Artist Spotlight: Blake Babies

As a teenager surfing through Pitchfork’s daunting Top 100 Albums of the 80’s list, one square in particular caught my eye. Galaxie 500’s On Fire: the perfect band name, the perfect album title, and an incendiary album cover that seemed to radiate pure energy. Instead of, y’know, reading the blurb, I imagined what On Fire sounded like based entirely on one hazy orange group photo. I heard fast sunshine, blazing hooks, and howling vocals.

Imagine my disappointment when I first listened to one of the most gorgeous albums of all time. “Why are they playing so slow? Their name is GALAXIE 500.” As I matured I did a complete turnaround on On Fire, listing as #19 in the Avocado’s Top 100 Albums Poll, but the nameless band I had concocted continued to perform gigs in my head from time to time. It would take several years before I discovered something similar in a bargain bin at a record store.

Blake Babies was formed in 1986 Boston–the exact same time and place as Galaxie 500–by college students John Strohm, Freda Love (unfortunately born Freda Boner), and Juliana Hatfield. Strohm was a prodigy on the drums, playing in local (Bloomington, Indiana) hardcore acts, school bands, and blues jams. But when he discovered the guitar at 17 “there was no turning back.” He gave his drum kit to his high school girlfriend Freda, who had never played a musical instrument before but expressed great interest in forming a band.

The couple moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music; it was there where they became infatuated with a fellow freshman named Juliana Hatfield. “She just had this air of cool about her, she was our dream girl,” says Strohm in a 2005 interview. “There were so many people at Berklee who were trying so hard to be pop stars, but she seemed above it. Turned out it was mostly because she was shy.”

One night Love and Strohm had been drinking at a bar (using fake IDs–they were only eighteen), and formulated a plan to meet Hatfield. They sat in the lobby at Berklee until she strolled through–with a pineapple and a King Crimson album of all things (the pineapple was from catering and the K.C. album contained a song she wanted to learn). They followed her up to her room, knocked on her door and asked “wanna start a band?” As fate would have it, in the ensuing months to this knock-knock Hatfield had developed a small crush while watching the luminous Freda Love glide through the halls of Berklee. Love was Hatfield’s secret “angel girl” the same way Hatfield was Strohm and Love’s “dream girl.”

Hatfield followed the couple to their apartment right around the corner on Hemenway Street. The place was completely unfurnished save for a mattress, a black cat named Jessup, a small drum kit, a couple of amps, and a microphone on a wobbly-looking stand. Hatfield had been impossibly lonely her first few months at Berklee and was swirling with electricity from this chance encounter. They talked: the trio all shared a love of R.E.M., the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, The Violent Femmes, and X.

They played: Strohm and Love actually did not know the extent of Hatfield’s music ability, they had drafted their new frontman (frontwoman) based entirely on sight. Hatfield had never played electric guitar before but Strohm explained that it was actually easier to play than acoustic (“don’t need to press down as hard on the strings”). The first song the three played together was “Femme Fatale” by The Velvet Underground. Hatfield put her mouth to the microphone and sang, “Here she comes…”

The name “Blake Babies” was provided by poet Allen Ginsberg; following a reading at Harvard University, the group raised their hands and asked him to name their band, which he did instantly. Ginsberg’s suggestion was likely inspired by the first half of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The improvised name proved to be surprisingly accurate in regards to what became the group’s dominating sound quality: the juxtaposition of Hatfield’s pure, youthful vocals with her gray, acerbic lyrics.

The newborn band held practice in Berklee rehearsal halls. Early gigs featured audiences composed largely of friends and family. Their first show was in the basement of a Thrift Store called She’s Leaving Home. Gradually they became more known. Boston was home to many colleges and small clubs to play in–the Rat, Bunratty’s, T.T. the Bear’s, Green Street Station. It was an exciting time to be an indie rock band in Boston because there was seemingly a great band for every block: Throwing Muses, Volcano Suns, Pixies, Lemonheads, Galaxie 500, Dinosaur Jr. Although the Babies never experienced the heights of the bands mentioned above, the amount of attention they received far exceeded the inexperienced group’s expectations.

Musically, their songs were a conscious retaliation against the hardcore bands that dominated the scene at the time. Their speciality was highly melodic tunes, with upbeat instruments supporting rather than covering the cheery vocals. Think an East Coast Best Coast. Or a sweeter Garbage. Or a F.E.M. R.E.M. They gained a reputation as an “intelligent” band due to their Berklee roots and sophisticated harmonic shifts. In truth, their meticulous arrangements were done out of necessity to mask their “limited instrumental capabilities” in a way that was presentable and made sense.

