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Babes in Toyland

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Michelle Leon, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland perform at a warehouse party, 1989. Photographed by Katie O’Brien.

Michelle Leon, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland perform at a warehouse party, 1989. Photographed by Katie O’Brien.

Babes in Toyland grew out of the Minneapolis punk scene to become one of the most visible “alternative” bands of the 1990s. In their recordings and live performances, they honed an abrasive, commanding sound that attracted fans from across the United States and Europe.

The band’s first lineup came together in 1986 with four members: Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, Cindy Russell, and Chris Holetz. They named themselves after the movie musical Babes in Toyland—one of Barbero’s childhood favorites. After a few months, Russell and Holetz left the band. Bassist Michelle Leon soon joined, and in 1987, the trio played their first show in the basement of a Minneapolis art gallery. Over time, they became regular performers at venues like the Cabooze and the 7th Street Entry.

In contrast to their innocent name, Babes in Toyland’s music was mature, incisive, and aggressive. Bjelland’s lyrics sketched out vivid, sometimes violent images that dealt with sex, pain, assault, and anger. Her vocals—which ranged from a whisper to a full-throated scream—complemented Leon’s solid bass lines and Barbero’s urgent drumming.

By 1989, Bjelland, Barbero, and Leon were touring the United States to support Babes in Toyland’s first single, “Dust Cake Boy” (backed with “Spit to See the Shine”). The song appeared on their 1990 debut album, Spanking Machine, along with “He’s My Thing.” Within months, DJs were playing both tracks on college radio stations.

The band toured throughout 1990, opening for Sonic Youth in Europe and Skinny Puppy in the United States. English producer John Peel named Spanking Machine one of his favorite albums of the year. In 1990 and 1991, he recorded sessions with Babes in Toyland at BBC studios for his influential radio show. The song “To Mother” (from the 1991 EP of the same name) reached the top of the UK indie chart.

Babes in Toyland were among the first of their peers to sign to a major label. After releasing both Spanking Machine and To Mother on the independent, Minneapolis-based label Twin/Tone (and on the Southern label in Europe), they contracted with Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers Records.

As the band’s visibility grew, they attracted more fans—and misleading media coverage. Many journalists incorrectly assumed that the Babes were associated with riot grrrl, a punk feminist movement based in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington. Others called them grunge, kinderwhore, and foxcore—labels the women rejected.

In reality, the band was influenced by Midwest and West Coast punk groups, including Cows and the Wipers. They also drew on the support of the close-knit Minneapolis punk community. Between tours, they returned to Minnesota to play to home-town venues, revisit old haunts like the CC Club and Joe’s Chicken Shack, and reconnect with the local scene.

After Leon left Babes in Toyland in early 1992 during the recording of their second album, Maureen Herman replaced her. Because the two bassists’ styles were noticeably different, some tracks were rerecorded. Fontanelle, produced by Bjelland and Lee Ranaldo and with sleeve art by Cindy Sherman, proved to the group’s best-selling record. The first track, “Bruise Violet,” became one of their most recognizable songs. MTV featured its music video on a 1993 episode of Beavis & Butthead as well as in its regular programming.

The band recorded their third full-length album, Nemesisters, for Reprise in 1995. Working with Tim Mac as producer, they recorded twelve original songs (including the hit “Sweet 69”) and two covers: Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”

Herman left the band in 1996; Leon reunited with Bjelland and Barbero to perform in 1996 and 1997. Bjelland and Barbero continued playing as a trio with bassist Jessie Farmer before parting ways in 2001. By that year, in addition to three full-length albums, Babes in Toyland had released two EPs, seven singles, seven music videos, and eight compilation records.

In 2015, after a hiatus of eighteen years, Bjelland, Barbero, and Herman reunited to play to a few hundred fans at a bar outside of Palm Springs, California. A sold-out performance at the Roxy in Los Angeles followed. In May, they launched an American and European tour that included an appearance at Rock the Garden, an annual summer concert in Minneapolis.

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“Babes in Toyland.” Won’t Eat Your Hate Like Love: Girl Punk Zine #2 (2016): 20–21.
https://issuu.com/grrrlpunkzine/docs/zine2

“Band Review.” Out Damn Spot #4 [1991]: 6, 8.
http://archive.qzap.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/90

First Avenue & 7th Street Entry. Babes in Toyland.
http://first-avenue.com/performer/babes-toyland

Gaar, Gillian G. She’s a Rebel: The History of Women In Rock and Roll. 2nd edition. New York: Seal Press, 2002.

