Atypical girls: the women of rock in their own words

The question, “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” has dogged female rock musicians for decades. I wanted to make a programme in which they tell their own stories.

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They say that men and women approach music in different ways. At least, that’s how it was presented to me when I started in music journalism. Boys were geeks – filing their records in alphabetical order, showing off how much they knew – while for girls the relationship was much more emotional; they cared less about who played what on a song and when, and more about how it made them feel. This always irked me, because somewhere in there was the suggestion that boys take music more seriously than girls; as though collecting an album in multiple formats implies deeper engagement than listening to one copy till the tape wears thin. I’ve always thought that men and women feel exactly the same way about music. It’s just that they talk about it in different ways.

That’s partly why I wanted to make a programme in which women tell stories about being in bands. A few months back I reviewed Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, in these pages and I couldn’t forget the way she began the section on Sonic Youth. “A lot has been written about Sonic Youth,” she said. “Here is what stands out for me.” As the bassist and a founder-member of a cult group that always attracted evangelical followers, Gordon knew she was writing against 30 years of testimony by music journalists, most of them male, and that the story of her band had already been told loudly, definitively, countless times by other people. Many of us have encountered the funny sense of ownership that men feel about the bands they like. “I love my music,” he says, and he doesn’t mean it as his mother might say he loves his food. The whole reason Gordon got into a band, she said, was to break into the male band dynamic and experience it from the inside – not as a muse or a fan, but as another boy.

Rock’s engine room remains woefully understaffed by girl drummers, bassists and guitarists. It’s no accident that the era considered most welcoming to female rock musicians was punk, when you weren’t expected to play your instrument very well. Why don’t girls turn to drums and guitars as often as men? Is it because, as Miki Berenyi from the Nineties indie band Lush told me, it’s no fun going down to Denmark Street to try out a guitar when six men stand around in the showroom trying to give you a demo? The question, “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” has dogged female rock musicians for decades and most of them head it off at the first pass. But all of them are pushing against rock’s dominant species, whether they’re willing to talk about it or not.

Filming took us from Shoreditch to Macclesfield, from Dayton, Ohio to a suburban town in the California desert. Some of the most interesting musicians I met had been reluctant players – chance meetings, relationships with other band members and sudden vacancies would lead to an entire life in music. Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads only took up the bass because no one else would play it (she’s married to the band’s drummer, Chris Frantz); Gillian Gilbert became a member of New Order partly because she was handy with the technical side of things (she’s married to their drummer, Stephen Morris). Any lone girl in a band of boys was invariably dragged to the front in photo shoots and singled out for magazine covers, often to the dismay of the others – it’s painful watching Robert Palmer vying for stage-space alongside the freewheeling Elkie Brooks in Vinegar Joe. Yet these women so rarely got to tell their stories. Weymouth was surprised we wanted to talk to her without her husband present. Gilbert told me a good story about New Order, who are currently touring without Peter Hook. One night, in the early days, they’d had a big house party and the police came and shut them down. It turned out that Hooky, who’d gone to bed early, had made the call.

The testimony of female musicians is often a nuanced one, characterised by a feeling of wry bemusement and the sense that there was another – possibly better – life to be had, after the madness was over. June Millington, from the splendidly titled Fanny – a West Coast blues-rock group that became the first all-girl band to be signed to a major label in America – now runs a music summer camp for girls in a sleepy town in Massachusetts.

What was it like being on the road, you ask an old rocker who’s told his tale a thousand times. “Oh, crazy days!” he might say. “Absolute madness!” Ask Tina Weymouth and you get this: “Keeping your clothes clean, that was a big deal. So, after a night at the Roundhouse, opening for the Ramones and being gobbed on, you’d take a bath and then the clothes would go in too, with the little shampoo bottle, and then you’d stamp on them, like at a vineyard. You’d pull them out, rinse them and hang them up to dry and then pack them wet, you know, which would be heavy.” Which gives you a better insight into what touring is really like?

When Blondie first appeared in the mid-Seventies, Debbie Harry was an art project – a wonderfully smart Monroe/sci-fi composite, an ironic parody of what men wanted women in bands to be. Tanya Donelly of Throwing Muses once said that “Being put on a pedestal is the most degrading thing in the world”; Kathleen Hanna, a ringleader of the riot grrrl movement, did a “media blackout” with her band Bikini Kill in response to condescending press. But while jobbing, beer-and-skittles, all-girl rock bands flourished in riot grrrl as they had done in punk, they’d been there much longer – from right back in the Sixties. It’s just that, unlike a lot of male groups operating outside the charts, they seem to have been forgotten.

I went to Hamburg to meet the remaining members of the Liverbirds (pronounced lie-vah; Carla Lane nicked their name for her sitcom) – an all-girl rock’n’roll band, now in their seventies, who played the Cavern Club alongside the Beatles and were sent out to the Reeperbahn in the early Sixties on the same promotional circuit. They never came back to England. Their look was masculine – apparently Astrid Kirchherr helped them with it. They played Chuck Berry covers and songs with names like “Peanut Butter”. They performed nightly, for a hefty pay packet, on Hamburg’s street of sailors and hookers – and were all aged 16 and 17. The Liverbirds rolled joints for Jimi Hendrix; Jimmy Savile was one of their earliest supporters. Did nothing dodgy ever happen to them? Ever? There’s something fascinating in the way these women talk about the Sixties – you held your own, you had fun and took the creeps with a pinch of salt. Not true of Seventies LA, where the “jail-bait”-obsessed impresario Kim Fowley put together his teenage band the Runaways, with Joan Jett on guitar and Cherie Currie on lead vocals and corset.

Survivor: Lita Ford (centre) with the Runaways and their manager Kim Fowley in Los Angeles, 1976

In July this year their bassist Jackie Fox, now working as an attorney, alleged in an interview with the Huffington Post that Fowley had drugged and raped her while Currie and Jett sat by and let it happen. Those two have denied it but their guitarist Lita Ford told me she believed it was true. “I’d love to take their goddamn heads off,” she said, of Fowley and Scott Anderson, their
road manager who got Currie pregnant at 16. “But unfortunately they’re dead, so I can’t.”

Fowley haunted our interviews in America – everyone seemed to have had a run-in with him. He’d called Weymouth in the middle of the night urging her to leave Talking Heads and do a solo album with him. Millington remembered a Hollywood party where he’d stood in the middle of the room and offered $100 to anyone who would blow him, right then and there. He’d even approached the Bangles, but they already had their own Svengali.

Lita Ford was just 15 when she joined the Runaways. She’d been to see Black Sabbath aged 13 with a boy cousin and was converted to hard rock. She took up electric guitar with the encouragement of her Italian mother (“Oh Lita, you must play the Black Magic Woman again!”). While the Runaways’ short career was in many ways an impossibly bleak story, Ford and the drummer Sandy West – “She wouldn’t have hesitated to knock anybody out” – never lost the excitement of being in the band; West was trying to get them back together right up to her death in 2006.

And Lita? She is a prisoner of rock’n’roll, in a good way, her voice edged with hard living, whipping out her Gibson to give us a few bars of the Runaways’ signature tune “Cherry Bomb”. Is she unchanged because she’s forever ‘married’ to her music, or because she was frozen in time at the moment she got her brief blast of fame? There are dozens more stories like hers out there, if we continue to look for them.

“Girl in a Band” is broadcast on Friday 30 October on BBC4 (10pm)

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 29 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the Third Intifada?