L7 – Chicks Are Heavy
LA punk/grunge/riot grrrl band L7 are one of my favourite bands. In this article, written for the excellent http://www.toppermost.co.uk, I pick my Top 10 L7 songs and explain why I love this band.
Live interview, Radio KXRT, Fresno, 1994
Interviewer: You guys do a lot of political benefits and things like that. You’re into that.
L7: We do benefits, but we don’t consider ourselves a political band. We like to help out where we can.
Interviewer: How do you feel about cancer?
L7: As in the astrological sign or the disease?
Interviewer: No, I meant the disease.
L7: We LOVE it!
When people talk about the biggest acts from the grunge scene, L7, despite the genuine mainstream success they had, always get overlooked. They released an album on the grunge label, Sub Pop (1990’s Smell the Magic), they were produced by the grunge producers (Jack Endino, Butch Vig) and they toured with Nirvana, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam when the scene was at its height. They had impeccable grunge credentials and for a time they were ubiquitous, but they don’t get the same level of acclaim as their contemporaries. Maybe that’s because they were from Los Angeles rather than Seattle, maybe because they’re all female, maybe because none of them married Kurt.
Caller (Ricky-Steve): I wanna ask you guys a question. It’s kind of funny. Who would you like to be buried next to, if you could be buried next to anybody?
L7: Can we get Security to trace that call please? What was his name? Ricky-Steve? Ricky-Ticky Timebomb’s more like it.
L7 started out in the late-eighties, playing heavy, punk rock riffs with lots of distortion and even more conviction. The lyrics were sometimes clever and funny, sometimes just one cool sounding phrase shouted over and over. The attitude was always anarchic fun. They stuck to that template for 15 years, six albums and countless live shows. For a brief period, when grunge exploded in the early-nineties, L7’s underground sound crossed over into the mainstream.
Caller (Ben): Did you enjoy making that film [Serial Mom]? Was John Waters just like you’d expect him to be and stuff?
L7: Do you have a cold? Or are you doing lots of crank?
Caller (Ben): What?
L7: Never mind.
L7’s third album, and in particular, its lead single, the slacker anthem, Pretend We’re Dead had the right sound at the right time and got a lot of airplay, on the radio and on MTV. Consequently the album, Bricks Are Heavy became a surprise global hit. A couple of years later, L7 released their follow up album, Hungry For Stink. The Radio KXRT interview quoted here was recorded on a promotional tour for that record.
Caller (Summer): I was just wondering, with your new album called Hungry For Stink and everything, you don’t stink, do you? I mean, you look like you might.
L7: Sometimes we get a little moist and meaty. Sometimes we get a little gamey.
During the interview, the more inane the questions get and the more bizarre the situation becomes, the more fun L7 have. They’re ostensibly on air to promote their Fresno show and give away tickets to fans, but it turns pure Spinal Tap with the inept DJ and unhinged callers who don’t want the free tickets. A lot of bands who’d recently enjoyed commercial success might find this scenario humiliating – a painful reminder that commercially, they’re past their peak – but L7 were amused enough to include a recording of the interview as a B-side on the new album’s lead single, Andres.
Caller: Uh, hi, yeah. I wonder if you guys could play some Rollins for me.
L7: Not! Do you have a question for us?
Caller: Who is this?
Caller: L7! Are those the girls who think they’re guys or something?
L7: Next caller!
For me, grunge had been like the culmination of a quest. I’d got heavily into music as a teenager in the early-nineties – going to gigs and far-flung record shops, swapping tapes with mates, reading Melody Maker, sending away for fanzines, listening to John Peel, learning guitar and starting a (terrible) band. There was so much great music around at that time and I devoured as much of it as possible, from indie, baggy and gangster rap to alternative metal, shoegaze and dance. But it was the lazy aggression of grunge that grabbed me most of all. It was exhilarating and belligerent, like punk and metal, but it was intelligent too and with a social conscience. I loved the music, the ethos, the attitude and the aesthetic and I had the hair and clothes to prove it, so when it became the dominant youth movement for a time, it felt like partly my victory.
Caller: Who’s L7? Do you ride motorcycles?
L7: No we ride bicycles without seats.
Caller: Do you know Pearl Jam? Eddie Vedder?
L7: We know them very personally.
Caller: Um, so maybe we could hang out after the show?
L7: Yeah, sure we can! OK, see you later!
By the summer of 1994, Kurt was dead and grunge was on the wane. The retro sound of Britpop was being hailed as the next big scene by the music press and the zeitgeist was moving on to places I wasn’t interested in. Some of the more metal-rooted grunge-era bands kept doing what they’d been doing, but those from a punk background were either splitting up or ‘evolving’ by consciously softening their sound. L7 went the other way; Hungry For Stink was a heavier, angrier, dirtier album than its predecessor. They weren’t about to make compromises in an effort to stay in the limelight.
That’s why I love them so much. Throughout their existence they played the same brand of aggressive, no-frills, grunge rock. For a time, that coincided with what was popular in the mainstream, but that’s all it was – a coincidence. They hadn’t changed their sound to gain success, and when popular culture moved on, they shrugged their shoulders and kept playing the way they always had. If they played smaller shows, sold fewer records and received less airplay – fine. They were in it for the music and for the pure, visceral pleasure of playing guitars really loud.
