They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but one glance at the front of The Donnas’ 1999 album ‘Get Skintight’ gives you a pretty damn good idea of what to expect. Released 15 years ago this week, it saw four smirking teenage girls, in black jeans, leather trousers and Converse, stood against a hot pink background below a ‘kapow!’ style cartoon font bearing the band’s name.
Each girl wears their name on their shirt. Like the Ramones before then, they were all called Donna. They look like total brats. The kind of girls who’d give you your first cigarette and then laugh as you coughed up half a lung trying to inhale. The kind of girls who’d flirt with the boy you fancied, then break his heart, just for a laugh. The kind of girls who’d carry a miniature bottle of vodka in their handbag and drink it during detention. From the moment I saw it, I was in total and utter love.
Prior to my discovery of the album, my early teen music taste was obvious at best. I liked Blur and Oasis. I had a strange affinity for Steps – just the early stuff, mind – but had already begun plundering my mother’s record collection for Neil Young, John Martyn, Nick Drake and other glum men making folk music. Yet none of that music was really mine. Despite owning an Adidas track top I was too young to be fully ensconced in Britpop and though I had a burgeoning love of Janis Joplin, I was roughly 30 years too late for Woodstock. The Donnas, however, opened up a whole new world, one I could actually call my own. I started to become obsessed with US punk rock and San Francisco’s Fat Wreck Chords – started by Fat Mike of NOFX – and the Berkley, California based Lookout! which was home to The Donnas. As well as being the label which released Green Day’s pre-Dookie albums ‘39/Smooth’ and ‘Kerplunk’ it also put out records by riot grrls Bratmobile, queercore champions Pansy Division and a run of dumb punk bands with even dumber names, like The Mr T Experience, The Wynona Riders, The Groovie Ghoulies, Citizen Fish and the Gaza Strippers.
‘Get Skintight’ was The Donnas’ third album following 1997’s self-titled debut and 1998’s ‘American Teenage Rock’n’Roll Machine’, which were both grittier, more garagey affairs. ‘Get Skintight’ saw them bring a dose of Kiss-style glam into the mix, alongside the snarling pop punk and gum-snapping badass bubblegum riffs. Their give-a-shit, teen tearway attitude was there in the song titles – ‘Hyperactive’, ‘Get Outta My Room’, ‘Party Action’, ‘I Didn’t Like You Anyway’, ‘Get You Alone’. This was not a band dealing with The Bigger Issues. There was no treatise on global warming, no song for the starving millions, no winsome ballads; this was an album about getting laid, partying and telling your parents to fuck off. In classic punk tradition most of the album’s 14 tracks hovered around the two and a half minute mark, but they messed with the format by adding some technical expertise courtesy of Donna R’s glitzy rock solos and Donna C’s rattling drum fills, which were more suited to stadiums than basement bars.
Riding the tailend of slacker culture, ‘Get Skintight’ is a sonic distillation of 1990s suburban teenage angst. It’s Kevin Smith movies, Tai from Clueless – before the makeover – and having a crush on Johnny Depp. The Donnas were from the cookie-cutter city of Palo Alto, California, and their songs are about hanging out in its malls, smoking weed in cars and boys being dicks. Lyrically, they capture the American teen experience – an army of 18 year olds too young to legally go out drinking in bars but too old to be content with a parentally supervised sleepover on a Saturday night.
It also nails the final days of pre-social networking life. ‘You Don’t Wanna Call’ starts with a buzzing dial tone and sees frontwoman Donna A lamenting the fact that the object of her affections won’t phone her; there’s no mention of texting, Instant Messaging or any contemporary online equivalent. “So I guess I’ll just stare at the wall/‘cos I know that you’ll never call,” she sighs. If it were to happen now she’d be straight onto his Facebook wall and checking for signs of other women he might have been flirting with, surely? ‘Doin’ Donuts’ documents another particularly American pastime, making tire marks on their neighbours’ lawns with their beat-up cars, whilst ‘Hot Boxin’’ sees the girls getting high in the very same vehicle and getting busted by the cops. “Roll down my window/I watch the smoke and I know they know/‘Young lady let me see some ID’/‘Didn’t you see us on MTV?’,” sasses Donna A, scoring top marks for referring to her drugs as ‘cheeba’.
Punk was in a funny place in 1999. In the same month that ‘Get Skintight’ came out, not only was Napster launched – signifying a massive change in the way that people accessed music – but Blink-182 released ‘Enema Of The State’ and Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Californication’. Two of the biggest albums of the year, they came from bands that had their roots in the underground, but by this point had respectively turned the genre into a stream of dick jokes and drowned it in Hollywood gloss. The next month would see the disastrous Woodstock 99 festival, where it was alleged that a woman was gang-raped in a Limp Bizkit moshpit. Things had turned very grim indeed for a whole host of bands claiming to be punk. Thank goodness then, for ‘Get Skintight’, an album that was as authentic as it was fun.