Arzu Gokcen’s first time seeing Babes in Toyland was such a life-changing event, she refused to go to high school the next day.
“I told my mom, ‘I’ve seen it all,’ ” recalled Gokcen, whose dramatic teenage revelation would lead to her becoming a singer/guitarist in the Selby Tigers and Pink Mink.
Ana Voog was literally bowled over during her first Babes gig.
“I sat down right in the middle of the Entry, my knees were shaking so hard with excitement,” said the frontwoman for the Blue Up?, a peer band of that era. “It was winter, too, so the floor was all wet and gross. I couldn’t help it.”
Babes in Toyland certainly made a deep impact back in its heyday two decades ago. Now that Minneapolis’ widely celebrated thrash-punk trio is playing its first road shows in 18 years, the band is making strong first impressions all over again.
Babes drummer Lori Barbero expects Sunday’s homecoming gig at Rock the Garden to be a scene similar to other festivals her group has played so far this year. She and Babes frontwoman Kat Bjelland formed the band in 1987, split up a decade later and finally performed again with their post-1992 bassist Maureen Herman starting in February.
“There have been so many young girls — boys, too, but mostly girls — who never had the chance to see us play before and seem excited about it,” Barbero said. “It’s so moving to see them get into us. I mean, really get into us.”
To this day, though, probably no group was — and is — more directly touched by the trio’s powerful output than other women in the band’s hometown music scene.
All-female rock bands weren’t entirely a new thing when Babes in Toyland hit the Twin Cities scene in 1987. St. Paul birthed Vixen, one of the few women’s bands to successfully crash the heavy-metal boys club in the early 1980s. In the punk and indie-rock clubs, both the eclectic and playful rock quintet Têtes Noires and the punkier Clams regularly played to sizable crowds in the mid-’80s.
However, as the Clams’ Cindy Lawson put it, Babes “were the first among us to earn national acclaim, and they just ran away with it and ran everyone over.”
Here’s more of what Lawson and other women in the Twin Cities music scene had to say about how Babes in Toyland changed things forever.
Cindy Lawson, singer/guitarist in the Clams: “It was still such a smaller music scene in the ’80s. There would be some sour grapes from people who thought we were only getting booked because we were a chick band, like it was a novelty.
“It was still kind of a new thing. Têtes Noires were really the only all-female punk band of note in Minneapolis, then came the Clams, then Babes, Zuzu’s Petals, the Blue Up? and on and on.”
Camille Gage, singer/keyboardist in Têtes Noires: “It was a little lonely in our day. We were very much judged for being all women. It certainly felt like we were being seen through this lens that had nothing to do with the music. And that’s really all we wanted to do: make music and have fun.
“One of our first gigs was at Duffy’s, opening for Curtiss A, and when we got to sound check we realized we would actually be following strippers as that night’s entertainment in the club. Curt really felt bad about that, and I have to admit it was very odd and uncomfortable. But that maybe shows you how far things have come.”
Lori Barbero, Babes in Toyland drummer: “When the Longhorn was open, I’d go there and it would be about 90 percent men. I don’t know why. Going to bars for live music — our kind of music — was just something guys did more than women back then. Some women weren’t comfortable with it. But that had mostly changed by the time we came along.”
Maggie Macpherson, Uptown Bar booker: “Everyone knew Lori. She was just so ingrained in the scene and such a big-hearted woman. So [Babes in Toyland] were pretty well known from the start, and there always seemed to be a feeling they were going to be big.”
Barbero: “We had women like Maggie and Chrissie Dunlap [at First Avenue] and Sue McLean who were booking bands in town and were very good at their jobs. Maggie’s the one who first booked Nirvana here. They were also all very nice, and for us to have women like them around to make us feel welcome was really a great thing, in hindsight.”
Lawson: “[Babes] were so unique. Just a force to be reckoned with. There have been very few bands like them, women or otherwise, where your jaw just drops. Lori is such a powerful drummer, and Kat is really just possessed as a frontwoman.”
Ana Voog, aka Rachel Olsen of the Blue Up?: “I had a lot of rage in me at that age. When I saw Kat unleash her pent-up aggression the way she did, I was like, ‘Oh, that’s how you do it.’ I was small and would get called cute, like Kat, and I had never seen anyone kind of use the whole Lolita thing the way she did. She owned up to her small cuteness and used it like a weapon.”
