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The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard Of: Fifth Column

June 15th, 2012     by Guest Blogger     Comments

Before Bikini Kill, before MEN, hell - before the Indigo Girls - there was Fifth Column. Fifth Column was a queer-as-hell punk band comprised of young art students from Toronto in the early 1980s, now immortalized in the recent documentary film, She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column directed by Kevin Hegge.

Fifth Column was an all-girl band, which was just about the most political thing that could happen to the misogynist music industry of the 1980s. A rock musician from the 1980s is usually imagined as a metalhead dude with long, puffy hair, and tight jeans. Bands like Moetley Cruee and Poison even forming their own subgenre of “cock rock,” characterized by callous displays of male aggression and heterosexuality. Even hardcore music, which was rock music for misfits, wasn’t particularly friendly towards women. In this climate, Fifth Column stands out not just for being comprised of women, but women who were outspokenly feminist and queer.

In true punk rock fashion, Fifth Column began without the band members knowing how to play their instruments. GB Jones admits that she joined the band because she thought the founding members Kathleen Pirrie-Adams and Janet Martin looked amazing - not because she had ever sat behind a drum kit in her life. They made up their own rules, which resulted in a sophisticated approach to music with sprawling melodies and irregular rhythms, because GB Jones refused to “[sit there] and keep time for the rest of the band.” Fifth Column had a formidable stage presence, and their cool-girl attitudes made them appear as “sirens, [ready to] call you out and destroy your ship” according to fellow queercore pioneer, Ms. Vaginal Davis.

The development of both queercore and riot grrrl owe a lot to Fifth Column. GB Jones became friends with gay filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, and they started a fanzine called J.D.’s, which stood for Juvenile Delinquents, James Dean and J.D. Salinger. The zine was one of their many creative outlets besides making Super 8 films and drawing, and they stayed up all night writing zines and creating a homo punk paradise within its pages. J.D.’s dreamed of a scene where queer and punk were not mutually exclusive and hot boys and girls drank and danced and fucked who they like. The scene they imagined didn’t even really exist, but they created it and soon enough people made their pilgrimages to Toronto just to get in on the action. In the words of GB Jones; “queercore started in my apartment at Queen and Parliament.” It was like they took the finale of the ultra-queer Rocky Horror Picture Show to heart, when everyone sings “don’t dream it, be it.”

While Fifth Column was busy changing the cultural landscape in Toronto, another scene was brewing in the early 1990s in Olympia, Washington: Riot grrrl. Third-wave feminism inspired girls to pick up their own guitars and take back the male-dominated mosh pit for themselves. Riot grrrl was based on the do-it-yourself culture of fanzines and music as a tool of feminist resistance. Sound familiar? Fifth Column was essentially the decade-older, Canadian predecessors to riot grrrl bands like L7, Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill. Kathleen Hanna, riot goddess and lead singer of Bikini Kill herself was interviewed for the film and exclaimed incredulity at the media attention Bikini Kill received, when “[Fifth Column were] so much better than us!”

Their feminist agenda was threatening, and starting a band was a way for each member to push back against a repressive society that rubbed them the wrong way. Fifth Column signified defiance against authority. Their first album has an anti-patriarchal bent, titled To Sir With Hate. They also spoke out against homophobia by writing songs like “The Fairview Mall Story,” which told of the thirty-two men who were arrested for having sex the men’s bathroom of the Fairview Mall in St. Catharines. Their names were released by the media, and one man who was married with children committed suicide rather than live down the controversy of being an outed man in the 1980s.

It almost seems as if Fifth Column has been erased from history, considering the renewed pop culture interest in riot grrrl, not in a strategic way, but simply because they alienated the press. MuchMusic asked them to appear at a benefit concert that would be broadcast live across the country, on the condition they would not sing their 1992 hit single “All Women are Bitches” (the ironic title was taken from a Canadian movie, Cathy’s Curse, about a girl possessed by the spirit of her dead aunt). Of course they sang the song, and were banned from performing on MuchMusic ever again.

Perhaps Fifth Column received less attention because their queer feminism scared people. Fifth Column was threatening, dangerous and didn’t abide by rules. They refused to participate in the gay mainstream because it was “assimilationist and bourgeouisie.” “If we had our way, there wouldn’t be any structures left standing,” said lead singer Caroline Azar - presumably about ideological institutions, and not skyscrapers.

But in all its radicality, the film does not include a whole lot of perspectives from people of colour or trans folk, besides interview clips from the inimitable Vaginal Davis, who was just as important to the development of queercore as Fifth Column. It’s also important to note that while politically radical, Fifth Column was made up of cisgender white women.

The story of Fifth Column is not just glowing reviews, political resistance and rollicking badassery. There are plenty of harsh, tense moments in the film, which are set to their dark, pulsating, bass-heavy song “Like This.” The song punctuates the film and sets a backdrop for the estranged friendships, failures and awkward moments that all collaborations are bound to endure. Many band members joined and left Fifth Column, not all of which were interviewed in She Said Boom. In some ways, the film is about the experiences of GB Jones and Caroline Azar, and not the big picture of Fifth Column’s influence.

The key is that Fifth Column actually endured these hardships, lasting over a decade in the fickle trenches of the music industry. Fifth Column may have stuck out like a sore thumb compared to other 80s bands, but it was their differences that led them to shape the sound of feminist punk rock as a whole.

[Ed. note: We want to apologize for embedding a video with no transcription. This is a music video for the Fifth Column song “Like This,” and we were unable to find the lyrics and cannot make them out to do a manual transcription due to poor sound quality.]

Isabel Slone is a feminist, freelance writer and fashion enthusiast living and breathing in Toronto, ON. She tweets at @isabelslone and is hilarious or unbearable, depending on who you’re talking to.

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