The Black ‘Godmother of Grunge’ Who Inspired Your Fav Bands
When you think of grunge, do you picture a bunch of long-haired White guys in plaid shirts, singing about teenage angst and self-loathing? Time to expand that viewpoint. Standing above them all should be Tina Bell, a tiny Black woman with an outsized stage presence, and her band, Bam Bam. It’s only recently that the 1980s phenom has begun to be recognized as a godmother of grunge.
This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman. The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that “everybody involved” was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.
Bam Bam was formed as a punk band in 1983 in Seattle. Bell, a petite brown-skinned spitfire with more hairstyle changes than David Bowie, sang lead vocals and wrote most of the lyrics. Her then-husband Tommy Martin was on guitars (the band’s name is an acronym of their last names: Bell And Martin), Scotty “Buttocks” Ledgerwood played bass, and Matt Cameron was on drums. Cameron would leave the band in its first year and go on to fame as the drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. But he paid homage to his beginnings by wearing a Tina Bell T-shirt in a photoshoot for Pearl Jam’s 2017 Anthology: the Complete Scores book.
“For some reason a couple of skinheads are up front, calling her [the N-word] And all of the sudden, Bell grabs a microphone stand and she starts swirling it around her head like a lasso… She swung that fuckin’ thing around her head and about the fourth time, she smashed that son of a bitch.”
Bam Bam’s sound straddled the line between punk and something so new that it didn’t have a name yet. Their music combined a driving, thrumming bass line; downtuned, sludgy guitars…