Unlikely rock veterans by their 20s, the Donnas — together since junior high school — went through three band names before emerging on the national scene; they then struggled to shed the perception that a man pulled their creative strings. The Palo Alto, California, quartet — guitarist Alison “Donna R.” Robertson, vocalist Brett “Donna A.” Anderson, bassist Maya “Donna F.” Ford and drummer Torry “Donna C.” Castellano — made their first significant recordings as puckish, hormone-soaked high school punk queens. Their evolution has been from a raucous, loopy twist on the male hard rock aesthetic to a pale reflection of it.
Before becoming the Donnas (at a point when they were not yet old enough to drive), the girls released an abrasive, ultra-primitive EP as Ragady Anne. The rare recording (500 copies were pressed) is basically a practice tape by a noisy, barely proficient punk/metal garage band. Adopting trashy bad girl personas, they became the Electrocutes, the recorded evidence of which only surfaced after the Donnas were two albums old. Steal Yer Lunch Money, which is only a notch more sophisticated than the Ragady Anne sessions, contains 14 unoriginal soundalikes, tossed-off punk numbers that owe a large debt to riot grrrl bands like the Frumpies and Bratmobile.
The owner of the Super*teem and Radio X labels, former Supercharger guitarist Darin Raffaelli, saw the Electrocutes in the mid-’90s and asked them to record songs he had written specifically for a “girl band.” The foursome dubbed themselves the Donnas for his project. (Insinuations that Raffaelli, in the footsteps of Kim Fowley and the Runaways, exerted creative control over the band — which both denied — dogged the group for years, but Raffaelli really just gave the Donnas a needed push.) The girls maintained both bands concurrently for two years and occasionally had the inspired chutzpah to deny also being the Donnas, trashing their kinder, gentler alter-egos as too “goody-goody.” Eventually they dropped the Electrocutes name altogether and began their career in earnest.
Following a trio of three-song singles, the first Donnas album exudes a bratty, DIY punk charm, and purposefully evokes the sound and look of the Ramones’ first record, in the speedy, sloppy tunes (a mash of punk, ’60s girl group and bubblegum pop), the blurry black and white cover photo of the group (who look like they haven’t bathed or changed their T-shirts in days), the Donna names, song titles like “Do You Wanna Go Out With Me” and some extremely familiar riffs. The Donnas has nowhere near the breathtaking, elemental rock ‘n’ roll power or revolutionary devolution of The Ramones, but listening to these She-mones can be a lot of fun. Raffaelli’s songs — mostly about boys and partying — run together in a blur but include minor classics like “Hey, I’m Gonna Be Your Girl,” the catfight- powered “Get Rid of That Girl” (“Kill! Kill! Kill! / I’m gonna hit her in the head / I’m gonna knock her down / I’m gonna drag her by the hair all over town”) and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Boy” (“We met each other at Montgomery Ward / You’re my favorite mental retard”). The Lookout! reissue appends the Donnas’ first three singles (also mostly written by Raffaelli), which sound like they were recorded in a cave with a cheap tape recorder positioned 50 feet from the band. No matter — “High School Yum Yum” and “I Wanna Be a Unabomber” are a gas anyway. Finally a Classy Record From … The Donnas. is a lo-fi five-song live recording.
Though barely out of high school, the Donnas came of age musically on American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, writing songs (with uncredited assistance from Raffaelli), tightening their sound and improving production values by leaps and bounds — but not enough to dilute their basement band house party vibe. One foot is still planted firmly in the Ramones’ gene pool (“Gimmie My Radio” and “Speed Demon”), while the other takes a step toward the no-frills metal of AC/DC. At this point, the Donnas invite comparisons to the Runaways, with a harder sound and increasingly sexual lyric come-ons. Not content with the debut’s high school mash notes, the Donnas deliver paeans to fornication on songs like “Shake in the Action” (“There’s a shake in the action / I want your snake for some action”). The innuendo sure is crude, but anyone who wants to deny the Donnas their piece of ass has to do the same to AC/DC, Little Richard, the Rolling Stones, Prince, Led Zeppelin and a thousand other horny male rockers. On American Teenage Rock ‘n’ Roll Machine, the Donnas channel the attitude and some of the sound of those greats to create the kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink smutty party rock rarely recorded by women.
