3D Great Rock Bible
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L7

+ {Donita Sparks + The Stellar Moments}

One of the leading lights among the post-grunge Riot grrrl combos to emerge from the late-80s West Coast punk scene, the feisty all-female L7 – a 50s slang term for a “square” – stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy on every level. One such incident in November 1992 left a live British TV audience stunned when one of their sisterhood, Donita Sparks, exposed her womanly charms on “The Word” during their re-issued signature song, `Pretend We’re Dead’; she would also bless that year’s Reading Festival onlookers by throwing them a used tampon. With this exposure, so to speak, L7 metamorphosed into overnight sensations, that was until HOLE’s Courtney Love procured all the limelight and column inches for herself.
Formed 1985 in Los Angeles, California, singer/guitarists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner (formerly a guest for hardcore punks BLACK FLAG) slowly but surely recruiting seasoned bassist Jennifer Finch and token male drummer Roy Koutsky into the band. With all the panache of a punk group in transition (think The RUNAWAYS without the schizoid sludge), the eponymous L7 (1988) {*6} set got the quartet off the mark. The record was raucous, rambunctious and rebellious, but only really the RAMONES-like and visceral, `Bite The Wax Tadpole’ (the Chinese rendering of Coca Cola), `Metal Stampede’ (interpolating a twang of “Old MacDonald…”) and the 6-minute head-spin of `Uncle Bob’, gelled with any catalytic cohesion.
The all-girl aspect for L7 came when Anne Anderson superseded Koutsky, although Anne’s own tenure was as short-lived when the suitably-named Chicago lass, Demetra “Dee” Plakas (ex-Problem Dogs), took over after the band inked a deal at Sub Pop Records. Indeed, this was a time that also saw the girls touring with a relatively unknown NIRVANA; L7’s infamous onstage antics almost causing as much of a stir as their “Teen Spirited” headliners.
Whilst `Shove’ (b/w `Packin’ A Rod’) and the 6-track EP version of `Smell The Magic’ were chosen to project L7 into the forefront, it was not until their indie bosses combined all the tracks in July ’91 (plus newbies `Just Like Me’ and `American Society’), under the revised SMELL THE MAGIC {*7} album title. Sporting ripped-at-the-knee jeans, denim/leather and Dr Marten boots, the self-bashing `Broomstick’, `Till The Wheels Fall Off’ and the pulse-raising `Fast And Frightening’, fuelled the band’s growing cult reputation. On another level; irreverent yet committed, L7 also formed “Rock for Choice”, a pro-abortion pressure group that won unprecedented moral support in the male-dominated environs of the music business.
Having built their foundations over several years of pain and no gain, L7’s inaugural BRICKS ARE HEAVY (1992) {*8} – spawning UK Top 30 coup “Pretend…” – their hard-hitting collision of Grrrr/grunge and ultra hard line, often humorous, post-feminist lyrics, smashed down any walls of heartache to smithereens. Slash/Reprise Records and producer Butch Vig were on hand to smooth over any cracks that might’ve occurred during their bad-girl period, or by listening to JOAN JETT or GIRLSCHOOL records at full blast. `Wargasm’, the sardonic `Diet Pills’, `Shitlist’ and follow-up shoo-ins, `Everglade’ (sung by Finch), `Monster’ and “The Word”-exposed `Pretend We’re Dead’ re-spin, proved beyond doubt that the incumbent grunge scene was not just the Kurt and Courtney show.
Bolstered by their next UK Top 40 splash, `Andres’, the equally Brit-friendly HUNGRY FOR STINK (1994) {*6} split fans down the middle as accusations of stealing some of HOLE’s thunder was broadsided by several critics. Buzzing and blistering, the frenetic `Fuel My Fire’ (soon to be covered by The PRODIGY on their landmark “Fat Of The Land” set) and the menacing `Questioning My Sanity’ pushed out the envelope. That same year, L7 appeared at Lollapalooza festival, and as “Camel Lips” performing `Gas Chamber’ in the John Waters comedy flick, Serial Mom.
THE BEAUTY PROCESS: TRIPLE PLATINUM (1997) {*6} was cut without bassist Finch, who preferred instead to form fresh act, Lyme. The record’s move into harder-rocking terrain signalled a new era for L7 as they attempted to chart the uncertain waters of the post-grunge era via `Off The Wagon’, `The Masses Are Asses’ and `Drama’. Whilst this was another set to skirt around the lower reaches of the Billboard 200, British fans gave it the thumbs-down.
Dropped unceremoniously by the powers that be at Slash/Reprise, L7 tried to run with the ball once again. With, at first, Greta Brinkman, and then Gail Greenwood (ex-BELLY) at the helm, the quartet was back in contention. And finding friends at the independent Man’s Ruin imprint, at least some of the energy they expelled at concert dates on September 3, 1997 and the following April 23, unfolded on the all-encompassing 1998’s LIVE: OSAKA OR OMAHA {*6}.
In a short space of time, the visceral L7 had went from heroes to zeroes, and much of the blame was down to the rather average SLAP-HAPPY (1999) {*5} set, a set for Bong Load Records that came in for some harsh critical flak for sounding too one-dimensional. Whatever the verdict, Donita looked back on the album as not at all bad. However, her judge and jury arrived by way of L7’s fickle fan base, who dismissed their derivative dirges past opener, `Crackpot Baby’. Prior to the group splitting in 2001, Janis Tanaka filled the vacant bass spot.
Several years in the proverbial wilderness, queen pin DONITA SPARKS + THE STELLAR MOMENTS: aka Alan “The Italian” Santalesa (guitar), Dat Ngo (bass) and Demetra Plakas (drums/ percussion), popped back into contention a la TRANSMITICATE (2008) {*6}. The record was far from the garage/grunge groove-machine that had emboldened L7, but no one really expected her to go down that route. In essence, there was nothing much to sway kids to side with a veteran 44 year-old trying in vain to recapture her youth. Maybe if sonic touches had been applied to `Fly Feather Fly’, `Curtains For Cathy’, `Infancy Of A Disaster’ et al, fellow ageing acolytes might’ve jumped on her road trip to pop purgatory.
L7’s seven-year-itch was scratched in 2015 when the best-known line-up of the band (Sparks, Gardner, Finch and Plakas) re-formed. Donita had by and large lost the gristle an’ grit from her once-distinctive vox; if subsequent singles for Don Giovanni Records, `Dispatch From Mar-A-Lago’ and `I Came Back To Bitch’, were anything to go by, but the band’s political pitchin’ was perfectly attuned with the Post-Trump times.
L7’s comeback was complete in the spring of 2019 when Kindercore Records previewed a forthcoming parent set with the brick-heavy, `Burn Baby’ single. Appropriately turned out on friend JOAN JETT’s Blackheart imprint, SCATTER THE RATS {*6} was a throwback to better times when the early 90s smelt of teen spirit rather than nasty rodents. However, there was more to just simply dressing up for the part of rock’n’roll punk stars, substance and quality had to prevail, and even in pick of the litter, `Proto Prototype’, `Stadium West’ and `Uppin’ The Ice’, L7 should’ve torn a leaf from SLEATER-KINNEY’s sketch book.
© MC Strong/MCS 1994-2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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