"For a while I was bummed out about the fuss it caused because I was worried my mum would find out:" the story behind L7's Pretend We're Dead

L7 in November 1992
(Image credit: Gie Knaeps)

Named after the 1950s slang word for ‘square’, L7 were anything but dullards. Sporting flannel shirts, rainbow-coloured hair and combat boots, they looked suitably outlandish, and guitarist/frontwoman Donita Sparks was prone to Kurt Cobain/loose cannon-style high jinks (more of which later).

L7 were labelmates of Nirvana on both Sup Pop and the Warner Bros subsidiary Slash, who hooked them up with Butch Vig of Nevermind fame for their third album, Bricks Are Heavy, in 1992.

Because of those connections, a politicised, confrontational mindset and a sound heavily indebted to punk rock and hardcore, L7 got lumped in with the grunge movement (which they actually pre-dated), despite hailing from sun-kissed California and not rainy old Seattle.

Completed by guitarist Suzi Gardner and bassist Jennifer Finch (Dee Plakas would eventually become the group’s long-term drummer), their self-titled 1988 debut for Epitaph and 1990’s Sub Pop-issued Smell The Magic would both flop before their third and seemingly final shot.

The song that saved L7 from the scrapheap was written “in just a couple of minutes” by Donita Sparks following a painful relationship break-up. But she disguised the subject matter by tweaking the lyrics to address what she now calls “the apathy of the world”.

“I was heartbroken in my bedroom and found myself singing, ‘I just pretend that you’re dead’ – not in a mean or ugly way, more because I wanted the dude to vanish from my mind,” she explains. “But because Suzi would never have let me write a song like that, I made it sound more universal. It’s a very simple tune. There are no chord changes – it’s the vocal melody which makes it a little trippy.”

However, some of L7’s music came from a dark place. “As a band we’ve been through personality issues and drug problems,” claimed Jennifer Finch in 1992. “I don’t even think Guns N’ Roses could have lived through those.”

“We weren’t even necessarily friends, and because of that there was some… let’s just say ‘weirdness’ that I don’t want to elaborate on,” admits Sparks carefully.

But the band also had a self-deprecating wit. When one interviewer referred to L7 as “angry women”, Sparks insisted they should be called “humorous hags” instead.

They also had a strong connection with producer-of-the-moment Butch Vig. “His great set of ears enhanced the catchiness of our songs,” says Sparks, though she recoils when reminded that the results saw L7 labelled as ‘bubblegrunge’. “Some asshole journalist wrote that – a complete bee-atch,” she seethes.

However, Pretend We’re Dead, released in April 1992, soon began to climb America’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, and it peaked just outside the UK Top 20. Sparks, however, took a unique approach to promoting the song. 

Performing on Top Of The Pops went smoothly enough, but L7 were banned from UK TV soon after when an underwear-less Sparks randomly dropped her strides on Channel 4’s live show The Word. And it didn’t end there. To some, L7 are best remembered for Sparks removing her tampon at the 1992 Reading Festival and throwing it into the crowd. Sparks finds it “hilarious” that we’re still discussing this incident 24 years later.

“For a while I was bummed out about the fuss it caused because I was worried my mum would find out,” she admits. “Not that she’s a prude, because she isn’t, but she’d have been very disappointed in me. But now it’s almost become a piece of performance art. It crosses over into a lot of different areas of appreciation – or disdain. I get a kick out of both reactions.”

In 1991, L7 organised the first Rock For Choice concert, campaigning for the protection of women’s abortion rights. Some cynics soon wondered whether they were militants or musicians.

“Those were very different times,” concedes Sparks. “In the end we did step back from Rock For Choice, because it became all some interviewers wanted to talk about. Today we’re still as militant. In fact, we’re more pissed off than ever before. I’m so disgusted with the way things are in the world right now that all I care about are the environment and animals. People can go fuck themselves.”

L7’s career ground to a halt two years after their sixth album, 1999’s Slap‑Happy, failed to chart. There was no formal split, but the band remained on “semi‑permanent hiatus” until they began to receive offers to play Europe, including Download Festival in 2015 and 2019.

Pretend We’re Dead had served L7 well during their absence, by being used in various TV shows, movies and computer games, including Rock Band 2 and Grand Theft Auto.

“That song’s lifespan is amazing. But what also helped us was The Prodigy covering Fuel My Fire [on their UK and US No.1 album The Fat Of The Land]. Shitlist [the B-side of Pretend We’re Dead] has also held up pretty well, too. That one could also have been a hit, if it didn’t have the word ‘shit’ in it,” Sparks guffaws. “But had we left out that word it would have been half the song it turned out to be.”

“We’re feistier than ever, baby,” Sparks told Classic Rock in 2016, before addressing the future. “Further down the line should there be demand for new L7 material then perhaps we’ll make another album, but there are no solid plans. For now it’s still just for fun, so let’s just rock out."

The demand was there. A first new song in almost two decades, Dispatch from Mar-a-Lago – a not-so-sly dig at Donald Trumpwas released in 2017, and I Came Back to Bitch followed a year later. Finally, a new album, Scatter The Rats, emerged in 2019. And in 2022, L7 embarked on a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album that made it all possible, Bricks Are Heavy.    

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.