Photo: Charles Peterson / Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

L7’s ‘Smell the Magic’ Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.

Smell the Magic (30th Anniversary Edition)
Sub Pop
18 September 2020

Abortion is under threat again, there’s a sex offender in the Oval Office, and countless studies reveal the glaring underrepresentation of women in the North American music industry (comprising less than one-third of performers and 12.5 percent of songwriters, according to this one). A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7. As they belted out in the first single off their second studio album Smell the Magic: Get outta my way or I might shove.”

The iconic all-woman hard rock band founded by Donita Sparks and Suzi Gardner erupted out of Los Angeles in 1985, and it was 30 years ago that their sophomore release Smell the Magic came out on Sub Pop Records. A newly remastered reissue of that legendary album provides an excellent excuse to kick back and crank it.

L7 are often attributed with inspiring the riot grrrl movement that dominated North American alternative airwaves and concert stages throughout the 1990s. But they largely preceded and prefigured that movement, while at the same time eluding the grunge label thanks to their ferocious punk and hard rock guitar energy. It’s a further reflection of their musical versatility that although they were signed by alternative/indie rock label Sub Pop and performed in hard rock lineups, the band also developed a loyal following in the heavy metal scene.

It’s not hard to see why they drew interest from a wide-ranging audience: the furious energy of their stage presence, the righteous anger and punch of their lyrics, the unabashed fearlessness of their commentary around misogyny and women’s sexuality, all combined to provide listeners with exciting and inspiring icons who produced first-rate music as well. The band toured ferociously, a factor to which is often attributed their breakthrough success in an industry that had not quite seen anything like them in some time.

In an industry where image and appearance still usurp genuine talent far too often, L7 provided a role model for musicians and fans who yearned for something more authentic. The band visibly, palpably lived their politics. In 1991 they organized the first legendary Rock for Choice concert (originally titled “Rock for Coat Hangers”) in response to the bombing of abortion clinics by anti-choice terrorists, a fundraiser that developed a life of its own for the next decade. They became queer icons as much as feminist rockers. “Poppin’ wheelies on her motorbike / Straight girls wish they were dykes,” sings Sparks in “Fast and Frightening”, which she describes in the liner notes as her homage to the strong female archetype — “One who got so much clit she don’t need no balls.” The name L7 itself, a slang for ‘square’, was chosen because of its gender-neutral connotations.

I didn’t hop on the L7 bandwagon (more of a guitar-walled feminist war-caravan, really) until their third album Bricks Are Heavy (1992). If they had a breakout album, that was probably it. There was hardly a punk, grunge, or metal venue I attended over the next few years which didn’t have that album on rotation (it turned out to be their most commercially successful release). But over the years, Smell the Magic has gradually assumed pride of place as favorite L7 release in my collection. It offers a more measured sampling of L7’s musical range: the thrilling speed-metal thrash of “Fast and Frightening”; the defiant grunge of “Broomstick”; the anti-patriotic rock anthem “American Society”.

The battle-cry of an opening track, “Shove”, was the first single L7 released after connecting with Sub Pop in 1989, and it perfectly encapsulates their energy and promise. I’d always wondered about the false start at the beginning of that track – the extensive liner notes on the remastered anniversary album reveal that it was a segment of a Mudhoney jam session playing on a reel that accidentally got caught on the opening of the L7 track, and which they decided to keep just for the hell of it.

One of the benefits of a re-release is the extensive liner notes which often accompany it, and Smell the Magic does not disappoint. In addition to an extensive backgrounder on the band, an interview with three of the band members adds to the great read, offering interesting and insightful commentary on the early tracks.

L7 never went out of fashion; their fiery energy, their unrivaled musical talent and their ability to pack a political punch delivered in a barrage of guitar fury have kept them relevant even while less innovative emulators came and went. L7 went on hiatus around the turn of the century, but the vicissitudes of the present era called desperately for their fiery musical response. And sure enough, they obliged, reforming in 2014 to tour with their original lineup. Their first new song in nearly two decades was the Donald J. Trump takedown “Dispatch From Mar-a-Lago”, which they followed up with the aptly titled single “We Came Back to Bitch” (2018). The following year they returned to the studio and released their seventh studio album (the first in 20 years) Scatter the Rats.

Many of the bands they inspired went on to do great things in their own right, but as the group which prefigured the scene that would propel those followers to success, L7 occupy a singular place in musical history, one that exists in a realm beyond and outside that of any distinct scene. What made them innovative was their ability to follow their own star, no matter how obscured it may have seemed over the years. Thirty years later, we can still be thankful that they did. The anniversary edition of Smell the Magic is a fitting testament to their inspirational legacy and ongoing success.

RATING 9 / 10