photo & text by nacrowe
L7's BRICKS ARE HEAVY (SLASH, 1992) is one of the most NO BULLSHIT ROCK AND ROLL records of the 1990s and puts most of their PUNK ROCK and ALTERNATIVE ROCK cohorts, MALE or FEMALE, to total shame. the title sums it up PERFECT since PUMMELING tracks like "WARGASM," "SHIT LIST," "EVERGLADE," "SCRAP," "SLIDE" and "PRETEND WE'RE DEAD" are completely UNRELENTING and HEAVY beyond belief, both lyrically and sonically.
growing up in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA i was introduced unwittingly to the group in early elementary school via their single "PRETEND WE'RE DEAD" which was a staple on the local INFLUENTUAL ALTERNATIVE ROCK station 106.7FM KROQ in LOS ANGELES but wasn't really aware of the group until much later in high school. upon rediscovering them and becoming reacquainted with the absolute TORNADO of PUNK ROCK energy that is the MONSTROUS voice and persona of DONITA SPARKS just blew me away. this was a figure that was not looking for male acceptance and demanded RESPECT on her terms a la PJ HARVEY, PATTI SMITH, BJORK, etc. to tell you the truth i was actually pissed off that i hadnt heard BRICKS ARE HEAVY sooner since i was familiar with most of the other major players from the early 1990s ALTERNATIVE ROCK movement, or so i thought. L7 was basically a reeducation for me and a lesson in my own MYOPIA as a music listener, since i was unaware of the gaps in my own listening diet from that period. it makes you consider how many other similar bands didnt breakthrough for not succumbing to OUTMODED and RESTRICTIVE SOCIETAL DISTORTIONS regarding GENDER NORMS and what is considered FEMININE. L7 and SPARKS in particular didnt have time for that BULLSHIT on BRICKS ARE HEAVY, they were too busy showing their peers what actual PUNK ROCK looked and sounded like.
much is made about BUTCH VIG's production on classic ALTERNATIVE ROCK staples like NIRVANA's NEVERMIND (DGC, 1991) and the SMASHING PUMPKINS' GISH (CAROLINE, 1991) and SIAMESE DREAM (VIRGIN, 1993), but id argue that BRICKS ARE HEAVY and its UNYIELDING aural onslaught is arguably his greatest moment as a producer. or at the very least on par with his more CELEBRATED efforts.
lyrically BRICKS ARE HEAVY deals with everything from MALE CHAUVINISM, THE GULF WAR and REDNECKS to the multitude of pressures that come with being a stridently INDEPENDENT FEMALE in a society that wants you to go home to your supposed DOMESTIC SPHERE and remain QUIET and PASSIVE. the whole album comes off like a PRIMAL SCREAM and giant MIDDLE FINGER to MIDDLE AMERICAN values and a cultural malaise that renders WOMEN as UNWILLING second-class citizens. its interesting that much of L7's CAUSTIC response to MALE AGGRESSION aligns intimately with that of the concurrent RIOT GRRL movement of which they were not a part of. the difference i see is that the OLYMPIA, WASHINGTON and later WASHINGTON, DC-based RIOT GRRL movement was more of a CEREBRAL affair focused on fanzines and giving FEMALE audience members a voice both in and out of the club, whereas L7 was more CONFRONTATIONAL and sought to push the BOYS around in their own playground. the PRIME example of such is DONITA SPARKS ICONIC throwing of her used tampon at the UNRULY READING FESTIVAL crowd in 1992. i literally cannot think of any gesture being more PUNK ROCK than that, done anywhere, ever.
BRICKS ARE HEAVY is a classic album that is worthy of all the hype its gotten in the wake of the ALTERNATIVE ROCK explosion of the early 1990s. it is still EXCITING and absolutely eviscerates most ROCK AND ROLL music from any period in terms of its CATCHINESS, ENERGY, CONVICTION and sheer FEROCITY. most definitely worth check out.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
i love the idea of long-form interviews as the basis of a research project.
in fact i've made no secret, writing before (linked HERE, HERE and HERE) about my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA where i spearheaded an oral history project aimed at the impact of the KOSOVO conflict on how both sides of the border dealt with the influx of refugees in 1999. it was a taboo subject internally but i thought it was information worth pursuing from the older generation (along with other unrelated topics such as life under the communist ENVER HOXHA regime) so that there was a record for future generations. similarly the questions themselves werent mine but my students at the UNIVERSITY OF VLORA where i was stationed at. my prompt to them was what questions they thought their grand-children would would want to ask their great-great-grandparents. talk about epic, a four generation question! it got them thinking in that scale and those were the questions i asked, not mine as an AMERICAN, i was just the conduit.
