Soft Spot For The Babes: Fontanelle Turns 30
Celebrating Babes In Toyland’s major label breakthrough
The year 1991 damn near broke my heart. Many of my favorite underground bands released slick major label albums. The 18-year-old me had been weaned on a steady diet of diatribes from Steve Albini and Ian Mackaye about the damning pitfalls of selling out.
Thirty years later, I have a much different appreciation for what a longterm career looks like for any artist. But at that time it seemed like Metallica, Nirvana—even Voivod and Ministry—were smoothing out their sounds, chasing corporate dollars, and leaving fans like me in the dust.
By ’92 I was wary of any band I liked being sucked into the belly of the conglomerate vacuum. So it did my angry young heart a world of good to find that the all time great exception to this rule turned out to be my favorite noisy Minneapolis punk trio Babes In Toyland.
I’d discovered Babes late one night in 1989. Whether elements of this memory are apocryphal or not, I recall seeing the video for “He’s My Thing” on USA Up All Night in the few minutes between the end of some godawful film, and the turn of the hour. It was not unusual for that network to squeeze in any kind of stimulating detritus to keep things running on schedule. Seeing that glorious low budget black and white video, with the screeching, scathing, pounding of three amazing young women surrounded by creepy stop-motion dolls gripped me.
The next day I pre-ordered a cassette copy of their debut LP Spanking Machine. It was recorded by Seattle’s renowned Jack Endino. The same guy had twiddled the knobs for Nirvana on Bleach, which was my favorite album at the time. Babes immediately became a dear favorite, and I eagerly devoured any interviews I could find. I tracked down their “House” 7-inch from the Sub Pop singles club, and in 1991 reveled to their To Mother EP.
So while I had every reason to be concerned that their 1992 major label debut Fontanelle might be somehow spayed by Warner/Reprise, it instead became a case study in how to step up to the plate without bending over for Bugs Bunny.
No one was more concerned than the band themselves about what it meant for a really gnarly, uncompromising, hard touring band to ally themselves with a big league label. In fact, their tireless A&R man Tim Carr (who had made his name by signing The Beastie Boys and Megadeth) pursued Babes for nearly two years before finally convincing them that they’d be given more support, and no creative harness at Reprise.
True to his word, Carr lined up enough budget to give the band weeks of studio time, hired Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo to be the name producer, and helped the band outgrow their van and floor ethic. By the end of the Fontanelle album cycle, they were touring on buses and sleeping in hotels.
The behind the scenes story of Fontanelle is told in fascinating detail in Neal Karlen’s book Babes In Toyland: The Making And Selling Of A Rock And Roll Band. For an inside scoop of how the major label industry worked a baby band’s stepping stone album during the grunge-era feeding frenzy, it’s an essential read. As a band biography, though, it leaves much to be desired. At times the fly-on-the-wall aspect is revealing. In other passages it resembles manufactured made-for-TV melodrama. More than once, Karlen refers to Fontanelle as the band’s debut, as if anything they did prior to signing with Warner was inconsequential. (He also refers to Nevermind as Nirvana’s debut).
The book left me scratching my head a number of times, until I found this quote from Babes In Toyland vocalist / guitarist / primary songwriter Kat Bjelland in a 2020 interview with the Vancouver Sun. “I feel bad for [Karlen]. He told me he lost a lot of his notes halfway through, and he spent his advance. So he made a lot of it up. Part of it’s true. But a lot of it’s not. He’s apologized.”
Fontanelle (a word for the soft part of a baby’s head) almost didn’t happen. Discounting a few fleeting early members of the band who never played a live gig (hello, Courtney Love), the core trio up to the time that they signed with Reprise was Kat Bjelland, drummer Lori Barbero and bassist Michelle Leon. Mere months before tracking on the album was to begin, Leone’s boyfriend Joe Cole was murdered in a mugging. She continued to go through the motions and completed her tour obligations, but by the time it came to record, she had retired from music.
On very short notice bassist Maureen Herman was imported from Chicago and given a crash course in Babes bass. She worked hard, but most of her takes on Fontanelle were spliced together in the studio because the engineer’s standards were high, and she was so nervous at the time. Likewise, Lori Barbero’s unique and titanic tom-heavy tribal drum style didn’t always loan itself to perfection. After days of threats to set her to a click track, she finally nailed most of her takes in one long day session when she was playing particularly steady. The rest of the overbudget studio time was focused on Bjelland’s guitar and vocals, though she was rather distracted as she’d just fallen madly in love with Australian noise-rocker Stuart Spasm of Lubricated Goat.
The album kicks off with “Bruise Violet,” a very public “fuck you” note to Bjelland’s on-again/off-again friend/competitor Courtney Love. Much ink was wasted on speculations of which woman first began wearing thrift shop baby doll dresses on stage, inspiring a look that the press tastelessly christened “kinderwhore.” Later the two women claimed that the entire brouhaha was something they manufactured to generate press. The music video for this track features fine artist Cindy Sherman in a role as Kat’s doppelganger, Courtney. Sherman also provided the provocative baby doll photo that adorns Fontanelle’s cover.
