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From a Minneapolis art gallery’s basement to the heights of the alternative rock scene: Babes in Toyland

In their recordings and live performances, they honed an abrasive, commanding sound that attracted fans from across the United States and Europe.

Babes in Toyland
Photo by Daniel Corrigan

Babes in Toyland grew out of the Minneapolis punk scene to become one of the most visible “alternative” bands of the 1990s. In their recordings and live performances, they honed an abrasive, commanding sound that attracted fans from across the United States and Europe.

The band’s first lineup came together in 1986 with four members: Kat Bjelland, Lori Barbero, Cindy Russell, and Chris Holetz. They named themselves after the movie musical Babes in Toyland — one of Barbero’s childhood favorites. After a few months, Russell and Holetz left the band. Bassist Michelle Leon soon joined, and in 1987, the trio played their first show in the basement of a Minneapolis art gallery. Over time, they became regular performers at venues like the Cabooze and the 7th Street Entry.

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In contrast to their innocent name, Babes in Toyland’s music was mature, incisive, and aggressive. Bjelland’s lyrics sketched out vivid, sometimes violent images that dealt with sex, pain, assault, and anger. Her vocals — which ranged from a whisper to a full-throated scream — complemented Leon’s solid bass lines and Barbero’s urgent drumming.

By 1989, Bjelland, Barbero, and Leon were touring the United States to support Babes in Toyland’s first single, “Dust Cake Boy” (backed with “Spit to See the Shine”). The song appeared on their 1990 debut album, Spanking Machine, along with “He’s My Thing.” Within months, DJs were playing both tracks on college radio stations.

The band toured throughout 1990, opening for Sonic Youth in Europe and Skinny Puppy in the United States. English producer John Peel named Spanking Machine one of his favorite albums of the year. In 1990 and 1991, he recorded sessions with Babes in Toyland at BBC studios for his influential radio show. The song “To Mother” (from the 1991 EP of the same name) reached the top of the UK indie chart.

Babes in Toyland were among the first of their peers to sign to a major label. After releasing both Spanking Machine and To Mother on the independent, Minneapolis-based label Twin/Tone (and on the Southern label in Europe), they contracted with Reprise, a division of Warner Brothers Records.

As the band’s visibility grew, they attracted more fans—and misleading media coverage. Many journalists incorrectly assumed that the Babes were associated with riot grrrl, a punk feminist movement based in Washington, D.C., and Olympia, Washington. Others called them grunge, kinderwhore, and foxcore — labels the women rejected.

In reality, the band was influenced by Midwest and West Coast punk groups, including Cows and the Wipers. They also drew on the support of the close-knit Minneapolis punk community. Between tours, they returned to Minnesota to play to home-town venues, revisit old haunts like the CC Club and Joe’s Chicken Shack, and reconnect with the local scene.

After Leon left Babes in Toyland in early 1992 during the recording of their second album, Maureen Herman replaced her. Because the two bassists’ styles were noticeably different, some tracks were rerecorded. Fontanelle, produced by Bjelland and Lee Ranaldo and with sleeve art by Cindy Sherman, proved to the group’s best-selling record. The first track, “Bruise Violet,” became one of their most recognizable songs. MTV featured its music video on a 1993 episode of Beavis & Butthead as well as in its regular programming.

The band recorded their third full-length album, Nemesisters, for Reprise in 1995. Working with Tim Mac as producer, they recorded twelve original songs (including the hit “Sweet 69”) and two covers: Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”

Herman left the band in 1996; Leon reunited with Bjelland and Barbero to perform in 1996 and 1997. Bjelland and Barbero continued playing as a trio with bassist Jessie Farmer before parting ways in 2001. By that year, in addition to three full-length albums, Babes in Toyland had released two EPs, seven singles, seven music videos, and eight compilation records.

In 2015, after a hiatus of eighteen years, Bjelland, Barbero, and Herman reunited to play to a few hundred fans at a bar outside of Palm Springs, California. A sold-out performance at the Roxy in Los Angeles followed. In May, they launched an American and European tour that included an appearance at Rock the Garden, an annual summer concert in Minneapolis.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.