“Welcome to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue rejects,” said L7’s singer/guitarist Don-ita Sparks, beginning a show at the Palace in New York in 1992. Part punk, part hard-core, part party band, L7 can be described as raucous, raunchy, and what Kim France of the Utne Reader called “triumphantly unladylike.” Named for the 1950s term meaning “square” or “unhip,” bandmembers Jennifer Finch, Dee Plakas, Suzi Gardner, and Donita Sparks refer to themselves as “humorous hags” and “bra-burning battle-axes,” their concert attire consisting of flannel, ripped jeans, motorcycle boots, and shorts belted with duct tape. Bursting onto L.A.’s music scene in 1987, L7 caused ceilings to sweat in small clubs packed with cult followers, encouraged stage-diving, and later took all their thrashing on the road, catching the attention of famous indie rock label Sub-Pop and later Slash Records of Los Angeles.
Jonathan Gold of the Los Angeles Times described L7 as “potentially the first female band to rock as if its gender were irrelevant. No T & A, no love songs, no
Band members include Jennifer Finch (raised outside of Los Angeles, CA), bass; Suzi Gardner (raised in Sacremento, CA), guitar, vocals; Dee Plakas (raised in Chicago, IL), drums; and Donita Sparks (raised in Chicago), guitar, vocals. Former drummers include Roy Gurwitz.
Group formed, 1986-87; recorded self-titled debut LP, 1987; Plakas joined as permanent drummer, 1988; toured underground clubs; released Smell the Magic, Sub-Pop, 1990; toured Europe with Nirvana; signed with Slash Records and released Bricks Are Heavy, 1992; founded “Rock for Choice,” a series of benefit concerts to aid bombed abortion clinics; co-sponsored concert for relief for rape victims in Boznia-Herzegovina, Yugoslavia; appeared in the John Waters film Serial Mom, 1994.
Addresses: Record company —Slash Records, 7381 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.
flirtation, no come-ons, no wronged woman anthems, no bustiers... just rock.” However, because the band-members are females who “rock,” L7 is simultaneously exulted and pigeonholed by the media. When simply describing their music, L7 has been compared to great punk and alternative legends the Ramones, Motor-head, and the Buzzcocks, yet because they are an all-female band, they continually get lumped with sister-rockers Babes in Toyland, Hole, and sometimes even their fellow Los Angelites the Go-Go’s.
L7, however, actively resists any kind of stereotyping, acting more like rock’s bad boys with a self-consciously mocking female flair. For example, they once played a show at a heavy-metal bar—or as Sparks told singer Debbie Harry in Ray Gun, “sort of a hair farmer club”—where, as Sparks describes, they “all wore bald caps” and “looked like a band of Sinead O’Connors.”
At the 1992 music festival in Reading, England, Sparks extracted and threw her used tampon into the audience as a souvenir for fans, a reversal of the tampon-flinging fad that occasionally happens at hard rock concerts when the band on stage is all male. L7 further betrays their own sexually aggressive attitude and stage antics with songs like “Fast and Frightening.”
In true feminist form, L7 defies definition and labelling while still kicking out loud, fast rock that would intimidate the best of all-male bands. As Jennifer Finch told Request, “I was really influenced by the whole hardcore thing and the whole punk rock thing. I never thought twice like I can’t do this ‘cause I’m, you know, a gal.”
When they were first looking for bandmembers, Suzi Gardner told Spin, “We didn’t care what set of sex organs they had. We just wanted to f—ing rock.” Guitarist and vocalist Gardner was raised outside of Sacramento, California, and moved to L.A. for the music scene. Bassist Finch was raised outside of L.A., while Donita Sparks and drummer Dee Plakas migrated from Chicago to L.A. for much the same reason as Gardner. “Donita and I met each other in 1985,” Gardner told Spin in 1993. “We’d been floating around the same town, kind of following each other in jobs and bands, even with dudes, kind of, and we had a lot of people telling us that we had to meet.”
According to Spin, each bandmember hails from a middle-class background that they rebelled against in variety ways. Finch “forgot” to attend high school for three years, Sparks worked at a White Castle and was a “jockcheerleader who smoked,” and Plakas switched prices on drug-store items, a subtle shoplifter.
