The concept for Hell's Belles germinated in Seattle roughly three years ago. Om Johari, who adopts the Bon Scott/Brian Johnson persona on stage and is the sole original member of the group, wanted to pay homage to one of the most loved acts of her girlhood. After recruiting friend Amy Stoltzenbach and two other members, the Belles played their first gig in the spring of 2000 and were an immediate hit: The gimmick was irresistible -- as was Stoltzenbach's perfectly replicated schoolgirl outfit. More important, the girls could play.
"When I went to see the band before I joined, it was like seeing AC/DC in '76," recounts Lisa Brisbois, who took over the Angus Young role when Stoltzenbach split. "They were really able to capture the vibe of the band, and you just felt the sexiness and the raw energy that AC/DC always had."
The Belles cemented their lineup last year with the addition of Brisbois, Adrian Conner on lead guitar and Janet Trares on drums. Their timing could not have been better, as the inception of Hell's Belles coincided very nearly with the precise moment AC/DC's self-parody took on Spinal Tap-ian proportions. In 2000, AC/DC embarked on a worldwide tour that essentially recast the Aussie band as a joke, albeit a spectacularly entertaining one. (Some highlights from dates along the way: Brian Johnson grabbing his, um, little Johnson during "Hard as a Rock" and strutting before Wild Kingdom film clips and pornographic cartoons; Young performing a striptease and shaking his American-flag-clad ass; Johnson swinging from the rope of a giant black bell that descended from the ceiling during "Hell's Bells"; and the moment when a giant statue of Young, which spurted smoke and flame from the tip of a giant guitar, was replaced with six cannons fired intermittently during the encore performance of "For Those About to Rock [We Salute You].")
Though there are no mammoth stage props or fire-breathing statues on stage with them, Hell's Belles do a more-than-passable job at nailing the AC/DC act. In addition to playing to packed houses pretty much wherever they go, they also have the blessing of the original band itself. When the Belles' management sent a performance tape to the classic rockers, Young was so impressed that he suggested planning some sort of joint performance for the two acts.
Hell's Belles' straight-faced treatment of the AC/DC canon gives the music an even harder edge and opens the door for a more political interpretation of what they do. Though they don't consider themselves feminists, the Belles are taking part in a feminist experiment: The band subverts AC/DC's themes of women as sex objects -- and little else -- through the power of its performance.
"One of the hardest things about being a woman musician is growing up and being attracted to very male-dominated music," Brisbois muses. "I loved the Stones; I loved AC/DC. I can't really say that I was all that influenced by people like Patti Smith and Exene Cervenka; all my inspiration came from men.
"I don't know that it's been intentional or if it just happens as a happy accident, but we've kind of turned it around, without changing lyrics or changing the makeup of the songs or what AC/DC's been about, to make it more for women," she continues. "Rather than objectifying them, we make them feel powerful. It's really hard to explain how that happens; it just does. It feels really potent, taking the power back and turning it around and saying, 'There's nothing wrong with sex; there's nothing wrong with being nasty.'"
While it's not inherently nasty, guitarist Conner strips down to her skivvies during the course of the show, just like her alter ego, Young. Photographs of past performances reveal that male spectators are not afraid to attempt a bit of grab-ass when bandmembers venture close enough to touch. But Brisbois says a Hell's Belles show is never more sinister than it should be.
"AC/DC definitely has that sexual energy, and when we're playing as a band, I feel it on stage, and I feel like the audience feels it, and we try to include everybody," she explains. "Om definitely directs her attention toward the women, and at one point during every show, she will call for all the women to come up front and have the men back up and make room for them. If she sees women getting roughed up because men are getting too excited, she'll stop the show and make sure that the women don't get pushed around. She'll put men in their place if they need to be put in their place."
It follows that Hell's Belles would look out for their sisters in the audience: They fill a niche for those who might be turned off by AC/DC's machismo but who still feel the pull of the band's music. That niche has broadened during the past year, with the emergence of similarly spirited tribute acts such as the all-girl Cheap Chick, SheKiss and Live Wire, a Mötley Crüe sendup. After a recent show, members of the Iron Maidens thanked the Hell's Belles for making such projects visible and popular. But while taking male-oriented rock and roll and making it distinctly feminine becomes an empowering move for both performers and audience, it's not always so well received. Often, the Belles are dismissed as a mere novelty act.
"We've gotten a lot of flak from people who are kind of bitter about the fact that we go out and tour and are lucrative and successful without playing our own music," Brisbois says. "I can see why that would frustrate people, because you work so hard when you play your own stuff, and most of the time nobody ever hears it. But at the same time, I'm a musician, and I've always played music, and to be able to make a living playing music is something I've always wanted to do. I can play, and I think that for the other gals in the band, that's the bottom line: We get to play."
Each of the Belles logged many years in other bands; some still have original projects on the side. Conner, whom Brisbois describes as "freakishly talented" (she learned half the AC/DC catalogue -- by ear -- overnight when she joined), recently relocated to Austin, Texas, and devotes her time away from Hell's Belles to an acoustic project called Funk Angel. Brisbois was in a group with her (now ex-) husband for five years before becoming Malcolm Young's softer doppelgänger. And, as she points out, making a living paying tribute to someone and their music isn't as easy as it may seem.
"The songs are very simply arranged -- they aren't doing anything fancy -- but keeping that solid rhythm so that Angus can jump around and flail and be the crowd-pleaser is the most challenging part," she says. "Any band trying to learn another band's songs is going to run into challenges -- you've got to go up there and stick it, and you can't vary from it. And because their songs are so simple, people notice when you aren't playing them the way that they're used to."
Of course, people also notice women who simultaneously titillate their audience and command its respect. Hell's Belles make party music smart while keeping it fun -- and that is sexy.