In 1983, the Seattle band Bam Bam, fronted by a talented, elegant Black woman named Tina Bell, created a sound and lyrical foundation for a genre that white men with knit hats and plaid shirts would later make famous as “grunge.” Bell was backed by husband Tommy Martin and lifelong friend Scott Ledgerwood (“Scotty Buttocks”). Jen B. Larson digs deep into the archives to give Tina Bell, who died in 2012, her props as the uncrowned “Queen of Grunge.”
All images via Buttocks Productions
In a 2015 episode of Welcome to the D, Jack Endino and Chris Hanzsek– the acclaimed godfathers of grunge– weigh in on the early Seattle sound during an hour-long episode. They list off seminal bands in the scene such as The Accused and Green River. In a moment of uncertainty, Jack names the band Bam Bam, but then concedes, “No one’s gonna remember Bam Bam!” A photo of the band flashes on the screen; a stunning, young short-haired Black woman stands among an entourage of three mischievous, goofball guys– one of whom is Matt Cameron, eventual drummer of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Jack and Chris concur, “but they’re part of Seattle’s history.” The men nod in agreement and enthusiastically switch gears to discussing another little-known band named Dismal and noting Green River’s connection to Pearl Jam.
When people peel back layers of music history in every city in every beloved genre, they unearth artifacts from underground scenes that allow us to draw new conclusions about the origins of familiar styles. It’s an age-old revelation that the symbolic artists of a particular genre are not the sound’s sole innovators; there are always original masterminds below the surface, uncredited creators whose lives, work, or experiences inspired the cause. Archivists, record-collectors, and ephemera-keepers hold the most evidence of the past and are always on the hunt for new relics. Some discoveries don’t come easy, though– especially when artists’ narratives are never properly chronicled or if their work is deeply buried.
It’s more than time to crown Tina the Queen of Grunge, and not as a woke PR move, but because it’s the Truth.
You probably already know the cultural reproach to some extent, but did you know that before Nirvana, before Alice in Chains, before Stone Temple Pilots, a Black woman fronted (what is likely) the first grunge band? If not, the reason you wouldn’t know that is in no way your fault; the story has been kept off the record and out of print.
It is not a coincidence that in rock, R&B, and jazz (to name a few genres), Black women, often uncredited for decades, stand at the helm. In general, in most histories, women’s participation has been disregarded from the get-go or cut from the narrative after-the-fact. Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past.
The motif is especially apparent for Black women.
In 1983, singer Tina Bell contributed foundational material for the earliest incarnations of a genre white men with knit hats and plaid shirts made famous when she co-founded the forgotten post-punk, proto-grunge and sludge metal Seattle band, Bam Bam, with her husband Tommy Martin and lifelong friend Scott Ledgerwood (“Scotty Buttocks”). Bam Bam was christened when Tina Bell and Tommy Martin combined their surnames into an acronym (Bell And Martin). The two had met a few years earlier when Tina answered an ad for a French tutor to help her with the lyrics of “C’est Bon Si” for a production by the Langston Hughes Theater with Mt. Zion Baptist Church. They married, had a son named T.J. (who won an Oscar in 2012 for co-directing the documentary Undefeated), and naturally, formed a rock band– the order of events is up for debate.
BAM BAM “GROUND ZERO”:
Bam Bam began as a three-way union among Tommy Martin’s lecherous guitar scales and Scott Ledgerwood’s thunderous bass strokes, both submerged under Tina Bell’s polished delivery of transcendental poetic doom. The documentation of Bam Bam (their recordings, photos, and videos) capture the essence of the band every punk wish existed. The irony is… they did exist, loudly, while everyone looked the other way.
As evidenced in videos captured at the time, her presence as a front person was striking, moving, and energetic. Over email, Scotty told me, “Tina had an inspirational aura about her that was absolutely regal, but without arrogance. Even when she was ‘raging’ on stage, her movement was so fluid and graceful. She had such confidence on stage; I’d feed off her strength. If a crowd didn’t know us or respond well, she’d lead us on with more ferocity!”
In the song “Ground Zero,” from the album Free Fall From Space, Bell croons over a chugging bass line and vicious arpeggios, “Faced with opposition from mankind, that’s not kind,” and later, “we’ve got to run from this beach while we can, don’t want to be a dead hero.” In the song “World of Your Future,” from the same album, she roars, “I’ve got to break out! I want not to break down. Held judged against the fires of sin, I’ve been singed, but not quite destroyed!”
Though a precursor to the grunge movement (and one who outlasted other early bands), Bam Bam, is hardly recognized even by music highbrows or historians. In Catherine Strong’s 2011 essay Grunge, Riot Grrrl and the Forgetting of Women in Popular Culture, a critique of the invisibility of women in grunge, Bam Bam are not even named. For context, after several years of exploring women in early punk, I had never come across Bam Bam until my friend (a righteous record collector) recently mentioned them to me. I spent weeks researching Bam Bam and Tina’s legacy (strangely, there isn’t much on the Internet) and talking with her ex-bandmate Scotty, who has archived press for the band on his website.
