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The Story Of 'The Fabulous Stains' And Riot Grrrl


The new movie "Her Smell" stars Elisabeth Moss and tells the story of a fictional musician who rose to fame during the 1990s riot grrrl era. Allyson McCabe takes us back to the time of fanzines and mixtapes for a look at another film that foreshadowed the riot grrrl movement and inspired real-life musicians.


BRATMOBILE: (Singing) Girl germs, no returns, can't hide out, they're everywhere.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Bratmobile, one of the foundational bands of the riot grrrl movement, fused feminism and punk rock.


BRATMOBILE: (Singing) Girls are the rots, you insist. By pulling my ponytail, you persist.

MCCABE: That was the early 1990s. And band co-founder Allison Wolfe had already been hearing about a film called "Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains." But getting your hands on a copy wasn't easy.

ALLISON WOLFE: It was like you could only get it from, like, maybe, some cool person worked at a super indie, alternative video store. And it would be through bootleg trading and stuff that you could even get near it. And then it would be many generations of a copy.

MCCABE: When she finally saw the film, Wolfe says she was shocked.

WOLFE: It just seemed to spell out, in a lot of ways, what happened with riot grrrl. It almost looked like the movie was influenced by us. But there's no way that could have happened.

MCCABE: That's because it was made a decade before a riot grrrl.


THE CLASH: One, two, three, four.

MCCABE: As punk was taking off in the U.K. in the mid-1970s, Caroline Coon was among the first to champion the scene as a journalist for Melody Maker magazine. After a collection of her articles came out in a book, Coon got a call from an American screenwriter.

CAROLINE COON: Out of the blue, Nancy Dowd rung me.

MCCABE: Nancy Dowd had already written the screenplay for the Hollywood hit "Slap Shot" and was looking to make a movie about the punk movement.

COON: I said, come to London, and I'll show you what's happening with this new iteration of youth rebellion.

MCCABE: Coon told Dowd that feminism was the next big thing to come to punk rock.


X-RAY SPEX: Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard. But I think oh, bondage. Up yours. One, two, three, four.

MCCABE: They began collaborating on a screenplay that put female musicians front and center.

COON: Her script was, at essence, a feminist fable, a story about how women could get equality.

MCCABE: The story centred on a teenage orphan played by a 14-year-old Diane Lane.

DIANE LANE: She'd lost her mother. She was very broke. And she says, not only am I going to be OK, but I'm forming a band. And I'm going to tell y'all where to stick it (laughter).

MCCABE: When an English punk band, played by real-life members of The Clash and The Sex Pistols, passes through town, she manages to get The Stains on the bill without an audition.


LANE: (As Corinne Burns, singing) I'm a waste of time. Don't call me. I'm a waste of time. Don't ask me. I'm a waste of time. Don't touch me. I'm a waste of...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Hey. Come on.

MCCABE: The band can barely play. But when the musicians get heckled, Lane's character addresses the women in the audience.


LANE: (As Corinne Burns) You came here tonight thinking you'd see some cute and wonderful rock star. And you hoped maybe he'd take one look at you from up on that stage and he'd fell in love with you just like that. Then your savior could take you out of this dump of a town you live in. You could be different from all the other girls. Suckers, suckers - be yourselves.

MCCABE: A guy throws his drink at her. She takes off her hat. And her hair is striped like a skunk. She sheds her overcoat to reveal a provocative outfit. The message was, you're in control. Lane recalls that moment as electric.

LANE: The women in the audience were saying, wow. Hell yes. I want some more of that. The guys in the audience are grabbing their crotch and making jokes because they don't get it. (Laughter) They don't understand that the train has left the station. A lot of women are going to be on that train.

MCCABE: In the film, girls all around the country begin to emulate The Stains. The band was supposed to go on to conquer England. But just as men on screen tried to thwart their success, tensions were also brewing behind the scenes. Caroline Coon says the film's original call to arms was muted by its male director.

COON: He began just tearing pages out of the end of the script. We walked off the movie. We were sacked.

MCCABE: The film wrapped in 1980 without an ending. Two years went by. The director came up with his own closing scene - a faux music video which recast The Stains as pop stars. That version tanked in test screenings and was never released. But within a few years, it started surfacing on late-night cable TV and then on bootlegs. Bratmobile's Allison Wolfe says many young women who saw those grainy VHS tapes not only became fans of The Stains but were inspired to form their own bands.

WOLFE: A lot of us didn't know how to play instruments - hardly at all - when we started. Yet that didn't stop us from wanting to express ourselves.

MCCABE: Members of Bikini Kill have cited The Stains as an inspiration - Courtney Love and Kate Nash, too. In 2015, the band Ex Hex made a music video as an homage to the film, says guitarist Mary Timony.

MARY TIMONY: In a way, the movie kind of made itself come true.

MCCABE: "Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains" is now widely available on streaming platforms. And a super fan has just released the soundtrack on vinyl.


LANE: (As Corinne Burns, singing) You ask me questions, and I say nothing.

MCCABE: But you may have to know someone cool to get a copy. For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


LANE: (As Corinne Burns, singing) I'm a waste of time. I'm a waste of time. I'm a waste of time. Don't ask me. I'm a waste of time. Don't call me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allyson McCabe