The influential icon from The Muffs, and briefly Pixies, carved a path like no other
Plenty of America’s underground rock acts had a breakthrough moment as the ’90s saw alternative music butt up against the mainstream in the wake of Nirvana’s crossover success. To most, the great Buffalo Tom are known principally for their appearance in the hit drama My So Called Life. Letters To Cleo for their cover of Cheap Trick‘s ‘I Want You To Want Me’ in 10 Things I Hate About You. And yet the appearance of The Muffs’ riotous run-through of Kim Wilde’s ‘Kids In America’ in the opening moments of 1995’s Clueless, is one of the most arresting examples – and certainly the most fun.
The song – a hit for Wilde in 1981 – almost didn’t soundtrack the opening scene of the beloved coming-of-age drama. Close to the film’s completion, director Amy Heckerling became infatuated with No Doubt’s ‘Just A Girl’. Though she loved the song, Heckerling felt she couldn’t go back on a prior promise she’d made to The Muffs that the southern California band’s song could ‘have’ the opening credits. Heckerling kept true. It was the correct move. Not only is it unthinkable that anything else could soundtrack our introduction to Cher Horowitz, without The Muffs inclusion Kim Shattuck – a musician whose talents deserved more – would have been deprived her most significant moment of mainstream recognition.
Though the music world first saw Shattuck playing bass as a hired hand in all woman LA outfit The Pandora’s (Kim was with the band between 1985 and 1990 as the group veered opportunistically from the garage rock of their origins to the hard rock band they later became – “I never had a say in anything” she once opined of her time with the group) it wasn’t until that band disbanded that the real Kim Shattuck stepped forward. Kim – a child of the ’60s, born July 17, 1963 – wanted to play in a band that replicated the sound buzzing in her head. Short songs. Big melodies. Pop, but with edge. To her surprise, it turned out that Kim Shattuck had a hell of a way with a melody.
“When I first started writing songs,”she told Guitar World in 2011, “it was the late ’80s. I was still in the Pandoras, and I was not liking the direction of the band after a while – it was too metal. Everything that was popular then in Los Angeles was starting to irritate the shit out of me. I was getting really bummed. Stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening and I was like, ‘I fucking hate them so much, I have to write the anti-Red Hot Chili Peppers songs’. It was so clear to me what I wanted people to write, and they weren’t. Melodically, I could see the chord pattern in my head, and I could hear it, and I knew where I wanted it to go. So I was like, I just gotta write songs, cause no one’s writing the song I want to hear.”
Shattuck, a Beatles and Kinks obsessive – but who had been drawn to learning guitar after becoming infatuated with The Bangles’ forever cool Susannah Hoff – dreamt of a band that favoured heart and soul over fussy musicianship. The result was The Muffs, a group who, led by Kim’s pop nous, wrote impeccable three-chord punk across a 20 year career. First on their self-titled debut (1993); then on career highpoint ‘Blonder and Blonder’ (1995 – the song ‘Sad Tomorrow’ is the closest the band ever came to a hit with their own song); then on the brilliant ‘Happy Birthday To Me’ (1997); on ‘Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow’ (1999); on ‘Really Really Happy’ (2004); on their first album in 10 years, ‘Whoop Dee Do’ (2014); on this year’s ‘No Holiday’ (2019), released later this month, and featuring unused songs written between 1991 and 2017. Typically of Shattuck’s songwriting, it’s all killer, no filler.
“The Beatles were a huge influence on me to write really good melodies,” she said. “I really like the cute Beatles, the beginning. I don’t really like the moustached Beatles very much. And then the hippie Beatles I’m not super-thrilled with, although they had good songs. I really like early Kinks and mid-Kinks. The Who from the ’60s. Then from the ’70s I really like Blondie. I really liked the Sex Pistols when they came out and I thought they had a lot of melody. People say I sound a lot like the Ramones and it’s probably because I’m influenced by the same ’60s groups, but I was never a strict Ramones fan. I like some of their stuff, like the poppier stuff. I really liked Joan Jett for a while – there are some really good songs on some of her early albums. I liked the fact that she sang without vibrato, which seemed like all the chicks were doing…”
Nobody could ever accuse Kim Shattuck of singing ‘like all the chicks were doing’. Though the line-up of The Muffs chopped and changed across the decades, the sole constant was Kim and her remarkable voice; part soundchecking fire-eater, part drunken sailor, part razorblade gargling velociraptor. “We will hear that rock ‘n’ roll scream from heaven,” said Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong via Instagram today, while acknowledging the influence of The Muffs first record on their own seminal pop punk classic ‘Dookie’ (it shows). “Heartbroken about Kim,” added the members of Veruca Salt, friends and peers throughout the great U.S. underground assault of the 1990’s. “One of the all-time greats. How could anyone be such a brilliant pop songwriter, singer, screamer, and such a total punk-rock badass – and be so insanely cute at the same time? No one funnier or cooler.” And yet, perhaps Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham said it best when he tweeted, simply, “One of the all-time great voices. LISTEN TO THE MUFFS!”
A strange diversion to Shattuck’s career came in 2013 when she came to fill Kim Deal’s frankly unfillable shoes on Pixies‘ European tour. She was fired at the tour’s conclusion for, allegedly, stage diving. “Dave [Lovering, drums] hated me the whole time,” she recalled once she’d returned to The Muffs. “He stopped talking to me after I jumped into the pit on the first leg of the tour. He would literally ignore me or just grunt. If he had a criticism about my performance then he was all talk. When I got offstage, the manager told me not to do that again. I said, ‘For my own safety?’ And he said, ‘No, because the Pixies don’t do that.’” Nevertheless, she left the indie rock titans with grace and humour, describing her time in the band as “an amazing experience”… then titling The Muffs sixth-album ‘Whoop Dee Doo’ after a glib comment Frank Black made to interested media after her firing; “shift in the line-up, big whoop-dee-doo”.
To their credit, Pixies tweeted the following as news of Kim’s death – aged 56, from complications of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (more commonly known as motor neurone disease in the UK) – started to become known. “We are devastated about Kim’s passing,” they said. “She was a genuine musician, writer and performer who committed her life for the cause. She brought all of her life force to her endeavours and we are fortunate for her sharing some of that life force with us.” And that’s the point. Pixies might not stagedive, but Kim Shattuck – the girl from Los Angeles with the cool bangs and a voice like a snoozing wolf – certainly did. She was the personification of life. Of feeling. Of the moment. Of everything that makes three-chords, two minutes and the truth eternally thrilling. She will be forever missed. One more time, with feeling…
One of the all-time great voices. LISTEN TO THE MUFFS!