THE LINDA LINDAS & YEE LOI
The Linda Lindas- photo by Zen Sekizawa
Let The Kids Dance
by Alan Crandall
One night in December 2021, I was poking through YouTube, looking for I can't remember what, when a funny little video caught my eye. Two very young Asian girls, one about 10-11ish on vocals, and one about 12-13-ish on guitar, covering The Ramones "Danny Says" (an obscure favorite of mine), in what appeared to be a basement, with a drum machine backing and an overdubbed bass in the background.
As I watched the video (several times), and I got myself past the "these-are-just-little-kids" mentality, I began to notice/realize several things. The most obvious - these girls, neither of whom were even conceived when Johnny, Joey or Dee Dee were alive, certainly knew their Ramones (the choice of "Danny Says" is one not many would make). And they certainly had the look down - ragged jeans, sneakers, black leather jackets. The singer even had some of Joey's moves - the long-legged lunging stance - which looks pretty funny on someone who's literally probably less than half Joey's size. The older girl/guitarist likewise had Johnny's moves - the wide-legged stance, the jumps and spins, the guitar held up like a weapon.
But she also had something more. She really had Johnny's runaway train downstroke power chord down. Like down perfectly. And that's what I mean about getting past the mentality. At first it just seemed cute and funny, these two adorable little kids banging out a cover of a band that was dead and gone before they were even born. But what also quickly became clear was that they were doing a pretty decent job of it.
I would soon discover these two girls, who call themselves Yee Loi (Cantonese for "two girls", or so I'm told) are sisters. Mathilda (the younger one, who sings, and yes was about 10-11 at the time), and Rose (who plays guitar and yes was about 12-13 at the time) are Vietnamese/Chinese and residents of Liverpool. Yes, that Liverpool. And yes, they love the Ramones, and proto-punk in general, making them doubtless the Weirdest Kids in School, god bless `em.
They actually started posting videos about 4 years ago. Those earliest are cute and funny and awkward, with Rose scratching a guitar that probably outweighs her and Mathilda squeaking/shrieking like a speeding mouse. But within a year or so, they'd started finding their sea legs, even pulling off respectable covers (at least by the standards of two kids playing in a basement) of numerous Ramones songs, as well as "Paranoid" (though some other artists/songs - Pistols, Clash - were a bit too much for them to chew). But by the end of 2020, things had really fallen into place. Rose had not only mastered Johnny's guitar style, she'd surpassed it as can clearly be seen on any of the (many) videos they've released since. The girl can play. And she keeps getting better. Soon, this was followed by surprising versions of "Whiskey in the Jar" (Thin Lizzy) and Johnny Thunders' greatest song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory." And while songs about crime, sex and betrayal are doubtless way beyond the experience of what appear to be a pair of sweet suburban (barely) teens, and Thunders' defiant ode to self-loathing and hopeless failure comes from places I hope these kids never have to go to, Mathilda puts them across nicely - she sings quite well and puts as much feeling into them as one could reasonably expect her to muster for material more sophisticated than she could hope to be. And they have the sibling harmony thing going too. Hallelujah.
By last spring, they were ready to unleash an original single, a tribute to their mentor, "Be Like Johnny," an entirely credible track that more than does their idols proud. This was followed quickly by a full-on LP, No One Eats For Free, which is more than credible. It's damn good- cut-for-cut, it's more consistent than any Ramones album post-Road To Ruin, and honestly, cut-for-cut, superior to nearly all the later hit-or-miss Ramones LP's. Plus, they're pulling out from mere tribute territory, despite including "Be Like Johnny" and covers of "Blitzkrieg Bop" and "I Don't Wanna Grow Up" (which takes on a special sting coming from a child singer). The real highlights are the doomy "Hear Me Now", their manifesto "Fast and Loud," a cover of the MC5's "High School" which again takes on more meaning given the performers' age and smokes the 5's version (which I've always thought of as a bit of a throwaway and my buddy from Detroit who saw the '5 back in the day thinks so too), plus the Cheap Trick-ish "What's That Noise" and the proto-metal-ish "Lovelock."
This March, they released the single "Do Some Work," and it's a first-rate original with Rose's hottest guitar solo yet. The follow up EP Get Going shows them sticking to their guns, growing as writers, and Mathilda has morphed from little kid to young woman (okay, very young woman)- her voice has deepened, which clears a major roadblock for many potential listeners, and their recent videos show her to be an increasingly confident front girl. In true classic rock and roll band tradition, their videos show off two distinct personalities - Rose, serious and introverted; Mathilda, extroverted, loves the spotlight, and a bit of a flirt.
