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Yep, They're the Donnas. Got a Problem With That?

Pop Beat: The hot all-girl rock group is forging an identity and finding an audience.

July 18, 1998|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I don't know who told you we have an attitude, but they were rude!"

It doesn't seem too outrageous to assume that the Donnas, a teenage punk-rock quartet from Palo Alto, have an attitude. With song titles such as "Looking for Blood" and "Outta My Mind," the group might be expected to sneer rather than smile for the camera. But guitarist Donna R. and her bandmates beg to differ when a photographer asks them to look a little more antisocial. "We're too tired," chimes in drummer Donna C.

The scorching eight-hour drive from the group's Northern California home to its Thursday concert at the all-ages Showcase Theatre in Corona has left the Donnas slightly wilted. Before the show, they hang around their cars in the parking lot during an interview, eating pizza, gulping water, applying makeup and blasting KISS' "Rock and Roll All Nite" on the car stereo.

The metallic crunch of KISS is a key component, but the fun-loving, cartoonish insolence on the Donnas' current Lookout! Records album, "American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine," most vividly recalls the classic punk-pop of the Ramones and the boisterous sexuality of '70s girl rockers the Runaways. Ten songs add up to 24 minutes of three-chord delinquency, all about running wild and rocking hard.

The group's album hasn't cracked the national Top 200, but its fetchingly nostalgic sound and stance have recently charmed the rock press, with Rolling Stone noting that "hanging with the Donnas is like being in detention with all your best friends," and Spin lauding the band's "good-time cave-girl feminism."

Just as the members of the Ramones all took the same last name, the Donnas all use the same first name. On stage, each wears a T-shirt that reads "Donna," followed by the first letter of her real surname: Donna R. (Allison Robertson), Donna C. (Torry Castellano), vocalist Donna A. (Brett Anderson) and bassist Donna F. (Maya Ford). All are 19--except Donna R., who's 18--and they've been in bands together since they were 13.

Back in junior high, inspired by the women of L7 and Shonen Knife, as well as the Riot Grrl movement, the girls formed the school's only female band. If the boys were unimpressed, the future Donnas couldn't have cared less. "Maybe they knew how to play their instruments better, but the songs were [bad]," Donna C. says.

After discovering KISS and Alice Cooper, the girls were 15 and happily wrecking eardrums with their speed-metal act the Electrocutes when acquaintance Darin Raffaelli asked them to perform some garage-rock songs he'd written with a female group in mind. Thus, the Donnas were born. The girls thought it would be a one-shot deal, but Raffaelli's project proved more accessible than theirs.

But the girls wanted more creative control. "We didn't want to be stuck in some band where some dude wrote the songs for us," Donna R. says. They also wanted a harder-rocking edge than was reflected on their early releases, a vinyl LP called "The Donnas" and three singles on San Francisco indie Super*Teem, which Lookout! will re-release on a CD this month.

Indeed, Donna R.'s power chords stand out during the band's Showcase performance, sealing in the rebellious juices of "Rock 'n' Roll Machine" and "Gimmie My Radio." The band wastes not a single second of its 30-minute set, tearing through one raucous anthem after another, barely pausing for Donna A. to catch her breath.

As much as songs such as "Checkin' It Out" and "Leather on Leather" aim to be sexually commanding, the tone is closer to the tough innocence of the '60s' Shangri-Las than the ruined innocence of the Runaways--or even the liberated demands of such elliptical kindred spirits as Elastica. The shock value of declarations such as "You Make Me Hot" is certainly diminished in a world of Spice Girls and L'il Kims, but the Donnas also seem more comfortable rocking than raunching. And they aren't fully aware that much of their charm, for better or worse, is tied to their being Chicks Who Rock. Just ask the pint-sized stalker-in-training who prowls the club, trying to score a hug from each Donna and high-fiving his friends both times he is successful.

The Donnas shrug off this type of behavior, but it annoys them. Still, there are worse things. Like? "It sucks when people say, 'Oh, you guys are really good--for girls,' " scoffs Donna A. "They actually think they're being nice."

* The Donnas play tonight at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $10. (310) 276-6168.

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