Because I was young and naïve at the time, on some level I had thought that the my quest to find the ultimate form of guitar music had been mirrored in the music press and that it had all been settled in 1992 – shoegaze had had its brief time, Madchester was Manchester again, hair metal was extinct and grunge had won – so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when grunge fell out of favour too. Punk riffs and attitude and long matted hair were no longer cutting edge, so neither was I. But it would be many years before I cut my hair short and I still favoured primitive, fuzzed up rock. L7 were one of the few bands who kept on providing that for me, blasting out heavy grunge riffs until they went on indefinite hiatus in 2001.
L7 recently reformed and are touring again. I don’t know if they’re intending to release new material, but if any emerges you can rely on it being as noisy as ever and delivered with their trademark conviction. I’m still devouring music, of all styles and I still get that same adrenaline rush when I hear something great. Sometimes it’s grunge, its influences or one of its ancestors but if it isn’t, I often find myself thinking that it would sound much, much better played with power chords and a shitload of distortion.
Bite The Wax Tadpole (L7) – take a phrase – according to some sources, ‘Bite the wax tadpole’ is the literal Chinese translation of Coca Cola – scream it like you mean it over a fast-paced, three-chord, 1977-style punk riff, repeat.
Shove (Smell The Magic) – L7 are pissed off. ‘Landlord says I jam too loud, America thinks I should be proud, huh!’
Wargasm (Bricks Are Heavy) – ‘Wargasm, wargasm, 1-2-3, tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the amputee, wave those flags high in the air, as long as it takes place over there’. Darkly humorous, 1992 anti-war song.
Shitlist (Bricks Are Heavy) – L7 are pissed off again. ‘I grab my pen and I write out a list, of all the assholes that won’t be missed, you’ve made my shit list’.
Pretend We’re Dead (Bricks Are Heavy) – Classic, slacker anthem. ‘Wake up and smell the coffee, or just say no to individuality’.
Questioning my Sanity (Hungry For Stink) – ‘I’m saving my piss in a jar, this depression has gone too far’. A great song built around one heavy, descending riff.
Shirley (Hungry For Stink)- Appropriately fast and furious tribute to pioneering, female drag racing champion, Shirley Muldowney.
She Has Eyes (Hungry For Stink) – Atypical song for L7 – it’s based around a single heavy riff but there’s also a chorus pedal on it!
Drama (The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum) – Heavy, metallic, punk opener to the band’s penultimate album.
The Wedding Present – Make Me Smile
Written for possible inclusion in an upcoming project. I didn’t really get The Wedding Present until…
It was ‘Corduroy’ for me, and the ‘3 Songs’ EP.
It wasn’t easy being an indie kid without a record player in 1990. Getting at music meant relying on mates putting together mixtapes, listening to John Peel and recording your own mixtapes off John Peel. By these methods, I had come across The Wedding Present during my early explorations into indie music. ‘Kennedy’ was definitely on one tape, ‘Brassneck’ too and maybe something off ‘George Best’.
These tracks made an impression; they epitomised the sound that I was beginning to immerse myself in. But they didn’t feel like they were mine – my mates with the record players had got there first.
Then I found the ‘3 Songs’ EP for sale on cassette in Woolworths. Even in good record shops, the selection of music available on tape was always terrible, so this – a bona fide new release from a quality band – was a score.
And then I got it home and listened to it. On ‘Corduroy’, Gedge’s voice was familiar, but the hundred-mile-an-hour guitars had gone, replaced by slow, chiming chords, occasionally overlaid with an atonal dirge. This was a very different Wedding Present. The song sped up at the chorus; closer to how I thought of their sound, but after a pause, the pace dropped again. The slow chords returned, with Gedge getting more emotional – more emotional than ever before – “I worshipped you once before, and you slammed the door”, before a second chorus. Pause. Snare. Then the climax – machine gun drums and squalling lead guitars thrashed out exhilaratingly over the song’s reprised opening chimes. This was a very different Wedding Present.
Then the B-sides. ‘Crawl’ was more conventional, but no less intense – “There were some things I had to do, say that I can and I’ll kill you”. ‘Make me smile (come up and see me)’ was an inspired choice of cover version, perfectly suited to the band, lyrically and stylistically.
I played both sides over and over again; knowing that after each track, something else great was coming up. I shared it with my mates, bringing something new to the group for the first time. They were as surprised and excited by this change of direction as I’d been. But I’d got there first this time.
So eventually I saved enough money from my Saturday job earnings to get myself a stereo with a record player and the world of vinyl opened up to me. When ‘Seamonsters’ came out the following year, it was an obvious addition to my expanding record collection. And what an album that was.
C86 – A More Complicated Time
Cherry Red Records released a ‘deluxe’ expanded, 3-disc edition of the seminal C86 tape in 2015. Here’s my review.