Meanwhile, back in the states...
As the Yee Loi girls were shooting their first amateur videos, 5000+ miles away in the Los Angeles area, another pair of sisters, who were also very young and also Asian, joined with a cousin and then a family friend to form a band, first bashing out some punk-ish covers (Bikini Kill) and within a short time, writing their own stuff. Releasing their first EP at about the same time YL was hitting their stride, and shooting a soon-to-be viral video of a gig in the Cypress Hill library right about the time No One Eats For Free was hitting the web/streets/airwaves. The Linda Lindas' story is already everywhere and probably anyone likely to read this has already heard them, or at least of them, and their story.
Correlated but not causal? What do these two groups have to do with each other? Arguably either not very much, or a whole lot.
Superficially, the resemblance is obvious. Both groups are Asian (3/4 of the Lindas are Asian-American), of the same age (not knowing exact birthdates, Rose is roughly the same age as the Lindas Lucia, and Mathilda is perhaps a year-plus older than Lindas drummer Mila, who turned 11 late last year). Both bands are made up of members with strong, visible personalities: Bela - serious artiste; Lucia -sweet, dreamy, sensitive; Eloise, the band's true punk-rock girl and extrovert extraordinaire, and drummer Mila who seems mature way beyond her years but also radiates an impishness that reminds me of Keith Moon, minus the derangement. And both are being referred to as "punk."
Their ethnicity is of course simply coincidental and/or simply reflects that Asians in the West want to rock out and have the freedom, and the means and the support, to do so. And in a truly just world, it would be irrelevant. But in a time when racism, especially against Asians, is very much on the rise, it becomes significant. "Punk has always been about justice. And with racism becoming more apparent, maybe it's time for people to get angry again" Lucia has said (smart girl). I can't even guess what threads of fate might have caused the spark to light in two such similar groups at the same time. I just don't believe in coincidence.
Their "ridiculous age" (thank you Rod) certainly makes both stand out as well, although there are a large number of pre-teen musicians who've posted to YouTube regularly over the years. But in fact, pre-teen performers have a long history in rock and roll, and especially punk, stretching from the Collins Kids (Larry Collins was an excellent guitarist and grew up to be a fine country songwriter) to L.A.'s Mad Society with then 10 year old singer Steven Metz (he was also said to be an item with Venus, the equally young singer of the New Wave-ish Unit 3), to Old Skull, the gang of 5th-grade skate rats who made a brief name for themselves at the end of the 80's (and whose story was covered in these very pages a number of years back). And there was also Hatha Watha, the 14-15 year-old budding Patti Smith who fronted the sadly obscure SoCal punk band Mood of Defiance. And let us not forget Tommy Stinson, bass hero extraordinaire, who was 13 when The Replacements' first recordings dropped.
As to their "punk"-ness, in Yee Loi's case their cred is without question as they continually flaunt their allegiance to the pantheon of '70's proto-punk and accessories - Stooges, Johnny Thunders, MC5, Pistols, and of course, The Ramones. The LL's bloodline to the classics is also clear - cited influences include Paramore, The Go-Go's, Blondie, Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, and they have the good taste to cover the criminally forgotten and underrated Muffs. But if "Racist Sexist Boy" isn't a Bangs-ian raw wail from the gut, I don't know what is. Also, bass player Eloise Wong's namechecks to The Buzzcocks, X and Mike Watt, and a recent photoshoot where the group posed in black leather jackets against a wall in imitation of the first Ramones album (also "Beat On the Brat" was covered in early rehearsals) suggests they have a fair idea of what side their bread is buttered on.
I also hear echoes of The Clash in the LL's 2020 single "Vote", the bam-balam chords that drive "Never Say Never" and the sudden thrust of guitars after Mila shouts "letsgo!" on "No Clue"; and a Westerberg-ian colloquialism-as-lyrical hook in the aforementioned "Never Say Never" ("for worse or for better"...). If much of their music leans more to the pop side of punk, well that's been part of the tradition since the day it started, and I don't expect a bunch of (barely) teen girls to come up with Raw Power or Damaged.
