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Melanie Vammen: From Pandora To Tigerella

2 March 2024

The reformation of The Pandoras yielded a raucous and melodic return to form for the California garage rockers. Hey! It’s The Pandoras featured some of the final recordings of The Muffs singer and guitarist Kim Shattuck before she sadly succumbed to ALS in 2019. Pandoras and Muffs co-founder and keyboardist Melanie Vammen adamantly states that her songwriting with Kim will always live on and stand as a testament to their enduring friendship. Released in October 2019, the record featured all their hallmark ‘60s garage rock melodies and successfully kept the legacy of founder Paula Pierce alive.

“I never thought we would be playing these songs again! Kim and I had lost touch for a while but when we reconnected it felt like no time had passed. I always thought our friendship was like soulmates. It felt right getting back together and having Kim singing, playing the songs we loved but not the later, hard rock ones,” said Vammen.

Originally formed in Los Angeles parallel to the burgeoning ‘80s punk scene and the meteoric rise of glam metal, The Pandoras resurrected garage rock under the leadership of singer and guitarist Paula Pierce. Her uncompromising dedication to songwriting and brazen sexuality had Pierce fearlessly commanding stages across California, returning rock & roll to its primal state. The Pandoras ultimately evolved into a hard rock group, reminiscent of their glam rock peers but Pierce forever retained her gift for crafting memorable, melodic hooks. Vammen recalled when she first met Pierce and despite describing herself as “naive and shy” she worked to quickly learn the material after emphatically accepting Pierce’s offer to join The Pandoras in ‘84, later embarking on a wild ride through California’s underground rock scene.

“Meeting Paula was an impacting, life-changing thing for me. She was confident and I was this naive teen going to clubs at 15. Paula was like nobody else and did what she wanted. When she formed The Pandoras I would go check them out and she used to get mad at everyone onstage. She eventually asked me to join and I didn’t even have a keyboard! I learned their songs on my mom’s pump organ before playing the songs for Paula on a Vox organ,” laughed Vammen.

The Pandoras successfully earned a contract with Bomp! Records and Pierce’s relentless drive then brought them to Rhino Records, leading to Stop Pretending in 1986, which Vammen still believes is the only record unanimously liked by the band. With edgy garage rock hooks and Pierce’s sexually provocative lyrics complemented by her primal yelps and sensual vocal melodies, The Pandoras relentlessly gigged and earned consistent, local radio airplay and gigs.

“I was just a kid when we recorded Hot Generation for Bomp in 1985. There I was, hanging out with this wild woman, Paula. She used to tell me all these stories from her punk days and the people she slept with. She even had a Germs burn tattoo. My parents loved her and you could easily see her drive to succeed. We took turns sleeping at each other’s houses for like a week at a time and Paula even played the accordion! She was more talented than people thought,” reflected Vammen.

She added, “The transition to Rhino was rather easy because we had strong support from KROQ and had fans. Paula was driven to success and with Kim on bass and vocals, you could see her songwriting talent grow as well. Stop Pretending was a great representation of us.”

The Pandoras earned momentum and eventually caught the eye of Elektra Records but the group was already beginning to splinter as Pierce was slowly moving toward a harder rock sound. Vammen believed Pierce was ‘pretty much influenced by whomever she was dating’ and that could have played a role in the group’s evolution and demise.

“I liked the demos for the ‘87 record, Come Inside because they were raw and had such good melodies. It was a tough time because all of a sudden the label was trying to change us. They even made some comments that Kim and I needed to lose weight! I was shocked because we were so thin at that time anyway. We were a very sexual, all-girl band and we did what we wanted so we weren’t used to people trying to make demands. The record was all completed and set for release, we had the test pressings and everything but the A&R guy that signed us was fired or something, and The Pandoras were dropped. The record was never formally released,” sighed Vammen.

The bootleg Psychedelic Sluts album that was released several years later featured Come Inside demos and early versions of songs appearing on the 1988 Restless Records EP, Rock Hard. Pierce was undeterred and despite lineup changes, The Pandoras triumphed and earned a recording contract with Restless Records, but Vammen recalls the creative divide growing sharper, leading to strained relationships.

“We kept going in a harder rock direction and it just wasn’t for Kim and I. Rock Hard for Restless finished with Close Behind, which showed Paula’s gift for writing melodic pop with an edge. As things kept moving in the harder rock direction it was a struggle for Kim and I to keep up the focus and intensity,” stated Vammen.

The Pandora’s final record, Live Nymphomania was shrouded in controversy due to a truly unprecedented lawsuit that forced an out-of-court settlement and the band to the brink of implosion. Vammen adamantly states she despises the record and still shows a youthful surprise as she shares the truly strange circumstances surrounding its release.

“That record was only released so we could raise enough money for legal stuff. We had played an outdoor concert at Long Beach State, which was fun and I remember playing Loose by The Stooges. This couple that lived nearby claimed the concert’s volume damaged their hearing and they needed treatment and it permanently impacted their sex life! So we were sued for damages,” shared Vammen.

She added, “We put out Live Nymphomania to pay the costs, we followed the legal advice and settled out of court. We thought we were so clever on the record’s thank you notes by listing all the people we slept with,” laughed Vammen.

