Monday, January 02, 2006

The History of UK Riot Grrrl Starting with America

The roots to the UK Riot Grrrl music scene are tangled and long. There are obviously a million possible bands to list as influences to this particular movement but here are some very basic starting points, beginning with the very definition of Riot Grrrl.

What is Riot Grrrl?

This can be a particularly sticky question to answer because the term means something a little different to everyone; from founding members like Kathleen Hanna to the few surviving chapters of women keeping the concept of Riot Grrrl alive today. I do not want to over simplify a subject that is deeply important and meaningful to all women and is especially key to the history of Riot Grrrl so please understand this is my personal take on Riot Grrrl having lived in the Northwest while much of this was unfolding.

First things first:

"During the summer of 1991, the new, predominantly female bands began to rally under the riot grrrl banner. The term "riot grrrl" came from two sources. Tobi Vail had already been writing about "angry grrrls," and "riot" came from a letter written to Allison Wolfe by a DC friend, Jen Smith, who'd also played briefly in Bratmobile, discussing the recent Mt. Pleasant riots in DC following a racial shooting incident. "We need to start a girl riot," Smith had written, and eventually the words were flipped around to "riot grrrl." "

(There are all sorts of varying versions of this story but this seems to be the most commonly told one)

With a dash of International Pop Underground :

"Organized by Olympia's K Records, and boasting shows by incendiary punk and pop outfits such as Bikini Kill, Beat Happening, Fugazi, L7, Unwound, and Jad Fair (not to mention a picnic, cakewalk, and Planet of the Apes movie marathon), the IPU ( has served as a model for indie music gatherings like the biannual Yo Yo A Go Go festival and last year's Ladyfest arts and activism conference, both staged in Olympia. The convention marked the launch of the stridently independent Kill Rock Stars record label, home not only to several of the bands that played the IPU, but also folks such as Sleater-Kinney and Elliott Smith. And the IPU's Girl Night provided an empowering spark for the nascent Riot Grrrl feminist movement. "

The basic idea of Riot Grrrl is a DIY (Do It Yourself) approach to gender issues allowing women a safe place to vent, educate, and express issues like rape, molestation, sexual harassment, domestic abuse, and sexuality while at the same time empowering women; giving them a voice and a sense of power and equality not available to them before. Clearly every woman approaches such personal issues from very different personal perspectives but the male / female power struggle is a universal concern and is still very much at the core of Riot Grrrl today.

This “Revolution Girl Style” in its prime was carried out by women mostly under the age of 25 and took many different forms: Bands were formed, womyn only seminars were held covering everything from self defense to how to work a mixing board, patches and pins with pro girl phrases were created and almost as key as the music they produced, underground fanzines were being published seemingly by just about every girl involved. Remember this was pre internet days so hand made cut and paste photocopied zines and hand silk screened you name its (posters, shirts, patches…) were the primary tools for self expression and propaganda.

U.S. Riot Grrrl was born in and initially based out of Washington DC and mainly Olympia Washington with three key bands leading the way: Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Heavens to Betsy . Legend has it that Bikini Kill formed after future member Kathleen Hanna felt encouraged to start their band after reading Tobi Vale's ( another member of B.K.) zine Jigsaw. Around the same time future members of Bratmobile ( Allison Wolfe and Milly Neuman) follwed a similar path also inspired by the same zine to start their own zine called Girl Germs and shortly after started the band Bratmobile. Lastly Corin Tucker inspired by some of the very first Riot Grrrl meetings in Olympis went on to form Heavens to Betsy.*

A secondary tier filled with hundreds of bands, many not directly considered Riot Grrrl were: Excuse 17 ( Carrie B went on to form Sleater-Kinney), Slant 6, Team Dresch, The Gits, 7 Year Bitch,Tsunami and Sleater-Kinney (named after a steet sign in Oly).

Slowly taking shape in the late 80’s, it wasn’t until 1991 when Bikini Kill released their first record (produced by Ian Mackaye of Fugazi) that the Riot Grrrl movement really took off. It was Bikini Kill's early U.S. tours that helped to spread their message to hundreds of new cities, inspiring women all over the country to follow their lead.

