Artist Spotlight: L7 (or; We’re Not Changing Our Panties Until San Diego) [Part 1 of 2]

L7 began in 1985, started by self-proclaimed “Art-Punk” Donita Sparks and metalhead Suzi Gardner. The two met in 1984, when mutual friends were telling each of them individually that they should meet each other.  The two had both worked at free alternative newspaper LA Weekly, although at different times. Gardner had given Sparks a tape of songs she’d been working on, and Sparks was into it. While they both are lyricists, Sparks stated that Gardner was the main template for the music that L7 created.

There’s very little about their early years, they even gloss over it in the L7: Pretend We’re Dead documentary. To summarize, they had some “psycho rhythm sections”, and when they were starting out, men didn’t want to play with them. They never set to be an “all-girl” group, in fact, they didn’t want their gender discussed at all.

The group had been around for about 6 months, and were actually at the end of their rope, when Jennifer Finch joined in 1986. Prior to L7, Finch had been in Sugar Babydoll (later, Pagan Babies) with Courtney Love, who had started the band after a short stint as the vocalist for Faith No More. Sparks said that Finch injected the band with a new energy, and through Finch’s connections, the revitalized band had new doors opened for them, and they played many places where they had been turned down before.

L7 (1988)

After the band was more fine-tuned, they recorded a self-titled album produced by Bad Religion’s Brett Gurewitz, and released on his Epitaph label.

The album is much more of a punk album, compared to what they would become after this. Even Sparks rated it last when ranking the band’s albums in 2016 to Vice. She said, “Just tell everyone to skip the first album, and the rest are tied for first”.

Sparks went on to say that she personally didn’t feel that she was ready to write for a record at that time. The music is there, sludgy stuff and fast stuff, but she states the lyrics are clichéd, and they were writing what they thought a rock band should write.

L7 went on tour, opening for Bad Religion. After the tour, drummer Roy Koutsky was out. As far as I can tell, he never played with a recognizable band again. He died at his home in Florida in 2016.

Smell the Magic (1990 / 1991)

After L7, the band needed a drummer, and hooked up with Chicago native Dee Plakas. In a 2019 interview, Sparks said that Plakas was the glue to the L7 sound. She had broken her arm and was forced to sit out a few shows, and the band just wasn’t as good.

After playing a show in Seattle, Sup Pop asked them to record something for their “Single of the Month Club”. The band submitted “Shove” and “Packin’ A Rod”, both recorded and produced by Uncle Jack Endino. Afterward, the label sent them on tour with labelmates Cat Butt. A tour that was dubbed “Swappin’ Fluids Across the Nation”, saw members of both bands entwined in romantic relationships. In the book Everybody Loves Our Town, many women in the Seattle scene had some not so subtle comments about the promiscuity of L7, and implying that they had, erm, “social diseases”. I just want to say this is bullshit, casting aspersions on their sexuality. They have just as much right to be sexual as any group of men.

But I digress. It was while they were in New York on this tour, that a woman with a straight razor attempted to slash Sparks’ crotch, for some unknown reason. Sparks jumped back and ended up getting cut in the knee instead. Fortunately, there was a gangland style execution just up the block, and when the ambulance arrived they said, “We were looking for a guy who was shot in the head, but we’ll take you instead”.

After the release of the single, it sold so well, Sub Pop sent the band on their first tour of Europe (third tour total). They played 10 dates headlining, and then played 10 dates opening for Nirvana.

After the single, Sup Pop asked L7 to record an EP, which became Smell the Magic in 1990. It was then re-released in 1991 with three more songs, bringing it to album length, so sometimes it’s an EP, sometimes an LP.  It’s all dependent on whoever is writing the discography that day.

The album is more in line with what is considered the L7 sound. It’s heavy, it’s mostly fast, but has some sludgy moments as well, and it has that slant of humor for which the band becomes known.  It has the Sub Pop A-side “Shove”, and the expanded version also has “Packin’ a Rod”.  It also has their most famous lyric, “Got so much clit, she don’t need no balls”, found in “Fast and Frightening”.

I bought this in Manhattan, when I was there for work (along with The Reverend Horton Heat’s Full Custom Gospel Sounds), in a record store I found quite by accident. I had to wait to get home to listen to it, though. When I did, I loved it instantly, it’s full of that high intensity rock that they are known for. My favorite on the album is “Just Like Me” (expanded edition only, kids). The song name checks Faster Pussycat, Vixen, and Axl Rose. Sample lyric: Vixen are love gods, just like me / Pretty, pretty sex things, just like me / Dressed up and pay to play, I couldn’t live that way / Hairspray and boustier, can’t fool me.

Rock For Choice and Bricks Are Heavy (1992)

After a successful run with Sup Pop, L7 signed with Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash / Reprise Records.

