A Conversation with G.B. Jones: The Foremother of Queercore & Riot Grrrl

Photo by Tobaron Waxman

The Queercore movement did not originate in San Francisco, or in Oregon, but in a small apartment at Queen and Parliament in Toronto. In 1985, G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce created a queer punk zine called J.D.s, which stood for Juvenile Delinquents, James Dean, and J.D. Salinger. Fusing B-movie aesthetics with bootlicking fetishes and cheeky polemics, J.D.s was known for depicting a homo punk paradise where punk rock and queerness were not mutually exclusive, inspiring future queercore zines like S.C.A.B. (Society for the Annihilation of Breeders) and Fanorama, among others.

That same year, G.B. Jones’s all-female post-punk band Fifth Column released their debut LP, To Sir with Hate, which was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize and became so influential that it spawned entire movements, Queercore punk and Riot Grrrl among them. Kathleen Hanna considers herself one of Fifth Column’s most ardent champions, and fellow queercore pioneer Vaginal Davis called them “sirens, [ready to] call you out and destroy your ship.”

According to political science scholars Harris Mylonas and Scott Radnitz, “fifth columns” are groups known as “domestic actors who work to undermine the national interest, in cooperation with external rivals of the state.” And when we consider the fact that queer people have always been (and still are) treated as second-class citizens or viewed as “enemies of the state” by our oppressors, the band couldn’t have picked a more fitting name. Fifth Column’s raison d’être was to undermine the status quo at all costs.

This radical ethos has always been at the core of G.B. Jones’s work. As a unit, Fifth Column were brash and uncompromising to a point where punk communities, the music industry at large, and even fellow queer people feared them. In addition to music, Jones has used every artistic medium she could get her hands on to fight against the “assimilationist and bourgeoisie” gay mainstream, including Super 8 films, zines, and visual artwork like Tom Girls, a feminist lesbian take on Tom of Finland. She also starred in the 1991 feature film, No Skin off My Ass, which was reported to be Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie.

A Grrrl’s Two Sound Cents caught up with G.B. Jones to discuss her legacy in the art world, her most recent creative endeavors, and her reflections on the queercore pantheon and why it’s still relevant today.

How did you first get into playing music, and what kind of records did you have in heavy rotation?

I was always a music fan from a young age and was in the choir at school performing Canadian folk songs. I never had enough money to buy records when I was a little kid, but luckily my Uncle was very involved in the folk music community and was an A&R person, so he got lots of free records from the label which he’d bestow on us, so I listened to folk musicians like Peter, Paul, & Mary singing songs like “If I Had A Hammer” by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, “500 Miles” by Hedy West, and all the protest songs of that time. That was really the foundation of my musical education. It all added up to the impression I had of a changing world that was out there somewhere if only I could find it. I got as far as my cousins’ basement which was the neighbourhood teen hangout, and we would watch the teen dance shows, practice our moves and read Teen Beat and 16 Magazine, which is where I first heard about The Cowsills, who I adored. At school I would hide in the library listening to all the electronic music LPs, like Switched On Bach and then go home and watch H.R. Pufnstuf and The Partridge Family. By the time I was 14 I finally had enough money to buy records and got the first Velvet Underground and Nico album that I listened to everyday, but every weekend I’d be at clubs featuring Soul music like Stevie Wonder, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with Teddy Pendergrass, The Pointer Sisters, The Temptations, First Choice, The Four Tops, The Three Degrees, Creative Source, and Northern Soul like Babe Ruth from the UK, so that was an entirely new musical education.

In hindsight, it’s not suprising that all my friends were always hanging out listening to albums for hours when they weren’t at concerts or record shops. I started hanging out at the record store where my friend Wendy King worked. She was in a band with How’rd Pope and Peter Morgan called Bunny and the Lakers, and for one year we were all inseparable and I ended up becoming a Laker too. This was Peter’s project and it was an amalgamation of synth punk, lounge music, musique concrete and experimental sounds. Bunny and the Lakers released one album, Numbers, and played one “’live” show, which was really performance art with our taped songs. We’d hang out together, take polaroids, and listen to all the more experimental synth-based bands of the period. With Fifth Column, we would have little record parties after every practice, with everyone bringing the latest single, album or 8 track they’d discovered and we’d hang out together listening, reading the music press and discussing it all, everything from Throbbing Gristle to The Slits, to Nico, The Au Pairs, Lydia Lunch, to Henry Cow. Then, when the band were all living together, Caroline and I had soundtracks on the record player playing everyday. With Opera Arcana, our music of choice was the much maligned Adult Contemporary genre.

What was the creative process like (writing songs, recording, mastering, performing) for Fifth Column?

We were very fortunate to live in the city at a time when you could rent a house, a loft, a storefront, even a garage and be able to spend a lot of time writing and practising. That’s how we were able to develop our musical concepts in depth and with complexity. Sadly, these days it’s impossible to do that in a large city unless you have very rich parents, which is why I’m thinking that new musical ideas are going to be coming from small towns and rural areas in the future.

Nowadays musicians have access to recording equipment via their computers, so almost all music you hear is electronic. We played instruments, so we had to go to a studio. Recording and producing is a constant ongoing learning process; for Fifth Column, it was often frustrating because our musical ideas were outside the parameters of what was conventional at that time, and it was difficult to communicate them to sound people and producers. We had to acquire technical knowledge, understand the equipment and the studio process. I think the most exciting aspect were the discoveries in the studio that we couldn’t do live but that we could use to bring out hidden dimensions in our songs; overdubbing, unusual instruments, bringing in other musicians, sound effects, backwards vocals, subliminal messages, we tried so many different ideas and effects.

