25 Years Ago: L7 Take the Riot Grrrl Movement Mainstream With ‘Bricks Are Heavy’
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Some of the artists responsible for the alternative revolution of the early ’90s were brand new, but others had been waiting in the wings for their time to come. One of the groups in the latter category was Los Angeles’ quartet L7, who completed a seven-year climb out of the underground with the release of their third studio album, 1992’s Bricks Are Heavy.
In 1985, co-vocalists and guitarists Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner were inspired to form L7 by the hardcore scene in their hometown of Los Angeles. And whereas the Go-Go’s and the Bangles — both of whom also came out of the L.A. underground — had great success on the pop charts during the decade, L7 resolutely stuck with a heavier sound. Their eponymous debut album from 1988 — recorded with bassist/vocalist Jennifer Finch and drummer Roy Koutsky — was living proof, with its thrashing songs and intentionally dirty production courtesy of Bad Religion‘s Brett Gurewitz.
Released two years later, L7’s sophomore outing, Smell the Magic, was nearly as uncompromising, and the band’s sound had evolved only insofar as allowing for a few slower songs and the quartet’s obviously improved musicianship thanks, in part, to new drummer Demetra “Dee” Plakas. And while their moniker had been lifted from ’50s slang for people who were “square,” L7’s worldview was very forward-thinking — as evidenced by band members forming a pro-choice, women’s rights group called Rock for Choice, which led to yearly rock festivals supported by the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine and other luminaries over the next decade).
However, L7’s third long-player, Bricks Are Heavy, was undoubtedly a beneficiary of the changes the musical establishment had gone through in the previous few years. After producing Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind, Butch Vig moved on to Bricks Are Heavy. Just as he had helped Kurt Cobain and co. tighten up their sound, Vig constructed a wall of clean and punchy guitars behind Sparks’ trademarked sardonic hard rockers such as “Wargasm,” “Mr. Integrity” and “S—tlist.”
Another track, “Pretend We’re Dead,” supported taut riffs with a hummable melody and Plakas’ metronomic percussion, became L7’s biggest hit, reaching No. 8 on Billboard‘s Modern Rock chart and enjoying widespread airplay around the globe. As for the rest of the LP, L7’s vocalist-by-committee approach saw Sparks ceding center stage to Gardner on the songs she composed — “Slide,” “This Ain’t Pleasure” and the third single “Monster” — and to Finch on hers — “One More Thing” and second single “Everglade,” co-written with Ramones producer Daniel Del Rey.
Despite all this, Bricks Are Heavy amazingly peaked at a modest No. 160 on the Billboard chart, but it roared straight to No. 1 on the all-important Heatseekers chart, home to alternative nation’s new breed of rock stars. Perhaps more important, L7 heralded the arrival of the nascent riot grrrl movement, which worked to break down rock ‘n’ roll’s chauvinistic, misogynistic establishment. This politicized work became one of L7’s greatest accomplishments—and when the band reunited in 2014 after 13 years away, their empowering sound and approach felt more resonant than ever.
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