The band has always maintained that they did not set out to be a “girl band” or to be political in anyway, but the side effect of being in an all-female band (especially in the late 80’s and early 90’s) makes L7 naturally political. As a reaction to the abortion clinic bombings and the erosion of women’s reproductive rights, the band were going to donate proceeds from an upcoming show to pro-choice charities and jokingly called it “Rock For Coat Hangers”. L7 were put in touch with the Feminist Majority Foundation. Together, they created Rock For Choice with a focus on increasing access to reproductive health and voter registration.

In 1991, the first Rock For Choice concert was held, featuring L7, Nirvana, Hole, and Sister Double Happiness. This show would also begin the band’s relationship with Joan Jett, when she joined them onstage for a cover of The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb”.

L7 had gone to Madison, Wisconsin to record their major label debut with producer (and future Garbage guitarist) Butch Vig. Vig has just finished recording Nirvana’s Nevermind, and the album had actually blown up while the band was in the studio working on Bricks Are Heavy.

“Pretend We’re Dead” was the obvious choice for a single, as it was the most pop oriented of the bunch. Originally, a heartbroken Sparks was addressing a former lover and going to say “I Just Pretend That You’re Dead”, but since the band had an unwritten rule against love songs (women in hard rock had to be twice as hard as the men to be taken seriously), they addressed the situation with “fierceness and humor”. The album is one of their best, containing a punk/groove hybrid of “Everglade”, and the slow churn of “Diet Pill”. However, the only song that can compare in popularity to “Dead” is “Shitlist”.

I can remember first hearing “Dead”, and just being blown away. I had heard Lita Ford, Joan Jett, and Vixen, but as a young kid, I had no idea women could sound like this!

After the album’s release in 1992, the band were getting big fast, and Slash / Reprise had them touring relentlessly. That summer, they had their first television appearance on The David Letterman Show. Now, there are a couple incidents that are notorious, and have been written about to death, so I’m just going to touch on them real quick. The 1992 Reading Festival had a “Grunge Day” that L7 was playing, it had rained and kids were throwing tons of mud on stage. Sparks removed her bloody tampon, swung it over her head, and launched it into the audience. In December of 1992, Sparks dropped her pants on British television, going full frontal.

Also, during 1992, the band hosted their second Rock For Choice concert, with Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mudhoney, and Exene Cervenka from X.

Hungry for Stink (1994)

1993 saw L7 continue their world touring seeing Brazil, where they couldn’t leave their hotel for fear of being mobbed, and Japan where they were showered with gifts. This would be the year that they also make their big screen debut after hooking up with John Waters and playing as the band Camel Lips in Serial Mom, which was released in 1994.

“I like their politics, I like their music, and they have a great sense of humor,” Waters told Spin Magazine in 1993. “I’ve always been a fan of theirs. I play their music in my car all the time, when I need to hear some aggression.”

In the winter of 1993, they entered the studio to record Hungry For Stink. The album has some fun moments on it, like “Riding With a Movie Star” (featuring Faith No More’s Roddy Bottum on keyboards) and an ode to the first female drag racer Shirley Muldowney (featuring future Faith No More guitarist Dean Menta on samples), but over all is a dark and paranoid affair.

I want to point out specifically “Can I Run” with the lyrics: Are these sensible shoes on my feet / I wear my shades so our eyes don’t meet / I’m scared every fucking day / I wear my headphones so I can’t hear what you say. This is more potent now than it was in 1994, Sparks is outlining things women have to think about daily, that as a man, I’ve never truly had to consider. I don’t have to worry about being sexually harassed or stalked, I don’t have to think about wearing shoes so I can flee, or carry my keys in my fist in case I have to throw a punch at a man much larger than me.

Sparks said of the record, “There are some songs that are kind of dark on that record. Personally, I was becoming more paranoid, staying in the house more. LA seemed like it was getting kind of scary at the time, so I think that’s kind of reflected in the record.”

L7 toured on the 1994 edition of Lollapalooza, with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Boredoms, The Breeders, Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, and hundreds of other bands on the second stage (at my stop I saw Flaming Lips, The Verve, and Luscious Jackson). The band had a stage set up like a winter wonderland, with a rotating snowman and actual snow that fell at the end of their set… which seems like a lot when you’re playing at 1:30 in the afternoon.

When I saw them, Sparks announced that Gardner injured herself on “shitty Canadian sidewalks”, and was playing from a wheelchair with a cast on. I don’t remember the entire setlist, but they also announced “Slimfast and Donuts for all my friends!” before playing “Diet Pill”. Sparks also informed the audience, “We’re not changing our panties until we reach San Diego!”

Also, Gardner lost her umbrella in Columbus, Ohio.