Bikini Kill last unleashed their riotous rallying cry in Glasgow back in 1996, making tonight’s appearance rarer that Scotland’s inclusion in the EUROs…just. But while Scotland pussyfoot around the pitch in the opening match of the championships in Germany, Bikini Kill go full throttle, rampaging through an abrasive set seeped in passion and punk, fury and fun at the city’s O2 Academy.  

Of course, the band’s shows have always been about more than just the music, Kathleen Hanna, Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox relentless in their drive to see feminism make its mark on the punk scene of the early ‘90s, Hanna getting an early taste of what was to come when the male ‘virtuosos’ in her after-school guitar class laughed their cotton socks off at her well-rehearsed Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star guitar solo. Bikini Kill soon became trailblazers, fighting against the sexism and abuse that had plagued their lives and the music industry, misogyny pretty much ‘accepted’ by society, many moons before the rise of the #MeToo movement. They laid out their original ideology in the Riot Grrrl Manifesto, published in the band’s second zine in 1991, entitled Girl Power. Before long, the noise surrounding the cause began permeating other industries, something I remember well as I built my first website in 1996 under the backdrop of the Web Grrrl movement, which helped women network and find jobs relating to that newfangled internet thingy, unsurprisingly an area which was already being dominated by men. But the Riot Grrrl movement still lingers, and the band themselves celebrate not just feminism but inclusivity and justice, with Vail sending a message of outrage, hope and support to Gaza tonight.

As the trio storm the stage, complete with touring guitarist Sara Landeau (the band’s original guitarist Billy Karren never returning after their 2017 reunion), Hanna quips “I wasn’t sure if anyone was going to show up”. But football’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind in the O2 Academy tonight, the screams summing up the mood of the crowd as the band launch into a rollicking attack of New Radio, Hanna’s syrupy vocals mutating into gloriously deranged snarls as she punches out her dance moves like she’s singing into a hairbrush in her bedroom. Decked out in a pink sparkle-topped puffball frock, she’s the twrrrling antithesis of the pirouetting ballerina on those musical jewellery boxes that used to freak me out as a child. She’s joyful and angry, the perfect mix for revving up the crowd, engaging with everyone from the outset, the mosh pit churning as a stripy-legged being is carried above a sea of heads while the band hurl numbers from their two studio albums, ’93’s Pussy Whipped and ’96’s Reject All America, and ’91 demo Revolution Girl Style Now.

When Bikini Kill first started touring, their gigs were meant to be a safe haven but sadly some people couldn’t accept the audacity of a bunch of punk girls asserting their opinions and values, and they regularily faced a backlash, the mood often soured but their message never muted. Thankfully, today the tables have turned and they sell out venues much bigger than first time round (the band splitting in 1997), their legacy applauded, resulting in a whole new wave of fans. Tonight the crowd is predominantly young, Bikini Kill’s ethos a shining light for so many, their messages more relevant than ever.

From time to time drummer Vail takes over the vocals, Hanna moving on to bass, and Wilcox switching to drums, and I can’t help but wonder how this would all have panned out had Vail not turned down Kurt Cobain’s offer to become Nirvana’s drummer, her desire to be part of this feminist band too strong to resist. Would Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters still be selling out stadiums right now? Of course that’s not their only link to Nirvana, Hanna, a close friend of Cobain’s before the band hit the big time, scrawling the words “Kurt smells like teen spirit” on his wall after a drunken night out, referring to a can of deodorant they’d spotted in a store earlier that day (the better choice over ‘Kurt is keeper of the kennel’, something also scribbled that night). He even asked her permission before naming the iconic song, his love and respect for Hanna clear. This is the sort of story that Hanna’s recently released memoir, Rebel Girl, brings to life, and as intimate and traumatic aspects of her life unfold with a dignity and wryness not many could maintain, she also reveals the musicians who set her on her own musical journey, such as the Go-Go’s, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, Viv Albertine of the Slits, Babes in Toyland and Fugazi

A million miles from the sanitised, polished pop that rules the mainstream airwaves, tonight’s numbers are raw and unforgiving, Hanna and Vails’ vocals becoming stronger as the night goes on, their rage growing more visceral, offset nicely with their cheerful banter. Poor Vail grapples with our representation of American food as “a hot dog in water in a jar” after spotting such a specimen at an earlier trip to a local shop, even dedicating Tell Me So to the forlorn hotdog. Aw, poor wee sausage. 

With the set drawing to a close, you can almost taste Hanna’s revolt on Lil’ Red, a personal number reflecting on the ultimate betrayal, and by the time she introduces last number Suck My Left One, named after something her older sister used to say to guys who harassed her, she’s overcome with emotion, telling us that she no longer speaks to her “Trump supporter” sister, adding sadly “but she used to be my hero”. 

Of course, there’s only one song required for the encore, Rebel Girl, Bikink Kill’s triumphant 1993 anthem, which Hanna dedicates to all the feminists in the house before reminding us to expel hatred and instead use that energy to make art, spend time with love ones and congratulate each other when we do a good job. Rebel Girl is simply massive tonight, the goofy ‘60s rally cry of “That girl thinks she’s the queen of the neighbourhood / I got news for you, she is!” fusing with a deliciously discordant punk-charged riot, the crowd singing every word back to the band. Great job!

It’s an evening that will not only linger in the memories of the older members of the audience who remember the ‘90s first hand, but for the new intake of fans, aware that they’re experiencing something special and clearly enthralled by the queens of the neighbourhood. Never stop believing, grrrls.

And if you’re looking for some summer holiday reading, Rebel Girl: My Life as a Feminist Punk by Kathleen Hanna is out now.

Words: Shirley Mack @musingsbymarie
Pictures: Calum Mackintosh@ayecandyphotography