‘We Don’t Put Out’: Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains At 40

Hardly screened when first released in 1982, The Fabulous Stains found an audience among the Riot Grrrl acts a decade later. David Chiu explores this cult classic with reminisces from the cast and crew

Prior to 1980, rock and roll films – whether documentaries or dramatisations – mostly told the stories of male artists (among them Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Monkees and Buddy Holly), while the narrative of the female rock musician went largely absent. So when the American screenwriter Nancy Dowd developed a story about an all-girl punk rock trio who captivates young female fans and the media, it seemed quite radical and groundbreaking. In 1978, Dowd – who wrote the 1977 comedy Slap Shot and won an Oscar for the 1978 drama Coming Home–contacted the British writer and artist Caroline Coon, who had extensively covered the punk scene for the U.K. music weekly Melody Maker.

“It was exciting beyond my wildest dreams,” Coon recalls today when Dowd pitched the story to her, “because the whole premise behind my reportage on the punk scene was a critical mass of young women taking to the stage, being innovative musicians, playing instruments, et cetera. So when Nancy came up with a story about how a young group of women musicians conquered the world, it was really wonderful. I think we saw ourselves in the vanguard of feminism, which was going to make space for women in the public sphere.”

Dowd’s story became the basis for the film Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Shot in Vancouver in 1980, the making of The Fabulous Stains was as unique as its script. It was directed by Lou Adler, who was best known for producing hit records for Carole King and the Mamas and the Papas, and had previously helmed Cheech and Chong’s 1978 stoner comedy Up in Smoke. The film starred Diane Lane, Laura Dern, Marin Kanter and Ray Winstone during the early part of their careers, as well as established actors Peter Donat, Christine Lahti and David Clennon. And the movie featured real-life rockers – the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, and the Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick – in both acting and musical roles.

But for all the diverse talent involved in its production, The Fabulous Stains didn’t make a commercial dent when it was barely screened in October 1982, and then faded into obscurity. But the film later went on to develop a cult following and predicted the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement for its depiction of DIY female rock acts who wrote and played their own music while railing against the status quo.

“Women musicians were always there, shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts, but then edited out,” says Coon, who was later brought on as the film’s creative consultant. “Nancy understood that female musicians were there but kept out by the misogyny and white male supremacy in the music industry…We were absolutely aware of writing the future informed by the present.”

Set at the dawn of 1980s America, the movie tells the story of feisty teenager Corinne Burns (Lane), who becomes orphaned after her mother succumbs to lung cancer. Wanting to leave her economically-depressed industrial town, she forms a band with her younger sister Tracy (Kanter) and their cousin Jessica (Dern) called the Stains. Through a sympathetic promoter named Lawn Boy (played by reggae artist Barry Ford), they are invited to tour with ageing American rock act the Metal Corpses and up-and-coming British punk band the Looters (led by their singer Billy, played by Winstone) as their opening act. After the musically inexperienced Stains are heckled by an audience at a club, Corinne shocks everyone by taking off her coat and hat, revealing her see-through blouse, fishnet tights, and skunk-like hair. “I’m perfect! But nobody in this shit hole gets me because I don’t put out!” she angrily tells the crowd.

Corinne’s defiant act and punk-ish appearance generate TV coverage for the Stains and an army of young female followers, nicknamed the Skunks, entranced by the band’s post-punk music and message. The trio becomes a sensation, stealing the spotlight away from the headlining Looters who resent the Stains’ growing popularity. However, the Stains’ momentum is quickly derailed after Billy manipulates the Skunks at a concert into believing their heroes sold out, and a backlash from the fans and the media ensues. Yet the trio eventually triumphs when a song of theirs is broadcasted on the radio, and they go on to achieve mainstream success.

“The film brilliantly depicts a tough, complex punk teen girl [in Corinne] who courageously confronts a mainstream society and a supposedly alternative music scene that is consistently dismissive of young women,” says writer/podcast host Allison Wolfe, who co-founded the Riot Grrrl band Bratmobile in 1991. “The script was so clearly written by women who understood sexism through lived experience and envisioned punk feminism.”