These live shows were a place where bands could use the stage like a pulpit to preach the idea grrrl power and often lyrics to their songs and fanzines were handed out to the crowd and men were often denied copies. To further express this idea of women first and a loose theme of reversal of power boys were often not allowed to attend shows, had occasionally been offered access to a show if they wore a dress or paid a higher door price and often if boys were admitted into the show they were forced to stand in the back of the crowd.

I should mention here the ironic part to this practice was Bikini Kill and several other bands like Huggy Bear and Red Monkey had male band members.

Simultaneously in Arlington Virginia Jenny Toomey (Tsunami, Liquorice,Grenadine and founder of Simple Machines Records) organized some of the first east coast Riot Grrrl meetings held at the legendary Positive Force House, “one of the few havens for serious political thought, discussion and action”

Parallel to the R.G. movement was a stylish boy band from DC called Nation of Ulysses who wielded their own wordy manifesto and seemingly was a brother band to Bikini Kill. Member Tim Green recorded one of Bikini Kill's records as well as playing in a side project band with Kathleen Hanna called The Fakes and this further increased the already established connection between DC and Olympia’s gender conscious music community. Not that this really matters but I could also swear member(s) of Bikini Kill and N.O.U. dated during this time but I can’t be certain or find anything on line that confirms this.

In 1993 Bikini Kill toured England with U.K.’s Huggy Bear (in support of their split release) and this is when Riot Grrrl truly exploded onto a new continent introducing thousands of girls to the American Riot Grrrl DIY manifesto.

Unfolding at the same time as Riot Grrrl in the early to mid 90’s was “Kinderwhore”which starred grunge inspired female bands like Babes In Toyland and Hole (Hole had a male guitar player) and notably featured a cross breed look of prom date and or dressed up little girl meets slut. Lacking a political edge or a strictly feminist agenda these bands channeled a form of rage similar to Riot Grrrl but the similarity ended there.

Also in the early 90’s female groups like L7, Team Dresch (queercore), and The Lunachicks again tackled rock with a sense of rage but for these woman and the Kinderwhore ladies they were rock bands first that happened to be formed by mostly women where Riot Grrrls were women with a political / feminist agenda / message first and then a focus on music second. There were still positive feminist ideas expressed by all of these women but these points took a much less aggressive roll during non Riot Grrrl band’s live performances and in their lyrical content.

Tensions between Courtney Love and key members of the Riot Grrrl community aside there is no question that these separate music scenes affected and inadvertently influenced each other.

While I regret to add even more names to this confusing time line of women (and some men) in rock I should also include just a few of the less agro ladies making influential music at the time: Mecca Normal, Lois, The Spinanes, Autoclave, Mary Lou Lord, Beat Happening, Tiger Trap, and the Softies.

On the other side of the pond: Heavenly, The Raincoats, The Pastels, The Vaselines, Helen Love, and Talulah Gosh again to name just a few.

While women in music is certainly not a new concept the 90’s seemingly had an unbelievably GREAT and endless pool of new(ish) female talent including Liz Phair, Bettie Servert, Belly, The Breeders, Earwig, Lush, MBV, Unwound, Blonde Redhead, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Cat Power, and Sonic Youth. Young women looking to start making music during this era had a thriving community of creative women to look up to and be motivated by, myself included.

Last but not least many Riot Grrrl bands from around the world mention a great amount of inspiration taken from 60’s girl garage bands meet Phil Spector girl groups with the final piece of the puzzle being the founders of the female voice in punk: X-Ray Specs, The Raincoats, The Slits, Au Pairs, Delta 5, The Pretenders, Patti Smith Fire Party, Siouxsie, Blondie, Joan Jett, Delta 5, B52’s and the Go-Gos to name a few.


This is a complicated and possibly unnecessary back story but just in case it was a little too much I will give you a moment of rest before unleashing my list of UK Riot Grrrl records to check out.

Until tomorrow.

* Much of these facts are confirmed here .