The Pandoras soldiered on, with Paula’s stage confidence reaching stronger intensity to complement the ongoing themes of sexuality that dominated every new song. As Los Angeles played home to several local glam bands earning national media acclaim and record contracts, one would think an all-girl hard rock band led by the brazen Paula Pierce would also rise to fame, but The Pandoras lacked the proper label support to propel them forward. They shot a video for the song Run Down Love Battery and earned MTV airplay but it seemed label support was not strong enough to capitalize on the attention The Pandoras were receiving. The Arsenio Hall Show appearance in late 1988 could have given them further exposure, as guest Michael J. Fox happily stumbled while sharing his excitement for meeting them, describing The Pandoras as ‘raunch & roll’ but the opportunity yielded a strange outcome. Production malfunctions that obscured the band for nearly the whole performance and poor live sound mixing doomed the appearance.

“I don’t view it as a missed opportunity but more of our profound Spinal Tap moment. The studio’s smoke machine malfunctioned or whatever and the live sound mix was awful! Paula’s guitar was barely audible and it was funny how loud my keys were. Sometimes, that’s just how things go,” laughed Vammen.

The Pandoras shuffled through lineups yet again but were able to tour heavily, though plans for a European tour were scrapped because, as Vammen recalls, Pierce’s boyfriend was unable to accompany her. Pierce was adamant The Pandoras would remain a hard rock, sexually-charged group, with the driving, ‘60s pop melodies finally being laid to rest.

“Kim and I finally put our plans into starting another group in motion. We were writing a lot together for what would become The Muffs in 1991. Paula finally decided she no longer needed a keyboard player and I was hurt because I was the one that had played with her the longest at that point. I accepted her decision and she cried telling me,” shared Vammen.

The Pandoras imploded in 1990 but nobody foresaw the sad loss of Paula Pierce, collapsing from a brain aneurysm in 1991. Pierce was only 31 years old and the tragic, abrupt ending still gives Vammen pause.

“Paula had mentioned getting headaches to our bandmate Sheri Kaplan, but never really did anything about it. It was a very freak thing and had nothing to do with drugs. It was shocking to all of us but she will remain forever young to me and her talent will never be forgotten,” Vammen solemnly shared.

Despite Vammen being let go from The Pandoras, her friendship with Shattuck endured and they were able to focus on launching The Muff, playing their first show in January 1991. Shattuck’s songwriting prowess was immediately apparent and the group quickly earned acclaim for her melodies and powerful, guttural vocals that could quickly go from pop to punk. Vammen transitioned to guitar and the sexual-tinged lyricism and hard rock of The Pandoras gave way to more melodic, punk tempos.

“We were signed to Warner Brothers and did a bunch of singles and things were going well but sadly, Kim and I had a falling out, stuff that never should have happened. I did not want to leave at all, but I did in 1994 and it was not my choice,” said Vammen.

The Muffs regrouped as a trio, enjoying mainstream success with Blonder and Blonder and their cover of Kids In America appeared in Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. The Muffs retained a loyal fanbase despite an extended hiatus in 1999. Vammen joined Leaving Trains and remained for several years, losing touch with Shattuck but eventually reconnecting in 2009.

“Reconnecting was the best thing to have happened to us because not only was it very emotional, it reinforced the original strength of our friendship. The Pandoras would finally reunite, and playing those songs again was very powerful for all of us. I feel like Paula would have been proud,” said Vammen.

Hey! It’s The Pandoras strictly focused on the group’s ‘60s garage rock material, and with Shattuck assuming lead vocals, the group possessed a new melodic aggression. Closing with Pierce’s poignant and unreleased Dark November, Shattuck draws a breath before launching into the opening verse, conscious of the fact the song stood as the last one Pierce penned and demoed for The Pandoras before passing.

“The record was finally released in 2019 after a long delay and I stand by the fact Paula would have been proud. Dark November was formally recorded and Kim did great but it’s heavy to know that she passed after we did the record and Paula had passed after originally recording a demo of that same song. I wasn’t shocked when Kim was diagnosed with ALS in 2017 because her family had a history of the disease. Kim went from functioning to losing her speech and then was paralyzed. It’s a horrific disease. I had stayed with her every day for two years and she had wanted to form another group so we did and that became The Coolies,” shared Vammen.

Shattuck passed in 2019 but The Coolies successfully released Uh Oh! It’s The Coolies in July 2019, donating all profits to The ALS Association Golden West Chapter. Little Steven of Wicked Cool Records proved instrumental in giving the record a timely release and strong support to ensure the group’s charity aspirations were not only met but exceeded.

“We were so proud and raised over $20,000. We revisited the demos, had Kim’s vocals and some guitars and our bestie Palmyra Delran laid down more guitars and drums. I played bass, guitar, and organ. I have a studio in my house and we built the record around those Kim tracks. The greatest thing in the world was Kim was still alive to witness all of it! She got to hear me sing and hear Clem Burke play drums with us! Kim was able to experience it all with us. She even picked the cover song for us that we did for a Go-Gos tribute record,” shared Vammen.

For Vammen, she continues celebrating the enduring legacies of Shattuck and Pierce while continuing to play with her Pandoras band mates. Despite the lineup shuffles, seemingly missed career opportunities, and tragic losses, she regathered The Pandoras alumni and launched The Tigerellas in 2022. Laying to rest The Pandoras moniker, Vammen states the group retains the same edgy, melodic garage rock sound but it was time to ‘move forward’ and settle on a new name.

“We wanted to keep it going because we realized how much fun it was revisiting those old songs and playing out together again. Sadly, we no longer have Paula or Kim but we just didn’t wanna stop. We booked and played some shows and the responses were great. It feels right and I feel alive! I play guitar because it just got too hard to switch back between keys. Playing live is the greatest expression of me. I love being able to do this and I’m grateful for having kids that understand their mom. I’ve never had to change just being me,” concluded Vammen.