With Adler and Dowd handling directing and writing duties respectively, the movie (originally called All Washed Up) cast three relative newcomers to portray the Stains. Both Diane Lane and Laura Dern (who were 15 and 13 respectively at the time) had previous onscreen experience; for Marin Kanter, who played Corinne’s sister Tracy, The Fabulous Stains marked her film debut at age 19. “I liked the story a lot,” Kanter recalls today, “Because it was very empowering about women, I really related to it.”

Singer Fee Waybill and keyboardist Vince Welnick of the American rock band the Tubes played the members of the fictitious Metal Corpses, after Adler caught a Tubes show. “He didn’t have me audition because he knew I could sing,” Waybill remembers. “But the audition for Vince was: ‘Pull up your pant legs. I wanna see how skinny your legs are.’ Vince pulled up his pant legs, and Lou went: ‘You’re hired.’” For his portrayal of fading rocker Lou Corpse, Waybill channelled his Quay Lewd persona from the Tubes’ live shows. “We did that KISS kind of make-up,” he says. “That’s why it was so easy for me. You’re kind of a hung-over heroin addict: too much drugs, too much alcohol.”

For the film’s British contingent, Coon suggested bringing in punk rockers Paul Simonon, Paul Cook and Steve Jones to play the Looters (Gary Oldman was considered for the part of the band’s singer Billy, which eventually went to Ray Winstone). “There were some very brilliant young punk musicians whose bands had broken up,” Coon explains, “hanging around [and] wanting to know where their lives were going next. The Sex Pistols and the Clash were in transition, shall we say. So I thought, ‘Let’s make sure that these young musicians have something to do, have a job to do, and they might like this,’ and they were cast!’”

Jones recalls trying to kick a drug habit during the filming in Vancouver. “When me and Cookie got there, I was a mess,” he says. “I was detoxing from heroin and methadone. I did it cold turkey and the only way I could cope with that was just to drink tons of alcohol. I was pretty much out of it for about a month. But then I started getting better. It was a lot of fun. But for a while there, oh God, that was rough for me.”

In The Fabulous Stains, the tensions between the Metal Corpses and the Looters during their joint tour symbolise the generational divide between the older classic rock groups and the younger punk bands. One scene that called for a physical altercation on the tour bus between the Corpses and Looters’ lead singers became too realistic. “[Ray Winstone] was supposed to punch me,” Waybill remembers. “We rehearsed it and everything was great. Then we started rolling. Ray walked down the aisle and just slammed me in the eye as hard as he could. I reeled back and the camera guy is going, ‘Okay, keep going! Don’t stop! This is great!’ My eye had swollen up and turned black and blue, and I’m supposed to say my lines. They loved the take, except that we were shooting out of order, and the next day we were supposed to shoot a scene that happened before that scene. They had to wait until the swelling went down enough to where they could put makeup on it to cover the blackness.”

Off camera, the American and British rockers got along and hung out together after a day’s shoot. “We went out drinking at some bar in town,” says Waybill, “and [Jones and Cook] were instantly recognizable [because of the Sex Pistols]. These girls started fawning over them. A couple of times, their big lumberjack boyfriends were not too happy about it. They were going, ‘Okay, come outside. I’m gonna pound you into the pavement.’ I remember just grabbing those guys and going, ‘Okay guys, we’re leaving. We’re shooting a film, remember? Let’s go!’ I hustled them into a cab and got out of there. We had a great time.”

Along with Lane and Dern, Kanter came into the production without much musical experience, which perfectly mirrored how the Stains first started out in the film. “We didn’t know how to play,” Kanter says. “But we weren’t supposed to be that good. What happened was the guys helped us, like Paul Simonon and Steve Jones. They taught us a little bit about how to play the guitar. We practised doing it, but we weren’t really that good.”

As the film’s creative consultant, Coon was responsible for developing the distinct look and fashion for the Stains – all of which suggested an amalgam of punk, glam and New Wave influences with a defiant feminist context. She explains: “The hot debate in the music industry has always been: if women display their sexuality, that’s problematic and playing to the desires of men. My feeling was that to deny women’s sexual agency was not the route to go down because then you’re going to have that whole cover-up thing. The issue for me was never the sex or never beautiful nudity – it is consent. I wanted the Stains’ costumes to suggest: ‘I am beautiful. Look at me, but you have no permission to touch my body.’”

