The anatomy of a Republican-baiting, tampon-hurling grunge anthem. “It was a call to action for people to wake up and smell the coffee…”. L7 and producer Butch Vig talk about the story of their song “Pretend We’re Dead” in the latest issue of Uncut magazine – in UK shops from Thursday, October 13 and available to buy from our online store.
What’s up with what’s going down? While grunge was often stereotyped as self-indulgent angst, Rock For Choice founders L7 embodied the movement’s strong moral and political creed, as well as its sharp sense of humour. Released at the height of Nirvanamania, “Pretend We’re Dead” was a pithy tirade against apathy and conformism, couched in the language of supercharged bubblegum pop. Its insanely catchy riff was allied to a bulldozing Butch Vig production, designed to sound good on the radio without sacrificing any crunch.
“Pretend We’re Dead” duly cracked the UK Top 40 in April 1992, landing L7 a slot on the main stage at that year’s Reading Festival, and an appearance on Channel 4’s The Word. Both occasions were enlivened by co-frontwoman Donita Sparks’ “absurdist” feminist protests – lobbing a used tampon into the crowd, pulling her pants down on live TV – that burnished L7’s rebel credentials. The band may have struggled to repeat the magic formula of “Pretend We’re Dead”, but for helping to destroy rock’s complacent macho façade, their legend is assured.
When we speak, L7 are in rehearsals for a US tour in support of the 30th anniversary reissue of Bricks Are Heavy. Attempting to accurately recreate its songs has revealed hidden depths. “Suzi’s been trying to decipher the solo that she played that was recorded and then played backwards,” explains Sparks. “How I’m gonna get that spacey sound on the riff, I have no idea!” Nevertheless, scenes of mayhem can be expected when they reach that point in the set. “For a lot of people, “Pretend We’re Dead” was a generational anthem. I can tell the song holds up live. It sparks up the audience, and they’re so joyous when they’re singing it.”
SPARKS: We always had a ‘thing’ from the very beginning, because we weren’t playing the sex card. I think people were a bit mesmerised by the way we looked, because we always had this fashion mash-up sense. People were just staring at us at first.
GARDNER: We had overlapping things that we liked: punk rock and hard rock and pop and surf. It was a great combination of styles and sensibilities.
SPARKS: LA took itself kinda seriously and it was not very political at all, which was a frustration of mine for years. So it was cool to connect with people up in Seattle who we felt were our tribespeople.
VIG: L7 opened for the Butthole Surfers at the Palladium in LA when I was producing Nevermind. I went to the gig with Nirvana, I think Dave Grohl was dating [L7 bassist] Jennifer Finch at the time. I thought they sounded amazing, and they looked cool as fuck. They came by Sound City the next couple of sessions and hung out. I thought they were super-cool, funny and had tons of attitude. One afternoon we ordered Texas BBQ for lunch and Nirvana and L7 had a food fight. It was pretty crazy, very funny, but a terrible mess that the assistant had to clean up.
SPARKS: Other bands were signing to majors and we just thought, ‘Let’s go for it’. But the label that we signed to was a cool, once-independent label called Slash. They had signed X and The Germs and Violent Femmes. We only really tasted the major label thing when the videos came and the machine started to click in.
GARDNER: There definitely was pressure because the recording sessions were at bigger studios. But I think we rose to the occasion.
SPARKS: I think I got braver with expressing my melodic side as time went on. At first, we were just trying to be these tough cookies with almost a lack of melody. But power can only take you so far. It’s great to have a hook, it’s great to have songs – I’ve always loved that stuff.
VIG: They were a tight band, they had that sort of ‘clique’ that develops when you hang out as a gang all the time. They could finish each other’s sentences and had a wicked sense of humour. They were really fun to hang around with, they didn’t seem to have any patience for alt.rock’s doom and gloom.
PICK UP THE NEW ISSUE OF UNCUT TO READ THE FULL STORY