigned P J Harvey), Bikini Kill with BloodSausage and Linus as support (3rd April). See feature picture.
by laura maw
interview first published on Oh Comely
The Julie Ruin’s second album, Hit Reset, in Kathleen Hanna’s words, is about beginning again. Darker and more intimate than the band’s debut Run Fast in 2013, Hit Reset is a kaleidoscope of fury and candour in which Hanna confronts illness, abusive relationships and toxic friendships. “That’s what ‘Hit Reset’ means: I’m gonna hit reset before all this shit happened, I’m going to somehow let it go. And, you know, you have to look at it to let it go – you can’t turn away from it. Before you hit the reset button you have to do a lot of work.”
Kathleen Hanna hardly needs introduction. Frontwoman of seminal riot grrrl band Bikini Killin the 1990s, she stole the hearts of thousands of young women in the feminist punk scene in Olympia (and, twenty years later, I was routinely wearing a Bikini Kill t-shirt to my sixth form English classes). She turned to dance-punk with Le Tigre in 1998, and formed The Julie Ruin in 2010 with ex-Bikini Kill bandmate Kathi Wilcox, Kenny Mellman, Carmine Covelli and Sara Landeau.
After leaving Le Tigre in 2005 due to ill health, Hanna suffered for six years with Lyme Disease before it was correctly diagnosed, and underwent an intense summer treatment course in 2014. Did illness alter her writing in the period between the two albums? During our phone conversation, she tells me, “I really love our first record [Run Fast], but I have to say I feel so much more connected with the material on this record. I was just way more honest. With the first one, I wasn’t sure what was happening with my illness. Now that I’m not ill, I’m able to write about those feelings.” This honesty threads itself through her writing on illness and relationships on Hit Reset. In turns poignant and humorous, she pairs unsettling lyrics (“can’t take the tears away” / “I belong to the wolves who drug me”) with the sonically upbeat melodies of ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘I Decide’.
“I let myself be poetic when I felt like it, and not try to be super didactic about it.”
By her own admission, this light-hearted approach was the result of being able to find humour in her illness. She tells me about learning to undo her bra while attached to the IV drip, describing it as an “IV pole dance”, and together we plot the potential title of her autobiography – Kathleen Hanna: Cured By IV and Song. Hanna’s incontrovertible sense of humour, honesty and courage is what punctuates Hit Reset.
Taking power through the cathartic expression of trauma also translates to her writing on her abusive relationship with her father, victimhood and vulnerability. She notes, “The trauma of being trapped in a body that you can’t control is very similar to being a child trapped in a household situation you can’t control, like I was. Having [my illness] happen to me in my adult life made me aware that I hadn’t worked through all of my childhood stuff and that I needed to go back to certain situations.” In her reflection on her childhood, she navigates the difficulty of dealing with abusive familial relationships, addressing the complex emotional turbulence of anger and self-blame. The album opener, ‘Hit Reset’, begins with a claustrophobic scene of “a chair that blocked the door” and her father “punishing the people he loved best”, then furiously asserts “I don’t think you’re sorry at all”. On ‘Let Me Go’, she softly asks, “would you love me enough to let me go away?”, overlapping disquieting lyrics with electro pop refrains – a catharsis you can dance to.
“I get that I’m not to blame, but if you’re a control freak like I am it’s really hard to actually in your gut believe it,” she reflects. “My illness wasn’t my fault. In the same way, I didn’t grow up with an abusive alcoholic dad because I made him that way – it happened to me. I made a connection between the two. I needed to sing about some childhood stuff and be really honest about it so that I could move on.”
Like its title track, Hit Reset begins as a poignant account of trauma and victimhood and develops into a powerful narrative of self-reclamation and possession. Hanna has challenged the injustice of women with ferocity in song-writing and feminist activism for years, inspiring countless others to vocalise their anger. ‘Mr So and So’ is scattered with phrases commonly used by the faux male feminist ally figure many women are painfully familiar with (“oh come on, it was just a joke!” / “you play so good for a girl”). She explains that the track ‘I’m Done’ was a similar response to empty misogynistic criticism online. “I try to take seriously the stuff people say that hurts my feelings, and investigate, trying to work on it and be really appreciative of people who honestly tell me how they view me or my work. There’s a fine line between that and criticism that’s just like, ‘I hate you’,” she says. “I finally want to speak back to that shit. And it’s definitely more pronounced toward women, especially women of colour – this kind of venomous attack.”
Was writing about traumatic experiences difficult or upsetting? “I’m happy to finally speak back to power, you know?”
“It’s not depressing to say ‘I’m fucking sick of this shit, I’m fucking done.’”
“It’s important for people who are marginalised to celebrate their anger. A lot of the time I take celebratory-sounding songs to be the most pissed off. I feel it’s a real relief.”