There has always been a gender issue when it comes to hard rock. It stems from the nature of the music itself, which is in many ways an outward expression of masculinity; The combination of driving rhythms, overcharged guitars, howling vocals and a degree of stalking/preening on the part of the players all served as synonyms for its listeners. While women listened to hard rock as much as men, it acted like a bullhorn blaring from red Camaros with glass-pack mufflers, saying things the mulletted driver couldn’t in polite society: I’m young, I’m dangerous, and I’m hung like a treasonous horse.
This couldn’t work in reverse though. While women found attraction with the Robert Plants of the music world, it was more difficult for the guys to side with a “rock chick,” even if they were bona fide, like Joan Jett and Pat Benatar. Volumes of text could be written about the aberrant behavior of the young, American male who, at every turn, needed to always project their masculinity, even if it made them look and act like irredeemable douchebags.
It did not help that, quite often, the “chick rockers” presented material that failed to connect on a visceral level. It was likely thanks to the meddling of label image-makers, but female-fronted hard rock in the 1980’s came in two lyrical flavors mostly — the always understanding, virtuous angel that came to save your soul, or the accessible, faceless whore that came to give you what you were asking for… nay, demanding. Neither really screamed toughness, even if the singer was sneering her way through the song.
The ’90s didn’t really improve on the model either, at least not until L7’s Donita Sparks let loose and Courtney Love left her crazy cage open, and at that, this was a much different type of music than the hard rock we’d known. Into this breach came a band with the awful name Baby Animals which managed to deliver the promise of spoiler-rattling rock and roll with real toughness and a woman at the microphone, and upon first listen it all became clear that gender didn’t matter in the slightest.
They hailed from Perth, Australia, and so those moments of absolute AC/DC current weren’t necessarily by accident (excepting the fact that Baby Animals drummer Frank Celenza was the best drummer AC/DC never had). Their 1991 self-titled debut had the good fortune of production from hard rock/power pop producer extraordinaire Mike Chapman, and contemporaries like Van Halen and Bryan Adams took notice, as did their homeland which sent the track “Early Warning” up the Australian charts. Other singles from the album included “Rush You,” “Painless” and “One Word.”
It was, unfortunately, kind of a one-way love. The band was signed to the newly formed Imago label, founded by Terry Ellis who had great success previously with the Chrysalis label. Imago, despite having a roster that included Paula Cole, Henry Rollins and Love Spit Love featuring the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, just didn’t grab the US market the way everyone expected it to, especially the label’s partner BMG Music which later dissolved the partnership and destroyed the company. At least Baby Animals had Australia.
They also had a track on a sampler cassette a local record store was handing out in the 1990’s. Back then, anything I got for free was, at the very least, good for a one-time listen, and if it was bad, I could tape up the tabs on the top and record over it. A free blank cassette? Thank you, Mr. Record Store Dude.
The majority of that tape has gone up in the smoke of the forgotten. It was most likely a lot of screaming guys justifying their screaming through treatises about the power of screaming, but sandwiched in-between the wolf cries was the Baby Animal track, “Painless.” It’s a solid mid-tempo rocker, yet definitely the most single-worthy of the album’s tracks. It was meant to fit in with certain expectations, and so the bluesiness and Suze DeMarchi’s scratchy voice eased you into their orbit. Maybe it was because this song was so different from the rest on the sampler, or maybe I somehow intuited there was much more to be had from the band, but in either case I was intrigued enough to plunk down money for the full album cassette. Again, practicality ruled the day. If it sucked, I’d just record the Scorpions over it.
It didn’t suck, as it turned out. The opening track, “Rush You,” was full-blooded, adrenaline-charged and, even though a key lyric was “So what does it mean when you say that’s she’s your girlfriend today?” I found myself singing along. Other key tracks were “Working For The Enemy,” the thundering, stomping “One Word” and intensely addictive blues-pop of “Break My Heart.” The album closed with a kick-ass manifesto in “Ain’t Gonna Get,” which seemed to demand DeMarchi was nobody’s saint nor slut, and if you didn’t pay her some respect, she could turn you inside out and you believed every word of it.
The band released a second album with an equally horrible title, Shaved and Dangerous, but I never heard it. There was a break-up not long after. DeMarchi wound up marrying Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt and putting out some solo work, none of which seems to have made a blip on the radar in America. How it fared in Australia is speculative although the band reformed in 2007, kind of. By the time the inter-personal sturm und drang was spent, half the band left the tour and was replaced.
It’s odd that I would extol the virtues of Baby Animals and yet have such disinterest in the rest of the band’s collective career. To this day, when I pull out the CD (and in fact this was one of the first albums in my possession that received the tape-to-disc upgrade) I listen to it and smile, and sing along with no desire to flip the lyrical gender in the process. Who cares? I’m older than I was then, paunchier, balder and not as sure of my future endeavors, but the album has remained consistent. Dude, chick, whatever. As long as it rocks.
- Popdose Flashback ’91: Susanna Hoffs, “When You’re a Boy” (popdose.com)
- Popdose Flashback ’91: Sting, “The Soul Cages” (popdose.com)
- Popdose Flashback ’91: Graham Parker, “Struck by Lightning” (popdose.com)
- Popdose Flashback ’91: R.E.M., “Out of Time” (popdose.com)