PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


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

Photo: Charles Peterson / Courtesy of Sub Pop Records

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.