It’s a dilemma that comes to most bands, if they start becoming successful. You form a band, maybe put out a self-released recording or two, find an indie label to handle the business, build an audience, play larger and larger venues, and then it arrives: the Major Label Contract. And, hence, the dilemma — do you sign, or not? L7: Pretend We’re Dead is a cautionary tale on why it might not be the best idea.
L7 was formed in Los Angeles by guitarists Suzi Gardner and Donita Sparks in 1985. They didn’t start out to be an female band, going through a number of lineup changes in their early years, until the definitive lineup was completed with the arrival of Jennifer Finch (bass) in 1987 and Dee Plakas (drums) in 1988. They were hard rock — but not the kind of hard rock common to all the hair metal bands found on Sunset Strip back in the ‘80s.
Perhaps that why they had to go outside of the LA scene to give their career a boost. After releasing a self-titled album on Epitaph, their admiration for what was happening on Sub Pop took them north, where they recorded what’s arguably their best album, 1990’s Smell the Magic, produced by the ever-reliable Jack Endino. Give it a spin again, if you haven’t heard it for a while; “Shove” was the album’s single, but the classic moment has to be “Fast and Frightening,” with its show-stopping line “Got so much clit, she don’t need no balls.”
And then it was off to Slash Records, the one-time indie that had been purchased by London Records and was distributed by Warner Bros. Records. And then … ?
Pretend We’re Dead chronicles a story that’s happened to many bands, who fare well on an indie, then sign with a major (or major-affiliated) label in the hopes that a greater promotional push will result in more sales, and more profit. But as the film makes clear, L7 had a few obstacles to face along the way.
First, they were an all-female hard rock act. And not kind of the bustier-and-fishnet wearing female hair metal act that played up to more conventional aspects of femininity; L7 had a different sense of style, drawn from the classic rock ‘n’ roll tradition of jeans, a much-loved t-shirt, and a well-worn leather jacket.
And why did they have to be pigeonholed as “women in rock” anyway? Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, one of the film’s interviewees, expresses bafflement at the idea; to him, L7 was simply a band that rocked. The group themselves are shown going through interviews repeatedly being asked “What’s it like to be a woman in rock?” You can practically hear their teeth grinding in response.
The film’s wealth of footage lets you track the band’s progress every step of the way. Rare performances; vintage interviews; home movies — it’s a terrific record of what exactly a band goes through, as seen from the inside: how you live on the road, how you work in the studio, and why it’s so hard to make any money. Yeah, it’s nice to have a limo meet you at the airport when you arrive in a new city on tour — until you realize later that your label charges that to you as an expense. Add up enough “expenses,” and — surprise! — you won’t be earning any money on your records.
L7 toured the US, Europe, Brazil, and Japan, playing some major festivals along the way (most infamously, the Reading Festival in 1992, where Finch threw her tampon into the crowd, in frustration to the band being pelted with mud). But they never broke through to the next level. Records didn’t sell, and touring became a grind.
Might they had done better if they stayed with an indie label, one more attuned to their raw aesthetic? We’ll never know. Finch left the band in 1996, and by 2001, the energy to continue just dissipated. The band members are unflinchingly honest about this rough period, feeling that they’d accomplished nothing, and wondering if they’d wasted their lives. It’s depressing and discouraging.
But wait! There’s a happy ending. As fans began sharing stories and footage online, the four found the wherewithal to reunite in 2014, and have since played live to adoring crowds (their most recent NW date being November 3, 2015, at the Showbox in Seattle). And now comes Pretend We’re Dead, which lays out the band’s story for the first time, with candid interviews from all four members, testimonials from the likes of Shirley Manson and Exene Cervenka, and plenty of performance footage of the band in their prime.
This is combo DVD/Blu-ray set comes with a number of bonus features. They’re mostly outtakes, but there’s one real surprise: the 1998 mockumentary, The Beauty Process Live Tin, directed by Novoselic, and previously only available on VHS. It’s a satire on the machinations of the music industry; a couple of skits (the band forced to participate in a focus group; the band forced to meet with an obnoxious motormouth from their record label who sticks them with the check; the band forced to sign on the dotted line with Satan), and more great live footage. It’s inclusion gives a suggestion as to how L7 looks back on their dance in the major label arena. But Pretend We’re Dead also makes the case that this is a band of true rock ‘n’ roll survivors.
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Check out the trailer for the documentary below.