On the strength of its legendary live shows, Bikini Kill — the archetypal riot grrrl band — was packing clubs before it even had a record out. Singer Kathleen Hanna, an American incarnation of X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, worked the crowd like a master preacher, singing, speechifying and switching between a little-girl voice and a full-throated howl, bringing girls to the front and attacking obnoxious guys, sometimes verbally, sometimes physically. Meanwhile, the band — guitarist Billy Karren (aka Billy Boredom), bassist Kathi Wilcox and drummer Tobi Vail (formerly half of the Go Team’s core membership, with Beat Happening’s Calvin Johnson) — bashed out passionate three-chord punk behind her; every so often, Vail would take over the mic for an even more confrontational number.
The eight-song tape Revolution Girl Style Now, sold at shows, is blandly recorded but gets down on tape the band’s earliest anthems and their basic message: girls should be empowered, molesting children is bad, etc. Subtle they’re not, but sometimes a two-by-four is the only prescription. The six-song vinyl-only Bikini Kill EP includes “Carnival” from the cassette, plus new versions of four more of those songs, re-recorded with Ian MacKaye and Don Zientara. It also includes “Thurston Hearts the Who,” a live recording of the band churning away, Vail ranting and Molly Neuman of Bratmobile furiously reading a magazine article that had the gall to be critical of Hanna and company. The record’s politics are a little suspect (“Eat meat/Hate Blacks/Beat your fuckin wife/Its all the same thing”), but the ardor is unmistakable, especially on the anthemic “Feels Blind” and “Suck My Left One.”
Unfortunately, that ardor is much harder to hear on Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah, Bikini Kill’s side of a split LP with British pals Huggy Bear. The wretched recording quality nearly ruins good songs like “This Is Not a Test,” “Rebel Girl” and “White Boy”; the generally listless, sloppy performances don’t help much either. (Yeah Yeah Yeah Yeah and Bikini Kill were later collected on a CD helpfully called The C.D. Version of the First Two Records.) “Rebel Girl” makes a much more successful second appearance on the three-song New Radio EP, produced by Bikini Kill role model Joan Jett, who joins in with a little guitar and singing. The title track is pretty hot too (“Come here baby let me kiss you like a boy does,” Hanna yells). Both “New Radio” and “Demirep” also appear in not-so-great versions on the four-song Peel Sessions authorized bootleg.
For the definitive Bikini Kill record, look to the explosive Pussy Whipped: twelve songs (including a third “Rebel Girl”), 24 minutes, no prisoners. The high point is a white-hot diptych on sexual frustration, “Sugar” and “Star Bellied Boy” — by the end, Hanna is screaming her throat out, and the band matches her blow for blow. Vail gets in her best song yet (“Hamster Baby,” a hilarious megaphone-assisted rant about British rock crit and riot grrrl bandwagoneer Everett True) and Wilcox, singing for the first time on record, nearly gets drowned out by her own song (“Speed Heart”). The closing love song, “For Tammy Rae,” is instrumentally crude and a little out-of-tune, but really touching.
After a long absence, the band’s reappearance with the four-song Anti-Pleasure Dissertation EP shows, more than anything else, that they’ve been listening to a lot of Huggy Bear. It’s a dense little record: two hookless anthems and two short rants.
After another disappointing non-album single, “I Like Fucking,” Bikini Kill mostly returned to form with Reject All American. For the first five minutes or so, it’s raw electricity — the band charges out of the gate on “Statement of Vindication,” and Hanna lets loose with an awesome bellow on the chorus of “Jet Ski.” After that, though, the record gradually loses steam. Wilcox’s “False Start” is surprisingly pretty, and Vail’s two vocals serve basically the same purpose as John Entwistle’s on Who records, but they both break the flow of the album, as does Hanna’s dreadful ballad “R.I.P.” And, maybe since they couldn’t justify recording “Rebel Girl” again, its cousin — the title track — appears this time.
Members of Bikini Kill have recorded in a handful of side projects. Vail has made a half-dozen or so EPs with the Frumpies. Hanna’s “Rock Star,” a spoken-word piece on a single with Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, is shattering, almost unbearably powerful; the EP by her pre-Bikini Kill band Viva Knieval, though, is dull, tough listening. The sole album by the Fakes, Hanna’s project with Nation of Ulysses’ Tim Green (and a guest cast of thousands) is a concept record in search of a concept, though it includes a sweet, sad piece she sings along with a music box playing the theme from Love Story.