In proper punk tradition, both bands have so far eschewed writing about romance. For that matter, they have yet to have anything to say about even so much as boys (well, with one notable exception). One wonders when that will change. Instead, subject matter has been frustration in general, lack of time, privacy, tributes to heroes or musical manifestos, failures to communicate, dealing with living in a pandemic, hopes and dreams, not being heard by adults, and, of course, racist sexist boys.
So far, the Lindas' studio recordings have, to these ears, not quite captured their sound or spirit. Their live recordings (of which there are many on YouTube) are altogether harder, tougher, louder, rawer and more "punk" than most of their official recordings to date. Some of the tracks on their debut album veer dangerously close to the teen-pop Avril Lavigne territory, one hopes they will steadfastly avoid this in the future. Lucia's lyrics can sometimes sound like the schoolgirl verse of a bright 14-year-old. Since it happens that they ARE the schoolgirl verse of a bright 14-year-old, that seems quite reasonable to me. If there must be teen-pop, at least let it be as good as this. That their songs are devoid of cynicism, nihilism and despair will inevitably cause some to question their "punk" cred. Oh well. They've also eschewed orthodox punk visuals, instead adopting fashionable and feminine outfits. For me, their very girlie-ness is part of their originality and charm. Patti Smith and Joan Jett might have had to seize male rocker territory to be taken seriously in their time, but ever since Chrissie Hynde, female rockers have been free to go as masculine or feminine as they damn well please and still get their point across.
The other cred issue, inevitably arising, is one of how much adult influence is going into their music. The Linda Lindas are the nieces/daughters of successful record producers and L.A. punk/arts habitue. That this gives them an obvious leg up is without question (and they've never denied it). Yet I would remind any cynics out there that Rick Nelson had the assistance of his dad's extensive entertainment industry contacts, and financial resources, to help him put together a band, find good songs to record, get a contract and all-important TV exposure. Nelson also cut some of the best rock and roll sides of his era, and fronted one of its greatest bands. If all he'd done was introduce James Burton to the world, his place in rock and roll Valhalla would have been assured.
As musicians, there has also been no denial that all but Bela had next to zero experience with an instrument. Videos of early performances show a pretty shaky ensemble. But by 2021, their sound had grown tight and tough, especial kudos to Eloise's increasingly slamming bass and Mila's unflashy but solid drumming. Check out the recent video of them tearing through Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl" (a staple) and you'll see a band with nothing to apologize for, chops-wise. I've already talked about Yee Loi's progression above. If you keep at it, you get good at it.
There's also been no denial by either outfit that they discovered their musical roots thanks to their parents. Eloise Wong's father, whose long-running blog "By Martin Wong" includes plenty of info for some future archivist re: his daughter's taste in music. Like most parents, he exposed her to his favorites at an early age, fully expecting her to ultimately reject it as she hit her teens. Surprise! She embraced it fully and relentlessly. Similarly, the Yee Loi sisters took a shine to their dad's record (and guitar) collection. They've freely admitted that he has schooled them in rock and roll history, even giving them books to read about his favorite artists. I have no doubt that some of their cover choices were suggested. And while I admit a few of their lyrics seem wise beyond-their-years, to assume it impossible that the girls were 100% the authors of their own material would be a real insult to them, and to smart creative kids everywhere. In any case, I don't know, and I don't care. All great rock and roll bands got coaching somewhere along the way (George Martin to The Beatles, Peter Jesperson to The Replacements, etc..).
In other words, I neither know, nor care, how much influence the adults in their lives have on their music (though I am certain that neither group is mere puppets). I neither know, nor care, how authentically "punk" they are. And if they favor optimism over nihilism, that's fine with me.
I don't know if either group will go on to make some great rock and roll, though I hope they do, and the fact that they've got nearly a decade's head start on most rockers certainly ups their odds. But if they don't, both of them have already made some very good rock and roll. For which I am grateful. The tradition is in good hands.
Finally, I don't care whether a middle-aged music geek such as myself thinks Yee Loi or the Linda Lindas are "punk" enough or even any good doesn't mean much, given that I don't think I'm the audience for it anyway. I can watch, but never really participate. This is the new generation of rock and roll. And, like all new generations, it does not ask for permission or approval. Nor should it. "Can't you hear what I'm saying - this is my time, not yours!" snarls Mathilda on "Hear Me Now," in case anyone didn't get the point.
It is their time. Let the kids dance.
The Linda Lindas homepage
Yee Loi on Bandcamp
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