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Recuperating Pre-Riot Grrrl Punk


Bostin’ Steve Austin, by Fuzzbox

Although some people fondly remember Bostin’ Steve Austin, Fuzzbox’s 1986 debut LP, they tend to group it with the work of novelty acts.

The Bostin' Steve Austin picture disc.

This does the record a serious disservice. There are several reasons for this perception.

The music press of that era was sexist, for one thing. Had the members of the band been men, more attention would have been paid to their sound and less to their gender.

It also didn’t help that the Birmingham band took a different approach on their second album, 1989’s Big Bang, foregoing the grit of their debut for a glossier pop sound.

Their timing was off, too.

Had the album been released a half-decade earlier, it would have been enjoyed alongside other post-punk records that foreground a female perspective.

And had it come out a half decade later, it might have been perceived as an early example of the Riot Grrrl phenomenon.

But the sleek materialism that predominated in the middle of the 1980s didn’t leave much room for the messy aesthetics of Bostin’ Steve Austin.

Then there was the fact that Fuzzbox – or We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It!!, as they were technically called in the UK – could never quite match the impact of their first 7”, which featured two of the debut album’s best songs, “XX Sex” and “Rules and Regulations”.

Cultural history is rarely kind to artists who have nowhere to go but down.

If you can manage to listen to Bostin’ Steve Austin without prejudice, however, it starts to become clear that Fuzzbox could have been a major influence on many of the best woman-centric “alternative” bands of the 1990s and beyond.

The vocal interplay between Vix (Vickie Perks) and Magz (Maggie Dunne) definitely shares DNA with Sleater-Kinney.

Although Fuzzbox have a lighter touch than Babes in Toyland and Hole, they share an affection for slurred lyrics and sludgy guitars.

Perhaps most importantly, the band projects a feeling of irreverent self-sufficiency.

They might need a fuzzbox to get their point across, but they don’t need men.

The title of the opening track, “Love Is the Slug,” succinctly captures this vibe, turning Roxy Music’s louche sentiments inside out.

“Rules and Regulations” opens with a blunt critique of the demands society places on young people. After going to school and following the rules, you get to “leave school and go to work in a place/Where they know you by your number not your name”

This vision grows progressively darker. Claustrophobia and despair are linked to gender roles that chain women up and leave them “housebound.”

Although the music is buoyant, the chorus is bleak: “There must be more to life/There must be more than this.”

The lyrics for “XX Sex” are even harsher:

“Exploit…
Beautiful woman in the short black dress
Exploit…
They know what she wants
They know what she wants

Rape, rape, rape…
Woooooo!”

The brutal irony of that last exclamation is every bit as strident as the sentiments expressed by anarcho-punks Crass and British Riot Grrrl bands like Huggy Bear.

So why did Fuzzbox end up with the reputation of a novelty act that was not worthy of being taken seriously?

Maybe it was their Rubella Ballet-style outfits, coloured hair, and exaggerated punk makeup, or the sense they gave of always maintaining an ironic distance from their material.

Although that mode of self-presentation was common during the first waves of punk and post-punk, polemical musicians of the mid-1980s generally conveyed a sense of earnestness.

Even someone like Billy Bragg, whose lyrics frequently have an ironic edge, still made it clear that he meant every word.

By contrast, when listening to Fuzzbox’s debut album, it’s easy to get the impression that they were ambivalent about sincerity.

Not only do they sing their words as if from far away, but they use their instruments to create distance as well.

When horns come in, they are somewhat muted in the mix.

And the guitar sound that gave the band their name further muddies the waters.

Distortion is a function of excess, a way to demonstrate that there is too much information to comfortably manage.

One of the most interesting songs on Bostin’ Steve Austin is Fuzzbox’s cover of the countercultural Christian rock hit “Spirit in the Sky”.

It occupies a strange liminal zone between exuberance and mockery. Their vocals suggest that they are simultaneously believers and agnostics.

The pre-semantic whoops heard in many Fuzzbox songs reinforce this contradiction.

Every time they follow up a hard-hitting line with this seemingly ironic commentary on its implications, we face the question of whether anything they sing should be taken at face value.

In this respect, Fuzzbox resemble Nirvana more than self-consciously ideological women artists.

This is music that sounds both deathly serious and tossed off.

Luckily, it also sounds great.

Every track on Bostin’s Steve Austin showcases the mentality of women who refuse to settle, who know in their hearts there must be more to life and will do their best to find it.

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Photograph courtesy of Diego Sideburns. Published under a Creative Commons license.