[Introduction]. Girl Fiend #4, 1992.
http://archive.qzap.org/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/160

Lecaro, Lina. “Babes in Toyland Bassist Maureen Herman on Addiction, Recovery and Reunions.” LA Weekly, February 11, 2015.
http://www.laweekly.com/music/babes-in-toyland-bassist-maureen-herman-on-addiction-recovery-and-reunions-video-5378269

Leon, Michelle. I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2016.

——— . Personal communication with the author, January 7, 2017.

Markey, David. 1991: The Year Punk Broke. VHS cassette.

Schoemer, Karen. “Pop/Jazz; Post-Punk Angst of Babes in Toyland.” New York Times, March 27, 1992.

Swensson, Andrea. “Babes in Toyland End Their 14-Year Hiatus With ‘Magical’ California Desert Reunion Show.” The Current, February 11, 2015.
http://blog.thecurrent.org/2015/02/babes-in-toyland-end-their-14-year-hiatus-with-magical-california-desert-reunion-show/

——— . “Kat Bjelland on Babes in Toyland and Her Long and Winding Career.” The Current, March 10, 2013.
http://blog.thecurrent.org/2013/03/kat-bjelland-on-babes-and-toyland-and-her-long-and-winding-musical-path/

Related Images

Michelle Leon, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland perform at a warehouse party, 1989. Photographed by Katie O’Brien.
Michelle Leon, Lori Barbero, and Kat Bjelland perform at a warehouse party, 1989. Photographed by Katie O’Brien.
The cover of Babes in Toyland’s 1991 debut album, Spanking Machine. The photograph on the sleeve shows (clockwise, left to right) Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, and Michelle Leon.
The cover of Babes in Toyland’s 1991 debut album, Spanking Machine. The photograph on the sleeve shows (clockwise, left to right) Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, and Michelle Leon.
Poster with a list of the performance dates on Babes in Toyland’s 1991 European tour. Pictured are (left to right): Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, and Michelle Leon.
Poster with a list of the performance dates on Babes in Toyland’s 1991 European tour. Pictured are (left to right): Lori Barbero, Kat Bjelland, and Michelle Leon.
Black and white photograph of Kat Bjelland performing with Babes in Toyland in Paris, 1991.
Black and white photograph of Kat Bjelland performing with Babes in Toyland in Paris, 1991.
Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland on the cover of the January/February 1991 issue of the fanzine Flipside. The inset image shows (left to right): Lori Barbero; Bjelland; and Michelle Leon.
Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland on the cover of the January/February 1991 issue of the fanzine Flipside. The inset image shows (left to right): Lori Barbero; Bjelland; and Michelle Leon.
Babes in Toyland (left to right): drummer Lori Barbero, bassist Maureen Herman, and vocalist/guitarist Kat Bjelland. The image was used for promotional materials related to the release of the band’s 1995 album Nemesisters.
Babes in Toyland (left to right): drummer Lori Barbero, bassist Maureen Herman, and vocalist/guitarist Kat Bjelland. The image was used for promotional materials related to the release of the band’s 1995 album Nemesisters.

Turning Point

In 1992, Babes in Toyland release Fontanelle, their second full-length studio album. It sells 220,000 copies in the United States and cements the band’s popularity.

Chronology

1986

In Minneapolis, Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, Cindy Russell, and Chris Holetz form the first iteration of Babes in Toyland.

1987

The band coheres as a trio, with Bjelland on guitar and vocals, Barbero on drums, and Michelle Leon on bass.

1990

In April, the band releases Spanking Machine, their first album.

1991

Babes in Toyland perform at Reading Festival with a line-up that includes Sonic Youth, Nirvana, De La Soul, the Sisters of Mercy, and Iggy Pop. Dave Markey films their performance of “Dust Cake Boy” for his documentary 1991: The Year Punk Broke.

1992

Early in the year, Leon leaves the band after the death of her boyfriend, Joe Cole. Maureen Herman replaces her as the band’s bassist.

1992

The Babes release their second album, Fontanelle, in August.

1993

In early June, Babes in Toyland play their first shows at the third Lollapalooza festival.

1993

The band releases their Painkillers EP on June 21.

1993

On June 23, MTV airs an episode of Beavis & Butthead featuring the “Bruise Violet” music video.

1995

The band releases their third album, Nemesisters, on May 5.

1995

The band performs in England at their third Reading festival.

1996

Herman leaves the band; Jessie Farmer takes over as bassist.

1996

Bjelland, Barbero, and Leon reunite and perform together through 1997.

2001

Bjelland and Barbero dissolve the band.

2015

In February, Bjelland, Barbero, and Herman perform together in California. It is the first official Babes in Toyland show in eighteen years.