The Donnas - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Formed while all the members of the band were still in the eighth grade together, The Donnas have gone on to be one of the most popular all-female bands in the 1990’s and 2000’s. Though they started out as punky upstarts very much influenced by the Ramones, they have matured into an almost straight metal band that takes it’s stylistic cues from such bands as AC/DC and early Motley Crue and Van Halen.
All of the members of The Donnas, vocalist Brett Anderson, drummer Torry Castellano, bassist Maya Ford, and guitarist Allison Robertson, were born in 1979, and all grew up in the Northern California city of Palo Alto. The girls were all big music fans, and decided in their early teens that they would learn instruments and form a band together. Originally calling themselves Ragady Anne, the group practiced cover songs by the likes of R.E.M. and such female-positive forebearers as L7, the Muffs, and Shonen Knife, and played at a battle of the bands competition at their junior high school just a month after forming. The band soon went on to high school, and practiced almost everyday in the Castellano family garage. Under the sway of the riot grrrl movement, the band started sounding much more punk rock, though they shied away from the politics most of the riot grrrl bands espoused. As Ragady Anne, the group released a single on the tiny Radio Trash label in 1995, but soon after changed their name to the Electrocutes, and started to take on an image that was more trashy and took advantage of the fact that the band consisted entirely of teenage girls. The group played around the Bay Area in clubs that would allow them to play, and were spotted at one of their gigs by Darin Raffaelli, a former member of trash-punk band Supercharger and the owner of the small record label Radio X. Raffaelli had written some loud and fast punk songs, very much in the style of the Ramones, that he was looking for an all-female band to perform. The members of the Electrocutes agreed to be the band that would perform his songs, but their image didn’t quite fit in with what Rafaelli had in mind, so he and the Electrocutes came up with the idea of becoming an alter-ego band, The Donnas. Like the Ramones, the band members would all share the band name, though in the case of The Donnas, they would all take on the first name Donna and add their last initial to distinguish themselves. Thus Anderson became Donna A., Robertson became Donna R., Ford became Donna F., and Castellano became Donna C. By the end of 1995, the Electrocutes were starting to play shows as The Donnas, and released their first single as The Donnas, “High School Yum Yum”, the same year on Radio X. Two more singles followed in 1996, “Let’s Go Mano” and “Da Doo Ron Ron”, the second on Rafaelli’s new label, Super*Teem. Even though the band was easing into their new personas as The Donnas, they recorded an album in 1996 as the Electrocutes, titled Steal Your Lunch Money, that wasn’t released until 1998, on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label. After that, the band fully became The Donnas, and recorded and released their debut album, simply titled The Donnas (Super*Teem/Lookout) in 1997, featuring songs written by Raffaelli. The group garnered interest in underground rock and punk circles, usually trading on the novelty of being a teenage all-female rock band playing four-on-the-floor punk rock very much in the style of the Ramones. After gaining interest in the band, many people started to question the Svengali-type role Raffaelli was playing in the band’s career, and little by little both Raffaelli and the band started to distance themselves from each other. Following the release of The Donnas, the group toured, and even took a week off during their senior year of high school to tour in Japan.
After the girls graduated from high school, they postponed going to college when they were offered a recording contract with legendary Bay Area punk label Lookout Records. The group released their debut with the label, American Teenage Rock 'n' Roll Machine, in early 1998. By this point, Raffaelli was almost completely out of the picture, though he did lend the band some uncredited help with songwriting for the album. Now with a raised profile and better distribution from being on Lookout, the band became even more popular, and garnered more press reviews and were even featured on MTV. The group's next effort, 1999's Get Skintight (Lookout), was the first time the band had composed all of the songs without any outside help, and was the first album where the group's love for vintage heavy metal started to come through in their sound. The same year The Donnas appeared in two teen movies, Jawbreaker and Drive Me Crazy, the latter movie as their now-alter ego band, the Electrocutes. The group was now clearly more in control of their own sound, and the band continued their drift towards a sound that was more vintage metal than punk on their 2001 release, The Donnas Turn 21 (Lookout), which included a cover version of the Judas Priest classic “Living After Midnight”. The group was certainly trading on the ironic novelty of young women playing a brand of rock that was often called “cock rock”, but it worked for them and continued to attract the band more attention and fans. The Donnas were now selling in big enough numbers that they were starting to attract the attention of the major labels, and in 2001, the group signed on with Atlantic Records. Released amid an avalanche of publicity from Atlantic, The Donnas major label debut, Spend The Night (2002), was their first album to reach the Top 100 on the U.S. album charts, largely from the strength of their single and video from the album, “Take It Off”. The band spent over a year and a half on the road touring and promoting the record, and so took some time off after returning to California before starting work on a follow-up. The group pretty much dropped all of any remaining punk influence on their next record, the highly-produced 2004 release Gold Medal (Atlantic). The group also dropped their “Donna” pseudonyms, and started using their own names. Through mutual agreement, the band decided to leave Atlantic in 2005, and set up their own independent label, Purple Feather, to release their material in the future. Returning back to the heavier sound of their beloved vintage/hair metal, the group released the album Bitchin' (Purple Feather) in late 2007, and supported it with touring through 2008. At last date, The Donnas are working on a retrospective album, compiling b-sides and hard to find songs from their back catalog along with re-recorded versions of early songs and a few new songs as well.