Bikini Kill

Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah (Anniversary Reissue)

The needle drops on the 20th anniversary reissue of Bikini Kill’s Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and here it is, that infamous intro to the first track, ‘White Boy’: a grainy recording of some eternal asshole opining about women (aka "slut rocker bitches") who "ask for it". We grin in recognition and my partner tells me her mother would complain "oh no, not that one!", whenever she played the original as a teenager because she hated all the screaming. Oh for the days when our parents were shockable. But it still grinds, this track. Kathi Wilcox’s sludge-surf bass builds menacingly behind the dickhead’s theories, ascending like your blood pressure, and Kathleen Hanna’s opening line, delivered with sneering rage, "Lay me spread eagle out on your hill, yeah", is as powerful and disturbing as it ever was.

In the early 90s when my partner was annoying her mother with the first incarnation of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, she was living in a small farming community marooned in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, a town so tiny it didn’t even have a post office. Bikini Kill (and Hole and L7 and Team Dresch) was saving her from teenage ennui. It was that much eulogised, pre-internet age, with the magic of mail order (more of a challenge when the nearest post office is 40kms away) keeping New Zealand’s youth connected to the outside world and each other. Via the pen pal section of a teen newspaper, she formed a network of friends from similarly small towns, other queers and girls who were into Sonic Youth and Bikini Kill and pretty much anything US indie labels Chainsaw Records and Kill Rock Stars were putting out. Thanks to a perfectly curated riot grrrl mix tape that arrived from the States, and the densely scrawled catalogues put out by the now-defunct, much mourned, Auckland record store Crawlspace, she and her friends became fans and aficionados of queer and girl punk, moving to the main cities and forming active communities, making zines and starting bands of their own.

My introduction to Bikini Kill was much less punk rock, but no less transformative. I wasn’t introduced to riot grrrl until the late 90s when I began university, also in Auckland, NZ (my teenage years were all about Snoop Dogg and Aaliyah, both of whom have debut records that are now also 20 years old; an interesting context). So my fandom was filtered through a burgeoning feminist consciousness, spurred on by student politics and women’s studies classes. I didn’t know what to expect from my first Bikini Kill record. Turned out it was life changing. Here was the confirmation that it was normal, indeed sane, for a young woman to feel angry in a sexist world. Bikini Kill articulated what I already subconsciously knew. Why should we remain on the sidelines holding some dude’s jacket? Why should we fear violence at gigs and on the streets? Where were our cultural histories? Our desires reflected? Our release? Bolstered by the uncompromising strength of lyrics like, "I’m so sorry if I’m alienating some of you, your whole fucking culture alienates me," (‘White Boy’, again) I was imbued with the power of comprehension. This was why the world felt so difficult! Ah yes, these were what I fondly remember as, "the Argument Years".

"It was a record for girls; I wanted them to understand where we were coming from, to feel like it was written for them", Kathleen Hanna said in an interview with Spin prior to the first Bikini Kill re-issue. As far as I’m concerned, she succeeded.

Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah is the second vinyl re-issue on the band’s own label, Bikini Kill Records. The first, the self-titled Bikini Kill EP, came out in November 2012, with further re-issues on the horizon. Back in 1993 and 1992 respectively, both were released by Olympia, WA based indie label Kill Rock Stars. For many years, KRS, co-founded by Slim Moon and Tinuviel Sampson, was the go-to label for bands associated with the ‘first wave’ of riot grrrl, such as Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile. Formed with the intention of releasing their friends’ music amidst a scene exploding with DIY feminist punk, KRS became a different beast once Slim Moon departed from the label in 2006. The ensuing roster of bands no longer reflected Bikini Kill’s interests and was the impetus for them to form Bikini Kill Records.

On its first outing, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah was released as a split with British boy/girl revolutionaries Huggy Bear on the eve of their legendary co-headlining tour of the UK in 1993. This record captures the essence of collaboration and the mutual support of those early UK/US grrrl punk alliances. The tour itself was documented in British film maker Lucy Thane’s excellent short film: It Changed My Life: Bikini Kill in the UK and includes contributions from other UK queer and feminist bands of the time, such as Skinned Teen and Sister George. The Anniversary re-issue replaces Huggy Bear’s Our Troubled Youth with seven previously unreleased Bikini Kill tracks, recorded during live shows and rehearsals. Pleasingly, the UK connection is retained, however, with David Charlie Feck of London-based Comet Gain contributing some "memory bleed" liner notes evoking the chaos and joy of early Bikini Kill shows and the time the bands spent together, friendships formed between Holloway Road, London and "whatever main drag" Olympia, WA.

