Noise Annoys: Goddesses of grunge L7's Smell The Magic turns 30 in style

With L7's classic Sub Pop mini-LP Smell The Magic getting a deluxe reissue to celebrate its 30th birthday next month, Noise Annoys revisits one of the era's greatest and grungiest releases...

L7 clown around for grunge snapper Charles Peterson in 1990
L7 clown around for grunge snapper Charles Peterson in 1990

MENTION 'grunge' and most folks will immediately think of dour yet catchy guitar dirges played by sensitive men a la Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam.

However, for my money, grunge was best enjoyed when it came garnished with a generous side order of mischievous, anarchic fun: the likes of TAD, Mudhoney, the Melvins, Nirvana and L7 all laced their hefty, hooky, punk/rock/metal-informed musical roar with the kind of smart-ass counter-culture attitude that immediately set them tantalisingly at odds with the mainstream success they all flirted with to various extents – in Nirvana's case, to the point of self-destruction – during the 90s.

For ample evidence of the LA-spawned L7's pedigree, wrap your ears around the newly remastered 30th anniversary edition of their 1990 Sub Pop mini-LP Smell The Magic. This feast of sludgy, wah-wah pedal enhanced surf-fuzz riffage features three of L7's best tunes in the form of stomp-along Sub Pop debut single Shove – the very first Sub Pop release of the 1990s, grunge trivia fans – thrillingly ferocious grunge grrrl anthem Fast and Frightening and its hellacious headbanger of a morning/mourning-after counterpoint, Deathwish.

The original six track release is appended here with a trio of bonus cover tunes including L7's deliciously subversive take on the Fiends' macho horror punk fantasy Packin' a Rod and a spirited run through American Society by Eddie & The Subtitles, the lumbering stop/start riff of which surely served as inspiration for L7's subsequent smash hit Pretend We're Dead from 1992's magnum opus Bricks are Heavy.

Yes, Smell The Magic is your basic weapons grade grunge which has only become more potent with age. To celebrate its imminent 30th birthday on September 1, let's dip into the accompanying liner notes in which the L7 gals regale Nisha Gopalan with their memories of its recording and release.


Jennifer Finch (bass/vox): We actually advanced the cost for the recording. When Sub Pop reimbursed us, their check bounced. They eventually paid us back.

Donita Sparks (guitar/vox): Jack Endino, our producer, was playing a reel-to-reel tape that Mudhoney had previously recorded a jam session on. We were like, "Let's start our single with that!" We cut into Mudhoney's jam session at the very beginning of Shove just before the signature riff kicks in. To this day, I don't think Mudhoney is aware of this.

Jennifer: Shove was scheduled for a January 1 1990 release. We knew the reach that the Sub Pop Singles Club had in the underground and this was very significant for us.

Donita: That's the first song that, lyrically, was really taken from our lives. The landlord didn't like my dog, my father did think that I was going "nowhere". That resonated with other misfits on the scene.

We knew that Shove should be the A-side, but the B-side was a toss-up. Fast and Frightening is an homage to a strong female fantasy-cartoon person, a little bit of Becky Wreck from the Lunachicks, who had a motorcycle. "Poppin' wheelies on her motor bike / Straight girls wish they were dykes" – that's where that line comes from.

But for reasons I can't remember, we decided on a Fiends cover, Packin' a Rod for the B-side. We thought that song was funny and base, but with a female singing it took on a whole new meaning.


Jennifer: All of a sudden, like, the Sun Club in Phoenix was full when we got there. It started to feel like this thing was brewing, all on the single. And then we toured the UK with our new label-mates Nirvana. Pretty legendary shows over there.

Suzi Gardner (guitar/vox): The audiences were, like, all slammed together. They were nuts, stagediving and all that stuff.

Jennifer: Remember when we got locked in a dressing room and the audience wouldn't let us leave until we played again?

Donita: Europe was very different from the United States, where you had to almost threaten promoters at knife point to empty out the f***ing pinball machine to pay you.

Jennifer: Which we've had to do.


Donita: The songs were written and ready to go but we didn't have time to do take after take. It's like, "Hey, if you f*** up the lead, embrace it, it's part of the record." We did however record some of the songs twice, once in Seattle [with Jack Endino] and once in LA [with Michael James and Ramones-producer Daniel Rey].

King Coffey from the Butthole Surfers told me that when they were on mushrooms, they trashed their tour bus while listening to Fast and Frightening. I was like "Yes! We have arrived!"

Suzi: My brother had a girlfriend who was in prison. She told me she was reading a lot of paperback novels there, so I just kind of built Broomstick around that. It's about being left in the dirt. She died in that prison. That song is very emotional for me.

Jennifer: Thematically, as a writer, I'm always about being overwhelmed. (Right On) Thru is about that. Windows are broken in the apartment. They're broken in the car. You can't keep anything out. You just have to let it flow.

Donita: Deathwish is kind of about how we've all been worried about each other. Because at one point or another one of us was doing too many drugs or drinking. This band has been both off the wagon, and on the wagon - but not ever all of us at the same time.

The guitar lead I did on Deathwish is one of my proudest moments. Sometimes I can come up with a lead that's tasty and good. But as far as channeling a lead in real time? That has very rarely happened to me. That's the longest lead I think I've ever played. Jack just let the tape roll.

Suzi: 'Till The Wheels Fall Off is also about doing it to the extreme. There isn't a big story there. It's just about trying to stay together.

Donita: We, along with most other bands at that time were constantly referencing This Is Spinal Tap. I'm sure that got into our psyche. But the title Smell The Magic actually came from an overnight drive on tour through an industrial part of the US. I was sitting shotgun, and Suzi was driving the van. We were both laughing because it smelled so bad. And she said, "Oh god, smell the magic."

We were about to play a big show in Seattle with Alice in Chains, and we showed up with our Smell The Magic T-shirts, which Suzi and I designed.

Suzi: The photo on the shirt was from an old bondage magazine.

Donita: We got to that image, and we were just laughing and laughing. It was indeed very Spinal Tap. We went with it. We showed up to that show and the Sub Pop guys were there. I don't think they liked the shirt design very much

Jennifer: It was not 'on brand'.


Donita: Underground fanzines and alternative rock magazines were writing about us, when all of a sudden, metal magazines started to embrace us too. We feel fortunate to have stuck our toes in the waters of such divergent scenes.

Dee Plakas (drummer extraordinaire): The album holds up for what we're known for: We're a heavy rock band, but you can always sing the songs. How you present yourself, what you say – that's your politics right there.

Donita: You know that line from Fast and Frightening, "Got so much c*** she don't need no b***s"? That about sums it up.

:: Smell The Magic is released on September 18 via Sub Pop, pre-order now via Kingsroadmerch.com/l7