Live at S.I.R. (1981)
The Contractions held a unique position in the varied San Francisco punk scene in the early eighties, not just as one of the few all-girl bands, but more for the way they played. One moment they were playing straight-ahead rock'n'roll, a power-trio that brought to mind The Police -- Debbie a veteran drummer with jazz sensibilities, Kathy playing melodic bass lines on her Hofner, Mary with her Pete Townsend-windmill guitar moves -- then just when you thought you knew what you were listening to, the band became James Joyce and Link Wray wrapped into one, Mary singing poetry over slow, mesmerizing, watery guitar then tearing into a guitar solo worthy of Eric Clapton. Many fans loved their shows for that element of surprise, and for the chemistry that happened between them, a strange combination of elements that would sometimes surge up and seem almost out of control. The Contractions made magic on stage. Every show was new. In the context of louder-harder-faster that was punk rock, The Contractions could play it, but they could do more than just be loud, or fast, or hard. They embodied the best of rock'n'roll while infusing their music with poetics that bordered on performance art. The contrast between the performers' styles and images helped to create the tension in their triangle on stage, visually as well as musically. They stood out, and rapidly made their way through the clubs to be one of the top headliners of their day, playing to packed houses at The Mabuhay Gardens, the Deaf Club, Tool & Die, The Berkeley Square, and many other Bay Area venues. Had they been easy to categorize, less edgy and more straight-ahead pop, they probably would've had a more commercial career like girl-bands The Go-Gos or The Bangles. But they wouldn't have been The Contractions. They had far more to offer than what record companies could bottle up as girl-bands. It's hard to bottle up magic anyway, and it's dangerous stuff. The Contractions left behind two 45s and one LP, but it's their live recordings, stashed away by fans, remembered by many, that remain their legacy. You had to be there. But if you missed it, you can buy the CD.