A Power of Ten

Slug's love bug, Kat Bjelland's exorcism, Dave Pirner's throbbing shins: Ten years of local music served on ten great platters.

One night in 1987, not long after moving to Minneapolis, Kat Bjelland walked right up to Dave Pirner at First Avenue and kicked him in the shins.

"My band's going to kick your band's ass!" she yelled at the hapless singer, who had no idea who she was, but kept his Minnesota composure. "Oh, what's your band?"

"I don't have one yet," she spat back. "But when I do..."

Tony Nelson

Bjelland now laughs when I bring up the incident. "I don't know what I was trying to prove," she says. "Probably that I existed."

The group she formed soon after heralded not just a new presence in local music but a new voice in rock 'n' roll. There were punk precedents for Babes in Toyland, from the Slits to Frightwig. But even as the Nineties flew the "Women in Rock" banner, no all-female band howled with such wrath, pounded with such primitive exuberance, or rocked punk's exclusionary boy's club with such glee.

Bjelland had moved here from San Francisco with her friend Courtney Love, who later played in the group briefly, but neither of them knew anyone here. They had the good fortune, then, to hook up with the most plugged-in punk on the scene. Bjelland and Love spotted dreadlocked Lori Barbero dancing one night at First Avenue and were impressed by her sense of rhythm. Kat approached Lori at a barbecue one day about starting a band, and the two quickly formed a psychic bond.

"I just think that Kat and I had our own thing going on," says Barbero. "She had her guitar style, and I was just backwards and awkward and tribal and weird. Our chemistry was really amazing."

Barbero had never played drums before--at the band's first 7th Street Entry gig, opening for Dinosaur, she had to ask the sound man which one was the snare drum. But the longtime show promoter had the drive, generosity, and the connections to get her band in front of audiences before it was ready. With Michelle Leon on bass, the trio practiced five or six days a week in Barbero's legendary house at 19th and Colfax--the Big Trouble House--where Nirvana and countless others crashed. For the brief period she was in Babes in Toyland, Love described rehearsals as "an exorcism," though Bjelland's demons were perfectly human.

"When I first moved here, I went out with someone and there was a really terrible break-up," Bjelland says, "so I had a lot of material."

The band had barely learned to play its set, from the vengeful "Dust Cake Boy" to the reverse-objectification number "He's My Thing," when they recorded Spanking Machine over a couple of weeks in early 1989 with Jack Endino (of the influential Seattle band Skin Yard). The trio recorded at Reciprocal Studio in Seattle, within walking distance of the legendary rock club the Crocodile. "We all loved Seattle," says Barbero. "We always talked about moving out there. That was before it was the big, huge thing."

It wasn't until the record came out that the band began to realize the invigorating effect they were having on the growing numbers of young women in their audience. Spanking Machine included Barbero's home address and phone number on its sleeve, and the group soon became inundated with letters from 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old girls.

"I had seen more than my share of supposedly life-changing hardcore, indie-rock, punk shows," says Jessica Hopper, a fan who was 14 when Spanking Machine came out. "Nothing affected me like watching Babes play for the first time. It ignited in me this...crusade. I wanted people who needed this music to find out about it." Hopper says she called Cake magazine and asked if she could interview the band or write about them.

"They said no. I said, okay, fine, I'll do it myself." Hopper's Hit It or Quit It zine became a flagship of the emergent riot grrrl movement, which she also credits to the influence of Babes in Toyland.

By the time the band signed to Reprise to record their 1992 sophomore album, Leon had left the group--so had the endearing scruffiness of its debut. "Spanking Machine is one of my favorite ones," says Bjelland. "Because we just wrote all those songs and recorded them right away. We didn't even really wait to get that good." (Scholtes)


See also: the unhinged punk of the Cows' Cunning Stunts and the frayed female vocals of Selby Tigers' Year of the Tigers.


Secret Name
Kranky, 1999

Unwinding simple melodic threads from a spool of deliberate tempos, Low always offered their richest rewards to the patient listener. It seemed only natural that the Duluth trio's 1999 masterpiece would be so long in the making. "We had lived with about half the songs on Secret Name for a couple years," says guitarist Alan Sparhawk. "It gave us time to pare down, to focus on the things that made the song what it was."

Low took their time both honing the material and broadening their sonic palette before returning to the studio last year with producer Steve Albini. Virgin's Vernon Yard label had dropped the band in 1997 after three albums of sweet, slight, and disorienting classic-pop revisionism had failed to create a ripple beyond a dedicated cult. Yet the downtime may have been just what the group needed. When they finally entered Albini's Electrical Audio Recordings in Chicago, the group began creating their most diverse, yet cogent, collection to date.

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