I once read the perfect description of the Minneapolis and Seattle music scenes of the 1990s: Seattle was Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, Minneapolis was Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. While Seattle had the great rock bands of our generation, towering dinosaurs like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Mudhoney, the Twin Cities followed the fuzz-tone punk of Warehouse-era Husker Du and the country-tinged guitar pop of The Replacements.
Babes in Toyland were always misfits for the Land of 10,000 Suburban Shopping Malls. They were enormously loud, fiercely aggressive, openly defiant. They didn’t care if the locals would rather listen to the Gear Daddies and The Jayhawks, or if Minnesota’s unique blend of passive-aggressive politeness — “Minnesota Nice” — never suited their style. This band came to make noise and shock the neighbors. They came to rock.
Babes in Toyland — vocalist Kat Bjelland, bassists Michelle Leon and Maureen Herman, drummer Lori Barbero — created a punk rock sound that was ferocious, richly textured, deeply passionate, full of sound and fury. They were clearly the heaviest and most aggressive band in Minneapolis, then or now. They played rock music on the boys’ terms. They were following the tradition of Blue Cheer’s Vincebus Eruptum and The Ramones’ Road to Ruin, of Sonic Youth and Bauhaus and early Velvet Underground.
With their 1990 debut album, Spanking Machine, the band became a local staple and earned considerable respect within the indie-rock world. Lori Barbero’s Uptown home famously became a regular hostel for every band visiting Minneapolis. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore invited the Babes to join them on tour. British music maven John Peel declared the album the best release of the year.
If memory serves, Spanking Machine was the first Babes in Toyland CD I bought in the early ‘90s. It’s a smashing album, a punk-rock assault with tinges of blues and rockabilly. The band’s technical inexperience was on display, but their passion and drive more than compensated for any shortcomings. And, besides, the whole DIY (“do-it-yourself”) aesthetic of punk demanded as such. Chops don’t matter. Heart matters. The Babes have heart.
In 1991, Babes recorded and released their second album, the seven-song EP To Mother. I blared my cassette tape copy through my car stereo day and night at maximum volume. Its sound retains the thunderous tribal rhythms, but joined to more intricate, complex arrangements. The loose, bluesy elements of the first album gives way to sleek, refined and swaggering guitar rock. Every song is perfect. Every moment a miracle. The closing instrumental track, “Quiet Room,” is sublime. The CD sounds great but has become vanishingly rare. The LP sounds too bright, scratchy and unbalanced, which is annoying. Somebody really dropped the ball there. The cassette version sounds best, like most alternative rock; I really need to find another copy.
On April 1, 1992, another EP, The John Peel Sessions, was released on the Strange Fruit Records and Dutch East India Trading labels. The recordings came from two sessions at the legendary BBC Radio program. An extended version would be released in 2001, but this disc is worth owning for fans.
In 1992, Babes in Toyland were signed to Warner Bros. Reprise Records label, given a large signing bonus (probably the only time the band was ever really paid), and unleashed their next full-length LP, Fontanelle. It’s without question the most raw and visceral album the Babes ever made: shrieking vocals, primal guitars and bass, thunderous galloping drums. Your opinion of this album will depend largely on whether you can withstand Bjelland’s screaming. She screams a lot on this one. But I defy anyone to ignore “Bruise Violet” or “Mother.”
The success of Fontanelle would become the band’s biggest success, leading to a short stint on the 1993 Lollapalooza music tour. Another EP followed, Painkillers, which included only four new songs, a reworking of “He’s My Thing” from Spanking Machine, and a thirty-minute concert recording. It’s far too short, and there’s no excuse for that. Another three or four tracks would have been ideal. Oh, well. The songs that are available just slam, especially “Laredo,” which captures the blues-metal vibe three years before Metallica.
Question: Is Nemesisters the greatest Babes in Toyland album? Let the debates begin, as they say. Released in 1995, this album is clearly the most evolved form of the band, the most mature, the most complex. This is a band at the peak of their powers. And this is most definitely a band of equals. Kat Bjelland may have had the upper hand in experience at the beginning, but Lori Barbero and Maureen Herman have grown to match her by 1995. And you can hear it on these songs. “Sweet ’69” is the best rock song Babes in Toyland ever recorded, end of line. Several other tracks, including “Oh Yeah,” “22,” and “Middle Man” would also qualify.
Kat Bjelland’s lyrics on Nemesisters are loaded to the hilt with cheesy puns. “I will not follow stupid sheep/I will not bow, I will not peep.” I always got a chuckle out of that one. Bad relationships, childhood trauma, rivalries that may or may not involve Courtney Love; this was her lyrical bread and butter, and she very rarely strayed away from those sources.
To be completely honest, I never did fully understand what Bjelland was screaming about half the time. But I always understood the vibe. I always tuned in for the music, the riffs, the drumming, the aggression, the energy and the excitement.
I think the Nemesisters album cover is remarkable, definitely the “statement” cover of the band’s library. I don’t know if they’re attacking stereotypes of women in general as much as stereotypes of themselves; this was one of the most polarizing rock bands of the ‘90s, and gender had a lot to do about that. There were many successful women in music that decade, but none as aggressive or extreme. The Riot Grrrl bands are the closest kin, but none of those groups were nearly as successful.
That was then. Now, the waters have since receded. Women are back to playing Barbie dolls and sanitized pop singers rule the airwaves. Rock is dead for all but aging Baby Boomer and Generation X holdouts (and we all know Keith Richards will outlive us all). Even the indie rock world has become far too safe and toothless. And there still remains an unspoken boundary that female musicians are not allowed to cross. It’s like Baseball versus Softball. Babes in Toyland came to play baseball and rally all the other girls playing softball. They came the closest to actually succeeding.
I can’t wait to see future generations grab the reins and drive ahead. Where is it written that there couldn’t be an all-female answer to Metallica, or Radiohead, or U2? Why is everybody auditioning on industry-manufactured no-talent shows for approval? Why should you care what Simon Cowell or Paula Abdul thinks? Why should you care if American Idol or The Voice came to your town? You don’t want to buy what they’re selling.
It is the duty of teenagers to disregard and disobey their parents. You didn’t pick up a guitar or drumsticks so you could become a shill for television commercials, or crank out auto-tuned pop songs that offend no one. You came here to rock. You came here to make noise, shock the neighbors, and change the world. It’s 2016, kids. The clock is ticking. Pick up your Babes in Toyland mixtapes, memorize those songs and get to work.