Turns out, in the ‘80s, Bam Bam performed at big Seattle fests, shared bills with popular bands, created videos that made it to TV, and were twice-honored as Best NW Band by listeners of KCMU/KEXP. Although they were dedicated, fiery, and played to big crowds who loved them, the scene didn’t want to embrace them. There may be more than one answer to this, but more than certainly…
The story of Bam Bam and their fierce front lady Tina Bell has been slighted more than once.
In the book Everybody Loves Our Town: A History of Grunge, subjects recollect Bam Bam as a “three-piece,” entirely leaving out Tina Bell. In 2015, a Wikipedia entry on Tina Bell was reported for “a lack of sources” and deleted on Christmas Day.
Toying with off-kilter timings and slow, sludgy rhythms nearly ten years before the Seattle sound hit the mainstream, Bam Bam not only provided reference material for the movement, they were the first Seattle band to lay down tracks at Reciprocal Recording– the location of Nirvana’s famous demo session for songs featured on Bleach and Incesticide. C/Z Records, a label established by recordings from the studio, courted the band while they demoed their songs with Chris Hanzsek and Tina Casale. You can see Casale dancing up front on Bam Bam’s video “Stress.”
Evidently, the “right people” had heard them, enjoyed them, and even recorded them! The Melvins even opened for them when Kurt Cobain went on tour as their roadie! The band’s recordings are solid, they’re attractive and talented, with a bombshell lead singer, so, why wasn’t Bam Bam included on Deep Six, the 1986 C/Z Records Seattle showcase compilation that featured Reciprocals’ early grunge recordings?!?!?
Sadly Tina, who fronted Bam Bam until 1990, died in 2012. So, although she isn’t here to share her memories or feelings, people close to her continue to fight for visibility of her legacy. “Fight for” might even be an understatement. Scotty actually risked his life in 2017 to save Bam Bam’s master recordings from a house fire (a story for another day).
Recognizing social and political motivators for the collective gatekeeping of Tina’s work, he adeptly points to racism and misogyny as probable suspects. “America was certainly fucking not ready for a Black girl up front in a hard band let alone as a media sweetheart no matter how gorgeous she was,” Scotty laments. “As far as Bam Bam being suppressed? There’s probably several reasons, but race and gender clearly played a major role. The continued reluctance by Seattle to accept her is maddening. Part of it is people are uncomfortable around the race issue… it’s like ‘kill the messenger’ when I try to talk to folks about it.”
He says exhaustedly, “So yeah I’m pissed and puzzled by it all.”
What confuses me most is: Not to mention Tina’s talent and beauty, how can anyone miss the significance of a Black woman fronting a hard rock band in the ‘80s?
In a 2012 article in The Stranger, Jen Graves writes, “Bam Bam struggled, in part because audiences weren’t on board with an African American female punk singer. ‘The press compared her to Tina Turner, as if that made any sense,’ Tommy (Bell’s husband) says.”
Though Bam Bam has mostly been glossed over, Scotty realizes that a handful of people (both new and from the time) do respect Tina’s legacy and are comrades-in-arms in averting her memory from obscurity. “Matt Cameron publicly speaks highly of her and he even wore his Tina Bell T-shirt on the cover of Pearl Jam Anthology,” he mentions eagerly. In the last few years, a few writers have used their platforms to shed light on Tina’s story, as well. Brazilian journalist Tânia Seles has authored a handful of stories. American solo artist and founder of AC/DC cover band Hell’s Belles, Om Johari, has blogged about Tina Bell and at one point, considered singing with Bam Bam as tribute to Tina. The Sonic Mosquito Soup–a site out of Bucharest, Romania–published a juicy interview with Scotty and Tommy in 2019. Mike from The Accused also mentioned Bam Bam in a 2007 interview, saying “Man, they were total punk.”
“Tina used to frequently call me in the middle of the night and we’d talk for hours about the old scene, family, and life in general. I’m still very close to her family,” Scotty tells me. “At the time of her death, we were working on what would have been her ‘come back’… a documentary film, a memoir (working title was Conversations with the Grunge Queen),” Scotty told me. “Her and I were writing together again, her son T.J. Martin was to direct.” Sadly, that project ended with her passing.
Nearly 40 years have gone by and neither the talented band nor their one-of-a-kind frontwoman Tina Bell have garnered the respect they deserve–even in retrospect by important figures in their own city– for their role as early architects of grunge. After recognizing the injustice, to me, the verdict is quite clear: Tina Bell, the brilliant frontwoman, stunning vocalist, lyricist, and performer, is overdue for her crown. In order to get the facts straight, music historians must honor her, posthumously, for a title she more than rightfully earned.
It’s more than time to crown Tina the Queen of Grunge, and not as a woke PR move, but because it’s the Truth.
“Heinz 57” – Bam Bam: