L7 first came together about 19 hours south of Seattle, in Los Angeles, in 1985. Although they had no claim to the Emerald City’s grunge explosion, they signed to Sub Pop, toured with Nirvana and shocked audiences more efficiently than their Lollapalooza contemporaries. When Rolling Stone ranked the 50 Greatest Grunge Albums earlier this week, L7 notched two LPs on the list: 1990’s metal-punk hybrid Smell the Magic (its “Shove” could serve as a genre blueprint) and its 1992 follow-up, Bricks Are Heavy, which is home to the hit “Pretend We’re Dead” and Natural Born Killers manifesto “Shitlist.”
Since the band has a different background than most of the other bands on the list, we reached out to guitarist-singer Donita Sparks to get her take on the history of grunge. “From L7’s standpoint, the art punk thing deserves a nod,” she says. “We were into punk and art, and we came from a little bit of a different scene than our contemporaries up in the Northwest.”
Because of this, Sparks’ list of favorite grunge records features bands from all over the U.S., in addition to a few of the usual suspects from Seattle. “It was bubbling up all over,” she says. “For instance, there was the Fluid in Colorado and us in L.A. It was just a time of punk meeting metal and a rejection of the slickness of new wave. At the beginning, it was about destroying conventions, and then it became more and more sophisticated. Some of it wanky; some of it not.” Ultimately, her list is a reflection of how she discovered the sound that would become grunge. Here, in chronological order, are the records that made her “hit list.”
Flipper, Generic (1982)
I think a lot of people’s beginnings in grunge came from garage rock; mine were from art punk. When I first heard Flipper, I wasn’t aware of the term “post-punk.” I was just like, “Whoa, this is cool.” Now when I look at it, it was like post-punk deconstructing itself. And they were very playful, like with the handclaps on the song “Ever”; it was like this surf beat but it’s like a dirge. It was just very simple riffs played repetitiously with sludgy distortion and played loosely. They gave zero fucks. I found it to be a very charming take on a scene that was a bit nihilistic.
I’m very fond of the song “Sex Bomb.” L7 used to cover it. We did it as a mash-up of it in the infancy of L7 with “Sweet Leaf” from Black Sabbath, and we used to call it “Sweet Sex.” It was very interesting that years later, we bonded with Nirvana over our love of Flipper. So there’s something there.
Frightwig, Cat Farm Faboo (1984)
Frightwig started to add some melody and song structure to the sonic sloppy, sludgy, simple-riff thing. I liked that a lot. They also had playful lyrics but brought some fierce feminist lyrics with some humor in there, too. On Cat Farm Faboo, I liked “The Wanque Off Song,” which goes into “My Crotch Does Not Say Go.” It was just like, “Oh, my God. This band is fucking amazing.”
When I used to go to Frightwig shows, I would bring more and more friends. It was almost like the coolest people on the scene in L.A. were at Frightwig shows. And we were all just watching and blown away. They were such an imposing band. And like Flipper, they were accessible but still very noncommercial. But they helped pave the way for the path of grunge.
The Fluid, Clear Black Paper (1988)
I think the song “Cold Outside” is one of the greatest recordings in rock & roll ever. I had that album on cassette, and in the van, I probably rewinded that thing, like, a gazillion times on our tours. It’s so bombastic, fun and rocking. Everybody is just slamming on that song, but the drummer and the lead guitarist with the wah-wah pedal are insanely great. The Fluid are not mentioned in conversations about grunge very much, but they were a great band. I thought that they were going to be huge.
I remember finding out about the Fluid when we were on tour in ’88, staying at somebody’s house. They put on a black-and-white video of this band called the Fluid. When I was a teenager, I saw boys with short, punk-rock hair, and I found them so cute and exotic. But this band on this black-and-white video, with long hair and flannel shirts, I found them so cute and exotic. I was like, “Who are these guys?” They look like the stoner guys I grew up with in high school. That was my first visual exposure to what would be called the visual aesthetic of northwestern grunge or whatever.
Cat Butt, Journey to the Center Of (1989)
Cat Butt were from Seattle and had a single out when we toured with them and shared a big airport shuttle van with them, and we became great friends. It was the tour where we played in front of the guys from Sub Pop. I remember on Cat Butt’s shirts and stickers, it said, “Catt Butt, Moto-Grunge.” That was the first time I ever heard the term “grunge.”
They were an interesting band because they combined the garage of the northwest, like really dirty music of the Sonics, but their singer was from Louisiana, so he had kind of a [Captain] Beefheart, Louisiana growl to his voice. He had this very swampy quality to his vocal delivery. There was an almost nightly train wreck onstage, because they’d get in fights with each other, or somebody would break a string and they’d hit him. It was a hot mess onstage, but it rocked. Off the album Journey to the Center Of, I liked “Zombie” and “Born Loser.” I think both got that northwest garage-meets-Louisiana-voodoo weird shit I like.
Nirvana, Bleach (1989)
I remember getting a cassette from my buddies in Cat Butt, and on the back of it was Bleach. “Negative Creep” was the first song on the cassette, on the flip side. And I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I remember the moment. I was in my bedroom, and it was one of those moments like, “Holy shit. Who is this?” Every song was just great. It just had the rock thing; it had metal riffs played with a guy screaming his heart out but not in an obnoxious way. He was just ripping his throat with his vocal cords, and it didn’t get wanky. It had a lot of energy. And the lyrical content, you know: “I’m a negative creep/Daddy’s little girl ain’t a girl no more.” It’s like, “Whoa, what is that? Fucking cool lyrics.”
I also like how on Bleach, they’ve got “About a Girl” because that’s showing what’s to come in the future for the band. It was a beautiful song. I don’t recall anybody going that soft at the time. I don’t remember that kind of tenderness coming from anybody else. So that was cool. I was a bit too chicken to do that kind of stuff at the time, because L7 had to prove that we were tough cookies and not going tender ever.
We ended up touring England with them, when they were being courted by the majors. And as a matter of fact, we did a jam on our last night of the tour with them. We did “Sex Bomb” by Flipper. Isn’t that ironic? And I remember seeing Kurt Cobain wearing a Frightwig shirt, too, so there you go.
Cosmic Psychos, Go the Hack (1989)
Sub Pop used to send me stacks of albums, and I’d look into some of them. When I heard Cosmic Psychos’ “Lost Cause” on the radio, I was like, “Wait a minute. That’s the band that was in my stack of albums from Sub Pop.” I looked for it, and it became one of my favorite albums of that whole era. We would bring it on every tour. Our roadies got into it. We would turn bands onto them. We would dub cassettes for anybody whose house we were staying at.
One of the elements of grunge is that it’s kind of dark. No matter what other branch of style goes into it, there’s always a kind of depressive element to it. Well, the Psychos had that, but they were also a bit of Motörhead and the Ramones, too, with excellent songs. They just rocked, rocked, rocked. We ended up covering “Lost Cause” in our set. Every song on that album is fantastic. It’s such a jam, a total headbanger.
Smashing Pumpkins, Gish (1991)
The song “Rhinoceros” may be a masterpiece. It’s just so beautiful with the guitar interplay, and it gets so epic at the end. You don’t know whether you want to slash your wrists and have that be the last song you ever hear or walk out into gray skies and give it another go. It’s like when the Beach Boys got really epic; it’s a sonic epic-ness that builds and is beautiful, and it when it come sin with that Middle Eastern–sounding guitar ditty at the end, it’s really fucking outstanding.
I’ve been hearing it on public radio a lot lately, and I’m like, “Huh.” I always thought the name of the song was, “She Knows.” I never had the album, but I liked that song. And then I looked it up and checked out the rest of the album, and it’s all great. I’m very fond of the slow stuff on that album. I like the song “Crush”; it doesn’t even have drums on it, just tambourine.
Love Battery, Dayglo (1992)
We toured with Love Battery quite a bit in ’92, and they were great because they had a lot of vibrato guitar and reverb guitar. They brought a psychedelic element into the grunge sound.
I love a lot of songs on Dayglo, but the song “Dayglo” is so good. Oftentimes, there’s a build to a song and it goes nowhere. But with this song, it’s like having sex. You’re grinding along, there’s a build, and an expectation that you’re gonna climax, and with this song, you do. You fucking do. When that slide guitar part comes in, it’s so great, and it’s so orgasmic when that comes in. And then it rocks and gives you a cool down, a smoke-a-cigarette moment. Like, “Let’s chill out for a second.” Then you climax again, because it comes back again. So that song is just a really, really great song from a really, really great band. They were about musicality and very Sixties-influenced.
Wool, Budspawn (1992)
Every song is great, and their singer, Pete Stahl, has excellent pipes. He’s got melody and he really belts it out without getting gravely. It sounds great. Wool was a band that was two brothers from the D.C. band Scream, and that’s the band that Grohl left to join Nirvana. So Wool started out of that and became great. Their songs, like “Medication” on Budspawn, are amazing. They did another album called Box Set, which was great, too.
Veruca Salt, American Thighs (1994)
It’s still got the darkness of grunge, and it’s got the heavy riffing of grunge, but not only did they put melody on it, they have full-on harmonies. American Thighs is a fucking great album. If you follow the thread from Flipper to Veruca Salt, it’s like, “Wow.” It took this very primitive thing to a very sophisticated, commercial thing. It’s a great achievement. “Seether” is amazing, and “Spiderman ’79” is really just a fucking badass-yet-simple riff.
When I first heard American Thighs, I was like, “Fuck. God damn it. That should be us.” I just found it to be so accessible yet rocking. They had great lyrics and the production was amazing. They got dark, but they didn’t go into the abyss. Some of the other grunge bands went into the abyss.