Saturday, March 9, 2013

The 10 Most Influential All-Girl Bands

With the exception of groups of handsome teenage boys who sing bubblegum pop, we don't use the terms "boy" or "man band". After all, so many rock bands are made up of men only that we don't need see the need to distinguish them. While there is no shortage of amazing female singers in rock bands, there are far fewer female instrumentalists who have been part of mixed sex bands. For drummers, think Maureen Tucker in The Velvet Underground, Cindy Blackman who played with Lenny Kravitz, and Meg White in the White Stripes. On guitar, there's Poison Ivy from The Cramps, Gillian Gilbert from New Order, Bilinda Butcher from My Bloody Valentine and Kelley Deal from The Breeders. You'll find a few more women on bass, such as D'arcy Wretzky of The Smashing Pumpkins, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Debbie Googe of My Bloody Valentine and Kim Deal of The Pixies.

In such a male-dominated art-form, it hasn't been easy for bands comprised of women to find an audience and success. This post celebrates some of the pioneering women who have broken through perceptions that females can't rock by forming bands with only female members. To qualify as an all-girl band, the primary members must all be women, therefore ruling out bands such as Hole, where a male member was integral to songwriting and performance across a significant period. I've also focused on rock primarily, so you won't find country bands like The Dixie Chicks or classical ensembles like The Medieval Babes on this list. (And I appreciate that the term "girl" can be seen as infantilising when applied to women, but as I think the rest of this blog suggests, "girl" ought not be a derogatory or insulting term.)

10. Jem and the Holograms/The Misfits
Now this isn't like when an Australian publication listed a horse as Australian sportswoman of the year in 2012. There are countless female musicians, and indeed hundreds of all-girl bands across the past ninety or so years, but for girls growing up in the 1980s, the relative lack of female musicians on MTV was countered by the morning cartoon Jem and the Holograms (1985-1988) in which girls could play instruments and form their own bands. (Not that I'd recalled it, but Ken and the blonde-mulleted Derek butted in to Barbie and the Rockers.) And to top it all off, Jem had to overcome the schemes of rival all-girl band, The Misfits. Not one, but two, bands to show young girls dressed in their nighties that girls could not only sing, but play bass, guitar and drums.

9. Pussy Riot

I can't say much for Pussy Riot's musical influence and the group considers itself as a feminist collective of performance artists rather than a traditional band (the members have rebuffed offers to play with the likes of Madonna because they oppose capitalism and paying gigs). Nevertheless, a group of female musicians has perhaps never had such a significant impact on world politics. Five members of the collective created the video "Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" by performing in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in February 2012. Within weeks three of the group had been arrested and were later convicted of "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". Two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were sent to prison labour camps in October 2012. The women are not scheduled to be freed until October 2014, despite the fact that both are mothers to small children.

8. The Ingenues

We're still dismayed that women rarely succeed in the performing arts unless they also happen to be spectacularly beautiful, and so it was from 1925 to 1937 that the promotion for successful Chicago all-girl jazz band, The Ingenues, often emphasised the women's physical appeal, though most of the members were talented multi-instrumentalists. The women's visual appeal encouraged a career in film shorts, including the unbeatably titled "Syncopated Sweeties". Despite the giant entourage of 22 performers, The Ingenues were sufficiently popular to mount tours of Australia, South Africa, Asia and Australia.

7. The Slits

When most people imagine the classic era of British punk, they inevitably picture the likes of The Sex Pistols and other groups disaffected working-class young men. The Slits formed in 1976, around the time that key bands like The Buzzcocks and The Pistols emerged. While other phenomenal female performers like Siouxsie Sioux (of the Banshees)  arose out of the punk scene, The Slits were the only all-female band to attain notoriety . Their debut album, Cut, released in 1979 when singer Ari Up was still only seventeen years old, unsurprisingly attracted attention for its cover, on which the band appeared topless but for a light covering of mud. Yet, though their biting feminist critique was somewhat overlooked at the time (the song "Typical Girl" asks cynically: "Who invented the typical girl?/ Who's bringing out the new improved model?/ And there's another marketing ploy/Typical girl gets the typical boy"), The Slits have since acquired legendary status and Cut's influence has been acknowledged in lists of the most important albums in rock.

6. The Runaways

The Runaways was not the first girl rock band to be signed to a major label in the United States (that honour belongs to Goldie and the Gingerbreads at number 1), but the band did find mainstream success, most especially in Japan, and influenced succeeding generations of female musicians. The Runaways launched Joan Jett to stardom and also created an inauspicious beginning to the career of The Bangles' eventual bassist Michael (Micki) Steele who was fired from the group. The band crossed a number of gender barriers in the music industry:  bands such as Van Halen and Cheap Trick opened for The Runaways headline shows  and the group took to hanging out with The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned and Generation X. The Runaways' signature song 'Cherry Bomb', from their first album in 1976, is shown in this clip from their sold-out Japanese tour of 1977.

