Review by Peter Margasak (Editor) Butt Rag #7 (October 1991)
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Mecca Normal, the Canadian duo of Vancouver, is one of the seminal bands of the nineties riot movement. Active from the first half of the 80’s, they produced during their career a series of D.I.Y video clips. inspired by the best American and Canadian underground tradition
Jean Smith and David Lester of Vancouver, Canada, formed the Mecca Normal in 1984, transforming the fanzine curated by Smith himself “Smarten UP! “How to Change the World Publications” on a label, just to publish their first, homonymous album, just two years later.
Speech and guitar duo within the complex context identified in the “nineties” riot grrrl movement, Mecca Normal contributes to the “official inauguration” of the concept with all the women who in 1991 opened the International Pop international convention in Olympia Underground, but they have been in the language since the beginning, with an unambiguous, politically and feminist approach, combining activism with direct forms of expression such as poetry, painting, writing, so that it immediately becomes a reference point inspiration for musicians such as Kathleen Hanna.
Absorbed by Calvin Johnson’s K Records (Beat Happening, Halo Benders), they republish their first Ep titled “Oh Yes You Can,” and immediately produce three video clips to promote it.
Video clips, which will become a distinctive sign in the duo career to date, exploit the techniques, materials, and language of underground cinema (from found footage to gratage, from reduced media to home movies). Regarding “Oh Yes You Can” accompany every EP song, but they do not come close to the longer structured forms (Devo, The The) because they reject the digested form for the market so as to remain fiercely out of touch broadcasting circuits.
Directly by David Lester or Smith himself, who often introduces his work as a painter, are small “expressionist” experiments, in line with the tradition of the American Underground Cinema, with which Mecca Normal and Lester certainly look devoutly, like all the underground American movement born around the musical scene of those years (Dave Markey, Richard Kern) while maintaining a strongly materialistic approach to the images.
Between the spring and summer of 1986, Mecca Normal participates in the Black Wedge Tour along with a crew of poets, anarchists, musicians moving on a bus across the states, bringing together music and political activity. Part of the images contained in the videos, document that journey, while the sounds of that tour can be heard on the Band band band profile.
Tensely D.I.Y. in “Man Thinks Woman”, song and video made in 1987, try to overthrow some gender norms from verbal communication: “Man thinks” woman “when he talks to me / Something not quite right”
In a parallel dimension, compared to a time when “ism” are almost always formal and formally empty to fit into social containers, the Mecca Normal are still active. A sip of fresh water.
Original article in Italian September 19, 2017
“I love the passion, the intent of Mecca Normal. The searing literacy. The relentless beauty. The admittance that most all relationships are always power struggles, especially when you least expect it. Crudely, three of my favourite artists remind me of Mecca Normal (not the other way round). That’s a recommendation in itself. The dialogue present in every Mecca Normal song I have heard is worth experiencing again and again. It does not infantilise the listener, much as the listener may want to be infantalised. It does not cause the listener to cast aside the class struggle that is central to day-to-day life, whether individuals are aware of it or not.” – Evertt True
An entry in an appendix of Canadian women in music, in the book “We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music” by Andrea Warner (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2015)
Mecca Normal, 1984 – present
Key 90s songs:
“Vacant Night Sky ” from Sitting on Snaps (Matador Records, 1995)
“Waiting for Rudy” from Flood Plain (K Records, 1993)
