The real grunge
This is reprinted from my old blog. I’m reproducing it because (shrugs) someone reminded me of it. It’s an excerpt from my 2001 book Live Through This (now widely unavailable). It also got used for some sleeve-notes.
The band I loved more than anyone in 1990 was Babes In Toyland.
Everything I understood to be important about rock was tied up with these three women. Kat Bjelland would stand there on stage, face contorted with fury, spitting out her love-hate lyrics over a battered guitar lick. In her flat heels and chiffon she had an odd girlishness: pseudo kindergarten curls, crudely bleached, tattered baby doll dress, red lipstick and wide eyes. Her legs would be covered in bruises by the end of each show from contact with the guitar, pain dulled by a constant stream of whiskey.
There was nothing ‘girlie’ or childish about her performances, though. Her screams sounded ghastly and cleansing, an exorcism of her past and a recent succession of bastard boyfriends. To her side stood Michelle, able to hit her bass with a demonic force that belied her size. Behind them, Lori Barbero, the brash, loud one, everyone’s favourite sister, would be kicking up a major league racket on the drums, and occasionally singing in her operatic, drawn-out voice. At the set’s end, she’d jump up and take a photo of the audience, like we’d all been invited to a private party. It was Kat that your attention was always drawn back to, though, her eyes rolled back wide to the sky, stamping her foot and grinding her sticker-covered guitar against her hips. Kat was the electricity.
So what do I understand to be important about rock? It’s simple.
It has to rock. In other words, there needs to be a primal fury and power that goes way beyond the three or four chords being played. Babes In Toyland had that fury, certainly early on. They rocked as hard as anyone in Tad or Killdozer. Babes had a brilliant grasp of dynamics. They used silence and anticipation as effectively as noise.
It has to challenge. Mostly only art created by women has any validity. The male experience has been created and recreated so often. The female perspective has barely been explored in rock music. Hard rocking music created by intelligent females is still a rarity, and you can forget the juvenile charm of Kittie and their breed in 2000. They are so clearly women (girls) shaped by men into their own fantasy images of what a strong woman should look like. Babes In Toyland never cared about looking cool, not in a traditional sense. How could they, with Kat standing there, glowering and sweating several layers of hatred? This was almost revolutionary: three women creating a metal/No Wave-based sound who didn’t dress in combat boots or leather or lumberjack shirts or PVC, yet who sounded better than virtually every male band.
Somehow, Babes In Toyland were creating a new language, astringent, but oddly tuneful within all Kat’s roars and lyrics like“Fry fucking fry/Fuck and fry my blue boyfriend” (‘Pain In My Heart’). Most of Kat’s words came out as soul -searing screams or five-second blasts of lucid hatred, but then, the past had every bearing on the Babes. Kat was the child of archetypal Sixties American hippies, and her real-life mother would beat her, and yes that did change everything.
The Babes were the flipside to Madonna’s all-conquering power trip, her ability to mould men as and when she liked into her image. But the Babes approached it from another direction altogether, using darkness and torn emotions and every rotten mean trick in the book. Or rather, Kat did and the others tempered it and make it palatable. There was a balance to Babes In Toyland. Without it, they would have tumbled straight into the giddy chasm that made folk like Lydia Lunch impotent as far as the outside world was concerned.
The band’s raw, blistering, enervating music recalled the primeval metal attack of early Sonic Youth and their Blast First label mates, NYC’s abrasive all-female UT. I would dance around on no feet to the sound of Kat’s voice, as I used to with UT, laughing at all the squares who never did understand soul music.
The Babes 1990 Sub Pop single ‘House’ describes a woman’s stubbed toes, broken arms and various wounds before concluding“Oh my God/Is this what it’s like/To fall in love?” Songs fromSpanking Machine, released the same year, were equally as unsettling. ‘Swamp Pussy’ advised we should all “cease to exist”. ‘Dust Cake Boy’, with its “Pow! Pow! Pow!” refrain, echoed the jazz textures of the Birthday Party’s ‘Big Jesus Trashcan’ from several years before. Easy listening this wasn’t. Except, of course, the Babes were fun: fucking ace, delirious, down-on-your-knees-and-bloodied fun. The Babes played with punk aestheticism. Raw and furious, Bjelland flirted between self-indulgent and revolutionary with a flick of her caustic tongue. The lyrics straddled an uneasy divide between scathing bitterness and an almost naïve fairytale (‘Hansel And Gretel’) outlook on life.
I was unable to resist the trio. It wasn’t just that they could rock, taught me how to drink (via Kat’s love for Jagermeister) and took me on tour with them. It was that they satisfied a need deep within.
It was the real grunge.