5. The Go-Go's
While 'We Got the Beat' and 'Our Lips are Sealed' have little punk or feminist fire, The Go Go's are the one of the most important girl groups by virtue their debut album Beauty and the Beast (1982) being the first ever album by a female group who played their own instruments and wrote their own material to top the US charts. Though it might be hard to imagine 'Leave a Light on For Me'-era Belinda Carlisle being on the musical edge, the band developed out of the Californian punk scene. The Go Go's began to establish a following in their home city and in  England when they supported Madness on a substantial run of dates in 1980. Though the band did have subsequent gold albums and top ten singles, The Go Go's were not able to replicate the phenomenal success of their first album, which topped the charts for six weeks, and disbanded in 1985 after the release of a third album.

4. L7

It's a long way from 'Summer Rain' to throwing a used tampon from the stage*, but though L7 may have never had the chart success of fellow Californians The Go-Go's, the band is emblematic of an important swathe of American girl bands who preferred to get angry than to co-ordinate their jumpers and perms. (I could have equally included any number of Riot Grrrl bands that rocked out from the early to mid-'90s, most notably Bikini Kill.) There is perhaps no better example of expressing anger rather than feminine insecurity and self-loathing than L7's track 'Shitlist': "When I get mad/ And I get pissed/ I grab my pen/ And I write out a list/ Of all the people/ That won't be missed/ You've made my shitlist." The band was also politically active for women's rights causes. In 1991, L7 organised and played at Rock for Choice, a pro-choice benefit concert. L7 had their roots firmly in punk, but successfully adapted their sound during the explosion of grunge with the single 'Pretend We're Dead' put on high rotation in 1992.
*At the Reading Festival in 1992, the crowd erupted angrily and started slinging mud when L7 was affected by sound problems. Donita Sparks removed a tampon from her vagina and hurled it into the crowd, with the following cry: "Eat my used tampon, f***ers!"

3. The Pleasure Seekers/Cradle

Now I've got to admit that, as a child, I was only aware of two pieces of information about Suzi Quatro: (1) she often performed on the "golden oldies" circuit in Australia and (2) she played Leather Tuscadero in Happy Days. I probably thought that Leather Tuscadero was a real musician, as the show clearly conveyed that somehow this character was famous beyond the set of Al's Diner. Not only did Quatro become a rocker and celebrity in her own right, but she was a founding member and singer of Detroit's The Pleasure Seekers, one of the first girl bands to be signed to a major label. As with The Slits, the band was formed when its members were still girls; when their first single 'Never Through You'd Leave Me' b/w 'What a Way to Die' was released, Suzi was only fifteen and her guitarist sister Patti was seventeen. Not only did both of the band's singles chart, but the group managed to change direction from the comparative restraint of The Pleasure Seekers to become the heavier outfit Cradle in 1969 and toured the United States and Vietnam.

2. The Bangles 
The Bangles might not be everyone's idea of one of the most significant female bands, but the band certainly impacted on me as a girl. Beyond cartoon images of female musicians, The Bangles were the first live women I saw on television who played instruments. There were no shortage of female singers, but I was soon aware that playing guitar or drums was not something that women typically did. But here were four exceedingly attractive women, who not only were fashionable and pretty, but who could wield a guitar. The band emerged from the West-Coast "Paisley Underground" scene in the early 1980s, in which bands paid homage to 1960s pop such as The Mama's and the Papa's, the influence of which remained evident in The Bangles' emphasis on vocal harmonies. The band's story, like that of many other female artists, is coloured by both elements of triumph and constraint in a male-controlled industry. The Bangles wrote the vast majority of their own material, but the three most successful singles, 'Walk Like an Egyptian', 'Manic Monday' (penned by Prince) and 'Eternal Flame', were written by men (though singer Susannah Hoffs was a co-writer on the latter single). Purportedly significant parts of hit album Different Light (1986) were overdubbed by no-doubt male session musicians, with the exception of the bass of Michael Steele (formerly of The Runaways). Internal division was sown as the sexy Hoffs was gradually promoted as the central figure in a band that actually shared lead vocals and through the intervention of executives who sought to extricate Hoffs from the group and promote her as a solo artist. Steele was similarly promised a solo contract to encourage the dissolution of the band, but unsurprisingly, the less marketable Steele never received a solo record deal.

1. Goldie and the Gingerbreads

Without Goldie and the Gingerbreads, however tame their songs, such as 'Can You Hear My Heartbeat' which hit number 25 in the UK singles chart in 1965, there might never have been a riot grrrl movement. The band of four (a drummer, organist, guitarist and vocalist) was the first all-girl "rock" group to be signed to a major American label (Decca) in 1963. Goldie and the Gingerbreads faced general apathy toward female performers, or alternately promotion that situated them as a "novelty" act because of the members' gender. Though various circumstances, including the difficult conditions for women artists, forced the band's demise in 1968, the band had already made monumental strides for women musicians by touring with The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Beatles and The Yardbirds in the United Kingdom.