i came across the WOMEN OF ROCK ORAL HISTORY project recently online and i thought it was the coolest thing. the contributions of women to the cultural achievements surrounding ROCK N ROLL cannot be understated but are often overlooked.
i feel that i am guilty of this as well. when i look at past playlists for my DEER GOD RADIO show on nonprofit radio station MAKERPARKRADIO.NYC i am often confronted with a list of male artists. while there have been past shows specifically on the RIOT GRRRL movement and prominent artists such as BJORK, KIM DEAL and LADYTRON, as well as other shows that prominently investigate female musicians and artists within wider constructs (example: CAROLE KAYE contributions with THE WRECKING CREW), there is a lack of balance that i recognize. that is something i am working on. in the future i plan to add shows focused on PJ HARVEY, COURTNEY LOVE, KRISTIN GUNDRED, LUSCIOUS JACKSON, NO DOUBT, CHARLI XCX, PATTI SMITH, JOAN JETT, BLONDIE and producer SYLVIA MASSY (MELVINS, TOOL) to the mix. it is a work in progress.
these filmed interviews with the likes of PUNK ROCK / ALTERNATIVE ROCK / NO WAVE / INDIE ROCK luminaries like ALICE BAG (THE BAGS), LYDIA LUNCH, GAIL ANN DORSEY (DAVID BOWIE), KATE SCHELLENBACH (LUSCIOUS JACKSON, BEASTIE BOYS), EXENE CERVENKA (X), DONITA SPARKS (L7), MELISSA AUF DER MAUR (HOLE, SMASHING PUMPKINS), AMANDA PALMER (THE DRESDEN DOLLS), KRISTIN HERSCH (THROWING MUSES) and SHIRLEY MANSON (GARBAGE) among many others are a great resource for all musicians to receive a fuller understanding of the real history of ROCK N ROLL. its pretty exciting since this project is still very much a current operation especially in recent months with the advent of effective COVID-19 vaccines providing an opportunity for in-person, on-camera interviews again.
the WOMEN OF ROCK ORAL HISTORY is definitely worth checking out and revisiting. what a gift to music fans.
photo & text by nacrowe
L7 is the shit.
just wanted to get that out of the way right at the beginning. i got their album BRICKS ARE HEAVY (SLASH, 1992) my senior of high school in the early 2000s after reading somewhere that BUTCH VIG produced them and that they were part of the early ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene before it blew up. when i first heard them i remember thinking that this band is so heavy, so political and just so incredibly badass. like i stumbled on my new favorite band. specifically songs from that album like "SHITLIST," "WARGASM," "EVERGLADE" and, of course, "PRETEND WE'RE DEAD" as well as "FAST AND FRIGHTENING," "FUEL MY FIRE," and "ANDRES" from other albums just made me so content as an angry recently relocated teenager stuck in a boring suburban hell-hole. it was just the aggression, attitude and assault of their sound. very similar experience to when i discovered THE GERMS a few years before and GG ALLIN a few years later.
i recently came across this documentary L7: PRETEND WE'RE DEAD (BLUE HATS CREATIVE, 2016) which follows their career from navigating the concurrent LOS ANGELES 80s SUNSET STRIP / HARDCORE PUNK scenes to riding the ALTERNATIVE ROCK wave of the 90s as it ebbed and inevitably waned. interviews with band members DONITA SPARKS, SUZI GARDNER, DEMETRI PLAKAS and JENNIFER FINCH as well as the likes of SHIRLEY MANSON (GARBAGE), ALLISON WOLFE (BRATMOBILE/SEX STAINS), LYDIA LUNCH, VALERIE AGNEW (7 YEAR BITCH), JOAN JETT, LOUISE POST (VERUCA SALT), EXENE CERVENKA (X), ALLISON ROBERTSON (THE DONNAS), CSS, BRODY DALLE (THE DISTILLERS/SPINNERETTE), KRIST NOVOSELIC (NIRVANA) provide context to their ability to conquer the competition and, even if misogynist fans or music magazine editors couldnt get past their gender. it sucks having to even bring up gender at all, since it has literally nothing to do with their musicianship, but the fact is that stories like theirs is long overdue within the context of music history. it is too often overlooked. hopefully this and other documentaries that have popped up over the past decade (THE PUNK SINGER: A FILM ABOUT KATHLEEN HANNA, JOAN JETT BAD REPUTATION, PUSSY RIOT: A PUNK PRAYER, PATTI SMITH: DREAM OF LIFE) will begin to reshape that unfortunate narrative.
