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Rubella Ballet: Ballet Bag (Album Review)

Dark Entries is a label that’s well-known for excavating gems from the deep caverns of alternative music history; polishing them up; and making them available to not only old-school fanatics, but also connoisseurs looking for the best new/old thing. In honor of Women’s History Month, the label has reissued 1981’s Ballet Bag, the cassette-only debut of punk band Rubella Ballet.

Rubella Ballet formed in 1979 and saw several lineup and musical changes until the band broke up in 1991 (only to reform again in 2000). On Ballet Bag, the band was comprised of singers Zillah Minx and Gem Stone (née Gemma Sansom), Sid Attion on drums, Andy on guitar, and Eugene on synths. An earlier incarnation of the band included Pete Fender (a.k.a. Gemma’s brother Dan Sansom). The mother of the Sansom siblings, Vi Subversa, was a founding member of Poison Girls, a band closely associated with anarcho-punk mainstays Crass.

While this connection to an already established band gave Rubella Ballet an entry point into the scene, it didn’t mean that they didn’t also have a strong DIY work ethic. All the artwork on Ballet Bag was hand-drawn and hand-printed by the band members; each copy was sold in a brightly colored plastic bag, which also included a lyric booklet, badge, and poster.

This was also representative of the band’s performance aesthetic. The Ballet Bag press release from Dark Entries notes that:

Zillah Minx created and designed ultraviolet hand painted day-glo clothes for the band and dyed their hair multicolored to differentiate themselves from the death rock bands who tended to wear black, army-surplus style clothing. For their psychedelic stage show they used nothing more than black lights, strobes, and a bit of smoke to illuminate the band.”

According to a Listen and Understand blog post from October 2011, the band’s penchant for doing things their own way caused some friction between its members and those of Crass:

Due to Crass’s drummer Penny Rimbaud telling Sid that he should do more drum rolls, Rubella Ballet refused their [sic] single that was being offered to them on Crass Records. However, the main reason why they didn’t want to release a single with Crass was because they did not want to be told how to sound and didn’t want to have the same black and white sleeve that all the other bands were getting. They wanted to do everything the way they wanted to, with a color sleeve.”

This streak of defiance also extends to the band’s music. The songs on Ballet Bag are politically pointed arrows, aimed straight at the heart of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Musically, they feature the chewy bass lines that define so much of ‘70s punk along with the genre’s minimalist song structures. Minx’s vocals are often reminiscent of Join Hands-era Siouxsie and the Banshees while Attion’s tribal drumming sometimes approaches early Adam and the Ants. What makes Rubella Ballet stand out from the pack is their willingness to confront difficult topics, such as terrorism and feminism, with fearlessness.

“Emotional Blackmail” contains sardonic, incendiary lyrics: “Come over and see me / we’ll have some tea / I’ll slit my wrists / It’ll add another twist.” The ubiquitous presence of “The Troubles” forms the basis for “Belfast,” which presents things from the point of view of a child; “Help me, Mommy” is repeated over and over above the song’s fast, staccato rhythms. “A Dream of Honey” mocks those people who fantasize about stardom but don’t have the talent to pull it off, a sentiment that seems astonishingly contemporary in this current climate of people clamoring to be Internet famous.

The lumbering opening riff of “Newz at 10” feels like the precursor to the death rock subgenre, but one can also see the beginnings of hardcore punk in its melodic structure. Lines like “spewin’ out their crap again” and “the stupid morons, at it again” may have been written in the late ‘70s but are just as applicable now.

“Me” asserts the self-worth of a person who has had everything—music, clothing, parents, identity— taken from them. The word “me” is repeated with reverb flourishes between verses as a reminder of what exactly is at stake. “Now you’ve left me to die / the final flesh / you stole my life.”

There is a definite proto-Goth timbre in the heavy bassline and synth swirls at the beginning of “Slant and Slide,” appropriate for the song’s stark subject matter, which compares witch trials to Cold War-paranoia.

Now the atom bomb is here
Everyone can live in fear
Burning anyone isn’t so difficult
A slant and a slide and now we have nowt
Bright light, death dust, it’s a double dare.”

“Blues” incorporates Minx’s yelping vocalizations along with samples detailing the side effects of drug use, both of which render the track closer to the contemporaneous electronic music underground than anything from the punk scene. The squelchy keyboards and rolling drumbeats of “Exit” solidify the band’s strong musical style and boast lyrics that would make Emily Dickinson blush: “In the fields there they lay / are they enjoying their longest holiday … death is fine / but suicide a crime.” The disco funk of “Krak Trak” could fit nicely on a mix tape next to Gang of Four’s “To Hell With Poverty.” Its lyrics are sheer nihilism: “I found new things to please him with / to try and win his love / but now I start to realize / he has no love to win.”

After the release of Ballet Bag, Rubella Ballet recorded another EP featuring the single, “Ballet Dance,” which was released in 1982 on the Xntrix Records label. Listen and Understand remarks that “it shot into the Indie top ten and led to two John Peel Sessions on July 6th, 1982, and February 8th, 1983.” It’s not hard to imagine why: it has heavy glam overtones, á la The New York Dolls, and a guitar solo! The Peel Sessions on the Ballet Bag reissue retain the band’s signature style, but also showcase their burgeoning talent.

Ballet Bag is an exciting document of a tumultuous time, with music and lyrics that feel like a call to arms. In these current tumultuous times, Rubella Ballet’s music is both relevant and revelatory.

Ballet Bag was reissued on 27th March 2017 from Dark Entries. The release includes a scan of the original lyric booklet and two postcards with never-before-seen-photos. In addition, 15% of all proceeds will be donated to Planned Parenthood.

Bibliography:
“Rubella Ballet.” Listen and Understand. https://anarchoscene.blogspot.ca/2011/10/rubella-ballet.html. Accessed March 30, 2017.

About Less Lee Moore

Less Lee Moore fell in love with weird music and movies during countless hours spent watching Night Flight and listening to college radio as an impressionable teenager. She is the founder of Popshifter, and also writes for Rue Morgue, Everything Is Scary, Biff Bam Pop, Modern Horrors & more. She has a degree in Film Studies from UCSB and a Hannibal tattoo.

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