Among the visually striking moments of the film were the numerous young female extras as the Skunks, who dressed and wore their hair and makeup like the Stains. “It was very cool,” Kanter says of seeing the extras when she, Lane and Dern performed in front of them as the band. “As I look back now, I see that it must have taken a lot of effort to get all those girls’ hair dyed. It was a big production.”

In addition to female empowerment and the DIY punk aesthetic, The Fabulous Stains tackled sexism and misogyny, which 40 years later still remain obstacles for women in the music business. With the exception of Lawn Boy, the male figures behave antagonistically towards the Stains – from the Looters’ Billy (“Girls can’t be rock and rollers. It’s the facts of life,” he says) to a snobbish TV broadcaster (played by John Lehne) who questions the band’s popularity.

“The men in the film are generally dismissive of the Stains,” says Wolfe, “condescending and mansplainy at best, and actively trying to ruin the girls’ lives or gloating when they fall apart at worst. Of course, I saw the boys gloat when Riot Grrrls had internal conflicts or failures and mansplain music stuff to us regardless of our level or length of experience. They still do!”

By Kanter and Waybill’s accounts, their experiences on the set for The Fabulous Stains were generally positive. But behind the scenes, Adler and Dowd reportedly clashed during the production. Dowd’s original ending for the script saw the Stains conquer America and tour the world as their fanbase grows. “It’s a triumph of women’s power, creativity and talent,” says Coon. “A triumph on a personal level as well as musically for Corrine. She had such a hard time with the men musicians who doubted her. At the end, she’s saying to the boys: ‘I told you so we can do it. I can do it. I’m a bigger star than you.’”

However, that proposed ending, according to Coon, found itself on the chopping block in order to complete the film on schedule and avoid incurring costs for any extra shooting time. As a result, Dowd left and took her name off the film. About a year after the initial shoot had wrapped, Adler reunited Lane, Kanter and Dern as the Stains and shot a new ending in the form of a quirky and playful music video that depicted the band as MTV-like stars who achieved mainstream success. Despite that, the movie reportedly performed poorly among test audiences and had a very limited screening in October 1982; it reportedly generated only $25,000 at the box office. Some of those involved in the production say they never saw the completed film until years later. “It didn’t see the light of day,” says Jones. “I don’t know – it was bad timing. It’s kind of a cult-y thing now. But at the time, it just got buried.”

“I had really high expectations,” Waybill says. “It was so well done. I thought, ‘I’m gonna be a big movie star now, so I’ll be doing another film right away.’ And then that was it. You never heard from it again. That was kind of the end of my acting career right there! It came and went in one film.”

Over the years, cable TV airings and bootleg taped copies of Ladies And Gentleman, The Fabulous Stains helped the film connect with a new generation of female rockers, particularly from the Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s; the movie’s fans included musicians Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill. Vail recalls first seeing the movie on TV in the 1980s. “I remember watching it in the early ‘90s with Kathleen,” she says, “and she said she had never seen it before. This was a year or two after Riot Grrrl started and she said, ‘Oh my God, you guys tricked me. Did you trick me? Did you orchestrate this whole thing?’ She was joking, but it was so funny!”

Kanter also recognised the impact the movie has had on female rock musicians. “Nancy and Lou would be the people who were responsible for that,” she says. “Lou knew so much about music and Nancy was ahead of her time about what women were and what they could be. I suppose that a lot of young girls that might have watched it or seen it or heard about it go “Hey, why don’t we?”

“It realistically depicts a slice of teen girls’ lives, the struggles they face, the sexism they deal with,” says Wolfe, “and features a do-it-yourself, underdog heroine who ends up mobilising young, disaffected women to speak out and create their own community and culture. I think this resonates with many marginalised people who understand the necessity of being seen and heard and having to do it themselves, to stand up against all odds to represent themselves, create community and be an example for others, even though it’s a rough road and there’s not necessarily a happy ending.”

“The film resonates because, even today in the West, women’s freedom is contingent,” Coon says. “Every generation has the shock of realising they do not yet have equality, whatever their class or colour, with men who they see in their teenage years as equal. Young women are kind of shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues and then suddenly they reach glass ceilings. Seeing successful struggles of the past is very reassuring. It makes it possible to struggle in the present for the future.”

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