The Contractions: Kicking Ass, Taking Names

The following is a liner note essay I wrote for 1980, a brand-new archival release from Liberation Hall Records. It’s a live set drawn from the group’s 1980 dates at at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens. The album is available on CD at this link. — bk

Several U.S. cities hosted punk and new wave scenes in the 1970s; in many ways, San Francisco’s was among the most wide-encompassing and egalitarian. But for every act that broke through nationally, several others of merit stayed largely a local secret. Among the most significant of those was an all-woman trio known as The Contractions.

During their time together (1979 to 1985), The Contractions not only built a local following, but toured nationally, and released a pair of singles and an album. Now – with the cooperation of the group’s three founding members, and thanks to the live recording endeavors of archivist Terry Hammer – this live compilation from two SF dates comes as a worthy addition to the group’s catalog.

In her youth, Mary Kelley was inspired in equal parts by her mother’s collection of 1940s pop and jazz, orchestral music, San Francisco counterculture radio and concerts featuring British Invasion bands like Pink Floyd, The Who, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin. After years playing piano and French horn, Mary switched to guitar, and when punk started bubbling under in the Bay Area, she was hooked.

Deb Hopkins, on the other hand, first picked up her drumsticks as a child. “I got my first drum kit the summer between sixth and seventh grade,” she recalls. Her dyslexia would prove a creative advantage, as she created her own drum parts and committed them to memory rather than reading musical notation. At one point she auditioned for No Sisters, but she didn’t get the gig. “They told me they didn’t think I was strong enough, hard hitting enough, to play their music,” she says. Taking that rejection as a challenge, Deb bought the fattest drum sticks she could find. “I got strong,” she says, “and I got strong fast.”

Deb recalls that her drumming prowess impressed her friend Lisa Wexler, daughter of legendary record producer Jerry Wexler. “She repeatedly said to me, ‘You should be playing with Mary!’” Lisa brought the two of them together in her living room with the goal of having them jam on Mary’s original songs.
“And we hit it off,” Mary says. The two agreed to meet again, acknowledging that they’d need a bassist to complete the trio.

At the time, Mary leased a warehouse in the heart of SF’s Mission District, The Manor (later rechristened Contraction Manor), where she hosted a sculpture show by renowned artist Paul Lindhard. One attendee was Kathy Peck. “She told me she played bass and wrote songs,” Mary recalls.

“I kinda lied,” says Kathy.

In fact, Kathy had taken piano lessons starting at age five, and started writing songs immediately. By the time she met up with Mary and Deb, she was plugged into the nascent punk scene, thanks in part to husband Don’s gig with punk pioneer Mary Monday.

“So Mary invited Kathy to a practice at Iguana Studios,” Deb recalls. “It was clear immediately that the chemistry was there, and that Kathy had what we were missing: punk style.” She also had some original songs. But what Kathy didn’t have was a great deal of experience on bass. “I saw that as an advantage,” Deb says. “Her being a novice musician gave us the rough edges and simplicity that helped us fit in. We were all three so different, but we had immediate chemistry. And we laughed a lot.”

There was never any plan for The Contractions to be a group of woman musicians. “I don’t think we ever talked about it,” Deb says today. “It just happened.” And from the beginning, they were adamant that their all-female lineup not be viewed as a gimmick.

Each of the women wrote songs on her own; the musical arrangements were collaborative. “We thought of ourselves as a three-legged chair,” Mary says. “Always a team. It wasn’t The Contractions without the three of us.” The group worked out of Truth and Beauty Labs, the rehearsal/recording studio they built themselves.

Kathy and Mary wrote most of the band’s material, but Deb contributed “You’re Making Me Crazy” and others. And while The Contractions were punk in attitude, their music wasn’t pure punk: Mary characterizes some of her songs – like “Breaking Up is Not Hard to Do” and “Water Beast” – as orchestral or cinematic.

The band’s first gig was at Deaf Club, opening for Offs and No Alternative. “I recall feeling like a fish out of water, but the audience was appreciative,” says Deb. Their success there led to spots playing on bills with many legendary Bay Area groups including Dead Kennedys, The Offs, No Sisters, SVT, Jim Carroll, Flipper, and The Mutants. The Contractions also shared stages with no-wave pioneer Glenn Branca, The Go-Go’s, Duran Duran, and Bush Tetras.

Contractions 1980 is culled from two performances at Ness Aquino’s Mabuhay Gardens. By day a Filipino restaurant, at night the space became Ground Zero for Bay Area punk and new wave. Notorious emcee Dirk Dirksen was a friend of the band, but as was his wont, he teased them endlessly, and would often introduce them this way: “And here they are, the Contraptions!”

“People described us as ‘musically dangerous,’” says Deb Hopkins. “Years later, I am still meeting women who tell me that they decided to learn an instrument and start a band after seeing us. And that is what I hope our legacy is: empowering females to play music, and to expect to be treated and respected for their music and not treated like sex objects.”

“We had fun and I learned a lot,” says Kathy Peck. “I feel very fortunate that I could play with Mary and Deb: it was like ‘no net below us.’”

“I look from inside the band, so I don’t have a pure sense of what The Contractions’ legacy is,” says Mary Kelley. “For me, we showed up, kicked ass and took names. We were out there. We happened.”