The members of L7 cite a variety of musical influences: the Ramones, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, the B-52’s, the Cramps, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline. Yet each member of L7 felt that she needed to create her “own scene.” As Donita Sparks told the Los Angeles Times, “We didn’t really have role models growing up. The Go-Go’s were the only girl group playing their own instruments and they sang about boys.” Gardner tells of going to a Quiet Riot show early in her career as a musician and coming away dismayed at the group’s ineptitude. She told Spin, “I remember getting really drunk and really angry at how lame they were.... If these guys in Spandex could get away with being so lame, I could do it too.”
Originally L7 had a male drummer who was later fired for his alcohol problems. “We’ve been through the ringer in the rhythm section,” said Sparks, referring to an exhausting series of problem drummers that finally ended in 1988 with Plakas, who, regardless of her gender, was simply the best drummer they could find. L7 began carving out its own niche in L.A. clubs and were described in an early review as “the Go-Go’s on Draino.” In 1988 they released a disc called L7on the L.A.-based Epitaph label. The album was critically well received, but the distributor folded before the record had been out more than a month. It was at this point that L7 took their show on the road, playing at underground clubs around the country, hauling their own instruments, and sleeping on the floors of friends’ homes. Bandmembers assert that those days of shoestring budgets have made them really appreciate everything that they have achieved today.
According to Robert Christgau of the Village Voice, “L7 breathed life into what can be inadequately pigeonholed as ‘hard pop’; the brief, clear, fast, tough song expanding in ascending order of sweet impurity.” L7’s cross-country thrash tour of the late 1980s caught the eye of Sub-Pop’s alternative guru, producer Jonathan Poneman. L7 played a show in Seattle and was almost immediately signed by the label most singularly responsible for the fashion of “Seattle-Rock” and the grunge sounds of Nirvana and Soundgarden.
Smell the Magic came out in 1990, and L7 took off for a European tour with fellow Sub-Pop heroes Nirvana. “The ‘Shove’ single was one of the most amazing things,” said Poneman. “That singularly blew my top off. I compare L7 with Motorhead or the Ramones, a real primal rock machine.” Because of their high-profile U.S. and European tours, L7 finally gained recognition in their home town. In 1992, Slash records (a division of Warner Bros, in Hollywood, California) produced L7’s third album, Bricks Are Heavy, which sold an estimated 225,000 copies and marked L7’s sudden appeal to a mainstream audience.
Because Smell the Magic was released on the independent Sub-Pop, L7’s move to a major label with Bricks Are Heavy was seen by some as going against the grain of “indie rock” and the band’s former “do-it-yourself” attitude. According to RIP magazine, L7’s reason for leaving the label and the indie rock scene was painfully simple: it failed them. Apparently L7 would call Epitaph and Sub-Pop and occasionally find the phones disconnected or shut down. The labels also had very poor distribution reputations. “The reason we moved (to Slash),” said Finch, “was that too many kids were coming up to us and saying, ‘we can’t find your record.’” Finch told RIP that the band was never paid for the Epitaph or Sub-Pop albums. “We want to support underground movements. We want to support people who are doing it for themselves. But this is our living and that’s very important to us.”
Besides casting them as traitors to indie rock, the media, according to L7, pays more attention to the band’s gender than to the actual quality of their work. Ironically, because of their no-frills style of music, L7 is a rarity among female musical groups. “The problem with defining L7 as the ultimate in femme-punk,” said Renee Christ of Spin, “is that femme-punk is not a genre.” Groping for some definition that describes their position between “grunge rock” and “girlband,” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore came up with the term “foxcore” to describe the L7-inspired surge of underground female bands. Soon there were foxcore shows and foxcore magazine pictorials; L7 was asked to pose for a foxcore feature in Spin. They declined.
“We had to lay it on the line with our record company, no gender references,” Donita Sparks told the Los Angeles Times. “It sounds clichéd, but we’re not a Russ Meyer fantasy, we’re not tough chicks, we’re not man-haters and we’re not boy-toys—we’re just people.” Musically, L7 describes themselves as a hard-rock band, in concert style similar to Nirvana: high-energy, slamming, dancing, stage-diving. In their opinion, it shouldn’t matter that they are women. But very often L7 does get lumped in with what they term “other chick-bands.”
