complete audio history of grunge's first lady
Katherine Bjelland (befittingly pronounced be-yellin) is no less than a musical institution. Starting her first band, a surf-rock outfit called The Neurotix, with her uncle at the tender age of 16, she’s played in more bands than you’ve had dinners of any temperature, and is one of the major forces responsible for both the grunge and riot grrl movements.
She grew up in Minneapolis, feeding on a healthy diet of The Ramones, Sylvia Plath and Kahlua, forming her first band proper; Sugar Babylon, with her close friends Jennifer Finch (who now plays in L7) and Courtney Love (who now plays to the press in court). This short-lived project was followed by another; the sensitively monikered Italian Whorenuns, before Babes was born (bad pun, sorry) with bassist Michelle Leon and drummer Lori Barbero completing the line-up.
The results were immediate, with debut single ‘House/Arriba’ impressing Sonic Youth to such an extent that they took Babes out on tour with them – not bad for a first record. Their incendiary live shows won them a lot of respect, with Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna favourably recalling the first time she saw Kat at work: “she stepped up to the mike with a force that seemed supernatural… I was enthralled from the first note”. Strong words indeed, but it’s easy to see why Kat had such a positive effect on women at the time. Her unapologetically empowered persona was a slap in the face to the largely male-dominated rock scene, a screaming figurehead that was authoritative yet also unmistakably feminine, embodying the very essence of grunge. Her appeal wasn’t solely restricted to hairy-legged ladies that were partial to a bit of bra-burning however; we’re not talking about a guitar-playing Germaine Greer here, but simply a woman for whom gender was not an issue, who could rock out with the best of them.
Kat’s voice has been described as “an otherworldly pairing of Bon Scott and Linda Blair”, and the projectile vomiting demon links are supported by Everett True; author of ‘Live Through This: American Music In The Ninetees’, who describes her live performances as “an exorcism of her past and a recent succession of bastard boyfriends”.
Although most would anoint Courtney Love as the queen of grunge, the more I read about her past with Kat, the more it appears that she is little more than an impostor with a papier-mâché crown. ‘Bruise Violet’; the opening track on Babes’ second album ‘Fontanelle’, is a bitter explication of the Hole frontwoman, accusing her of being a musical and stylistic clone. Despite this attack Courtney still tried to get Kat to play with her in a new band called Bastard, and later asked Kat to write and record her ‘American Sweetheart’ album – she declined in both instances. Not that Courtney needs any help looking stupid, but she certainly came off looking like a desperate puppy dog (stylishly mangy of course) jumping around the feet of a proper musician, looking for a bone to be thrown. It’s not that Kat was adverse to working with other musicians either, having collaborated with Russell Simins (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam, durr) and Martin Bland (Monkeywrench) in side-project Crunt.
This is a true ‘Best Of’, not a desperate money-spinner for a band in decline - the Babes split in the late ‘90s with Kat now fronting her new band Katastrophy Wife. The album opens with a tribute by 60’s ‘counterculture hero’ Timothy Leary, recorded live at the Lollapalooza tour of 1993 as he introduced them to the stage. What follows is an almost complete retrospective of Kat’s musical life, as although the majority of the tracks on the album are Babes songs, the collection is not limited to this era, also featuring output from other earlier incarnations including exclusive Whorenuns material. Kat snarls her way through the 25 tracks with a stylish swagger, providing an angst-ridden focus for the grungy underpinnings of fuzzed-up guitars.
As you’d expect with a record that spans several decades, the music is quite diverse in its range and style. There is the cool garage punk of ‘Ice Cream & Cigarettes’, the beautiful ‘Blue Valient’ which sees Kat pensive and mellowed, sounding a bit like Mazzy Star or Italian songstress Sybil - she even delves into a Chino-esque warble in ‘Istigkeit’ (does this woman’s influence know no bounds?). The incredibly lo-fi ‘Quiet Room’ has a very intimate feel to it, almost like you’re actually sat watching the band jam in their basement. Touring with Sonic Youth obviously had it’s effect, as demonstrated by ‘Busiest Shopping Day Of The Year’ which positively smacks of Kim Gordon, right down to the amusing conversational story about “Mr. Butter-batter” the “I can’t believe it’s not butter motherfucker” – classic stuff.
The rest of the album is every bit as good, and serves as a compelling account of a woman with more attitude in her little finger than modern pretenders like Brody Dalle could ever muster. Forget about Courtney, this is the real deal - buy this now, and let’s crown Kat as the rightful queen of grunge.