The Donnas came to exist as a band in the town of Palo Alto, CA back around 1993. They weren't known as The Donnas back then - a variety of other names (Screen, Ragady Anne, The Electrocutes) came before they finally settled on their current moniker. However, the ties that bind were formed in the crucible of hellish torment known as junior high. That's really the key to understanding The Donnas - they came together out of a mutual love for rock & roll, but also out of a desperate need for a mutual defense strategy. They were misfits in a place where misfits were not at all welcome.
Initially, these four fish out of water had their shared love for music but not much else. We are talking about junior high kids, and these were not kids whose parents were devoting their lives to grooming their offspring to be professional rock & roll musicians. Luckily, however, for the girls and the multitudes of fans they've gained in the intervening years, the parents did not stand in their way and were actually very supportive. The way to get good at something is to practice and practice this band did, day after day and hour after hour. Practicing exhaustively in the garage had a two-fold benefit - it allowed them to improve their musical skills in a relatively swift fashion, and it was also a refuge from the scorn and derision they faced at school.
In 1996 The Electrocutes recorded a self-titled full-length album that was released on Sympathy For The Record Industry. At some point thereafter the band became acquainted with local indie record producer Darin Rafaelli, and it was he who came up with the idea for a Ramones-inspired incarnation that eventually became The Donnas and ended up signing with the indie punk label (early home to Green Day, still home to punk legends The Queers and MTX) Lookout Records. Rafaelli did write most of the material on the band's first two albums - The Donnas and American Teenage Rock & Roll Machine - but in hindsight, as the girls began writing all their own songs with their third album Get Skintight, it became increasingly obvious that he was never a Svengali, but rather merely a fellow who could recognize talent when directly confronted by it.
As the years went quickly by, the band continued to show amazing, almost miraculous technical improvement from each album to the next. Their physical skills were rapidly evolving, but the musical changes were more subtle. Virtually from the start, Donnas songs rocked fast and hard while carrying a multitude of huge, juicy hooks. Lyrics were often campy and cartoonish, turning male rock-star mythology on its head - a la 40 Boys In 40 Nights (from the successor to Get Skintight, Turn 21). More and more people began to notice that this supposed gimmick band actually possessed impressive musical skills and was consistently coming up with scads of irresistible songs. Anchored by the spectacular guitar work of Allison Robertson, including a rock solid rhythm section of Maya Ford on bass and Torry Castellano on drums, and fronted by an increasingly confident and powerful lead vocalist Brett Anderson, The Donnas were primed for possible mainstream success.
With Spend The Night, the band's major label debut on Atlantic Records, they threaded the artistry vs. commercial needle with flair - the sound was bigger and more polished, but not at all over-produced. The songs offered the same hook-filled extravaganza long-term fans had come to expect, the lyrical content was becoming slightly more serious but the net result was essentially a bigger and better version of what they had done in the past - which was definitely no small feat. It quickly became a critical favorite and ended up selling well, but not spectacularly so. The band had a number of important national appearances following the release of Spend The Night, including a date on Saturday Night Live (no canned music fiascos here, folks).
In the period following the release of Spend The Night, the band began to tire of the hard-partying (albeit usually tongue-in-cheek) image they had cultivated up to that point. The sound of their next and latest record, Gold Medal, was a major departure from anything they had done before. The lyrical content became much more serious but beyond that the band's basic sound left behind any trace of resemblance to The Ramones, in favor of something new and different that might be described as "cutting-edge modern rock". Some long-term fans embraced the new record; a significant number of others were disheartened by the radical shift. Gold Medal did reap a significant amount of critical praise, sales were once again good, but well below the multi-platinum level.
Where the band will go from here remains an open question - will they move back in the direction of material closer to their roots, or will they continue down the new path they've created? What seems certain is that whatever direction they may choose, the goal will continue to be to make music that pleases them. Anyone who objects will get essentially the same consideration as those long-ago junior high detractors reason enough for this author to admire The Donnas. .
Submitted by Mike R © The Cover Zone Jan 2006