Fifth Column: The most important queer feminist band you haven’t heard of

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Last night I went to a screening of She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column, and I couldn’t be happier that I did. The documentary from director Kevin Hegge follows a Toronto-based all-female band that inspired so much of the music we love today.

So why have we never heard of Fifth Column?

Maybe you were lucky enough to have known of them, but after watching the film, I was shocked that I hadn’t. I consider myself fairly well versed in the areas of queer feminist music and visibility, so only learning about Fifth Column 32 years after they formed completely surprised me. But this is a shared sentiment of not only the filmmaker, but of many others interviewed for the film, including riot grrrl pioneer Kathleen Hanna. Fifth Column was riot grrrl before riot grrrl existed. They were called feminists and dykes as insults, and they loved it. They embraced those things. They embodied them. While only some of the band’s members were queer, they felt no need in explaining who was or wasn’t.

The band had several different members throughout their career but the constants were G.B. Jones (drummer), Caroline Azar (vocals) and Beverly Breckenridge (guitarist). G.B. and Caroline are both queer, and in She Said Boom, Caroline admits to had wanting to marry G.B. at one point, although at another, they were “glaring” at each other across a room. The documentary includes many other past band members, including out Ryerson University professor Kathleen Pirrie Adams who curated a large QueerOutlaw Cinema exhibit during the Toronto International Film Festival this year.

Fifth Column played psychedelic post punk, more shoegaze style than the fast and furious punk riot grrrl came to be known for. But their song fodder and album titles were staunchly feminist and queer, from their 1985 LP, To Sir With Hate, to their 1992 single “All Women Are Bitches.” The band felt like outsiders in both the punk and gay communities, commenting in the film that they were too queer for the machismo of mosh pits and not wanting to be a part of the assimilation that the LGBT movement was a part of at the time. These kinds of environments, which still exist today, prompted G.B. and Caroline and other friends in their scene to create films, zines and performance art that was coined Homocore, and later, Queercore.

Zines and touring brought Fifth Column new fans and connections in the ’90s, where Kathleen Hanna said she was able to see them play live for the first time. She said she knows exactly why her band Bikini Kill (who Kathleen notes were not as good of a band as Fifth Column) and other riot grrrl bands received more attention than Fifth Column did: They were straight. Or at least, it was perceived that Fifth Column was a lesbian band, and bands like Bikini Kill and L7 were feminists, but they still dated men. Fifth Column joked in interviews they were “bull dykes from Transylvania,” and made films about lesbian street punks in a skateboard gang. When they were asked not to play “All Women Are Bitches” during a live music performance on MuchMusic, they played it anyway. They have never been played on the network since.

Two other famous queer figures and friends of the band are included in She Said Boom: Vaginal Davis and filmmaker Bruce la Bruce. The latter was a longtime friend of the band. He was a co-worker of G.B.’s and Caroline’s at Just Desserts, and soon after meeting, he was go-go dancing for them during live shows and collaborating on their queer-themed zines and films. But after Bruce began getting recognized for his success and the others remained unnamed in interviews and other media coverage, their partnership crumbled. Despite their mutual admiration for each other’s work and the progress made for queer visibility and art, misogyny was still prevalent and gay men received more accolades than queer women would.

There’s no real discussion on the end of Fifth Column in She Said Boom. The band members simply went on to do their own creative works after not having the same ideas of success or creating a living in the music industry that was the grunge era of the mid-’90s and pop-driven tunes that followed toward the end of the decade. Fifth Column released three full albums in their career, their final effort on K Records with Donna Dresch (Team Dresch) playing on guitar.

It would have been great to see Donna or other queer punks from bands like Tribe 8 or The Need who were inspired by Fifth Column in She Said Boom, but the bandmates and friends who were included offered insight into their rightful place in history. Filmmaker Kevin Hegge said he was inspired to make the documentary after his frustration with Canada’s musical legacy being Neil Young and not much else. He couldn’t believe that no one had given Fifth Column their due, and so he decided to do it himself. (In this interview below, he talks more in depth about why he made the film and wants people to know about Fifth Column.)

Luckily, a band made up of film-obsessed artists means there is a lot of great video content and photographs from the time Fifth Column were together, and their music is essentially made to be a soundtrack. Their cinematic aesthetic lends itself perfectly to a documentary, and even their individual interviews are set up for each person to be a heightened “character” of themselves. G.B. is shot on a park bench at night, a light staring into her face while she smokes a cigarette, donning huge black sunglasses. Kathleen is on the top of a building, the city of Toronto behind her. Caroline sits in an ice cream shop that Kevin notes is famous in Canada.

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Sadly, the only way to see She Said Boom is to find it at a screening near you. As of now, there are no plans to distribute the doc, and Kevin said he never entered into the project to make money. He encourages anyone who wants to see it to “write to Fifth Column” and tell them you want to see it on DVD, VOD or some other way, joking they all need to get on the same “proprietary page.” I’d expect nothing less from a band like Fifth Column.

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