“Underground art-punk rock duo Jean Smith (vocalist) and David Lester (guitarist) have been crafting weird, tightly coiled but loosely structured songs about gender, feminism, politics, and social justice isues since 1984. Anybody who knows Beat Happening, Bikini Kill, and Sleater-Kinney should know Mecca Normal, almost nobody does. I’m ashamed to admit that up until last year, I barely knew them either. They’re a hometown band and I’m a feminist who writes about music and still I never came across Mecca Normal until someone alerted me to their existence after I wrote an essay about how much I missed the political fire of music from the ’90s. Mecca Normal were riot grrrl and DIY before those movements existed, and they were tireless in their commitment to their art, releasing seven records in the ’90s alone. In fact, Mecca Normal were basically doing the 90s in the 80s. Consider the still-relevant subject matter of their mid-’80s tunes like “Smile Baby,” which calls out street harassment (yes, three decades ago), “More, More, More” which addresses the privilege of white men and the American Dream, and the simple, chilling, and inspiring “I Walk Alone” which affirms a woman’s right to safety in a public space. It’s important music that still matters today.” – Andrea Warner
Comments on Mecca Normal albums on RATE YOUR MUSIC website:
Dovetail (K Records, 1992)
“It’s disgraceful that this record only has 23 ratings–not even enough to chart it here at RYM. One of the greatest records of the late 80s/early 90s K-Records scene … before “indie” existed properly, in the immediate wake of the Nirvana hype. This album–probably the band’s best–mixes rhythmically-driven (all from the guitar) pieces that have a punk-rock edge with ballad-like, slow pieces. It’s remarkable in its balancing of these modes (sometimes within a single song). Beautiful stuff. Search it out. Now!” – denti, 2012
“The perfect Mecca Normal album. Throw Silver and Clatter make the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. This band is largely ignored by most supposed “indie” listeners and they’ve been doing for almost thirty years. Consistent as hell and never boring. This record is solid gold.” mortytoad, 2009
Water Cuts My Hands (K Records, 1991)
“David Lester is one of the unsung greatest guitarists. He is incredibly inventive with the little he plays (a few chords, no solos) and makes his guitar sound so raw and real and right there with you. I love it. This record is fantastic, though not consistently so. Still one of the best places to start with this great band. The CD comes with the 1988 record “Calico Kills the Cat,” also worth repeated listens. “Taking the Back Stairs,” “Dead Bird’s Feet” and “Lois Wrote About the Farm” are among the band’s best.” – denti, 2011
Sitting on Snaps (Matador, 1995)
“The beginning and end of this album are brilliant. Like Concrete Blonde meets Lush with a sprinkling of Siouxsie, but also no drums, like, on any song ever. Yes, this is a drumless band. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes not… just layers of guitar and voice, but not too many layers. There’s some minimalism going on here too.” – Sukwtto, 2011
“Mecca Normal break rules like they never noticed them in the first place. The Vancouver-based duo of singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester are anarchist-feminist activists and constant experimentalists, implying a rhythm section with negative space alone. Always an intense presence onstage, they’ve become the most tenacious of D.I.…Y. road warriors, touring and recording for 32 years now. In the early ’90s, they popped up on most of the biggest American indie-rock labels (Sub Pop, K, Matador); by their 25th anniversary, they were on the road with a performance-and-lecture project called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.”
Smith’s lyrics often foreground her political perspective; their anthem “Man Thinks ‘Woman,’” released in 1987, started out as a barbed dissection of gender normativity: “Man thinks ‘woman’ when he talks to me/Something not quite right.” The song kept expanding its radius from there, encompassing both bitter poetics and a disarmingly funny account of a drunken makeout gone weird. Kathleen Hanna has cited Smith as an early inspiration: “When I saw her,” she told The Fader, “I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold.” –Douglas Wolk
“Man Thinks Woman” video by David Lester
“Oh Yes You Can” 7″ on K Records (1987)
“Jarred Up” compilation of singles on K Records (1993)
A mess of Mecca Normal songs pulled together from singles and compilations dating to 1992, rounding out the first eight years of their existence. Dunt fear, Mecca Normal are still going strong! Jarred Up reveals the awesome might of their thing; it is the essential Mecca Normal Document.
Strong White Male
Man Thinks Woman
He Didn’t Say
How Many Now?
Horse Heaven Hills
This Is Different
You Heard It All
Fan of Sparks
Upside Down Flames
From The Surface
More More More
One More Safe