Riot grrrl began as an early ’90s, third-wave feminist/punk-rock movement in the USA’s Pacific Northwest, ostensibly styled after mixed-gender Olympia, Washington quartet Bikini Kill. Its British incarnation arrived soon after, most notably in the shape of ‘boy-girl revolutionary’ group, Huggy Bear. Here, Jamie Holman recalls the impact of riot grrrl’s British outriders on a scene fumbling for direction after acid house’s baggy t-shirted lost weekend and the imminent dominion of grunge.
In 1993, I was sick of America, sick of Sub Pop and Nirvana, and I was even sick of my previous idols, Sonic Youth. I decided to take their advice and kill them. I was sick of shoegazing and its reluctance to say anything at all, and sick of rock stars and their posturing.
I had this overwhelming feeling of having missed my own generation’s time, so busy was I trying to track down and learn the chronology of the ’60s underground and beyond: rare psychedelia, northern soul, obscure British punk singles… I was collecting Rough Trade, collecting Factory, collecting Creation – looking backwards, obsessed and impotent all the way.
The people I knew were either devoted to acid house (still very much happening on my doorstep in Lancashire) or, like me, stuck between the trenches of indie and dance, watching wide-eyed and open-mouthed as bands like Primal Scream vaulted NME no man’s land and led the charge.I couldn’t follow them. It just wasn’t for me. I couldn’t get down with the casuals. Ecstasy had made them very happy, no doubt, but these were the same lads who’d been kicking the shit out of you in town the week before. If I’m honest, I didn’t want the enforced happiness of E. I was an angry, miserable little art-school shit. I still am.
Crucially, though, the sweating, smiley- faced, tie-dyed, dungaree-wearing revolutionaries of the warehouses looked terrible. The aesthetic of acid house and rave parties was overwhelmingly off -putting to someone who collected The Smiths on all formats. I loved The Pastels but only had two of their records(both nicked);Spacemen Three had just split up and my beloved Mary Chain were trying to break America with a drum machine and a new bass player. While the JAMC were over there, Nirvana were over here, and they looked like a heavy metal band, or worse, like the fucking Wonderstuff.
This is how I remember it; this was the landscape and I was swept along in a rush of activity and discovery, trying to navigate it. It was three years, I suppose, which now melt into one summer. All of these words I write are true but none of them are the truth. This is the imperfect chronology of nostalgia with all the inherent flaws of memory.
I’m smiling as I write this but it’s important to remember that our local ‘scene’ was actually a violent, divided town centre which revolved around an indie disco beneath a gay club. The clientele consisted of punks, some scooter gang skinheads, casuals, heavy metal kids and us. And we all hated each other. I was 19, an art student in a small Northern town, and I longed for something new to happen. In the words of those pub rock dullards The Clash, I wanted a riot of my own.
Huggy Bear is a terrible name for a band. With a moniker like that they could have been on Acid Jazz. They could have been an instrumental slap-bass funk band that wankers liked. I don’t know why they went with it when they had so many great titles and daydreams scrawled on every sleeve. I wrote Junior Panther Creed on every wall in Blackburn. I took it from one of their sleeves. I wanted someone to recognise it and find me. In my head, we would start fanzines, a band, a label and look great:shorthair,v-necks,cords and shoes, with a mod/charity-shop aesthetic.
I heard them in Manchester first. I had been going to a club called Smile with my then girlfriend who, crucially, could drive. Back then, Smile was run by two smart kids, John and Emma, who were older than me and looked like The Pastels. Smile was above The Banshee in Manchester and moved from pub to pub before settling on its eventual long-term home at The Star and Garter behind Piccadilly station. At this point for Manchester read Madchester – it was the flipside of grunge. The city was either dining out on The Hacienda and Factory, or entertaining grunge celebrant hack Everett True’s conceit of ‘Seattle knows best’.
Smile was a beautiful shelter from all of this. It was here that I first heard Huggy Bear’s ‘Kiss Curl for the Kid’s Lib Guerrillas’ and it changed my life.Beautifully discordant,stumblingly poetic, ambitious but achievable, it wiped everything away in one moment. I began living in the now rather than the before. Something was happening and I wanted in.
Huggy Bear had endless ideas. They were a nicked car-crash of words, slogans, poetry and the vital shouting and jumping that great pop music requires. All this thrown out in screen-printed sleeves, cassette tapes and split-vinyl releases. To me, they were never strictly a riot grrrl band. This is probably because I felt on the outside of riot grrrl; the lo- , DIY ethic was attractive, but I found the wider political element stifling. I understood riot grrrl bands that were formed with just girls to the exclusion of boys as a gesture and as a proposition, but I was drawn to bands by their tunes and aesthetics, not their manifestos.
