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The Boston Phoenix Teenage Kicks

The Donnas are the real thing.

By Carly Carioli

MARCH 2, 1998:  Ancient history: find a bunch of girls, write them some songs, pick 'em a name, sit back, and cash the checks. Phil Spector perfected it commercially and validated it artistically with booming "little symphonies for the kids" that changed the way pop sounded. The songs went to number one for the interchangeable Crystals, Shangri-Las, Ronettes. Thirty years go by: rock-and-roll girls write their own songs; the Spector system comes to be seen as a patriarchal anachronism reserved for vapid, commercial teenage Top 40. Limey manager assembles the Spice Girls via a newspaper ad: they fire him two months in, take over the world themselves. Suddenly pop's royalty is lip-synching the same tune as rock's insurgent guerrillas: empowerment. Read between the lines: eliminate the middleman, sell yourself.

Phil Spector flips off the Spice Girls while receiving a lifetime-achievement award from Britain's Q magazine. Read between the lines: they've cut guys like him out of the loop. Peg him: a harmless anachronism, wandering around the world collecting lifetime-achievement awards.

Meanwhile, in America, amateur historians live out their rock-and-roll fantasies in microcosm. California, 1993: as "sorta like an experiment," Mike Lucas assembles the Trashwomen -- a saucy, no-fi, all-female surf trio with a penchant for leopard-print lingerie and hearses -- and teaches them some songs. A month later they're writing their own tunes, becoming a sub-underground backdoor cult attraction. Bye-bye, Lucas.

California, 1995: Radio X label owner Darin Raffaelli breaks up his no-fi slop-punk band Supercharger, becomes an uncredited member of the otherwise all-girl slop-punk band the Brentwoods ("You Broke My Heart (And I Broke Your Jaw)"), whose line-up coincidentally features Trashwoman Danielle Pimm. About to put Radio X in mothballs, he comes across Ragady Anne, four enormously spirited teenage high-school girls from Palo Alto who share a love of Kiss, Mötley Crüe, and Metallica and have been playing together since eighth grade. "I had written songs for bands before," he tells BAM, "and I asked them if they wanted to record some songs that I had written and they said 'Yeah.' "

Raffaelli, a no-fi Spector/Kim Fowley, rechristens Ragady Anne as the Donnas. Read between the lines: in-joke rebop, the Ramones meet Heathers, rock and roll as exclusive insider's clique -- his, not theirs. His secret handshakes, his clubhouse gestures, his jailbait bubblegum-garage ditties, and probably his idea to have them cover "Da Doo Ron Ron." An album of sticky-fingered garage candy, The Donnas, on Super*Teem follows singles on Radio X. Quasi-containment: the Donnas -- Donna A./Brett Anderson; Donna R./Allison Robertson; Donna F./Maya Ford; Donna C./Torry Castellano -- form a concurrent alter-ego metal side project, the Electrocutes, who trash-talk about the Donnas and live out their wildest rock-and-roll fantasies. Raffaelli: now just "their biggest fan."

Circa: now. The Donnas break containment, using several songs that began as Electrocutes numbers for their new American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine (Lookout!). No more between-the-lines: tomboy glam, five-finger-discounted Kiss/New York Dolls delivered in a bracing, cocky stylistic shorthand. Their secret handshakes: the paranoid guitar riff from Crüe's "Looks That Kill" on "You Make Me Hot"; uncanny Ace Frehley spears on "Speed Demon"; Johnny Thunders's wailing Chuck-Berry-in-drag nods on "Checkin' It Out"; the entire first half of the Velvets' "We're Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together" shoplifted wholesale for "Wanna Get Some Stuff."

Rock and roll isn't about sex and drugs and speed even when it's about sex and drugs and speed -- it's about gestures/winks/shorthand. Their gestures: nympho jailbait jukebox revenge, streetcorner everygirls playing dress-up with Gene Simmons's libido. "I know about gettin' it on," sings Donna A. in a voice that isn't quite so sure, "and I wanna little piece of you/I'm thinkin' 'bout taking a bite if you know what I mean." Too fast for love, too bored for school, too young to care: one second she's too busy partying to worry about gettin' laid, the next she's got a radar lock on some knuckle-dragging longhair. Is this their teenage shorthand, like the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb" or the Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron?" Or is it impossible to be that straightforward anymore -- is it just mix-and-match signifying?

Match 'em up: intentions/history/authenticity -- a real, live girl group, with a real, live Spector/Fowley in their past, real, live teenagers, real, live rock-and-roll burn. Call it: the real, live thing. And they could care less: "I'm a hero, yeah I know/Everybody tells me so/I don't wanna go to school no mo'/So gimme my radio, gimme my radio . . ."


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