While still in middle school, the Donnas, an all-female quartet from Palo Alto, California, were already living out their rock ‘n’ roll dreams playing Ramones-styled punk rock music. Although they have grown up a bit since the release of their acclaimed 1998 album American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, released when the girls were seniors in high school, the Donnas—made up of vocalist Brett Anderson (Donna A), drummer Torry Castellano (Donna C), bassist Maya Ford (Donna F), and guitarist Allison Robertson (Donna R)—continued to create loud, fast, and fun rock songs.
The history of the Donnas dates back to the early 1990s when Anderson, Castellano, Ford, and Robertson were eighth graders at Palo Alto’s Jordan Middle School. In junior high, with the emergence of groups such as Nirvana and Green Day, many of the girls’ peers were inspired to form bands themselves. Supportive of such aspirations, the school allowed students during lunchtime the opportunity to perform before one another, except, as Ford and Robertson quickly observed, only boys were taking to the stage. Consequently, the pair recruited Anderson and Castellano, adopted the band name Ragady Ann, and practiced in the Castellano family garage every day for about a month to prepare for their first school show. Starting out, the girls learned to play songs by other female groups, specifically the Muffs’ “Big Mouth,” L7’s “American Society,” and Shonen Knife’s “Ride the Rocket.” None of the girls had prior experience playing their instruments or singing, but they all shared an enthusiasm for music.
Not many of their classmates reacted favorably to the all-girl band. The boys especially felt that Ragady Ann was interfering where they didn’t belong, and the girls at school seemed to agree. “When we first started, it was a cool thing for all the guys to be in the bands,” recalled Castellano to Emma Johnston in Melody Maker. “If you were a really cool girl, you were invited to come and watch the practice in the garage. I think a lot of the girls saw us and said, ‘Oh, those guys are really mean to those girls, but I don’t want to be part of anything that they’re doing ‘cause then the guys won’t give me attention.’ I think they were happy just to be fans.”
Regardless of what other kids thought, the four young girls continued to play cover tunes by their favorite groups and soon caught the attention of a local promoter named Mark Weiss, who gave the band one of their earliest professional gigs. “They were really good, and yet I wasn’t sure if they knew what they were doing,” he commented to Michael Ansaldo for a Donnas cover in BAM (Bay Area Music) magazine. “They were kind of trying to act like adults, or trying to act like rock stars, trying to act like people they saw on MTV. They weren’t faking anything; they were just being themselves. They were unconscious of how good they were…. It was rare to see such young people kicking a** like that.”
While attending Palo Alto High School, the group embraced harder rock bands like Kiss, AC/DC, Metallica, and Motley Crue, as well as R.E.M. and XTC. Eventually, the girls changed their band’s name to reflect their new repertoire. Now known as the Electrocutes, more of a speed-metal act, they booked themselves regularly at local community centers. Again, their style and youthful energy made an impression on another member of the Bay Area music scene, musician and Super*teem Records label owner Darin Raf-faelli. After seeing them live, he approached the Electrocutes about recording some songs he had written with a female group in mind. The girls agreed and entered the studio under the name the Donnas, a concept developed by Raffaelli. These sessions resulted in the recording of a handful of bubble-gum punk songs, including “A Boy Like You,” and “Let’s Rab!” Raffaelli also recorded the Donnas’ self-titled debut album. Originally released on Super*teem, The Donnas was later reissued by Lookout! Records in 1998.
But though the Donnas were putting their own heavier spin on Raffaelli’s songs, they nonetheless felt as though his writing was too pop-oriented for them. They even continued to perform as their alter ego, the Electrocutes, going so far as to publicly slag the Donnas as a “goody goody” band. But amid the rivalry with, in fact, themselves, the Donnas name and sideshow eventually won the favor of audiences. “We once played on the same bill at a radio station,” Anderson confessed to the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington.
