The Story Behind L7's Pretend We're Dead
L7’s 1992 hit Pretend We're Dead led to a UK TV ban and a piece of tampon-related ‘performance art’ at the Reading Festival – now they're back and “feistier than ever"
Named after the 1950s slang word for ‘square’, L7 were anything but dullards. Sporting flannel shirts, rainbow-coloured hair and combat boots, they looked suitably outlandish, and guitarist/frontwoman Donita Sparks was prone to Kurt Cobain/loose cannon-style high jinks (more of which later).
L7 were labelmates of Nirvana on both Sup Pop and the Warner Bros subsidiary Slash, who hooked them up with Butch Vig of Nevermind fame for their third album, Bricks Are Heavy, in 1992.
Because of those connections, a politicised, confrontational mindset and a sound heavily indebted to punk rock and hardcore, L7 got lumped in with the grunge movement (which they actually pre-dated), despite hailing from sun-kissed California and not rainy old Seattle.
Completed by guitarist Suzi Gardner and bassist Jennifer Finch (Dee Plakas would eventually become the group’s long-term drummer), their self-titled 1988 debut for Epitaph and 1990’s Sub Pop-issued Smell The Magic would both flop before their third and seemingly final shot.
The song that saved L7 from the scrapheap was written “in just a couple of minutes” by Donita Sparks following a painful relationship break-up. But she disguised the subject matter by tweaking the lyrics to address what she now calls “the apathy of the world”.
“I was heartbroken in my bedroom and found myself singing, ‘I just pretend that you’re dead’ – not in a mean or ugly way, more because I wanted the dude to vanish from my mind,” she explains. “But because Suzi would never have let me write a song like that, I made it sound more universal. It’s a very simple tune. There are no chord changes – it’s the vocal melody which makes it a little trippy.”
However, some of L7’s music came from a dark place. “As a band we’ve been through personality issues and drug problems,” claimed Jennifer Finch in 1992. “I don’t even think Guns N’ Roses could have lived through those.”
“We weren’t even necessarily friends, and because of that there was some… let’s just say ‘weirdness’ that I don’t want to elaborate on,” admits Sparks carefully.
But the band also had a self-deprecating wit. When one interviewer referred to L7 as “angry women”, Sparks insisted they should be called “humorous hags” instead.
They also had a strong connection with producer-of-the-moment Butch Vig. “His great set of ears enhanced the catchiness of our songs,” says Sparks, though she recoils when reminded that the results saw L7 labelled as ‘bubblegrunge’. “Some asshole journalist wrote that – a complete bee-atch,” she seethes.
However, Pretend We’re Dead, released in April 1992, soon began to climb America’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and it peaked just outside the UK Top 20. Sparks, however, took a unique approach to promoting the song. Performing on Top Of The Pops went smoothly enough, but L7 were banned from UK TV soon after when an underwear-less Sparks randomly dropped her strides on Channel 4’s live show The Word. And it didn’t end there. To some, L7 are best remembered for Sparks removing her tampon at the 1992 Reading Festival and throwing it into the crowd. Sparks finds it “hilarious” that we’re still discussing this incident 24 years later.
“For a while I was bummed out about the fuss it caused because I was worried my mum would find out,” she admits. “Not that she’s a prude, because she isn’t, but she’d have been very disappointed in me. But now it’s almost become a piece of performance art. It crosses over into a lot of different areas of appreciation – or disdain. I get a kick out of both reactions.”
In 1991, L7 organised the first Rock For Choice concert, campaigning for the protection of women’s abortion rights. Some cynics soon wondered whether they were militants or musicians.
“Those were very different times,” concedes Sparks. “In the end we did step back from Rock For Choice, because it became all some interviewers wanted to talk about. Today we’re still as militant. In fact, we’re more pissed off than ever before. I’m so disgusted with the way things are in the world right now that all I care about are the environment and animals. People can go fuck themselves.”
L7’s career ground to a halt two years after their sixth album, 1999’s Slap‑Happy, failed to chart. There was no formal split, but the band remained on “semi‑permanent hiatus” until they began to receive offers to play Europe, including last year’s Download Festival.
Pretend We’re Dead had served L7 well during their absence, by being used in various TV shows, movies and computer games, including Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto.
“That song’s lifespan is amazing. But what also helped us was The Prodigy covering Fuel My Fire [on their UK and US No.1 album The Fat Of The Land_]. _Shitlist [the B-side of _Pretend We’re Dead_] has also held up pretty well, too. That one could also have been a hit, if it didn’t have the word ‘shit’ in it,” Sparks guffaws. “But had we left out that word it would have been half the song it turned out to be.”
Now 53 years old, Donita Sparks insists, “We’re feistier than ever, baby.” But although L7 are returning to the UK this summer, there are no plans to start taking things seriously again, despite having accumulated a “shitload” of new songs.
“Further down the line should there be demand for new L7 material then perhaps we’ll make another album, but there are no solid plans,” Sparks concludes. “For now it’s still just for fun, so let’s just rock out.”