The all-female garage punk group The Pandoras emerged from LA’s underground scene in the 1980s, and they just keep on emerging
by Amanda Sheppard
In the early 1980s, the stripped-down, fuzzed-up rawness of the mid-1960s began to re-emerge from L.A.’s underground. At the forefront of this scene was the all-female garage punk group, The Pandoras. Led by Paula Pierce, The Pandoras married their reverence for the garage rock sounds of bands like ? and the Mysterians with their early love of The Ramones and the Mod Rock sounds of The Who and The Kinks. These four talented multi-instrumentalists delivered bad girl sex appeal at a time when other female groups on the scene took a gentler, daintier approach to their image, blazing a trail for future notable female rockers such as Pandoras’ fan Courtney Love. Despite several personnel changes, dueling lineups, and even an awkward hair metal phase, The Pandoras became one of the most influential and successful bands of L.A.’s Garage Rock Revival, playing shows across the country and overseas with The Cramps, Iggy Pop, and Nina Hagen.
The Pandoras – Hot Generation – L.A. IN 1985 (Smile 67, YouTube)
Paula Pierce got her start in L.A.’s underground music scene at the tender age of 14. The accomplished accordion player met her earliest collaborator, Don Williams, through her friend Brigitte Cusimano after picking him out of Brigitte’s high school yearbook. Paula and Don hit it off after meeting at Paula’s accordion recital and even dated, briefly. Don introduced Paula to glam bands like Sweet and Mott the Hoople and ignited her love of 1960s rock & roll with music from The Kinks, The Who, and the Rolling Stones. Paula soon put down her accordion and picked up an electric guitar. Before long, Paula and Don, along with his new girlfriend, Sue, became fixtures on the L.A. scene. In 1976, Paula and her friends formed their first band, The Rage, inspired by their friendship with Kim Fowley’s protégés The Quick.
Three years later, Paula formed Mod-influenced band The Direct Hits (later known as Action Now) with Scott Hillman, Jim Schuster, and Scott’s friend, Mike Lawrence, playing shows with bands like The Last and the beloved L.A. power pop group The Plimsouls. Paula even struck up a collaborative friendship with Plimsouls’ lead singer-guitarist, Peter Case and co-wrote the music for the Action Now tune “This One Chance”. Along the way, Paula began dating Shelley Ganz, lead singer of The Unclaimed, and a mutual friend of Case’s. She and Shelley met at an Unclaimed show and became inseparable—Shelley even tagged along with Paula to school at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga.
PKM: What was Paula Pierce like in the early days?
Shelley Ganz: Very rambunctious, very cute, very energetic. One of the best pop songwriters I have ever encountered. We got along very well. Paula was very Mod, very Who 60s Mod-teen boy looking. Straight peg pants too short for her, short hair…looked like a cross between [Peter] Townshend and [Roger] Daltry.
Action Now – Stop Pretending (Live at Madame Wong’s West) (Avebury Communications, YouTube)
Over the course of her relationship with Shelley, Paula became more enthralled with 60s music, particularly garage bands like the Count Five, Chocolate Watchband, and The Syndicate of Sound. Her garage rock zeal, however, became a bone of contention for her bandmates who were more influenced by Stiff Little Fingers than the Standells. Paula soon left Action Now to form The Pandoras with her friend Gwynne Kahn, Don Williams’ girlfriend from their earlier punk rock day as The Digits. Gwynne was also the granddaughter of Tin Pan Alley songwriter, Gus Kahn.
Paula Pierce and Gwynne Kahn (keyboard/guitar) formed The Pandoras in 1983 with Deborah Mendoza (bass) and Casey Gomez (drums). Deborah, a fellow art major at Chaffey College, answered Paula’s ad on campus for “… another female musician to jam with! Influenced by sixties garage punk.”(Rockettes, Psychorizon, 2011) Deborah left The Pandoras shortly after they recorded the It’s About Time EP, and Bambi Conway became the group’s new bass player. The band recorded the It’s About Time LP for Bomp! Records under its Voxx label in 1984. Despite successful shows with bands such as The Ventures and becoming a favorite of KROQ’s Rodney Bingenheimer, tensions within The Pandoras over Paula’s leadership decisions came to a head. Paula soon found herself replacing three band members who had decided to form another Pandoras band of their own.
