The Origins of the Riot Grrrl Ethos

The Origins of the Riot Grrrl Ethos

Stephanie Burgess tracks back through the decades to uncover the origins of the Riot Grrrl ethos and finds herself (unexpectedly) in Frank Zappa’s basement and at the start of a musical revolution with the formation of The G.T.O’s. Here’s their story ...

Like the Riot Grrrls that followed, The G.T.O.s challenged society’s preconceptions of gender stereotypes

I put the CD into my Dad’s stereo and whack the volume right up. Moments later the room is filled with Kat Bjelland’s screams accompanied by the dirty wailing guitars, bass and pounding rhythm sound that was Babes in Toyland’s Fontanelle album.  It’s 1992 and every hormone in my teenage body springs to life.  Sick of the hairspray rock that I’d grown up with, I’d moved quickly towards the grunge scene when it broke. But this sound blaring around my living room was different; new to me. It shattered the mold of androcentric rock and it finally felt very female; very me.  

It was the start of a lifelong obsession. I’d spend Saturday afternoons scouring Manchester’s record shops for other female bands. I’d buy the music magazines and newspapers of the time and carefully cut out the articles on female musicians. I added Huggy Bear, Bikini Kill, Die Cheerleader, and L7 (amongst many others) to my record collection. I picked up a bass guitar, learned the songs, and later got my own band together.

Since then, I’ve always felt more connected to female rock and expanded my collection to include the likes of Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, The Slits, etc.  Desperately seeking out the origins of the ‘female sound’, I asked myself who were the pioneers of women in the underground music scene? And who was being politically outspoken in their music before the term ‘Riot Grrrl’ existed? I wanted to find some answers and, so far, my investigations have taken me wide and far. For today I’m going to take you back to 1968 and the infamous Laurel Canyon Boulevard in L.A., where we can find some organically, outrageously, and often outspoken girls who got together to create a very female type of music. 

Uniquely feminine

Frank Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit had just been born and Christine Ann Frka, otherwise known as Miss Christine, had moved into Zappa’s basement as his live-in Nanny with her friend Sandra Rowe (Miss Sandra).  But this was Laurel Canyon in the late 60’s and nobody was just a nanny. Later, two more girls joined them; Pamela Miller, (later Pamela des Barres or Miss Pamela) and Linda Parker (Miss Sparky) and a band was formed, right there, in Zappa’s basement. More members would join the fold as time went on.

 “Women all of a sudden were coming into their own.  We were the first all-girl rock group” Pamela Des Barres would later comment.  And with their album, Permanent Damage, this band showed the world that women could be as artistic, zany, and as outrageous as their male counterparts. But what made this band different was that it didn’t try to emulate the sound that the male bands were creating, but instead, came up with its own vision of what music was about.  It was an artistic form of expression which mixed poetry, stories and conversations, enlaced with manic vocal tracks and cacophonous songs.  

The G.T.O.’s (Girls together Often, Only, Occasionally, Organically, Outrageously etc.) was born. They created their own style;  a style that was uniquely feminine. They donned some crazy outfits. The outfits, ahead of their time, were provocative but they weren’t worn for men’s viewing pleasure, in fact, there was no intention for them to be sexy. They expressed the feminine whilst being both shocking and outrageous. 

Alice Cooper admitted that the G.T.O.’s directly influenced their visual image; after meeting the G.T.O.’s the band began to wear more outrageous and feminine clothing and it’s possible that this then contributed to the whole glam rock phenomenon. The music they wrote, akin to the Riot Grrrls of the 90’s, was never going to be, nor did it want to be, commercially marketable to the mainstream. It’s not the easiest of listens and requires some dedication on the part of the music fan to access its individual beauty.  It’s not heavy, like the later riot grrrl bands, but it’s totally off the wall.
Together with Zappa and and Little Feat’s front man, Lowell George, The G.T.O.’s produced its first and only album. “Frank liked to encapsulate a scene, a group of people, a situation and preserve it for all eternity”, Pamela Des Barres has said. And what was encapsulated was an album that holds together as an artistic conglomeration of wild women’s creativity.  

Challenging gender stereotypes

Like the Riot Grrrls that followed,The G.T.O.s challenged society’s preconceptions of gender stereotypes. Sexual liberation and the free love movement had become used as an excuse, by some men, to be more outwardly sexually predatory than previous generations had allowed and the lyrics to their track The Moche Monster Review (Ugly Monster) appears to be calling these men out. It tells the story of the repulsive and disgusting treatment they received from the men who had picked them up when they were out hitchhiking.  

Eyes bulging at your bod / He thinks that you’re a free loving-mod”.  They go on to tell us that “Getting rid of Moche is an imperative must”.   

Furthermore, they highlight the inequalities of the sexual playing field in Who is Jim Sox? where they see that the B.T.O’s (Boys Together Outrageously ... etc.  which was the way The G.T.O.’s often referred to the opposite sex) “get in there more, sexually, than we do”.  But they don’t lie down and accept their situation. They were pioneers at sexuality and gender maneuvering (see Mimi Schippers’ ideas on this) as they detail a poly-amorous relationship between a woman and two men in I have a Paintbrush in my Hand to Color a Triangle, where she says that the two boys she calls Scarlet and Merrygold “and I are fine.  / For they are lovers. Each others / As well as mine

In Kathleen Hanna’s Riot Grrrl Manifesto (which wasn’t written until 22 years after the release of Permanently Damaged) Hanna challenges  the impractical lies that are “meant to keep us simply dreaming instead of becoming our dreams” (Hanna).  The G.T.O.s were already challenging this notion back in ‘69 as they sang “I be all the people I want to be / I find the treasures I want to find” on their track The Ghost Chained to the Past, Present, and Future (Shock Treatment).  An apt title for a track which shows the G.T.O.’s as a band that broke with the stereotypes of the past, used shock treatment to challenge preconceived norms of their present and were insightful of a possible future where women would be creating a musical revolution on their own terms, riot grrrl-style.

This author
Stephanie Burgess is one of the original riot grrrls, having played in punk bands throughout the 90’s. She currently runs her own fanzine and blog ‘Marina is Red’, which forms part of her postgraduate research into female representation in the Spanish alternative music scene, but also covers Riot Grrrl and feminist bands from throughout Europe. She is an avid fan of alternative music and has an extensive record collection dominated by female musicians. She can still be found most weekends flicking through the vinyls and CD’s at her nearest music shop.  
Twitter: @marinaisred
This article was commissioned by Lush Media and was first published on their site in November 2018.
Please support this site by buying my zine: