Don’t cha wish your girl band was hot like ours?

Sinéad Glee­son goes on a girl group odyssey

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

‘IN THE be­gin­ning . . . there was rhythm.” It wasn’t un­til the 1970s that The Slits ac­tu­ally sang those now-fa­mous words, but then there weren’t many all-fe­male bands around be­fore the 1970s, let alone ones that aped the mud-smeared, dread­locked ul­u­la­tions of the punk trio.

In the be­gin­ning, well, the con­cept of what we now de­fine as the girl group didn’t re­ally ex­ist, and not in the con­text that we know it to­day. The 1920s and 1930s were dom­i­nated by the mu­sic-hall tra­di­tion, and fe­male groups pro­duced mainly vo­cal-har­mony odes to in­nocu­ous sub­jects.


In flap­per-era 1920s, Ohio singing duo The Ponce Sis­ters emerged. They rep­re­sented a new wave of fe­male mu­si­cians who didn’t want to lurk be­hind a male band leader. There were many sis­ter acts: The Boswell Sis­ters, The Dan­dridge Sis­ters (who fea­tured Dorothy Dan­dridge, the first AfricanAmer­i­can woman to be nom­i­nated for a bestac­tress Os­car) and the slightly comedic Nord­strom Sis­ters.

They were all-singing, all-fe­male, but the em­pha­sis was on vo­cals, not play­ing, and al­ways on other peo­ple’s songs. Groups that could play their own in­stru­ments were rare, but there were some pi­o­neers. The Tri­o­lettes, who all worked in ra­dio, belted out songs they had ar­ranged them­selves. One Tri­o­lettes mem­ber, Eu­nice Miller, was also in a band called The Croon­ing Banjo Sis­ters with her sib­ling Ur­sula.

For women, vo­cals and ban­jos seemed to be the gui­tar and bass of the 1930s. The Coon Creek Girls, an all-string Ap­palachian folk en­sem­ble fea­tured Lily May Led­ford on fivestring banjo. The acme of their ca­reer was an in­vite to play at the White House in 1939 dur­ing a visit from Bri­tain’s King Ge­orge VI.


By the 1950s there was a shift – not just mu­si­cally but so­cially. At the end of the decade The Marvelettes, the first of Mo­town’s many girl groups, ap­peared. The group’s Please Mr Post­man, re­leased in 1961, was Mo­town’s first No 1 on the US Bill­board chart, but the trio were notable for more than that. They were black, fe­male and work­ing in an in­dus­try in which ev­ery­thing from song­writ­ing to stu­dio pro­duc­tion and A&R was con­trolled by men.

The sac­cha­rine sparkle of fe­male trios (their names usu­ally pre­fixed by the def­i­nite ar­ti­cle) sup­plied the sound of the decade. Heart­break nar­ra­tives sung by iden­ti­cally dressed and coiffed women sold mas­sively. The Velvelettes had some suc­cess on the la­bel, but Mo­town’s girl group icons were The Supremes, Martha & the Van­del­las and Gla­dys Knight and The Pips. De­spite the cookie-cut­ter line-ups, Mo­town didn’t have mo­nop­oly on these groups: The Shirelles, signed to Scep­tre, had a No 1 in the same year with Will You Love Me To­mor­row, and The Flir­ta­tions’ Noth­ing But a Heartache was re­leased on Deram records.

If proof were needed that la­bels were chas­ing a for­mu­laic hit sound, The Flir­ta­tions once won a tal­ent con­test to find an act who sounded like The Supremes. “I like a boy. He doesn’t like me back. I want to cry, or die, or both.” Such three-minute con­fes­sions are time­less, but change was com­ing down the tracks. Bub­blegum laments were get­ting old. En­ter The Shaggs, a new Hamp­shire trio of sis­ters who re­leased one al­bum in 1969. If you’ve never heard them, it’s best to re­fer to the in­fa­mous de­scrip­tion of them by The Rolling Stones, who said they sounded like a “lobotomised Von Trapp fam­ily”. (Frank Zappa later coun­tered this and said they were “bet­ter than The Bea­tles”.)