A Tale of Two Pandoras
Gwynne, Bambi, and Casey immediately began performing under the Pandoras’ name and added Lisa Rae Black to their lineup. Gwynne’s Pandoras released the single “Worm Boy” on Enigma Records’ Enigma Variations comp. The group broke up shortly after Enigma dropped them for refusing to change their name.
The Pandoras – “Worm Boy” (A.K.A. Gwynne’s Pandoras) Enigma Records 1984 (Lisa Rae Black, YouTube)
Meanwhile, Paula Pierce wasted no time finding new bandmates; her Pandoras lineup would include Karen Blankfeld on drums, Julie Patchouli on bass, and Melanie Vammen on keyboard.
Melanie Vammen: I met Paula in 1982 in the music scene we were involved in. Paula would ask me at shows if I knew how to play an instrument. After one of her Pandoras shows at Madame Wong’s West, she asked me again and my boyfriend told her I knew how to play piano a bit. She called me later and I tried out at Rich Coffee’s (Unclaimed, Thee Fourgiven) apartment. I played “Hot Generation”, “Want Need Love” and “High on a Cloud”. After she asked if I wanted to join, of course I said yes! This was June 1984 and I was 17 years old.
Julie Patchouli [Bess Korey interview, Girlistic, 2007]: In 1979, I had just begun collecting records, first punk and then 60s garage 45s and Pebbles compilations. It was at the Hollywood Record Swap Meet that I met Paula Pierce. We hit it off immediately and talked at length about our love for ’60s garage music. We specifically discussed how stupid it was that NOT one single girl band had ever tried to replicate this sound. She went on to tell me about The Pandoras and how she was breaking that myth with their sound. She told me she planned on revamping the band completely and wanted all new blood in the band. She asked me to come over to her apartment where we began jamming together and I learned all of the bass for the songs. It’s About Time had just been released on Voxx Records. Almost immediately she dumped Gwynne Kahn, Bambi Conway, and Casey from the band. I had never heard of The Pandoras before.
Melanie Vammen: Paula was really excited to have new band members. Two previous members had quit and she fired the third. The It’s About Time album was just released and Paula wanted to record right away with us and release a new single with her new band members. We were getting a lot of airplay from Rodney on the Roq and our shows were well attended. The 60’s garage scene was still pumping in full force. Lots of cool clubs, parties and events.
Pandoras –It’s About Time– L.A. IN 1985 (Smile 67, YouTube)
Julie Patchouli [Bess Korey interview, Girlistic, 2007]: Paula Pierce was an amazing person, I will always have a great deal of respect for her. Paula’s gruff and often snotty demeanor was certainly very appealing to me and was a breath of fresh air, because so many girl bands at the time were very girly girl, cutesy pop sounding with melodic and harmonious vocals, i.e. Bangles and Go-Go’s. But, we were not the Bangles or the Go-Go’s!! Paula would write a song for the band and it was written in such a way that it captures you (the listener) and then sucks you in. It was like, you just can’t believe that girls are doing this kind of music. In today’s music, I understand that this is very common place. But in the 1980′s it was unheard of unless you were in a punk band. Personally, Paula was a lot of fun to hang out with, at the same time she was intensely serious about her music and her writing. Paula inherently knew what the public wanted and she gave it, without disappointment.
Melanie Vammen: When the previous members left, the three of them started their own band and thought they should be able to keep the Pandoras’ name. Paula of course also planned on keeping the name The Pandoras. She formed the band, wrote all the songs and sang them. She also said she came up with the name The Pandoras. Gwynne Kahn also claimed she came up with the name. That’s how there became two Pandoras bands for a while.
Julie Patchouli [Bess Korey interview, Girlistic, 2007]: The feud was propaganda, mostly created by Gwynne. Gwynne clearly intended to take the name, The Pandoras, and sensationalized it to the press. Unfortunately for Gwynne, Paula had already purchased the legal rights. As far as hurting us, The Real Pandoras, it didn’t hurt a thing because we had already established our distinctive sound, released/recorded material, and had a concrete fan base.
