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Addresses: Record company--Reprise Records, 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505.
Nearly every description of Babes in Toyland includes some form of the characterization "girl group." The three women who make up the band, however, prefer to be called a "rock band," rather than a "female rock band." In fact, there is nothing traditionally feminine in their aggressive, post-punk sound, which inspired the Riot Grrrls movement, a cadre of mostly young women who have set out to prove, among other things, that gender had nothing to do with the quality of music.
Though Babes in Toyland is considered a Minneapolis band, its history actually began in a small town in Oregon, where a high school student named Katherine Bjelland became best friends with a troubled California transplant named Courtney Love. After graduating from high school, Bjelland and Love briefly attended college. They then moved to San Francisco, where Katherine became known as Kat. They hadn't planned to form a band--though Bjelland had started teaching herself how to play guitar when she was 19. But when Bjelland, Love, and their friend Jennifer Finch (who would go on to join L7) caught an all-female punk band at a club one night, they decided to pick up instruments and give it a try. The three friends formed the band Sugar Baby Doll. But Bjelland soon decided to oust Love from the trio, effectively breaking up the band.
Remarkably, Bjelland and Love remained friends after this contentious event, deciding to pursue their musical careers in Minneapolis. By the end of 1987, they had met a cocktail waitress named Lori Barbero. Bjelland convinced Barbero that she could become a drummer. With Barbero on drums, Bjelland on guitar and vocals, and Love on bass, the first incarnation of Babes in Toyland was born. The name came from the Victor Herbert operetta (and 1961 Disney film), but as Bjelland would later explain in interview after interview, "Boys and girls are all babes in the universe."
A few months later, Bjelland once again kicked her longtime friend out of the band. Michelle Leon replaced Love on bass. Leon had only casually played her boyfriend's bass guitar, but she was eager to join the band. "It felt so right from the very first," she told Neal Karlen in his book Babes in Toyland. "I didn't want to just be in some band--I needed to be in this band. Though none of us knew how to read music, and Lori and I'd never really played our instruments, it was like we could understand the beat of each other's pulses."
The trio's friendship grew so close that they began to think of themselves as sisters. By then Babes in Toyland had made a name for themselves playing the Minneapolis club circuit. In 1990 they released their first LP, Spanking Machine, on Twin/Tone, a respected independent label based in Minneapolis. Shortly thereafter, Tim Carr, a representative of Warner Bros. Records, happened to see the band play in New York. A few months later, Carr signed them to a record contract. The band left on a European tour almost immediately.
Babes in Toyland spent most of 1991 on the road expanding their fan base. Then, as they were preparing to go into the studio to record their first album for Reprise, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., Leon decided to quit the band. Refusing to squander the momentum they had gained on tour by simply letting the band disintegrate, Barbero and Bjelland recruited yet another bass player, Maureen Herman. Herman, who had been playing bass for Cherry Rodriquez in Chicago, knew the other Babes from when she had lived in Minneapolis. To solidify the new lineup, Babes in Toyland continued to perform before beginning recording sessions.
Bjelland married Stuart Spasm of the Australian punk band Lubricated Goat a few weeks before the release of Babes in Toyland's first major-label album. The record was called Fontanelle, a reference to the soft spot on a newborn's head.
In the meantime, Love had formed the band Hole and married Kurt Cobain, singer, guitarist, and songwriter for Nirvana, which would become enormously popular. Love took advantage of her new prominence to start a feud with Bjelland over who had started the "kinderwhore" look that both women favored--tattered babydoll dresses, little-girl shoes, garish makeup, and wildly messy hair. Babes in Toyland responded with a staged combat between Bjelland and photographer Cindy Sherman, imitating Love, in the band's first video, "Bruise Violet." The media war ultimately served to promote Babes in Toyland as much as Love.
At the end of the Fontanelle tour, Bjelland announced that she and her husband were moving to Seattle to form a new project, thus dissolving Babes in Toyland. But four days later, after a long, heart-to-heart talk with Barbero, Bjelland changed her mind about the band, if not Seattle. After Bjelland relocated west, she and Seattle resident Love reconciled. In the press, Love--notoriously prone to overblown pronouncements--often stated that the original lineup of Babes in Toyland, with her on bass, could have become the next Beatles.
The current lineup of Babes in Toyland hadn't been doing too badly either: Spin named Fontanelle one of the year's Top 20 albums, and Jon Pareles of the New York Times listed Babes in Toyland among 1992's most notable groups.
In 1993 Babes in Toyland experienced another career surge, releasing an EP titled Pain Killers, which included a live version of "Bruise Violet." MTV's hit show Beavis and Butt-head started incorporating the "Bruise Violet" clip into its video segments, which increased the band's exposure and album sales. That summer Babes in Toyland joined the renowned Lollapalooza summer festival tour.
The following year the trio had a hand in the film SFW, playing themselves as well as recording the picture's title song. Not satisfied with this foray into filmdom, however, Babes in Toyland also cut a cover of Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It" for the movie Reform School Girls. Neal Karlen helped to further hype the band with his account of their story in his book Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band. And later in the year, the trio's version of "Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft" appeared on If I Were a Carpenter, a well-received homage to the 1970s pop band the Carpenters.
Before the recording of the band's next album, Bjelland divorced Spasm and returned to Minneapolis. In early 1995 Babes in Toyland released Nemesister. The LP included the corrosively catchy first single, "Sweet 69," and singular covers of disco stalwart Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," former Raspberry Eric Carmen's 1975 hit "All By Myself," and blues singer Billie Holiday's "Deep Song."
Over the years Babes in Toyland have developed a solid band chemistry and a distinctive musical identity. "We are not regular musicians," Barbero told Billboard. "We don't read and write music; we just do our own thing."
by Sonya Shelton
Babes in Toyland's Career
- Selective Works
- Spanking Machine, Twin/Tone, 1990.
- Fontanelle, Reprise, 1992.
- Pain Killers (EP), Reprise, 1993.
- (Contributors) If I Were a Carpenter, A&M, 1994.
- Nemesister, Reprise, 1995.
- Karlen, Neal, Babes in Toyland: The Making and Selling of a Rock and Roll Band, Times Books/Random House, 1994.
- The Trouser Press Record Guide, edited by Ira A. Robbins, Collier, 1992.
- Periodicals Billboard, July 10, 1993; September 4, 1993; March 18, 1995.
- Entertainment Weekly, July 16, 1993; July 23, 1993; April 28, 1995.
- Rolling Stone, April 18, 1991; May 18, 1995; June 15, 1995.
- Stereo Review, November 1993; December 1994.
- Wilson Library Bulletin, December 1994.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Reprise Records press materials, 1995.
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