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April 29, 2014 at 12:53 PM

Bikini Kill’s ’90s riot grrrl gets a revival | New Recordings

In 1991, when bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were exploding on the record charts, there was another musical movement brewing an hour south of Seattle, led by the battle cry: “We want revolution — girl style — now!”

That’s “girl” as in “riot grrrl,” a strand of alternative rock steeped in feminist thought and progressive action that first came to life in Olympia.

“We were trying to start a culture of protest,” explained Tobi Vail, a member of the movement’s most acclaimed band, Bikini Kill, which formed in 1990. “Something that would speak to a younger generation of kids, using punk as our entry point.”

Now, Bikini Kill’s first two EPs — a self-titled debut and the group’s portion of a shared disc called “Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah” — have been reissued in a digital package called “The First Two Records,” which also includes previously unreleased material.

The songs still crackle with the vibrant energy of a young generation stepping up to claim its place in the world.

“With Bikini Kill, it was concentrated, not diluted,” said Vail, who is still based in Olympia, where she performs in the band Spider and the Webs and also handles Bikini Kill Records’ mail-order department. “We were trying to change the world by actively creating a new culture, starting with our band. It was pure, passionate, visionary, imaginative, inquiry-based creative action.”

Most of the previously unreleased material comes from when the group was a trio, featuring Vail, Kathleen Hanna and Kathi Wilcox, swapping instruments as a means of “maintaining the group dynamic and balancing the crazy energy of our personalities,” Vail explained.

One song, “[Expletive] ‘Twin Peaks’ ” lambastes David Lynch’s noirish TV series for what the group regarded as its inherent sexism. Another, “George Bush is a Pig,” features a rare vocal from Billy Karren, who became the fourth member.

A more nuanced political statement can be found in “Girl Soldier,” set to an insistent drone, which attacks a culture where “women are soldiers just by virtue of existing because there is a war against women and we have to fight to survive,” said Vail. “For me, the idea of riot grrrl comes from that song.”

Though approached by major labels, Bikini Kill elected to remain independent and broke up after seven years — “It’s amazing to me that we actually survived that long,” Vail observed — but its legacy has been substantial.

Early on, it attracted the attention of pioneering female rocker Joan Jett, who produced the group’s iconic single “Rebel Girl” (you can now hear it on the game “Rock Band 2”). The band went prime time when the defiant song “Don’t Need You” was used in an episode of “Roseanne” (with Roseanne insisting, “These are pretty good lyrics” to her skeptical sister).

The band’s influence is also apparent in groups such as Sleater-Kinney; the proliferation of girls rock camps; and in the politically fueled antics of Russian feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot.

Hanna, for her part, joined the electronica-pop band Le Tigre, released a solo album under the name Julie Ruin and was the subject of the 2013 documentary “The Punk Singer.”

But for Vail, it’s the feminist activism Bikini Kill promoted that has the strongest resonance.

“We believed that if all girls started bands the world would change,” she said. “I still believe that.”

Comments | More in Rock/Pop | Topics: "The First Two Records", Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna


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