Melanie Vammen: Paula always stood her ground on coming up with the band name. The band name mystery was finally put to rest when Deborah Mendoza Fagan (original bass player and founder with Paula) had written to the Facebook Pandoras fan page administrator and during chatting she told him yes Paula came up with the name The Pandoras. Paula and her had met in college. They were thinking of names and one of the first was The Keyholes. Then Paula came up with The Pandoras. Sadly, Deborah passed away last year.
PKM: Can you tell me about “Hot Generation” and touring with The Fuzztones?
Melanie Vammen: We recorded “Hot Generation/ You Don’t Satisfy” shortly after I joined the band. We did it at Silvery Moon Studios. It was so exciting and I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Rodney instantly loved both songs and started playing them all the time.
Our first tour was on the East Coast in the fall of ‘84. We played some amazing shows with the Fuzztones, Tryfles, The Brood. I don’t remember the other bands but it was a cool tour. I think the Fuzztones only played on one of the shows (at Irving Plaza).
The Pandoras –I Want My Caveman – Irving Plaza 1984 (Sheri Weinstein, YouTube)
PKM: Can you tell me a little about when Kim Shattuck joined the group?
Melanie Vammen: I met Kim in a vintage store in the Orange Circle in Orange, [California]. I was with Roy McDonald shopping and I ran into Dave from The Fad. We chatted a bit and he introduced me to his girlfriend Kim. I told him we were looking for a new bass player. We saw them again in another store and this time he said ‘hey, Kim can play bass’ (she didn’t, but played guitar). I got her number, told Paula and I called her. She came over to my house and tried out in my bedroom with Paula, Karen and myself. We liked her but had to get this other bass player (we had for 2 months) to quit. Kim and I hung out that night and had an awesome time. The bass player quit and Kim was in! She joined July 1985.
The Fad on AM Los Angeles 1984 (12ssmod, YouTube)
The Fad On KABC Los Angeles. Some of the dancers include Audrey Moorehead, Kim Shattuck and Riley Moore. Hosted By Steve Edwards and Cristina Ferrare.
PKM: What can you tell me about the move to Rhino and a different sound with Stop Pretending?
Melanie Vammen: We were courted by Rhino and Epitaph Records. We chose Rhino.
Paula’s songwriting style was a little more pop/Mod/garage style in The Action Now. We loved some of those songs and ended up recording a few of them. Songs with a good melody and an edge! I loved most of the songs on Stop Pretending. I guess we were trying to be more modern but keep the garage influences. Badass girls, you know!
The Pandoras – Stop Pretending (GroundZr0w, YouTube)
PKM: How was the tour for Stop Pretending?
Melanie Vammen: Fun, exciting, long, tiring, hard and an amazing adventure. We played a portion of that tour with The Beat Farmers who were also on Rhino. I remember playing with Iggy Pop, Cramps, Nina Hagen, Fine Young Cannibals, Hoodoo Gurus, Madness, Richard Lloyd, Blasters… So many other amazing bands too! It was an over-two-month tour of the US and Canada. Great crowds, great shows and tons of fun!
PKM: What can you tell me about your time at Elektra?
Melanie Vammen: Steve Pross had been coming to our shows for over a year checking us out. He approached us in a different state while we were on tour and introduced himself. He courted us and gave us an offer from Elektra while we were on Rhino. We left and signed to Elektra. It started off amazing with tons of money, big producers and production. It was so exciting at first but then turned miserable—the label telling us how to look and dress and Steve was way too involved. Not only was he our A&R guy but he had also become Paula’s boyfriend. And, of course, Paula changed her musical direction and clothing style again. Often influenced by her boyfriends. We had recorded our album and it was ready to come out and Steve was fired and both his bands, Pandoras and Jet Boy, were dropped.
PKM: Can you tell me a little about Karen Blankfeld leaving?
Melanie Vammen: It happened because of differences in direction of the band and people involved. It shouldn’t have happened. Very sad that it did.
