By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Like a dream, an improbable vision from the mists of guitar Amazonia: Thus emerged the Donnas with their 1998 album American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine (Lookout!), the best record ever made by people who live with their parents. What connoisseur of loud, dumb garbage could resist? Four teenage California girls with attitudes as trashy as their chord progressions, singing songs like "Leather on Leather," "Gimme My Radio" and "You Make Me Hot" -- it just makes so damn much sense.
The album vaulted the band onto the radar screen of the mainstream, so should we expect any piano ballads or techno remixes outta these burnouts? No way. The new LP, Get Skintight, may have a little more sheen on the guitars and a little more cleverness lyrically, but the Donnas still have their eyes on the same grubby prize: fun, the more illicit the better. Although they're out of high school now, their landscape is still one of loud cars, fast music, cheap dope and cheap gropes, with one eye out for the dumb guys, squares and losers who wanna kill everybody's buzz. The twin idols of the Ramones and the Runaways tower high over the trashy proceedings. Lesser deities like Kiss and Mötley Crüe also make their influences felt.
The vocals of Donna A. (Brett Anderson) sound like something from out behind the high school where the bad kids smoke. Donna R. (Allison Robertson) has a surprising array of neat guitar tricks, and the rhythm section of drummer Donna F. (Maya Ford) and drummer Donna C. (Torry Castellano) thuds along with perfect wastoid precision. Get Skintight was recorded in two weeks, rather than the single day devoted to American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine, and was produced by Jeff and Steve McDonald of indie veteran Redd Kross. "They helped us a lot with scheduling and making us do things over when we weren't into it," says Anderson.
"This is how we wanted it to sound all along," she says. "I think it has a lot to do with being in a studio for more than one day. Before, it was kind of makeshift. There are a lot of things we hear on Rock 'N' Roll Machine and go "God!' A lot of mistakes got left in there."
You're a zero on my rock-o-meter
You wanna get hot, go turn on a heater
-- the Donnas, "Zero"
The story starts a half-hour south of San Francisco, in Palo Alto, Calif. Donnas F., C. and R. were already friends when, in the eighth grade, Donna A.'s family moved to California. Shortly thereafter, the four girls became Ragady Anne, then the Electrocutes. A shared enthusiasm for Bell Biv DeVoe may have helped bring them together, but it was mercifully absent from their sound. Their main audience at this point comprised the lunkheads from their school who dropped in on practices to insult and abuse the young foursome.
The band then came under the wing of one Darin "Romeo Voltage" Raffaelli, proprietor of the Super*Teem record label and apparent originator of the Donnas concept. They released an LP and three singles on Super*Teem, including some songs that Raffaelli had previously written. The Super*Teem stuff is hilarious, a bit more Ramonesy than subsequent records. The lyrics transplant that band's ethos to suburban California, with results like "Everybody's Smoking Cheeba" and "Rock 'n' Roll Boy." And the infamous "I Wanna Be a Unabomber" single added a dash of riot-grrrl nastiness.
To this day, rumors abound that Raffaelli is the Svengali behind the band, the real brains of the operation who has enlisted four naïve young women in his quest for dominance, etc. The motives behind this kind of thing are always shadowy: Why, for instance, is it so hard to believe that four women could write and play catchy rock & roll? And why does the writing credit matter more when female acts are involved? Elvis Presley never wrote so much as a limerick in his whole life. Stiff Little Fingers, punk-rock icons who built their reputation on the harsh reality of their Northern Ireland homeland, had their lyrics written for them by a middle-aged journalist. But, as usual, it's the female rocker who must prove that her songs aren't ghostwritten.
In this case, the Runaways parallel may be instructive. A rock act that was laughed off the planet in their own time but has since acquired legendary status, the Runaways were put together in 1975 by California rock entrepreneur Kim Fowley. Fowley has a long, semidistinguished career of rock-related lunacy that need not concern us here. The Runaways played guitar-heavy rock with aggressive bad-girl posturing, semicompetently at first and more competently later on. Although Fowley was the force behind the formation of the band and its chief theorist/provocateur, his manipulation was a source of friction almost from the beginning. When he tried to downplay official lead vocalist Cherie Currie in favor of a firebrand guitarist named Joan Jett, Currie mutinied. Bassist Jackie Fox quit when an expensive bass that she played broke and she discovered that the band's management hadn't insured it as she had been told they would. Similar hijinks ensued until Fowley grew bored and ditched the whole mess. Lawsuits followed. Jett went on to bigger (if rarely better) things; bandmate Lita Ford had a few lousy hits.