Punk rock was still genuinely dangerous as the ‘70s melted away into the ‘80s. Even in major cities like Los Angeles and New York, being a punk meant being an outcast from society. Today you can get outlandish hair colors and facial piercings in malls with some Green Day anthem playing in the background; back then it made you a target of ridicule or even worse.
You have to imagine that it was even more difficult for female punks. They had increased scrutiny from those in the mainstream because women were held to different standards. I don’t remember the source, but I recall seeing an old television show where some punked-out girl was being scolded by her mother who said, “You used to be so beautiful, now look at you.” Even within the scene, there was rampant misogyny and indiscriminant violence from supposed allies.
In 1980, The Bags were featured in Decline of Western Civilization, which documented the Los Angeles punk scene. They were billed as The Alice Bag Band because Patricia Morrison, a.k.a. Pat Bag, had left the group and the producers wanted to avoid any conflict. Alice Bag can be seen dodging stage crashers and other debris while screaming like a banshee.
The same year, across the country in New York City, the first single by the Bush Tetras was released. The video shows the band surrounded by a gritty urban landscape that is a far cry from today’s sanitized Lower East Side. In “Too Many Creeps,” vocalist Cynthia Sley complains about how it was hard just walking down the street without being hassled.
Alice Bag and the surviving members of the Bush Tetras took very different paths in the 38 years since then, but they wound up releasing a new album and EP, respectively, only a few weeks apart from each other.
After The Bags split up in 1981, in true punk rock fashion before Decline was actually released, Bag spent time in several other musical outfits before semi-retiring to become a mother and later a school teacher. She wrote a couple of books and engaged in activism to empower Latina women before coming to the realization that punk rock still makes a great conduit for such advocacy with her first solo album in 2016. I think that was the first time she ever had a full album come out contemporaneously. It didn’t take nearly as long for the follow-up. If the previous release was Bag catching up on the past, Blueprint (Don Giovanni Records) sees the vocalist keeping true to her roots while looking ahead to the future. There’s no better example of this than on “77.” Her fierce screams and the double-time chorus might make the title seem like it references the year punk exploded, but it actually takes on the gender pay gap of 77 cents to the dollar. Joining her on the song are Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile, riot grrls who Bag figuratively passed the torch to before collaborating to do so literally.
There are more guests on the album–Chilean singer and poet Francisca Valenzuela, Teri Gender Bender from Le Butcherettes, and Martin Sorrondeguy from queercore bands Los Crudos and Limp Wrist–and more punk rock. The lead track “Turn It Up” is anthemic, allowing Bags’ powerful voice to battle the crunchy, speedy riffs, while horns give a bright ska feel to “Stranger” and the title track.
However, befitting a diverse artist, Blueprint offers a lot more than three chords. “Invisible” is a torch song with urban honkytonk allusions and “Adrift” is lilting piano and strings balladry. “Shame Game” has funky rhythms and an R&B exterior, while “Se Cree Joven” is sung entirely in Spanish. The song, whose title loosely translates to “she thinks she’s young,” was inspired when in a Dollar Store some women started talking shit about her in Spanish not knowing Bag was fluent.
The final track, “White Justice,” is the moment that ties together not just the album but her history as a musician. The song starts out as bouncy pop, but it builds to a searing chorus where the singer uses her voice as a percussive force as she angrily decries a justice system that is not as colorblind as some claim it to be.
There was always a more subversive type of feminism at play with the Bush Tetras. Guitarist Pat Place has said in interviews just having three women in the front was in and of itself confrontational. The music was less so, but only by shades of degree; they helped pioneer No Wave’s dance contingency alongside the punk funk of James Chance and the Contortions (who Place left to form Bush Tetras), Suicide’s electro-punk, and the pop accessibility of Talking Heads.
To be perfectly honest, LCD Soundsystem owns a huge debt to Bush Tetras that James Murphy hasn’t even begun to repay. It certainly wouldn’t kill him to take them on tour. They even have a brand new EP, Take the Fall (Wharf Cat Records), to support.
It’s only five songs, but considering the band’s litany of singles, posthumous live recordings and even a full-length album that was released 14 years after being recorded, having any studio recordings concurrent with band activity is a minor miracle. More impressive is how solid these five songs are.
As with much of the Bush Tetras’ catalogue, the foundation is bouncy post-punk bass, this time out provided by Val (Opielski) Vera, the only non-original member (Laura Kennedy passed away from liver disease in 2011), in tandem with drummer Dee Pop’s helter skelter style that owes as much to James Brown as it does John Bonham. Sometimes the results are sultry, such as the grinding “Red Heavy;” other times it pummels like vintage Gang of Four, such as on “Mouse.” “Out Again” is like Blondie doing dub reggae.
Atop that rhythmic bedrock, Place adds layered flourishes of Lower East Side skronk (it’s no surprise that she was a huge influence on Thurston Moore) while Sley’s deep, measured, sometimes weary voice tells tales of misplaced trust (“True Blue”) and good times in a New York long gone (“Don’t Stop It” which reminisces about dancing at the legendary Mudd Club). It’s heartening to see that as Alice Bag and the Bush Tetras members all pass 60, they are not only getting accolades from younger musicians who were influenced by them, but that they can still continue to galvanize today’s fickle youth. One album will make you want to demonstrate, the other will make you want to dance. As long as you’re inspired, that’s all that matters.