L7 is a difficult group to define, and they actively defy definition, whether that be “foxcore,” “girl group,” or even “feminist.” Although bandmembers describe themselves as feminists, they try to stay away from feminist rhetoric that may draw attention away from, as Sparks told the Los Angeles Times, “just doing what we do.” Doing “what they do” comes closer in style and character to traditional male rock bands than female ones, and they often parody or adopt big attitudes and raunchy sexual references in songs like “Packin’ a Rod” (a cover of the original Fiends tune) and lyrics such as “you and me till the wheels fall off.”
During filming of the “Pretend We’re Dead” video, a camera crane fell on Gardner, who suffered a fractured cheekbone; the band was involved in an 11 -car, three-semi pileup outside of Philadelphia; and they’ve been asked never to fly United Airlines again because of their apparently unruly pre-flight behavior. This refusal to be “nice girls” reinforces the media tendency to label them “political,” even though L7 claims that they are just doing what comes naturally.
“L7 are women, a rare thing among rock musicians, and feminists, a rarer thing. Both categories make them special whether they like it or not,” said Christgau of the Village Voice. For all L7’s grumbling about not wanting to be labelled as feminist or political, they contradict themselves by being one of the most politically active bands on the alternative rock scene. The most obvious manifestation of this is their creation of “Rock for Choice,” a series of benefit concerts to aid clinics attacked by anti-abortion activists.
Using their “do-it-yourself” attitude, the band started the organization that is designed to promote awareness-raising concerts and earn money for the Fund for the Feminist Majority, which operates a nationwide clinic defense system. Sparks told the L.A. Reader that the Rock for Choice shows were more awarenessraising than fundraising, to get the word out that “hey these bands support pro-choice.” L7, in their typical satirical fashion, hosted one Rock for Choice show wearing evening gowns like beauty contestants, sashed with banners of the names of bombed clinics; instead of “Miss Hawaii,” or “Miss Illinois,” they wore titles saying “Miss Bakersfield Clinic.”
Besides being aggressively pro-choice, L7’s political beliefs filter into other areas. “In a lot of ways I’m really ashamed of how apathetic my generation’s been,” Sparks told RIP, “and really angry about how many of the gains we made in the 60’s have been taken away from us.” L7’s song “Wargasm” exemplifies the band’s disgruntlement with the Bush administration and the Persian Gulf War: “Tie a yellow ribbon round the amputee/masturbate, watch it on T.V.” This song took on a different meaning in 1993 when L7 performed it for a benefit concert to aid rape survivors of BosniaHerzegovina. During that performance, Sparks extended her guitar riffs as Finch screamed “Rape!” over and over again until it became an eerie mantra.
In the spring of 1994, L7 had its debut in the John Waters film Serial Mom as a femme-punk band called “Camel Lips.” In the summer of that year, L7 released Hungry for Stink on Slash Records. Though People magazine found that “most of the songs aren’t particularly memorable,” Entertainment Weekly gave the album an “A+,” stating, “Hungry for Stink is ... sophisticated, with a musical surprise on nearly every track.”
Because of their consistent political action, L7 is aware of their influence on their fans; they provide for young women an alternative role model to those found in popular magazines, and the movie and record industries. Sparks was quoted as saying in the Los Angeles Times, “We get letters from young girls who say we’re their inspiration for picking up an instrument, and that makes us really proud.”
L7, Epitaph, 1988, reissued, 1990.
Smell the Magic, Sub-Pop, 1990.
Bricks Are Heavy, Slash, 1992.
Hungry for Stink, Slash, 1994.
Billboard, April 16, 1994.
Creem, April 1992.
Entertainment Weekly, July 15, 1994.
Interview, April 1992.
L.A. Reader, July 3, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, July 28, 1991.
People, July 18, 1994.
Ray Gun, December/January 1993-94.
Request, June 1992.
RIP, August 1993.
Spin, April 1992; July 1993; June 1994.
Utne Reader, September/October 1992.
Vanity Fair, My 1994.
"L7." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 11, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/l7
"L7." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved December 11, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/l7
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