In 1986 the NME put together a collection of songs by independent guitar bands and issued the compilation as a cassette, sold by mail order through the magazine. The original release sold 30,000 copies (to a readership of 100,000), bringing an underground scene a step closer to the mainstream and paving the way for hundreds of acts from the 90s to the present day whose roots lay in indie music. The cassette’s name, C86, became a tag for a sub-genre of bands who played simple, melodic pop songs featuring jangly guitars. Cherry Red Records have extended the original compilation from 22 songs to 72 and reissued it as a ‘deluxe 3-CD edition’, including a booklet with extensive notes from Neil Taylor, one of the NME writers responsible for compiling the original collection. This reissue is a comprehensive documentation of the music of the mid-80s indie scene, and it’s a surprisingly eclectic mix.
With a few exceptions (The Fall, The Smiths, The Cure) it’s easy to view the mid-80s as a quiet time for underground, guitar-based music; a lull between punk, post-punk/new wave and baggy/Madchester and grunge. The music press at the time, NME included, were looking elsewhere for the next big scene after the New Romantics (while stubbornly ignoring hip hop) and widely dismissed indie rock as the pointless last echoes of 1977. The scene was instead supported by a nationwide network of bands, clubs and labels and of course John Peel. Home-made, photocopied fanzines were also important, as was the distribution of cassettes – mix tapes, demos and live bootlegs – often sold by mail order. The C86 compilation represented NME’s first celebration of this thriving underground scene – or its first attempt to commercialise it, depending on who you believe.
Following the original release of C86, the name came to be associated with a certain style of music featuring chiming guitars, naïve lyrics and simple melodies. The opening track, Velocity Girl by Primal Scream is a great example of the archetype and tracks included here by The Wolfhounds, One Thousand Violins and Go! Service also fit the template. A lot of the bands most closely associated with the perceived C86 sound – The Wedding Present, B.M.X. Bandits, The Pastels – are present, but there’s a lot more on offer here and overall it’s a strikingly diverse selection of bands.
There’s raucous, low-fi garage rock from The McTells with Virginia M.C. and The Dentists with the excellent Peppermint Dreams. The Blue Aeroplanes’ Outback Jazz is a funky, angular track reminiscent of early Gang of Four. Miaow with Sport Most Royal and Janitors with Good To Be The King show two different sides of rockabilly and there’s punk rock from Kilgore Trout (The Peacock Nose), The Soup Dragons (Pleasantly Surprised) and a very early incarnation of Pop Will Eat Itself (Mesmerized). Yeah Yeah Noh (Another Side Of Mrs Quill) and Paul Groovy & The Pop Art Experience are psychedelic and Bogshed (Run To The Temple) and The Shrubs (Bullfighter’s Bones) are arty, noise rock tracks resembling The Fall and Scratch Acid respectively. Buffalo by Stump is just bizarre – sample lyric; ‘swing big bottoms, in blubbery Burberry, baby’ – with its woozy guitar lines and odd structure. It’s not Stump’s best work (their mini-album Quirk Out is brilliant) but it couldn’t be further from the sound with which C86 is mostly associated. The original C86 was meant to reflect the music of the time, not define a sound for indie rock. The jangly, ‘shambling’ sound was present in the original 22 tracks and it’s present in the 50 newly added tracks in this new edition, but it’s not the full story.
Anyone with good memories of this musical period will enjoy this reissue. It’ll take you back to a more complicated time, before Spotify and YouTube, when discovering new music meant mail-ordering cassettes, trawling through fanzines, religiously listening to John Peel and making special journeys to distant indie record shops. You’ll be pleased to hear that the music has aged surprising well too. But C86 is worth listening to even if you yourself don’t go back that far. It’s a wide-ranging and entertaining collection of music, by bands you probably wouldn’t hear of anywhere else, and it’s a document of an important period in the history of alternative music that often gets overlooked.
Best of CD86
Primal Scream – Velocity Girl
The archetypal indie-pop song. It’s all over in a minute and a half but it’s perfect.
Big Flame – New Way
High tempo, aggressive, crashing guitars tightly combined with machine gun drumming. Still sounds fresh.
The Weather Prophets – Worm In My Brain
Atmospheric, slow-paced and brooding song, laced with slide guitar.
Jesse Garron & The Desperadoes – Splashing Along
An indie-pop song with jangly guitars, an insistent bass loop and vocals reminiscent of Liam Gallagher.
The Nightingales – Part Time Moral England
A raucous and shambolic tune from the excellent Nightingales. Sounds like a more abrasive version of The Fall.
That Petrol Emotion – Mine
Catchy, woozy pop song by a band formed from the remains of The Undertones.
Pigbros – Hedonist Hat
Brilliant, nightmarish, three-chord rock song built on an persistent, driving drum beat.
The Jesus & Mary Chain – Inside Me
An awesome, feedback-laden noise, taken from their classic debut album, Psychocandy.
The Avons – Everything’s Going Right
The Avons may be the most obscure band in this collection, which is a shame, because judging by this tune they could produce really beautiful pop songs.
Mighty Mighty – Law
Sounds like a terrible Morrissey impersonator backed by South African guitars, but it’s stupidly entertaining.