Huggy Bear were a band of boys and girls, and within that shared dynamic there were different voices that made their work exciting. The group’s politics were never restricted to a simplistic, NME version of feminism. They were inclusive where so many of their peers were exclusive. But to me, they were a punk band. They could be the best punk band ever. The fact that their articulate and angry feminism upset the indie longhairs in the mosh pit only made me love them more. This was a time when girls were routinely groped at crushed capacity shows and festivals, and a routine chant as the pre-gig lights dropped was “get your tits out for the lads”. You don’t believe me? Hunt down the bootlegs of the day, the evidence is there. In retrospect, riot grrrl was the only thing that made sense. I, like many others, was interested in it as an antidote to the hackneyed, coke-sniffng A&R man indulgences of the ’90s music biz.
Inspired by Huggy Bear, I wrote insurgent tracts of my own, and photocopied the pages, leaving them on pub tables and handing them out at gigs. I formed bands, of course, and played shows. The best bit was always at the end of these shows when I declared “use the mics!” just as I’d heard Huggy Bear’s bassist Nikki shout out a er a gig in Wigan.
I lived on the 13th floor of a council tower block. I didn’t have any money to go out, and Huggy Bear were on contentious Friday night ‘yoof’ TV show The Word.It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen on telly at that point in my life. They made me want to smash windows. They demolished the rock star clichés and leather-trouser posturing of the Creation crowd. They howled and danced and looked queer, straight, so and hard all at the same time. Mostly, they made me want to leave my home town. And so I did. I moved to London, and found myself chasing Huggy Bear, looking for them above Camden pubs and poring over fanzines like maps, searching for clues.
I didn’t rate Bikini Kill and didn’t go for the associated bands of the time. I saw Skinned Teen a couple of times and they were awful. They proved the point that it’s easy to make a noise but hard to make a good one. There were other riot grrrl- associated bands, of course, too many to list. I simply didn’t connect with them. I found a lot of them dull, the excitement of the gang playing in front of you diluted by the brash gender politics. At some shows I felt like a criminal for being a boy. At one particular gig the crowd was bollocked by the singer of the band for jumping around and making the girls uncomfortable. This was probably appropriate, but no fun. Eyebrows were raised and someone whispered “ The NME must be here”.
Earnest and vital as they were, Huggy Bear were fun. And they were sexy. They were provocative, explicit and joyful. NME headline- grabbers Hole may have been playing all-girl shows and had the whole babydoll whore thing down, but were just as rock as Nirvana – and American rock in general seemed vulgar. Blur were provincial in their reaction to this and Brit-pop was coming: but that would be equally vulgar. Huggy Bear pointed me beyond riot grrrl and in the direction of e Nation of Ulysses, Cupid Car Club and later The Make-Up.
I saw Huggy Bear live three times: in Manchester, Wigan and finally at their last ever gig, at The Laurel Tree in London. I believe to this day that it was at the Laurel Tree that I first heard Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels album. They played it before the show in its entirety. Did I imagine this? I hope not.
That was it. I arrived in London as riot grrrl finished. Just like that. I’d missed ‘it’ again. I only ever knew a handful of like-minded boy- girl revolutionaries. There was Karen Frost, who would go on to release records on Wiija; John and Emma in Manchester; and my Holloway Road at-mates, Mathew and Leonie.
It’s 2001, seven years later, and I’m drunk with my band-mate Simon, at a Track and Field party above the Betsey Trotwood pub in London. Suddenly Huggy Bear’s song ‘Her Jazz’ erupts from the speakers. I’m swept up in the music again and dance hysterically, mouthing words, arms ailing. I am not alone. When I look up I realize that I have found them, the very people I came to London to find seven years earlier, but missed.
Cornet Gain, Track and Field and (Huggy Bear member) Jon Slade were at the heart of what was happening in front of me, riding the ripple caused by another boy-girl band from Glasgow, Belle & Sebastian. I can’t articulate this very well, but somewhere between Belle & Sebastian’s Tigermilk and Le Tigre’s Hot Topic is where it all resolves. None of it could have happened without ‘shaved pussy poetry’; ‘our troubled youth’; ‘the valiant children’s world terrorists’; ‘the Junior Panther Creed’ et al. Not for me, anyway.
Huggy Bear: a great band with a crap name.