They self-produced 1000 copies of their first album, Nicely, Nicely, by scrounging together money from parent I.O.U’s and redirected student loans. Nearly all of these pressings were mailed to fanzines, college radio stations, and small labels all across the country, making the scrappy Nicely, Nicely nearly impossible to find today. The Babies’ first tour was both “beautiful and pathetic,” with some shows where the band outnumbered the audience. The tour doubled as a trip to meet with the one record label that called them back.

The head of Mammoth Records out of the University of North Carolina received a copy of Nicely, Nicely, became interested, and signed the band on the day of the 1988 Presidential Election. Blake Babies’ second effort, the crunchy Earwig, was recorded in the same studio on the same day as the imploding Dinosaur Jr.’s similarly-named Bug (the Babies had to record in the middle of the night to save money). A highlight from these 3 A.M. sessions is “Lament,” a jangly portrait of an unnamed band who sold out.

Things became complex as the success became modest. Popular local act The Lemonheads staged a coup by turning Strohm and Hatfield into de facto band members and using them for numerous gigs. All in all, the Blake Babies braintrust spent more years in the Lemonheads then they did for their own project. On the buisness side, certain agents began pushing for a break-up in order to jumpstart the burgeoning Hatfield’s solo career. Hatfield recalls having an intense feeling of emptiness after playing a CBGB performance for twelve people, it was the worst she had felt since joining the band.

In the midst of all of this outside heat, the Blake Babies released Sunburn in 1990. With every member at their best and no less than three songs about making boys cry, Sunburn is defiant and definitive. Opener “I’m Not You’re Mother” contains about ten different segments that work together beautifully; the lyric “anything you can do I can do better” pays tribute to another musical femme fatale. “Out There” is super-duper catchy and has a funny video that captures the band’s third wheel dynamic, with Strohm and Love snogging while Hatfield broods in the foreground.

My favorite Blake Babies song is “Sanctify;” it just simmers and cooks, building up to an furious ending that’s strangely soothing. It’s the best written track and also the only one that credits all three Babies. Coincidence? Overall, Sunburn is a joy from start to finish and is the perfect album to collect a Trucker’s Tan: driving fast on a highway with the window rolled down and the music battling the wind. It’s the sound of a promising young band just starting to figure themselves out.

Hatfield instigated the break-up of The Blake Babies in 1991, feeling both constricted by her bandmates and also the melancholy shiver of her friends drifting apart. The breaking point was when Columbia Big Cheese David Kahne (“Khaaaaaaaaaan!!”) mixed a slick, radio-ready version of “I’m Not Your Mother.” Hatfield’s bandmates didn’t share her chart-topping aspirations and hated this sugar-coated vision, so she departed to great independent success. Strohm and Love (who broke off their relationship shortly thereafter) soldiered on to considerably less success with Antenna, then Velo-Deluxe, then the Mysteries of Life (Love eventually married the bassist).

The Babies remained semi-close through the rise of Juliana Hatfield’s solo career and the fall of MTV and grunge. Strohm (now a lawyer) and Love each had babies of their own. They reunited briefly in 2001 for the one-album project God Bless the Blake Babies to return to a pivotal point in their lives; to nix bad lovers and make them “Disappear.” The songs were as catchy and charming (and Hatfield-dominated) as before, like there was a ten-month gap between Sunburn instead of a decade.

God Bless… contains a buffet of boy bashers (“Disappear, “Civil War, “On”), an appearance from Lemonhead and Hatfield’s ex-lover Evan Dando, a “Love is All Around”-sounding “Baby Gets High” and the disturbingly pretty “Waiting for Heaven.” Most surprising of all, Love (who orchestrated the comeback) emerged as a songwriting talent, penning the album’s lead single “Nothing Ever Happens.” The band hit the road playing old haunts like Chapel Hill, NC’s Cat’s Cradle, the 9:30 Club in D.C., and the Knitting Factory in NYC. John Strohm called it the best the Blake Babies ever sounded.

In 2016, Strohm uneathered some old Earwig demos and was pleased by what he heard. A few phone calls were made an impromptu second reunion show quietly made the rounds. The Babies have reportedly been working on some new material and a fifth album may be in the works nearly 30 years after Freda Love first knocked on Juliana Hatfield’s door.

The Blake Babies captured the spirit of indie music in the late 80’s. Though a product of their time, there are aspects of their story that feel timeless and universal. The desire to inspire, the favoring of passion over virtuosity, the power of delusional optimism and delicious hooks. There are few words in the entertainment industry more pure than “wanna start a band?”

Thank You for reading my Artist Spotlight on Blake Babies. As a reward for making it all the way to the end, here is a rare video of a Babies concert where Strohm and Hatfield begin without a drummer and are rescued by none other than The Minutemen’s George Hurley. Enjoy!