Local Current Blog

Music History Spotlight: The Clams

The Clams (Photos courtesy Cindy Lawson)

In hopes to add another all-female rock band to the Minneapolis music scene, Cindy Lawson took out ads in local magazines in the summer of 1985.

Soon enough, the City Pages and now-historic Twin Cities Reader ads caught the attention of drummer Karen Gratz, bassist Patsy Joe and  guitarist Roxie Terry, and The Clams were born.

“I had done some singing in bands, just being a female singer. And I would go out and I would see bands or I would listen to music and women playing instruments and it just seemed like, I must be out of my mind that I’m not doing that myself,” Lawson said. “It’s like, why am I up here and just kinda playing this role when I’d rather be saying things that important to me and feeling powerful.”

During their four year span, the rock group released several singles and an EP. Common venues for the band included the Uptown Bar and the 7th Street Entry, but Lawson said she thinks most people might remember her band for playing a different venue — the Stillwater prison. 

“It was a really strange experience because it wasn’t anything like you’d think. I mean you’d go in and you’d go through security and that’s a little creepy … But they had a nice big stage, and all the instruments, and the audience was as quiet as could be and so well behaved and we would say something and they’d clap and they’d be really quiet again. And we’d play and they’d clap,” Lawson said. “They were a much better behaved audience than any bar I’d been too.”

The Clams were influenced by popular rock acts like the Rolling Stones, Runaways, New York Dolls and David Bowie. Their single “Let Me Drive” is included in the Local Show’s intro every week, and Lawson remembers it as one of her earlier attempts to write an anthemic, three-chord “simple rocker.”

“I think I just loved the drum beat, and I loved just hitting those chords, and just feeling really powerful and loud. That’s like the best medicine for anything,” Lawson said of performing the song live.

At the time, the Twin Cities music scene was a close-knit community with few all-female or female-fronted bands, Lawson said. The group drew inspiration from other all-girl bands, like Têtes Noires. 

Compared to now, there were a lot less musicians and there were basically only a handful of places to pay,” she said. “It was like a high school, it was relaxed and we had the different people. It was just a really small, pretty tight niche group, everyone pretty much knew everyone else.”

Though the smaller scene also had less women at the time, Lawson said, The Clams didn’t run into a lot of issues.

“People were really, for the most part, the other bands in town were really open to having women play on the same bill. It was just a few maybe outspoken people who didn’t think female musicians were that good, or think that they had to say wasn’t that important. But I’d say for the most part, Minneapolis was a great place to be. Everyone was really welcoming,” Lawson said.

In 1989, The Clams parted ways. Afterwards, Lawson moved to New York and played in a band with Sara Lee of the B-52’s and Steve Jordan, a studio musician who had done some production work for Soul Asylum. After that, she finished her college degree, played in a few other bands and now occasionally sits in with groups. 

Lawson said that The Clams weren’t aiming to become a nationally famous rock band. Rather, they simply enjoyed making music and being part of the Minneapolis arts scene. 

“I just think that that time, the mid to late ’80s, was just a real blast in Minneapolis,” Lawson said. “I think everybody should have that experience, and feel that potential. Like you can do anything, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to play guitar, just plug it in and learn, and start doing it, and play with your friends and do things that are meaningful for you.”

Cindy Lawson, Karen Gratz, Patsy Joe and Roxie Terry of The Clams in 1989

Jackie Renzetti is a student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. She is an editor at the Minnesota Daily and co-hosts Radio K’s “Off the Record.”