Second track “Right Now” was my first favorite, though, thanks to a gargantuan chorus riff that made them sound heavy as any metal/grunge/pigfuck band at that time.
“Bluebell” comes in third, with a lyric Kat oft sang to herself on stage when she was paying the bills by dancing in suburban strip clubs in the greater Twin Cities area.
Flies through the air with the greatest disease
Takes little pills and calls them trapeze
But it’s the caterwauling refrain about two men who felt up Lori Barbero before she chased them off with her fists that packs the hardest punch:
You know who you are
You’re dead meat, motherfucker
You don’t try to rape a goddess
“Handsome and Gretel” is up fourth, the third song to feature explicit lyrics. Remarkably given the era, Warner was convinced not to slap a parental advisory sticker on this album. Only Prince had successfully lobbied for that treatment prior to Babes. The argument used was that none of the “fucks” employed were sexual in nature. One assumes that all the mentions of “sloppy slots” and the crotch that “talks to cocks” may have been, though.
“Blood” follows, which falls more in the category of the majority of the album’s Side B. That is to say it’s another sub-three-minute basher without much in the way of hooks. There are no duds on this album, and no songs longer than 3:14. Fifteen songs in thirty-eight minutes makes its punk rock claim rather absolute, especially as the hi-fi sound isn’t slick, and there’s just zero hand-holding going on. I’m honestly still amazed that a major label put this out.
“Magick Flute” features Lori’s lone lead vocal. A la Ringo, she had sung one song on each of Babes’ prior releases. She has a great voice, bluesy and melodic, though her affectation for pronouncing “me” as “mae” has rubbed me wrong at times. There’s none of that on “Magick Flute” though, and it’s actually one of the catchiest songs on the album. This one is a paean to her difficulties up to that time finding a worthwhile romantic partner. Her first boyfriend who had his own apartment and a job wouldn’t come into her life until after the album was released.
In the long run, “Won’t Tell” has become my favorite song on Fontanelle. The radio department at Warner wanted this to be the first single, and I can see why. Aside from having a grunge-perfect quiet/loud dynamic and Kat’s beauty and the beast vocals, it’s also got some lyrical hooks. Perhaps it was my as yet unhealed scars from being narced off for substance distro by a teenage girl not long prior, but hearing a woman I idolized sing, “I’ll never tell on you…” hit home. “He’s My Thing” video director Michael Etoll returns in full color this time, with a practical effects phantasmagoria that includes monsters masks and glistening grotesqueries. Not that anyone ever saw it.
Side B begins with a remake of “Quiet Room” from To Mother. Aside from the spoken four count lead-in, it’s an instrumental wonderland guitar piece. I’ve always loved this song, but if you think “Stairway To Heaven” bites Spirit’s “Taurus” I would suggest listening to “Quiet Room” back to back with “King Volcano” by Bauhaus. The resemblance is a bit more than uncanny, and I sometimes wonder how none of the post-punk icons involved in the making of this record thought to mention it.
The rest of the album unfurls in a succession of quiet/loud or loud/loud speaker stabs and jabs, ending with another Bjelland solo piece called “Gone.” She builds a demonic choir of her various selves moaning and wailing over her weary distorted guitar strumming and feedback, punctuated by a rain of breaking bottles.
VIDEO: Babes In Toyland “Bruise Violet”
For all the effort that Warner put into funding and grooming Fontanelle, there were two factors that helped it reach what was then considered a respectable level of US sales. 250,000 copies eventually found their way into the hands of alternative nationers, grunge kids, and riot grrls.
Sales of that magnitude would never have been the case if the two most powerful critics of the day, Beavis and Butthead, hadn’t latched onto the “Bruise Violet” video, which had been rejected by MTV. Around the same time, Lollapalooza producer Ted Gardner wandered into a Babes In Toyland show in LA and had his mind blown. Soon they were a featured act on the first half of the ’93 extravaganza, alongside Alice In Chains and Rage Against The Machine.
Ultimately, I still prefer the band’s debut Spanking Machine to Fontanelle. There was a spark, a hunger, a naivety on the first album that makes it one of a kind. But considering the forces working for and against the band in ’92, it’s a wonder the second record was made at all, or that the band was able to squeeze out a third with their 1995 shaky swan song Nemesisters.
But nothing changes the fact that Babes In Toyland was the one band during the entire grunge era that didn’t disappoint me by wussing out after they stepped into the big leagues.
Twenty years prior, the first all female major label band of great importance, Fanny, had no choice but to demure to all manner of male producer requests, and their fangs were filed in the process. The Runaways were the product of male visionaries, too. The Go-Go’s and The Bangles sold tons of albums, but one could never call them uncompromising. Babes In Toyland stuck to their guns, and made one hell of an ugly, mean, honest album with Fontanelle.
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