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Saturday, July 17, 1999: A sold-out crowd of 70,000-plus crammed inside Pasadena's Rose Bowl to watch one of the final performances of Sarah McLachlan's three-year-old fem-festival, the Lilith Fair. At 6:30 p.m., a plane buzzed over the stadium. Trailing the aircraft was a banner bearing a message intended to be part publicity stunt, part commentary: BORED? TIRED? TRY L7.
The next day, at the male-dominated Van's Warped Tour at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, another airplane flew over the show, this time with a banner declaring: WARPED NEEDS MORE BEAVER . . . LOVE, L7.
"The banners behind each of the planes are pretty self-explanatory," chuckles Sparks. "The Lilith Fair is boring and the Warped Tour does have a lack of women on the bill."
That type of full-frontal assault has been L7's musical and philosophical m.o. since the all-female Los Angeles punk band came to semiprominence in the early '90s, first on indies like Epitaph and Sub Pop and later with a trio of Warner Bros. releases.
Like a number of other groups, L7 recently left the major-label rat race to return to the indie fold with its latest release, slap-happy.
Though the group -- Sparks, guitarist Suzi Gardner and drummer Dee Plakas -- has been together since 1985, it has endured the departure of bassist and founding member Jennifer Finch (as well as that of her touring replacement Gail Greenwood, since replaced by Janis Tanaka). L7's slash-and-burn ethos has not diminished since the days when it first captured the attention of the rock world with its mix of the Ramones, Motörhead and Joan Jett on albums like Smell the Magic and Bricks Are Heavy.
Check the group's Web site (www.smelll7.com) and you'll find a section dedicated to those who have made the band's official "Shit List." The site features hilarious verbal rants directed at sacrificial lambs ranging from presidential hopeful George W. Bush ("We put up with 12 years of listening to his father, the condescending asshole and now we're supposed to welcome the son of the condescending asshole?") to actors like Woody Harrelson ("a misogynist nerd who promotes ugly hemp fashions") and Charlie Sheen who makes the list, well, "just because."
It's just that sort of attitude that spurred the band to mark the end of McLachlan's festival with the aerial missive. "Our problem with the Lilith Fair -- it wasn't directed at any artist specifically, because I actually like some of the artists on the tour, this year in particular. But it was the fact that they bill it and advertise it as a 'Celebration of Women in Music,'" says Sparks. "I think a more accurate description is 'A Celebration of Middle-of-the-Road Women on the Radio.' If it's a celebration of women in music, then where's Diamanda Galás? Where's the Boredoms? Where's the Lunachicks? Their definition of female-made music is very narrow, and it's insulting."
Sparks knows all too well that the contributions of female rockers -- the ones that actually rock, in more than name only -- have been marginalized, swept up in the rush of promotional and mainstream press hype that has proclaimed and celebrated the rise of women in music over the past few years. But this so-called female rock revolution is a false conceit that has foisted the mantle of stardom on the shoulders of effete folkists like Jewel or shrill divas like Celine Dion -- artists whose musical daring and rock pedigrees are closer to Anne Murray than Suzi Quatro.
For a brief period in the early and mid-'90s, the most visible female musicians were rock 'n' rollers in the truest sense. The grunge, post-punk and riot grrl sounds of bands like L7, the Muffs, Bikini Kill and others proved that women had a distinct and important place in a traditionally male-dominated field. Those bands didn't want or need to be sequestered in a quiet corner, but rather wanted to rock on equal terms with the boys.
Having helped spearhead the movement, L7 found itself in the unenviable position of being on a record label that no longer seemed to care about it by the late '90s. The group parted ways with Warner Bros. in 1997, just six months after releasing The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum.
With the massive shifts going on in the music industry, Sparks was leery of being bound to an ironclad contract with yet another corporate monolith. "I was investigating other labels. But major labels appear to me to be on very shaky ground. The idea of signing a seven-album deal didn't sound very appealing. So then we were looking into indies, but then the collective light bulb turned on over our heads, and we said, 'Hey, we could do this ourselves.'"
The group decided to start its own label, Wax Tadpole, and partnered with L.A.-based indie, Bong Load, to help cement distribution. For Sparks and the band, the decision to stake out their own piece of the record biz was a practical one, not one born of an unrealistic, though common, indier-than-thou attitude.