I first became familiar with Fifth Column in the mid-'80s when I started playing the thought-provoking song "The Fairview Mall Story" from the band's 1985 To Sir With Hate debut album on my campus radio program.
I then discovered the "Boy/Girl" seven-inch and gave quite a few spins to the group's swan song 36C album that came out in 1994 (and I'm playing it again as I write this). I saw Fifth Column a couple of times toward the end, but didn't follow the all-female outfit closely enough to consider myself an avid fan.
So She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column both brought back memories and filled me in on a lot when I saw the film's world premiere as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this past Friday.
The 64-minute film by director Kevin Hegge features recent interviews with group constants Caroline Azar and G.B. Jones, as well as some of the many other musicians who passed through the often fractious lineup over the years. Jones was quite involved in Toronto's independent film scene, shot Super 8 movies and became friends with controversial gay filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, who acted as a go-go dancer for Fifth Column in the early days.
LaBruce offers his thoughts on Fifth Column, as do two people who were fans from a bigger distance: Bikini Kill and Le Tigre founder Kathleen Hanna; and homo-core punk pioneer Vaginal Davis.
Hanna helped launch a zine called riot grrrl in 1991, and it spawned a label that was affixed to numerous aggressive female rock bands of that decade -- including Hole, L7, Sleater-Kinney, 7 Year Bitch and Bratmobile. These groups owed an obvious debt to Fifth Column, which mixed punk, psychedelic and other rock forms and adapted a take no prisoners attitude on stage. The group garnered feminist and lesbian followings because of all this, but I was aware of that.
What I didn't know, just like with films, was how involved the members of Fifth Column were with the burgeoning zine scene of the '80s that Davis was also part of and helped create the underground queercore movement. These other forms of expression helped enlarge the group's musical audience and, although Fifth Column never received the credit or attention it deserved, Melody Maker made 36C's "All Women Are Bitches: Repeat!" its single of the week when it came out.
Vintage photos and film and video footage of Fifth Column add a lot to the modern interviews and help put pieces of the puzzle together -- especially for people who may have heard the band's name but never saw it perform. They also add to the appreciation of how ahead of its time Fifth Column was.
You don't have to own a Fifth Column album to enjoy She Said Boom because, as the film made me realize, these women were always about much more than music.
She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column plays tonight (May 1) at 9 p.m. at Toronto's Cumberland Four (theatre two) and at 7 p.m. on May 4 at the Fox Theatre as part of Hot Docs.