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.
A sordid tale of wasted potential and whatnot, right? But then there are the records, still as live and rocking as ever. "Cherry Bomb" alone will keep the Runaways legend alive deep into this century. The point? Maybe the Donnas never would have happened without Raffaelli. So what? They did happen, and they're still happening: writing their own songs and putting them across perfectly. It seems as if that's what should matter.
Young lady let me see some ID
Didn't you see us on MTV?
-- the Donnas, "Hotboxin'"
The band's next move was to Lookout! Records, the Berkeley, Calif., label that helped revive the punk scene in the late 1980s and early '90s with bands like Operation Ivy, Screeching Weasel and Green Day. They recorded American Teenage Rock 'N' Roll Machine in one day; nobody really expected that the album would be the next great Lookout! album and play a major role in maintaining the label's quality and high profile after the Green Day windfall.
What's more, the four rock chicks became stars of a sort, popping up in big slick magazines like Spin and Details, getting some face time on MTV. They even hit the big screen, appropriately enough, as the prom band in the dark teen comedy Jawbreaker.
"The director, Darren Stein, just liked us and wanted us to do it," Anderson says. "It was pretty fun. It was just a one-day shoot. We were in our trailer, and you know how they have two sides? Well, on the other side was (actor) Carol Kane. We were listening to Alice Cooper and, like, jumping around. And she came around and complained!"
The Donnas also achieved another movie-related milestone of sorts: a cover of Kiss's "Strutter" for the Detroit Rock City soundtrack album. "We thought the song would be in the movie, but they wanted to use the originals," Anderson says.
Did they get to hang out with Kiss? "No, not really, but Gene Simmons came when we were shooting the video for "Strutter,'" Anderson says.
"But we got to see Kiss on Halloween at Dodger Stadium. We had 10th-row tickets. And we saw them the next day at the Detroit Rock City premiere. We were in the second row!" The enthusiasm is obvious and sincere. There's no doubting the rock & roll blood in Anderson's veins.
Get Skintight is another hot record, just as tough and funny as the earlier ones but with a little bit more pop-metal guitar power. The Donnas will be going into the studio in June, this time for three weeks, and will release that album early next year. What are they looking forward to?
Anderson thinks a minute: "Well, we're all gonna be 21!"
The Donnas play the Galaxy on Wednesday, March 29. The Smugglers and the Plus Ones open.