Susan Hyatt [Johnny Whiteside, latimes.com, 6/20/14]: Paula was amazing, I loved her. The Pandoras were similar to [the later] ‘riot grrls’ but with complete sexual liberation. There was no other band like it, and no one like Paula, who had that wild, caveman appeal. She was really influential to so many other women, in so many bands. I mean, Courtney Love used to come to our shows. But it always changed, and it kept changing.
Melanie Vammen: Sheri joined in November 1987 replacing this girl Kelly Dillard who had played with us for three months. Then Paula decided she wanted to add a second guitar (I didn’t know how to play guitar yet). So Sheri brought in Susan. Susan joined and then quit after playing with us for 29 days. She quit because we got dropped from Elektra. Rita D’Albert joined after and was in the band for a year. She’s on the Rock Hard album.
The Pandoras – Run Down Love Battery –Rock Hard
PKM: What led to you and Kim Shattuck leaving to form The Muffs?
Melanie Vammen: The direction of The Pandoras at that time was horrible. We couldn’t stand it. So rocker, bad songs and embarrassing. I had been learning guitar and Kim and I said ‘let’s have our own band and we can do and play whatever we want’. Kim had some songs, so we started learning them. In the meantime, Paula had decided she didn’t want keyboards anymore. I was dismissed of my Pandoras duties July 17, 1990. Kim stuck around two more months in hopes that the European tour we were supposed to do would happen. It didn’t because Paula’s boyfriend couldn’t go. So Kim quit. Yay!
PKM: What ultimately happened to The Pandoras after you and Kim Shattuck left?
Melanie Vammen: Basically they played a few more shows and that was that.
PKM: What can you tell me about the time around of Paula Pierce’s death? (Of a brain aneurysm in the shower on August 10, 1991.)
Melanie Vammen: It was a shock. It was my birthday and Kim and I had been seeing the Dictators play. I was woken up when Sheri called me and told me Paula had died. Complete shock and such a loss. I loved Paula. She was a band sister and I had learned so much from her. She had a brain aneurysm. The week leading up to this she had been complaining of really bad headaches but didn’t have it checked out. She had also been trying out a new bass player for her new version of her band.
PKM: How was the initial Pandoras reunion with Kelly Hyatt on board?
Melanie Vammen: That happened for a party at Sheri’s house. She asked Karen and I if we wanted to play three songs. “Yes, sounded fun! Who, would sing?” We wanted Kim, of course, but she was on tour with the Pixies. So she asked Susan. After doing that, time went by and Kim came home. There was a Pandoras Facebook fan page and folks on there would say ‘you guys should play a show’. We all (Kim, me, Karen, and Sheri) thought it would be fun to hang out and play the old songs we loved. We did and it was a great time. So we started practicing once a week. So much fun!! We decided ‘let’s play some shows and record some songs’. Our amazing Hillary Burton joined on drums in July 2015 when Sheri left to fulfill other obligations she had.
The Pandoras Live at Nuggets Night 2017 – Portland, OR (Sheena Salazar, YouTube)
In 2014, Susan Hyatt formed The 21st Century Pandoras with Nipper Sea Turtle (aka Gwynne Kahn), Lisa Rae Black, and Casey Gomez Dobbs. The band independently released the singles “Joyride” and “Flashback Forever”.
The 21st Century Pandoras – Joyride Westcott Radio 12/28/14 (HermosaPaul, YouTube)
PKM: What are your thoughts on The 21st Century Pandoras?
Melanie Vammen: I thought it was a bit weird they were calling themselves that.
PKM: How have the shows been with the current Pandoras lineup?
Melanie Vammen: We have been so fortunate to have been able to do this again. We’ve played some amazing shows and festivals. We’ve toured Europe something we were supposed to do all those years ago. People loved it after waiting all this time to hear Paula’s amazing songs. So much fun doing this again with these beautiful talented ladies and remembering our super badass Paula! We have an EP coming out on Burger Records in March 2018. We are really excited for its release!
The Pandoras new EP, recorded at Jingletown Recording, produced by Kim Shattuck, engineered and mixed by Chris Dugan will be available on CD, vinyl, cassette, and digital download March 9, 2018.