i remember watching an interview with GARBAGE once where they described the beginning of the millennium as a pivotal moment in their career, basically because file-sharing had cut into their record sales. L7 ended in 2001 but little mention is made regarding such factors as widespread piracy. sales dwindled after HUNGRY FOR STINK (SLASH, 1994) only matched its predecessor, BRICKS ARE HEAVY (SLASH, 1992) in sales and they were eventually dropped. i mean it all makes sense that they were never huge because of said reasons earlier, they were authentically aggressive with attitude and a bludgeoning sonic assault. they were too original i guess. i thought it was real interesting that the only mention of technology was how fans gathered online and effectively forced the band to reunite in 2015 and tour.
this is mentioned in the film, which released in 2016, but it also makes sense that they released a new album in 2019 on JOAN JETT's label. women supporting and promoting women. L7 did the same when they started ROCK FOR CHOICE nonprofit back in the 1990s to promote FEMALE REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS, they just put themselves out there. im glad that they are similarly being supported by the wider rock community writ large in recent years.
that and they came back to take on TRUMP with their latest album and how can you not love that?
photo manipulation by nacrowe
THE SMART STUDIOS STORY (CONEY ISLAND STUDIOS, 2016) is documentary about the outwardly unassuming yet highly influential recording studio in MADISON, WISCONSIN, that was founded and run by STEVE MARKER and BUTCH VIG. the creation of the studio was at an interesting inflection point in american culture as there was a definite influx of underground HARDCORE and INDIE ROCK bands that were supported in earnest by college radio and a nationwide network of bars, VFW halls and small clubs not to mention independent promoters and independent record labels and record stores. what connected all these stakeholders in the scene was a sense of self-reliance and DIY ETHIC. maybe its simplistic to say that the puritan ethic of the midwest played a role in this community, but essentially this mindset led to an era of experimentation in music that was free of financial considerations, because none of this was supposed to go commercial. given that VIG was a musician (drummer in local bad SPOONER with future GARBAGE collaborator DOUG ERIKSON) he also had the added benefit of being able to listen and suss out the needs of a band, how to bring out their sound in a fun, experimental atmosphere. he was also able to know firsthand what worked and didn't work from a musician's perspective in "professional" studios. i think his versatility is underrated and part of his work ethic and gets lost in the shuffle when success for his production duties gained global notoriety.
enter NIRVANA and THE SMASHING PUMPKINS, the two bands whose albums NEVERMIND (DGC, 1991) and SIAMESE DREAM (VIRGIN, 1993) altered the landscape for VIG and the underground scene seemingly overnight with the inception of a financially viable ALTERNATIVE ROCK scene that was supported by commercial radio, promoters and the commercial infrastructure of corporate AMERICA. this allowed VIG freedom in choosing projects since SMART STUDIOS was now a destination studio and his services a known commodity.
i think given that sea change it is to his credit that VIG along with MARKER and ERIKSON expanded their craft by utilizing technology and incorporating new techniques in their band GARBAGE. for me their incorporation of HIP HOP and ELECTRONICA elements into a new hybrid style are one of the defining sounds of the 1990s. the fusion of such is only that much more impressive given the cultural impact of his celebrated yet sonically more straightforward catalogue of ALTERNATIVE ROCK production work.
its ironic that this embrace of technology is also what brought down the studio, as digital recording software on personal computers made this DIY ETHIC spread to a new prosumer base of musicians. the time had come to move on.
my takeaway from this documentary is that good music can come from anywhere, no matter how far off the beaten path. SEATTLE, MINNEAPOLIS, PORTLAND. in this case WISCONSIN. innovation is a personal pursuit and must be met on its own merits. in many ways BUTCH VIG's career as an established producer was entirely a fluke of circumstance. on the other hand he was talented and was prepared to take advantage of opportunities when presented.
makes me wonder what other crevices of the UNITED STATES or even the golbal scene have i not considered researching. where should i look next? because i'm always searching.