The 1970s saw the ex­plo­sion of gen­res out­side of rock: disco, punk, reg­gae, funk, ska, elec­tronic mu­sic and hip-hop. With all the di­ver­sity and bar­rier-break­ing go­ing on, it was in­evitable that women would start pick­ing up in­stru­ments and prove they had more mu­si­cal worth than as to­ken back­ing singers.

The decade also be­gan with an un­likely ex­am­ple of what was pos­si­ble: Russ Meyer’s film Be­yond the Val­ley of the Dolls. In it, an allfe­male rock group, The Car­rie Na­tions, at­tempt to make the big time. In typ­i­cal Meyer style, they were car­toon­ish, scant­ily clad and ob­jec­ti­fied, but they showed, al­beit fic­ti­tiously, what a girl group could be.

It’s any­one’s guess whether or not Joan Jett ever saw the film, but her band The Ru­n­aways (av­er­age age: 15) had a sim­i­lar am­bi­tion in the mid-1970s, even when they were get­ting spat at and bot­tled off stage. They didn’t so much open the door of male­dom­i­nated rock as kick it in and stomp all over it.

Top of the Pops of­fered a plat­form for bands, but the only vis­i­ble group of women

who per­formed reg­u­larly were Pan’s Peo­ple and their in­ter­pre­ta­tive dances. Out­side the cosy stu­dios of the BBC, punk and ska were prov­ing to be a gateway into mu­sic for women. Ari­ane Forster, aka Ari-Up, fronted leg­endary punk group The Slits along with Viv Al­ber­tine and Tessa Pol­lit. They were ac­cused of be­ing am­a­teurs, but made up in pas­sion what they lacked in mu­si­cian­ship. When Ari-Up died last year, many fe­male mu­si­cians spoke of her as an inspiration. Writ­ing in the NME, Kate Nash claimed Forster had “lib­er­ated and em­pow­ered me”.

For the first year of their ex­is­tence, The Rain­coats weren’t ex­clu­sively fe­male, but in 1978 joined by three new mem­bers in­clud­ing ex-Slits mem­ber Pal­mo­live, they be­came an­other of punk’s totemic fe­male out­fits. They toured with Kleenex, an all-girl Swiss punk band.

Punk’s part­ner-in-crime was ska, which boasted a hand­ful of women-only bands – The Del­tones, The Bodys­natch­ers – who gained a pro­file, and The Belle Stars went on to have chart hits in the 1980s with Iko Iko and The Clap­ping Song.

As punk po­goed its way in to the main­stream, funk and disco were in full swing in the US. Sis­ter Sledge, who had orig­i­nally en­tered the scene in the mid-1970s only to dip, be­fore be­ing res­ur­rected by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Ed­wards of Chic at the end of the decade. Rodgers’ pro­duc­tion val­ues tri­umphed, and there’s no ar­gu­ing with the clas­sic sta­tus of hits such as Think­ing About You, Lost in Mu­sic and We Are Fam­ily.

With the ex­cep­tion of the The Ru­n­aways (who were big in Ja­pan), many of the rock, punk and ska bands re­mained on the pe­riph­ery. In genre, com­mer­cial and gen­der terms, they were still out­siders, but an­other new decade would change that.


The 1980s was a break­through time, with many fe­male acts en­joy­ing huge chart suc­cess and break­ing in to ar­eas of mu­sic pre­vi­ously dom­i­nated by men. Be­fore that hap­pened, how­ever, there was a sea of pop to tra­verse. The early years of the 1980s saw the slow shift from ska and punk to “Cap­i­tal P” Pop. Bana­narama’s first out­ing had been a col­lab­o­ra­tion with ska band Fun Boy Three, but they be­gan a crank-’em-out ca­reer that sees them still hold­ing the record for the most chart en­tries by a girl band.

