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Smell Tha Noize 

L7: You can take white thrash anywhere

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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"This place," observes L7 guitarist-singer Donita Sparks, scanning the Manhattan club on arrival, "doesn’t exactly say ‘rock.’" The interior of Bleeker Street’s Life disco looks more like something out of Miami Vice, with chrome-ish columns and sleek bars at every turn. She pronounces rock quickly, and without the italics, as if it’s a word she’s gnawed on and spat out billions of times. The club’s on-duty model greets her with a secretarial fake-nice "And who are you with?" to which Sparks politely and curtly replies, "El Se-ven," and strolls through to catch up with her bandmates, drummer Dee Plakas, new-recruit bassist Janis Tanaka and co-guitarist-singer Suzi Gardner, who’s busily taping up posters and T-shirts at the band’s merchandise booth.

L7 have pulled their van into New York on the skirts of Hurricane Floyd, after bad weather cut into the turnout for shows in Philadelphia and Waterbury, Connecticut. The gals can only look forward, but the fact that tonight’s show is part of the CMJ music conference and promises loads of conventioneers with laminated badges and presidential-candidate-like tight schedules has them a little leery.

Come showtime, L7 hits the stage, pummeling every hidden corner of the icy building with dexterous, full-throttle and, yes, dangerous hard rock. It could almost be Raji’s 1988, except with a bigger stage and $6 Amstel Lights. Gardner wears a funny leather hat, and the set kicks off with "Andres," a hit from 1994’s Hungry for Stink, which leads to "I Need," a song from ’97’s The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, which juxtaposes droll Sparks lines like "Come on and validate me" with Gardner’s backing "ayayayayayayayay"s. It’s classic L7 — sarcastic, immediate, extreme — not to mention a criminally overlooked shoulda-hit (more on that later).

At one point, Sparks adopts a German dominatrix accent and deadpans to the audience, "We play da musik dat makes you dance, ahnd you’re naht dahncing, ahnd it’s a bummah." Then they lunge into "Lackey," a new Sparks-penned tune that seemingly parodies a covetous never-quite rock star demanding the spoils of fame too late. It’s one of L7’s funniest and most self-deprecating moments ("Light my smokes, fill my glass/Pucker up and kiss my big white ass") in a lineage of songs that fold cynicism and real hurt into blisteringly hard rock, a scheme few bands have successfully pulled off (even the band L7 are often aligned with, the Ramones).

"Are the badges a little weighty this year?" chides Sparks, though most of the non-CMJ crowd is made up of girls and guys the same age, or even younger, as Donita, Suzi and Dee were when they started L7 in 1985. Then drummer Plakas elevates the new "War With You," Gardner’s simmering midtempo sneer about the remains of some good lovin’ gone bad, into far more hazardous territory. Watching this arm-flailing gymnast pound her kit disproves entire theories taught us by scientists and athletes about mass and power. While Sparks urges the crowd to be more responsive, and Gardner doles out eye contact like it’s endangered goods, and probationary bassist Tanaka, if she wants to keep the job, knows she damn well better act like she’s playing Madison Square Garden, Dee Plakas just fucking rocks. Even the badges in the house break a sweat.

Okay, so maybe it’s not Raji’s 1988, when an L7 show was an explosion of controlled thunder, like the first time you experienced Iggy or Black Sabbath or Motorhead or whoever going to extremes to make you believe in life ’n’ things. That’s not a feeling you can count on with your favorite bands these days, so, in late ’99, you want to give L7 a big tip, or maybe send them a fruit-of-the-month basket, for all the flat-out joy they’ve brought you.

In case you were wondering, yes indeed, L7 still rock like our lives depend on it.

 

The Lighter Side of L7

Gathering for a pre-show sit-down in New York, all four members of L7 are so darn cute and nice, they’re naturals for a sitcom on Fox. (Fox executive: "I see it as The Monkees meet Josie and the Pussycats, with menstrual jokes.") They laugh at each other’s quips, drink each other’s coffee and know just when to interrupt each other. Plakas is right on cue with a "budumpump" following Sparks’ punch lines. The previous night’s show in Waterbury was either "sucky" (Sparks) or "like work" (Plakas), but the gals know they have to get down to a workman’s attitude to promote the hell out of their new album, Slap-Happy, on their own label. Fired from their old employer, Slash/Warner Bros., after the release of The Beauty Process, the band decided to "rip themselves off" and put out their next record themselves. They copped the name of a song on their debut EP (which was lifted from a Weekly World News headline) and got into business under the moniker Wax Tadpole Records. They made a deal with Bongload Records for distribution, which lets that company, as Sparks puts it, "deal with the day-to-day stuff, so we get to use their staff and their office." "And their fax machine," adds Plakas.

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