Produced by Jeff and Steve McDonald of Redd Kross, Get Skintight marks a final break from Raffaelli. The Donnas wrote all the songs (except for an ace cover of Mötley Crüe’s “Too Fast for Love”) and manage an effective blend of the Electrocutes’ trashy punk/metal and the juvenile pop clatter of The Donnas. It sounds like the album the band wanted to make all along. “You Don’t Wanna Call” is cast in the Ramones ballad mold, but most other songs (most notably “Hyperactive,” “Hook It Up” and “Zero”) fuse basic punk and metal riffs to create the ultimate synthesis of all things Donna. Think amphetamine- fueled Kiss dolls with boobs, a less played-out gimmick and a more genuine passion for rock ‘n’ roll.
The Donnas’ chops are far more assured on Turn 21; their sound is much closer to Lita Ford and Judas Priest. (It even includes a passable, straightforward cover of Priest’s “Living After Midnight”). Musically, it’s light years from their debut (well, within the confines of the hard rock world it is) and great fun in spots (check “40 Boys in 40 Nights” or “Little Boy,” perhaps their last symptom of Ramone-itis). Slickly produced by Robert Shimp and the band, Turn 21 is an enjoyable mainstream rock record — but it’s not such a great Donnas record. It lacks the cheeky spark, garage band charm and obvious enthusiasm of previous efforts. Sure, they’re still drinking Schlitz, schtupping boys and smoking illegal substances, but this keg party almost has a parental stamp of approval.
Producers Jason Carmer and Shimp further thickened the professional sheen entombing the Donnas on Spend the Night, the major-label debut that brought the band commercial success, including an appearance on Saturday Night Live. Like Turn 21, it gets far closer to the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll than, say, the latest Aerosmith abomination, but it’s still limp. That’s a shame, since Robertson’s guitar playing is good, Anderson’s figured out how to sing and growl convincingly and the Ford/Castellano rhythm section is tight. For all the improved musicianship, though, one song is indistinguishable from the next, and generic rock isn’t improved for being made by women.
Produced by Butch Walker, Gold Medal sounds less like a beer commercial than its predecessor (the Donnas actually appeared in a Budweiser radio ad while supporting Spend the Night), but it still delivers, for the most part, standard-issue ’70s-inspired hard rock. After shedding the “Donna” appellations for good, the group tackles more mature subject matter, like long-distance love (“Out of My Hands”) and crumbling relationships (“I Don’t Want to Know (If You Don’t Want Me)”) in an effort to distance themselves from their earlier shtick. In spots — like the acoustic guitar-tinged title track — the Donnas prove they can grow more creative as they mellow. More often, however, they prove that tweaking the male rock aesthetic is a lot more fun than being subsumed by it.
On Bitchin’, the Donnas prove the same thing — by presenting evidence of the exact opposite. Parting company with a major label to jam indie under its own steam usually gives an act stronger creative control, but the Donnas sound more processed and manipulated than ever. With the help of producer Jay Ruston (who’s worked with Meat Loaf!), the band piles on cheesy ‘80s rock clichés: phased guitars, gated drums, echoey unison shouts for backup vocals. Most of the songs (two of which the Donnas co-wrote with Holly Knight, song mechanic to Heart, Pat Benatar, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart et al) are still wild-girl-on-the-make fare, but a few focus on the insatiable-girl-in-thrall-to-hot-guy viewpoint (“Wasted,” “Save Me,” “Give Me What I Want,” “Like an Animal”). The Donnas never have been shy about their rock and roll touchstones, but this goes way beyond influence or even homage. Put this CD on at a party full of forty-somethings and they’ll think they’re hearing a lost hair-metal classic. They’ll still think so if they check out the CD case. From the newly styled logo to the cover art (a leather-clad posterior shot) to the band photos to the sound, Bitchin’ could’ve been a party-hearty hard-rock hit in 1982 had it not been recorded a quarter-century later.