Members include Brett Anderson (a.k.a. Donna A; born on May 30, 1979, in Bloomington, IN; Education: Attended University of California at Berkeley), lead vocals; Torry Castellano (a.k.a. Donna C; born on January 8, 1979, in San Francisco, CA; Education: Attended New York University), drums; Maya Ford (a.k.a. Donna F; born on January 8, 1979, in Oakland, CA; Education: Attended University of California at Santa Cruz), bass guitar; Allison Robertson (a.k.a. Donna R; born on August 26, 1979, in North Hollywood, CA; Education: Attended University of California at Santa Cruz), guitar.
Formed first band, Ragady Ann, early 1990s; played as both the Donnas and the Electrocutes, mid 1990s; released American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine after signing with Lookout! Records, 1998; released Get Skin Tight, 1999; released The Donnas Turn 21, 2001.
Addresses: Record company —Lookout! Records, P.O. Box 11374, Berkeley, CA 94712, website: http://www.lookoutrecords.com. Website —The Donnas Official Website: http://www.thedonnas.com.
“Because you couldn’t see us, it was a good little joke.”
The Donnas prevailed, yet the girls would not fully abandon the Electrocutes. Indeed, when it came time to begin thinking about a second album, the Donnas insisted on more creative control. “We were writing songs before we ever met Darin, so it’s not like we started playing and someone else was writing our songs,” added Anderson. “Then we met him and started making this kind of music and after a while, no one was taking us seriously because they saw him and immediately went, oh, they’re not really friends, he’s telling them what to do, he’s the Svengali/Phil Spector to their puppets—as if there wasn’t a possibility for anything else to happen!”
Thus, when the Donnas, who graduated from high school in 1997, recorded their breakthrough album American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, the girls took control by collaborating with, rather than relying solely upon, Raffaelli. In fact, some of the most memorable tracks, including “Looking for Blood,” “You Make Me Hot,” and “Speed Demon,” were originally written by the four girls for the Electrocutes. Not surprisingly, the second album sounded like a merging of the two bands with its catchy pop refrains and heavier guitar riffs. Released in 1998 on Lookout! Records, the original home of bands such as Green Day and Rancid, American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine received favorable press and was followed by touring opportunities in the United States as well as Japan and Europe. Meanwhile, they also gave college a try, but decided to take a leave to concentrate on the Donnas.
In 1999, the Donnas returned with a third album entitled Get Skintight, featuring a cover of Motley Crue’s “Too Fast for Love” and produced by Jeff and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross. It, too, won over the music press, and reviewers pointed out the Donnas’ improved songwriting skills, louder guitars, and propulsive rhythms. Highlights from the record included the smash hit “Hyperactive” and the ballad “You Don’t Wanna Call.”
Two years later, in the spring of 2001, the Donnas released their fourth album, The Donnas Turn 21. But despite their age, the group stuck to playing heavy party rock with songs such as the single “40 Boys in 40 Nights” and a re-make of the Judas Priest classic “Livin’ After Midnight.” Just because the Donnas are grown up, they don’t believe it necessary to abandon the same spirit that brought them together as adolescents. “I think that’s what we go on, that’s our fuel,” Anderson said to Harrington. “I don’t see why we would want to get solemn or mature in that way, because that’s not the point of our music. It would negate the whole purpose of playing rock ‘n’ roll for us.”
The Donnas (reissued), Lookout!, 1998.
(As the Electrocutes) Steal Yer Lunch Money (reissued), Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999.
American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, Lookout!, 1998.
Get Skintight, Lookout!, 1999.
The Donnas Turn 21, Lookout!, 2001.
Boston Globe, February 1, 2001; March 16, 2001.
Guitar Player, August 1999.
Los Angeles Times, July 18, 1998.
Melody Maker, October 23, 1999; December 15–21, 1999.
People, February 12, 2001.
Rolling Stone, June 11, 1998; June 24, 1999; December 16–23, 1999; February 1, 2001.
Village Voice, June 29, 1999; July 27, 1999; March 13, 2001.
Washington Post, July 18, 1999; January 31, 2001; March 2, 2001.
The Donnas Official Website, http://www.thedonnas.com (May 12, 2001).
Lookout! Records, http://www.lookoutrecords.com (May 12, 2001).