As far as performing, personally I have had a love/hate relationship to it, but no one is asking me to get up on a stage so there’s no need to worry about it!

What was the most fun part of getting to write and perform music? 

There were so many aspects that encouraged us to keep going. Touring was hard work but to be able to meet so many people, play with fantastic musicians, and connect with different scenes across Canada and the USA was incredible and, I think, vital and energizing, it gave us the impetus to continue. Playing in clubs, bars, the theatres, basements, storefronts, and all-ages events across two countries while introducing audiences to really radical ideas and concepts was sometimes challenging – I mean, yes, fights broke out at different events, heckling and yelling was an on-going challenge, we were threatened, sneered at, and spit on but we knew we had to do it. There needed to be feminist queer women on stage playing music that people could see and hear; the most exciting thing for me was to watch the ripple effects of our playing, recording and touring slowly infiltrate the culture and see a new community emerge as a result.

Today we are continuing to have these complex conversations on and offline about queer liberation and feminist-minded music that you were pioneeing back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was wondering how it makes you feel to see so many young, outspoken queer bands (G.L.O.S.S., Dream Wife, Tacocat, Big Joanie, etc.) and visual artists continuing to carry the torch today? 

I think it was about 5 years after Fifth Column broke up and all of a sudden things began changing and a totally new queer music scene emerged in Canada with The Hidden Cameras, and Kids On TV, and other bands in Toronto, and Lesbians On Ecstasy in Montreal. I went to all their shows, became friends with them, and worked with these bands, and it was amazing to see such a vibrant queer music scene flourishing for about a decade. So for me, it’s been a continuum since Fifth Column, and I’d urge other people to look for this kind of continuation of a queer presence in music or film or art. So of course I love seeing these new young queer bands carrying on this work, because I think it’s vital. At this present time, Queer people do have more rights and laws in our favour, but the truth is that they can disappear overnight. And we’re fortunate, we live in one of the few countries in the world where it’s been possible to agitate, demonstrate, fight for, and eventually pass such laws. The majority of the people in the world don’t live in countries like ours.

What was it like for you–as an outspoken musician who didn’t shy away from activism–having to navigate the tumultuous climate of the music industry?

It was a constant fight from the very beginning. I mean, it would really take a book to discuss all the various aspects of the music industry that I was opposed to and criticized. Looking for alternatives, as a band, one of the things Fifth Column did was to start a zine and our own label and put out compilation cassettes and albums. I think that’s a good place to start if you’re looking for more autonomy; you can’t wait for someone else to make a career for you, you’ve got to learn to do it yourself!

You are largely considered a proto-riot grrrl and pre-queercore pioneer by many people. How does it make you feel that so many people think of you this way?

I’ve worked on many different projects. In presenting work to the public, you quickly learn not to take it for granted if there is interest! I don’t take it for granted.

I also wanted to say that I absolutely love your Tom Girl drawings and how they take a queer art staple and re-imagine it through a feminine gaze. Was that your intention when making them?

Thank you! I first conceived of the Tom Girls to include in J.D.s zine, which I was modelling after a little soft-core Gay magazine from the 50s and early 60s called Physique Pictorial which had photos of the stars of the editors’ Super 8 films, short articles, and drawings by Tom of Finland. I wanted to elevate our  history, but at the same time to critique it, expand it, and bring it up to date. The Tom Girls presented an amazing opportunity for the creation of new images that could be contrasted with the original drawings of men, and with that, the contrast in the ideology behind the different sets of drawings. At that time, erotic art and pornography was not thought of as having ideological underpinnings and it was important to bring that to the fore. However, it wasn’t easy and stores refused to carry J.D.s because of the Tom Girls, and they were banned and seized at the border. But they stayed alive underground, passed from hand to hand and in the mail in the early days, more recently appearing on alternative culture websites, and are slowly infiltrating the culture.

People often seem to forget that queerness is intrinsically linked to the roots of punk, and I love how you brought that to light with your music, films, and with J.D.s. What is the most important part about queer community, queer liberation, art, and the intersection therein, to you? 

Queerness is intrinsically linked to the roots of almost everything. I mean, the history is there to be discovered by anyone who cares to do the research. Whether it’s in the fields of music, literature, art, film, or computers, you’ll always find Queer people firmly situated in the development of these disciplines. I wanted to highlight how Queer history intersected specifically with Punk, with Experimental Film, and with Zines. That history should be important to all of us, because once it begins to be told, once we’re not invisible anymore, it’s going to be that much more difficult for our enemies to pretend we don’t exist.  

What are some exciting things you’re working on right now to watch out for? 

Thanks for asking! Out now is Mephisto’s House of Ill Repute, the new film by Selene Kapsaski, which my band Opera Arcana did the soundtrack for, so look for it at film festivals! The compendium book about my art, named for me and released in the 1990s by Feature Gallery, then seized at the border and banned in Canada, is being re-released by Kunstverein Toronto in August. An exhbitiion of my work will open along with the publication of the book at my gallery, Cooper Cole, at 1134 Dupont St., Toronto, from August 6 to September 10. Also, I’ve been drawing everyday for a new book on witches that’s being released by Impulse B. It will feature essays by Paul P., Jena Danchuk, Caroline Azar, and Scott Treleaven as well as 30 new drawings I’ve done of your favourite real and fictional witches.


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