Linda Pitmon, Zuzu’s Petals drummer: “There were other female drummers, but Lori was really the first one I saw who just bashed the [expletive] out of her drums. I loved watching her. She had this visual impact, too, with her dreadlocks flying all over the place and this big smile. They were all really good musicians, including Michelle [Leon, Babes’ first bassist] and Maureen [Herman].”
Arzu Gokcen of Selby Tigers and Pink Mink: “They were just so powerful and almost kind of intimidating. It was like there was no vulnerability to them at all. That sound they would make would just hit you so hard, but it was only three of them and it wasn’t anything too complex. I thought, ‘If they can do that, I can do it, too.’ ”
Macpherson: “Lori would be the first to say, ‘If I can do this, you can, too.’ They never really took the riot-grrrl thing too seriously, or themselves too seriously. For them, it was more just about being in a band. They made it look fun. And I think that in and of itself was inspirational to a lot of other women.”
Jessica Hopper, Pitchfork senior editor and author, “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic”: “Music writers in town were mostly writing about them being a caustic, vitriolic punk band, or their amateurism — as if autodidactism wasn’t inherently a part of being in a punk band. To me, they meant so much more. They were life-affirming. They told me I belonged in the music scene as much as anyone. They were like my permission slip. So I called up City Pages [at age 15] and said they’re getting it wrong, and I wrote the sort of corrective piece. That was my impetus to becoming a music journalist.”
Pitmon: “We didn’t really talk about being ‘women in a band’ or any big feminist issues, we just happen to be women playing in a band. It’s what most of our friends did in town: start bands. Looking back, I suppose there was a certain empowering factor just in the fact we were out there doing it.”
Voog: “As soon as our band started to get more mainstream attention, that’s when I noticed the misogyny in the music industry. We had already been talking to [Warner Bros.], but once Babes in Toyland signed with them, they suddenly weren’t interested in us. They actually said they already signed one all-female rock act and weren’t interested in another.”
Dawn Kuehl-Miller, guitarist in Smut: “I think up until [Babes], you’d still get a lot of the annoying talk of, ‘Wow, she sure can play guitar,’ or, ‘They play as well as the men.’ Babes really shattered that, and I think it finally went away. But you would still get a lot of comparisons of one female band to another. We were pretty different from them but still would get compared to them a lot.”
Pitmon: “They brought a lot more attention and respect to Minneapolis. Having the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and Soul Asylum and Prince was cool, of course, but having this really unique, hard-rocking all-female band from there, I think that’s what really showed we were a progressive scene.”
Gokcen: “I never had any trouble getting booked to play shows. I felt like I came along at a really great time when everyone was very supportive and appreciative of women in the scene, and I’m sure they played a big role in that.”
Laura Larson, Kitten Forever singer/bassist: “I got to know them through Michael Azerrad’s Nirvana book and then [the documentary] ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke.’ I didn’t even know they were from Minnesota until I was playing in Baby Guts [as a teen]. Somebody told me Lori Barbero of Babes in Toyland came to one of our shows, and I was like, ‘What?!’
“I’m sure what they did trickled down and has made things better for my generation. I feel pretty fortunate to have come after them in this scene. You still get occasional silly comments about being women in a band, but that’s really as worse as it gets. We never really seem to run into any true opposition.”
Lizzo, rapper who recently opened Sleater-Kinney’s tour: “I really educated myself on all [the riot-grrrl bands], and of course that’s when I got into Sleater-Kinney. It’s so cool that these groups are coming back. I can’t wait to see Babes in Toyland, too. Their stuff is just crazy-intense. I think it’s so cool they’re from here. But it makes sense, really.”
Hopper: “They’ve had a longer shelf life than a lot of their peers, probably because their music was so different — so powerful and yet singular. They had those flash moments of high visibility, too, which allowed them to leave a pretty long trail of influence.”
Barbero: “Our big challenge now, if anything, is proving women our age can still do this. I’m honestly working harder than I ever have before at this. I’m compensating for the fact I’m not in my 30s anymore. I really didn’t know if I could still play a show two nights in a row the way we play them. But it turns out I can. I feel really, really good about the way we’re playing.”
Voog: “I think I love them even more now that they’re doing it in their 50s. It’s like, ‘We don’t give a [expletive] what you think, we’re still going to do our thing!’ Eighteen years later, it’s great to see women like them doing what they were meant to be doing.”
Kuehl-Miller: “I think if any band of that era should still be playing music today, it’s them. They’re still a big influence. I hope they keep this up for a long time.”
Lawson: “They deserve this.”