A July night is arguably the worst time to see a rock 'n' roll show in Phoenix. Even though it's half past 11, the temperature is still pushing triple digits. Tempe's Boston's nightclub is drenched in the lingering humidity of the afternoon's monsoon; the smell of sweat and beer palpable in the sticky night air.
The club is bursting at the seams with bodies. An open-air stage is surrounded inside and out by a tattooed army of punks clad in black tee shirts and matching jeans. The assembled throng cranes heads, mouths lyrics and launches fists into the air. Its attention commanded by a group of young, female figures holding court with instruments in hand.
For close to an hour, the strains of power chords slam against snarled vocals and a whopping backbeat -- 45 minutes of raw rock 'n' roll abandon. Abruptly, the band exits the stage amid a torrent of cheers and whistles. The crowd has clearly not been sated. Minutes go by, and the appreciative din of the audience goes unheeded. Maybe next time around, baby.
It's a pure tease. A display of showmanship that would be impressive if only for the sheer cheekiness of the act. By the time the audience figures it out, the band is in the van and ready to go. Off to the next city, the next show and a new legion ready to be converted.
Teen pop, meet your nemesis: the Donnas.
A quartet of bad girls a couple years out of high school who take inspiration from KISS and the Runaways, the Donnas are like a gang, adopting pseudonyms (Donna A., Donna F., Donna R. and Donna C.) and a uniform of punked-out style. With big, bombastic guitars and tribal drumming, the band's noise is a much-needed blast of smoking-in-the-girls'-room attitude in a music world filled with prepackaged, target-marketed pap sung by shrill teen divas.
Not that the Donnas don't cover similar ground as other teenagers in music. "You Don't Wanna Call" features a couplet that would make Tiffany proud: "So I guess I'll just go to the mall/'Cause I know you'll never call." It's just that the line -- as spoken through a gum-popping snarl -- comes off as more valley-girl snobbery than brokenhearted nerdishness, but according to drummer Donna C., it's all true. "We do all the stuff that we say on the record," she says. "I think that our personalities as the Donnas are our personalities as us. There's not really a difference. [It] might be embellished to make it more exciting, but they all came from experiences that we've been through. I think it's pretty true to life, but I also think that we're not stupid. We're not going to be just tough and go crazy on people just for the sake of doing that -- then you just don't get any respect. You've got to choose when you're going to be like that."
The foursome first started playing together in Palo Alto, California, when they were in the eighth grade. Over the years, the group slowly transformed from a garage outfit that covered the Muffs and L7 to a self-directed, noisy riot grrrl group. The Donnas were born when the girls were approached by songwriter/label owner Darrin Raffaelli to collaborate on a straightahead rock project. The band released a self-titled record in 1996 and two years later dropped American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine (also co-written with Raffaelli), an album that couldn't have been more appropriately named.
Soon the hype machine took over -- features for MTV, Spin, Rolling Stone -- and there was the implication that the Donnas were a prepackaged group. A punk rock Spice Girls under the thumb of a man -- Raffaelli playing Kim Fowley to the Donnas' Runaways. Never mind that the Ramones have never been called a novelty act, and forget the fact that the quartet had been a band for a couple of years before ever hooking up with Raffaelli. Girls can't write raw music. "We always get compared to the Runaways and stuff," says Donna C. "Anytime there's younger girls and an older guy involved, [people] just assume [that the man calls the shots], because that's what history has always been like . . . but that's not really what happened with us.
"[Raffaelli] came along, and we did [the Donnas as a] side project while we were still doing our other band. I guess people want to turn it into something like that because he's a guy and he is older than us. It was really more like a friend-type thing. We always talked about everything, the five of us. He was really cool, and he never really made us do anything we didn't want to do."
Patronizing attitudes are what the Donnas have dealt with since they began practicing in Donna C.'s family garage after school. "The boys were totally condescending to us in our school," she says. But now the Donnas have to deal with the grown-up version of those boys: club owners, sound engineers and radio station disc jockeys. The world is full of these guys, flunkies who can't appreciate female aggression. Contempt sometimes follows.
But the Donnas have enough experience to know how not to get pushed around. "When it happens, you see that it's happening, but you still do everything you can to get your way," Donna C. says. "I don't think we're out-and-out bitches unless we really have to be. We're not afraid to be bitches. But most of the time when we work with someone, we knew them before. It's usually when we go into a club and people haven't heard of us and the sound guys are like, 'Yeah, right, these girls are gonna be able to rock 'n' roll.' Usually you get that kind of attitude beforehand, but you just set up and [do] sound check. After sound check they're like, 'Wow, you guys are really good.' They usually come around."
The commercial and critical success of Get Skintight, released last summer, has erased any conceptions that the Donnas are puppets. For the first time, they wrote the songs without outside help (save for a blissfully reworked cover of Mötley Crüe's "Too Fast for Love"), and the results are even snottier than in the past. Punk tempos meet metal guitars, which musically jibe with lyrics about doing doughnuts on the neighbor's lawn, trying to talk to a traffic cop after smoking pot in the car, dealing with boring boys and looking for quick love. Ex-Red Kross leaders Jeff and Steve McDonald produced the record, but the duo approached the band after the songs were ready to go.
Donna C. says the band took charge of Get Skintight. After all, the members have all put off going to college indefinitely because of the band. They have a lot more invested than when it was just an after-school activity. "We oversaw every single part of [the album]," says Donna C. "[When] Jeff and Steve asked if they could produce our next record, they were like, 'You can do whatever you want. You can say no to any of our ideas, and it's your record.'
"I think that was really cool, because that's how we wanted to work," she says. "We even remixed a few songs [without the McDonalds] because we didn't like how it sounded. Then we even went down to the mastering [when the tapes are transferred to a duplicable format] in Los Angeles to make sure that everything was totally how we wanted it to be. We did everything for all the pictures and everything. We were really involved in every step. We wanted this record to be really us, and we didn't want to have any regrets."
But the girls are not all business. If the songs are half-true, these four chicks love fast cars, fast love and illicit substances. And throughout the artwork for Get Skintight are pictures of the Donnas at convenience stores, at Disneyland and hanging out with fans. Touring looks like a nonstop party. Alas, life on the road with the Donnas doesn't compete with the group's heroes, KISS. (The Donnas even appeared in the recent KISS road pic Detroit Rock City.)
No Polaroids of naked groupies? "No," she says with a laugh. "KISS has pretty girls that they can take nude pictures of. We haven't seen enough cute boys to take pictures of. We really want to play the best we can every night, so after a few weeks of playing every single night, sometimes you just want to go back to the hotel. If there's a party, we'll go to it, but usually we're in a town where we don't know anyone."
The tough-girl attitude is fine now, but it could paint the Donnas into a corner. Who wants to see 30-year-old teen rebels? Though that's still a decade away, Donna C. suggests that great rock bands don't branch off too far from where they start. As for the Donnas' image, she thinks that it's flexible because it's so close to who they really are. "Personally, I don't think we're ever going to write an album that has all these deep messages and talks about all these issues or anything like that," she says. "I don't ever really think we're going to go that way. But I also think that from American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine to Skintight, we really grew a lot musically. I think we will grow with each record. I think we did grow with this record," she says. "I don't think it is limiting because I don't think we limit ourselves. We're not sitting there when we write songs going, 'Hmmm, is this going to go with our image?'"
As long as the four continue to concentrate on substance over style, the image will matter less and less.
The Donnas are scheduled to perform on Saturday, March 4, at Boston's in Tempe, with the Smugglers, and the Plus Ones. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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