Local Current Blog

Women’s History Month: Influential ’80s and ’90s rock bands from Minnesota

The Clams (Photo courtesy Cindy Lawson)

Previously: Women’s History Month: Minnesota’s earliest pioneers

We are making our way through Women’s History Month 2015, a month dedicated to documenting, preserving, and honoring the stories of influential women throughout our nation’s past. This year I’ve decided to zero in on all of the amazing women who blazed trails across the Minnesota music scene, starting in the 1930s with artists like Judy Garland and the Andrews Sisters and following the boot-stomped path all the way up to today.

Last week we talked about some of the state’s earliest pioneers. This week, we’re venturing into (slightly more, but still not all that) well-tread territory: the fierce, no-holds-barred all-female rock ‘n’ roll bands that shook the Twin Cities music scene to its core in the mid-’80s and early 1990s.

Tune into the Local Current stream today from noon to 1 p.m. to hear songs from some of Minnesota’s most important women-led rock bands—with special attention paid to the recently reunited Babes in Toyland, who are playing Rock the Garden on June 21. And don’t forget: you can hear my interview with the three members of Babes in Toyland this Sunday night from 6-8 p.m. on the Women’s History Month edition of The Local Show.

  1. Listen Local Current celebrates Women’s History Month, Episode Two

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Babes in Toyland, “He’s My Thing” and “Bruise Violet”

Influential Minneapolis rock trio Babes in Toyland are back in business after a 14-year hiatus. Founding frontwoman Kat Bjelland has rejoined forces with powerhouse drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Maureen Herman (who joined the group when they signed to Warner Bros. in 1993) to reignite their fiery catalog of heart-pounding punk rock tunes—be sure to check out my interview with the trio, which just went up on the blog this week. Their set at Rock the Garden on June 21, 2015, will be the band’s first hometown show since 2001.

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The Continental Co-Ets

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about who was the nation’s first all-female rock band—and if this MPR report from 2001 is accurate, that title just might belong to Fulda, Minnesota natives the Continental Co-Ets. The quintet started playing together in 1963 when they were freshmen in high school, and by the time they graduated they had recorded an excellent single together, the garage rockin’ “I Don’t Love You No More.”

From MPR’s story:

Carolyn Behr, the Continental Co-ets’ rhythm guitar player, says initially they didn’t pay any attention to their all-girl status. But that changed.

“There were a lot of girl bands around at the time – a lot of excellent girl groups. But they didn’t play their own instruments. So in that way I suppose we were kind of special,” Behr says.

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Vixen, “Edge of a Broken Heart”

Jan Keuhnemund formed Vixen in 1980 when she was still in high school, and the band became known as St. Paul’s first all-girl rock group. By 1984 she had migrated to Los Angeles with vocalist Janet Gardner, and in 1988 the band was signed to EMI and got to work recording their debut, Vixen, teaming up with songwriter Richard Marx to pen their best-known song, “Edge of a Broken Heart.”

At the height of their popularity Vixen toured with major acts like the Scorpions, Ozzy Osbourne, KISS, and Deep Purple, and their hair metal influences led them to be described as “the female Bon Jovi.” They recorded a second album, 1990’s Rev it Up, but disbanded shortly after it was released due to creative differences.

Sadly, Kuehnemund passed away in 2013 at the age of 51 from cancer. Her Vixen artifacts (including her leather bodysuit and flame-covered guitar) are now archived at the Minnesota Historical Society.

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Tétes Noires, “Pour More Water on Her, George”

Six-piece band Tétes Noires got their start in the early ’80s, joining up for a performance art project at the Walker Art Center and then moving their show into clubs like the 7th St. Entry. By the mid’-80s they were headlining First Avenue and teaming up with the Violent Femmes to record their major label debut, Clay Foot Gods.

Read more about Tétes in my interview with founder Jennifer Holt and bandmate Angela Frucci, which coincided with the release of a remixed version of their debut album, The New American Dream, in late 2013.

“We were very feminist in our lyrics and how we dressed—I wore dresses and didn’t shave my legs,” Holt remembered. “And I think they really weren’t sure how to handle us. We were sometimes called Béte Noires instead of Tétes Noires, which is a French saying for the black beast, or something that’s scary.”

The Clams

The Clams, “Let Me Drive”

Another important and influential band in the early Minneapolis rock scene was the Clams, whose bluesy rock ‘n’ roll riffs and fiery shows earned them frequent comparisons to the Rolling Stones. See more photos of the Clams and hear an interview I conducted with frontwoman Cindy Lawson, drummer Karen Gratz, and bassist Patsy Joe here.

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Smut, “Emotional Suicide”

“We were inspired by the Clams, Babes in Toyland and Zuzu’s Petals, not only because they were women who could rock as hard as the guys, but they also encouraged us to play our music,” remembers Smut frontwoman Germaine Gemberling, who first dipped her toes into the Twin Cities rock scene when she was just 13 years old. “They invited us to their parties and there was a feeling of camaraderie.”

The band was eventually signed to Spanish Fly, Lori Barbero’s imprint on Twin/Tone records, and played relentlessly at the Uptown Bar and 7th St. Entry.

Read more of Germaine’s memories here.

