Deeper Read: A Tribute to The Muffs’ Kim Shattuck – a ‘Total Punk-Rock Badass’

14 October 2019

By Triple R volunteer writer Katherine Smyrk

The opening scenes of the 1995 film Clueless are iconic. Neon graphics bouncing across the screen; pretty young things with flippy hair driving open-topped jeeps through LA; Alicia Silverstone scanning through her customised computer program to pick her outfit for school. Arguably most iconic, however, is the roaring punk-pop rendition of ‘Kids in America’ (originally a 1981 song by Kim Wilde) playing over the top of the whole thing.

That cover was a big moment for The Muffs, a relatively new band in the LA grunge/punk scene. It gave them a profile that was greatly deserved but as yet unrealised – they released their second album Blonder and Blonder the same year, and it became their breakout. But it was a conflicting moment for The Muffs’ singer, songwriter and guitarist Kim Shattuck. Despite the song helping the band kick their way into the mainstream, it was also a bit of a pain.

‘It was always a thorn in our side,’ she told Culture Brats. ‘The lyrics are really stupid. It's very embarrassing to sing them. I just had an attitude about it because I didn't write it...’

Despite her reservations with their first hit, Kim Shattuck went on to make a name for herself as ‘one of the coolest chicks in rock'n'roll’ with a ‘bone-shaking roar that could ignite a match from 10 feet away’ (according to GuitarWorld).

But at the start of this month, Kim died after two years of fighting with ALS ­– or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

True to form, Kim was making music right up until the end. Two of her Muffs bandmates posted a tribute on Facebook saying: ‘Besides being a brilliant songwriter, rocking guitarist and singer/screamer extraordinaire, Kim was a true force of nature. While battling ALS, Kim produced our last album, overseeing every part of the record from tracking to artwork.’ The seventh album from The Muffs, No Holiday, is due to be released on 18 October.

From the tributes flooding in, it’s clear Kim meant a lot to the music world. Funnily enough, growing up as a kid in Orange County LA, she didn’t have much of an interest in music.

In a 1993 interview with the LA Times Kim said: ‘I grew up around religious and elevator music. I didn’t know any better, so I just thought music was kind of bland.’

But at 18, while studying photography at Orange Coast College, she picked up a guitar. She listened to a lot of different things, trying to figure out what kind of music she liked, and has since namechecked The Kinks and The Beatles as big influences.

‘I always liked really heavy guitar music, but didn’t like the long-winded songs that went with it,’ Kim told the LA Times. ‘And I always liked pop songs, but was driven nuts because the guitars were so wimpy sounding. So I decided to put the two together.’

She started her musical career playing bass for garage-rock band The Pandoras – reportedly she lied to the band members about being able to play bass, but figured it out along the way. In 1991, she and fellow bandmate Melanie Vammen defected to form The Muffs, playing songs that Kim wrote.

‘When I first started writing songs,’ she told Guitar World in 2011, ‘it was the late '80s. Everything that was popular then in Los Angeles was starting to irritate the shit out of me. I was getting really bummed. Stuff like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening and I was like, “I fucking hate them so much, I have to write the anti-Red Hot Chili Peppers songs”… So I was like, I just gotta write songs, cause no one’s writing the song I want to hear.’

The band was signed to Warner pretty early on, where they released their debut self-titled album in 1993. Four albums followed, until the group went on an extended hiatus in 2004. After that, Kim played with numerous other bands, recording singles with the likes of NOFX, Fastbacks, and The Dollyrots. She also had a short-lived stint with the Pixies, before being let go. In explanation, Pixies’ Black Francis said: ‘She’s very West Coast; she’s very extrovert. We’re very East Coast, very introvert.’

Following that, The Muffs reformed to record Whoop Dee Doo in 2014, their first album in a decade. Kim also started The Coolies with former bandmate Melanie Vammen, with the proceeds from their debut EP going towards ALS research. Kim never publicly stated that she had ALS, but in a recent interview with Vents magazine, said the disease ran in her family and ‘is a mystery to just about every scientist! We are definitely interested in finding a cure for ALS! Cure it already!’

Judging by the posthumous online outpouring, Kim made a huge impact across the music world, not just on her fans, but on numerous other musicians.

‘She was always so cool and tough,’ Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong said on Instagram. ‘All my interactions with her were great. She was one of my favorite songwriters. When we recorded Dookie, we listened to the first Muffs record constantly. We will hear that rock n' roll scream from heaven.’

Alt-rock group Veruca Salt stated on Twitter: ‘One of the all-time greats. How could anyone be such a brilliant pop songwriter, singer, screamer, and such a total punk-rock badass, and be so insanely cute at the same time? No one funnier or cooler. We love you, Kim.’

And her bandmate Ronnie Barnett wrote on Facebook: ‘This month marks 29 years since we formed our group. I can’t say we always pulled it off but there was not one night we stepped on stage and didn’t try and be the best band in the world. Sometimes we actually succeeded.’

RIP Kim Shattuck.

Katherine Smyrk is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction and non-fiction, and the Deputy Editor of The Big Issue. When she's not reading or writing she is usually eating cheese, playing footy or dancing to Beyoncé. You can follow her on Twitter.