State­side, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Weaver and the rest of The Go-Gos pouted out Our Lips Are Sealed. Our ex­pe­ri­ence of all-girl bands is dom­i­nated by ge­og­ra­phy, and the UK and US top the list. But in the bur­geon­ing days of the 1980s, in Osaka, Sho­nen Knife were writ­ing fran­tic songs about Brown Mush­rooms and Ba­nana Chips. Their ca­reer has been lengthy and they paved the way for other Ja­panese girl bands such as OOIOO, The, Oresk­a­band and The Su­van.

High-pro­file 1980s girl groups tended to top the charts (The Ban­gles) or fill sta­di­ums (Heart). Then Ch­eryl James, Sandy Den­ton, and Dee Dee Roper showed up. Rap and hiphop were still find­ing their feet, when Salt-NPepa – all span­dex and bling – asked us to Push It. Sex­u­ally frank with their lyrics, they were com­pletely un­in­tim­i­dated by the ma­cho genre they found them­selves in.


In­die bands took a lit­tle longer to stake their claim, but it was worth it when they did. The last batch of role mod­els harked back to the late 1970s and early 1980s – and no one quite knew whether to take We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It se­ri­ously. In the US, New York four-piece Lus­cious Jack­son (who were signed to The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal la­bel) stepped up along­side other acts such as Lu­nachicks, Sleater-Kin­ney, Babes in Toy­land and L7.

That last act’s singer, Donita Sparks, en­sured a place in mu­si­cal his­tory af­ter L7 played at the 1992 Read­ing Fes­ti­val. Un­happy with the sound, Sparks re­moved her tam­pon and fired it into the crowd, shout­ing “eat my used tam­pon, f***ers!”

“The Marvelettes (be­low) were black, fe­male and work­ing in an in­dus­try in which ev­ery­thing was con­trolled by men”


Not some­thing that any of the highly mar­keted girl groups of the 1990s would have dared ut­ter. All Saints and The Spice Girls went head-to-head in the charts in a Blurver­sus-Oa­sis-style competition. The shriek­ing about Girl Power aside, Vic­to­ria, Gerry, Emma and Mels B and C made some in­sanely catchy tunes, from ear­worm Wannabe to the faux-salsa of Spice Up Your Life.

Amer­i­can con­tem­po­raries En Vogue, TLC, SWV and the hugely suc­cess­ful Des­tiny’s Child were rooted in r’n’b. These were high­pro­file, unit-shift­ing cover stars. The less said about brand-not-band Pussy­cat Dolls the bet­ter.


Ire­land has been re­miss with its tally of girl bands. We’ve been served with pop pap such as B*witched, Won­der­land, Trin­ity and Euro­vi­sion en­trants Sheeba. But we should be grate­ful for ex­cel­lent in­die bands such as Medea, Chicks, You’re Only Mas­sive and Party Weirdo.


The past two decades have been a high point for women in mu­sic. An all-fe­male band is no longer a nov­elty or an ex­cep­tion. Mov­ing along the spec­trum, from har­monised pop to riot gr­rrl rock, many of these women were ground-break­ers. As Jessica Hop­per says in her book The Girls’ Guide to Rock­ing, they were the women who “gave us per­mis­sion” to pick up a gui­tar or learn drums. They criss­crossed gen­res from Wil­son Phillips to Su­gababes, The Like to The Indigo Girls, Chicks on Speed to The Pipettes. The list sprawls: The Or­gan, The Spells, Vi­vian Girls, Coco Rosie, Scala, The Plasticines.

The fu­ture looks very bright. Last year saw the re­lease of ex­cel­lent al­bums from Warpaint, Moun­tain Man and Dum Dum Girls. This year The Suzan, The Se­cret Sis­ters and LCMDF are gain­ing at­ten­tion.

Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs once said that, grow­ing up, she “didn’t have many chances to ex­pe­ri­ence women play­ing rock mu­sic. Most of the women I’ve ad­mired had to rein­vent the genre for them­selves.”

Rein­ven­tion is only pos­si­ble when some­thing pre-ex­ist­ing is de­con­structed. Be­fore the 1920s, there was noth­ing to base that on. We’ve come along way since then.











Main cover im­age is Ari Up of The Slits at Alexandra Palace, Lon­don, in 1980




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