 

Zuzu's Petals (publicity photo)

Zuzu’s Petals, “God Cries”

Laurie Lindeen, Coleen Elwood, and Linda Pitmon converged to form Zuzu’s Petals, one of the more omnipresent and influential local bands of the early ’90s. Taking their name from the film It’s a Wonderful Life, the trio played a loose, ramshackle, and minimalist style of rock music that predates big ’90s indie artists like Liz Phair.

Lindeen details her time in Zuzu’s Petals and her eventual marriage to Replacements frontman Paul Westerberg in her excellent autobiography, 2008’s Petal Pusher.

Dutch Oven, “Whammy”

The Minneapolis rock community was dealt a tough blow in March 1999 when Katie O’Brien, lead singer of rock band Dutch Oven, took her own life. O’Brien was highly regarded not just for her musical contributions but also for her enthusiastic, stylish, and warm presence.

“I was one of the worshipers, mostly from afar,” David Carr told City Pages shortly after she passed away. She was the first girl at the C.C. [Club] who wore leathers that didn’t look they just jumped off the rack.”

“Whammy” is the A-side of a 7″ that Dutch Oven released in 1992. Listen to both sides of the record over at GoJohnnyGo.

 

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The Blue Up?, “Shine”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a show flyer from the early ’90s that didn’t include the Blue Up?, who were a favorite around town. Fronted by Rachel Olson, a.k.a. Anna Voog, the pop-rock band got their start in the mid-’80s and were voted a “Best New Band” by First Avenue. Their best-known album, Spool Forka Dish, was produced by Bobby Z and released by Columbia Records in 1995.

Green Pyramids, “It’s Not the Way”

Power-pop group Green Pyramids were actually a new discovery for me as I was researching today’s show, and I really dug their sound. They were led by Krystal MacKay, who has started up a Facebook page where she shares photos and old recordings. The band was active from 1992-2000 in Minneapolis.

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Mollycuddle, “Dwindled”

Mollycuddle were one of the earlier bands to release music on the Guilt Ridden Pop label in Minneapolis, starting with 1997’s Non-Fiction. The four-piece included Sara Aase on lead vocals and guitar, Tommy Kim on vocals and guitar, Guy Lawhead on bass, and Judson Hildreth on drums. They were active from 1994-2000.

Big Red Ball, “Mystery No. 11”

What happens when three women named Lisa start a band? In the case of Big Red Ball, it turns out awesome. Led by Lisa Raye, Big Red Ball got going in the late ’80s and really picked up steam in the ’90s, releasing three singles and a CD on the Pachyderm record label. Raye later went on to play in a band called the Auroras.

Lily Liver, “Va Va Va Voom”

If you’re a fan of Lily Liver, I implore you to spend some time with this excellent history of the band written by Danny Sigelman. The spunky three-piece first joined forces at the University of Minnesota in the early ’90s and started gigging around at the Uptown, Entry, and 24 Bar, sharing bills with other popular punk bands of the day like Arzu Gokcen’s first band, Lefty Lucy.

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The Soviettes, “The Land of Clear Blue Radio”

You can’t talk about important women from the rock scene in Minnesota without mentioning the Soviettes, who blasted out with their debut 7″, T.C.C.P., in 2002. Led by Annie Sparrows with support from drummer Danny Henry, gutiarist Maren Sturgeon, and bassist Susy Sharp, the band released a quick succession of highly regarded LPs from 2003-2005, appropriately titled LP, LP II, and LP III. Their final record was released by Fat Wreck Chords, and they had the opportunity to tour with labelmates like Against Me! and Smoke or Fire.

Though the Soviettes disbanded in 2006, they still occasionally get back together for reunion shows at the Triple Rock. Danny and Annie have also played together as the Awesome Snakes.


Selby Tigers, “Droid”

Formed in 1998 in St. Paul, this legendary local punk band took their name from prominent St. Paul street Selby Avenue and their high school team mascot the Tigers. They signed to Hopeless Records (home of influential pop-punk band Dillinger Four) in 2000 and released their excellent debut full-length, Charm City, that same year. Frontwoman Arzu Gokcen has gone on to play in many respected bands around the Twin Cities, including Strut and Shock and her current project, Pink Mink.

  • Jonathan

    No Tina and the B Side Movement?

  • Dale

    If the criteria is any band that had at least one female member involved you have left out many bands. Some of these you have listed were hardly well-known or seen, let alone “influential”. Like Jonathan mentioned, no Tina and the B Sides? Also no Heathen with Heather Mackereth’s wonderful vocals, Polly Alexander (Tetes Noires) had Radio For Teens who are on the early Kitten compilation, Mickey Finn, Timbuktu, Brits Out Of America.. do your homework or do some better research.

    • Andrea Swensson

      The only criterion was how many songs I could fit into a 60-minute playlist. It wasn’t meant to be comprehensive by any means, and is part of an ongoing series of Women’s History month shows on Local Current. I’ll be spinning a track by Tina on the Local Show this Sunday night. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • Rex

      Dale I’ve been looking for more intel on Brits Out Of America can you point me in the right direction?

      • Dale

        I think they recorded one album with Martin Atkins, none of the members are playing music anymore.

  • winnerbowzer

    “If the criteria is any band that had at least one female member involved you have left out many bands. ” <This.

  • Nina Kali Wawracz

    Thanks for this awesome blog Andrea! I feel like I just got a killer history lesson in local women’s music, this is a great way to spark interest in a cool subject, coming from someone who had never heard of any of these bands. Rock’n’ Roll!

  • Geneviève Genquinne

    Bean Girl!