The seven songs on Side B open a window to something it seemed unlikely we’d ever get: "new" Bikini Kill. The extensive liner notes include a conversation with the band providing fascinating back-story to the new inclusion. Of particular interest is hearing normally reticent guitarist Billy Karren’s voice front and centre on ‘George Bush Is A Pig’, which apparently was as much of a surprise to the rest of band as it is to the listener. Unable to contain his rage at the Bush administration, Karren started ranting and the rest of the band played along to keep him going. Kathleen described it as like an electric eel being let loose on the floor. ‘Fuck Twin Peaks’ is another highlight. A reminder of the uncompromising politics of the band, it also conveys a dark sense of humour. It was 1991 and people were holding TV-watching parties, waiting with bated breath to find out who killed Laura Palmer. Ever the bearers of the unpopular opinion, Bikini Kill objected to the obsession with a TV program based around a beautiful dead girl. The rough, ad hoc nature of these tracks serve to bring the listener closer to the live experience and provide an insight to the processes the band went through in developing their sound, however, the quality of the recordings will probably also separate the fans from the merely curious.

Side A of Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah remains as it was on the original album. Recorded by Nation Of Ulysses guitarist Tim Green on a four track reel to reel in the basement practise space of a shared house they called "the Embassy" in Washington, DC, the track list today reads like a compendium of ideas that became part of the riot grrrl vernacular. You don’t have to look far to find books/zines/clubnights/bands/tattoos evoking Bikini Kill lyrics. ‘White Boy’ and also ‘Resist Psychic Death’ scour the depths of alienation and anger brought on by living in an oppressive, homogeneous culture. There is power here too: "I will resist with every inch and every breath, I will resist this psychic death!". ‘Jigsaw Youth’ meanwhile relates the experience of being a contradictory young feminist with multiple, fractured realities, rejecting the political party line. As Kathleen Hanna explained in Tobi Vail’s zine Jigsaw #4 in 1991, "Every fucking ‘feminist’ is not the same; every fucking girl is not the same, okay?" Always adept at provoking discussion, this was intersectionality as shouted from the stage of a punk rock show.

Probably the most well-known track from the album, reaching beyond the realms of the DIY underground partly thanks to a later Joan Jett produced-version, is ‘Rebel Girl’, that swaggering, anthemic love song to the tough girl outsider. Tobi Vail’s unrelenting drum smash forms a driving backbone from which springs what I think of as one of Bikini Kill’s "breaking the fourth wall" songs, a song that might as well have been posted into the letter box of every girl who ever heard it.

It struck me listening to this record again how over time Bikini Kill’s aggressive punk rock style has been subsumed by lazy riot grrrl stereotypes. Like many of their peers, they were plagued by sneering critics who regurgitated versions of "they can’t play". While it is nonsensical talk about any DIY punk band as being "unable" to play in the first place, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that the criticism is generally levelled at women, then and now. People confuse the purposeful demystification of music professionalism, something which drummer Tobi Vail is particularly vocal about, with "can’t play". As Erin Smith, guitarist in Bratmobile says in her contribution to the liner notes to this album, "[Bikini Kill] changed the way we look at who is able to make punk music". Reductive criticism also belies the hundreds of queer and grrrl nights around the world who have never stopped playing Bikini Kill songs, because they are as punk rock pogo-worthy as you could hope for, while simultaneously feeling like a raw pain in your heart.

As far as re-issues go, Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah has a lot going on both for old fans who want to pour over liner notes, and for newcomers who are keen to know just what the band name checked as inspirations by Pussy Riot were all about. It’s an opportunity to ponder developments in DIY music in the ensuing years, and a means to combat the erasure of contributions by female punks, while we swirl around in a maelstrom of sentimentality over the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. It’s also, simply, a chance to listen to this bloody great record again.

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