Don't Dictate: A Retrospective of Women in Modern Rock, Part 1 (1975-1979)
Listen to the playlist as you read along by clicking on the streaming service of your choice.
I have planned on writing this post for awhile, but with the recent commemoration of International Women’s Day and the sea change that campaigns like #MeToo, #ImWithHer, and ‘Time’s Up’ are making on our society, it seems like a topic that deserves attention now. In all forms of society, and especially rock music, the plight of women has been fraught with difficulty. The enormous differential between music made and having broken through for men versus women is self-evident. This is not to say that women haven’t been prevalent and visible in music throughout, but in terms of being independent and able to succeed with one’s own musical vision and creative output, it has been and continues to be an uphill battle for women. Therefore this retrospective will look back at the women that forged new ground and made the way for others to follow, quite often with one or two less obstacles in their way. The focus is on women that didn’t just perform, but contributed to the idea of a female place in modern rock and indie music, whether it be through writing, by leading a band or as an individual, or by being an influential player within a band.
(Cover Photo, clockwise front top right: Debbie Harry of Blondie, Viv Albertine of The Slits, Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie And The Banshees, Pauline Black of The Selecter, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, and Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders.)
Pre-Playlist (YouTube only)
The Cookies (Carole King) - Chains (1962)
Nina Simone - Mississippi Goddam (1964)
Janis Joplin - Turtle Blues (1965)
The Liverbirds - Why Do You Hang Around Me? (1965)
The Luv'd Ones - Yeah I'm Feelin' Fine (1966)
Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick) - White Rabbit (1967)
Fanny - Come and Hold Me (1970)
Suzie Quatro - Rolling Stone (1972)
Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks & Christine McVie) - Rhiannon (1975)
Heart (Nancy & Ann Wilson) - Crazy on You (1976)
The focus of this playlist is on modern rock, which will trace the rise of female contributors over three parts from the punk movement through the various forms of indie and alternative music that blossomed over the 80s (Part 2), to the rockers and beyond in the 90s and 2000s. But before getting into the first era, it’s important to acknowledge those that paved the way in the decades before, because surely without them the late 70s contributors would not have had the opportunities they did. I have created a playlist in YouTube in which you’re welcome to check out songs from these individuals and bands.
The pre-cursors to modern rock were jazz, blues, folk, and a big band approach to pop music. Women participated mostly in folk music and as singers fronting jazz and pop bands in which the music and the group were controlled by men. Motown had a significant female presence as individual or troupe singers (e.g. The Ronettes, The Supremes) but likewise they were being managed and having songs written for them by men. Three notable contributors in the early era of more rock-oriented music was Carol Kaye, a bassist and very rare female presence in the recording studios of the time. She has played on a ridiculous list of songs and hits and was a member of the famous ‘Wrecking Crew’ (which she referred to as The Clique). Tina Turner also deserves recognition both in her partnership with husband, Ike Turner, in her turn as in The Who’s Pinball Wizard, and as a solo artist in offering an example to women that passion, a rough-edged delivery, and incredible energy were open to singers of both sexes. She didn’t gain the moniker, Queen of Rock n’ Roll, for nothing. Finally, Joni Mitchell is one of the most influential songwriters and performers ever noted by rock and pop artists, and though she was primarily a folk artist her legacy is rife through the annals of rock successors.
On with the pre-playlist: one of the first women to significantly break into the male dominated activities other than singing was Carole King. Her friendships with Paul Simon and Neil Sedaka, and then her writing partnership with husband Gerry Goffin, gave her opportunities many women didn’t have to get her songs recorded. By writing for various artists – men and women – and proving a prolifically successful writer, she helped establish the idea that not only men could write a contemporary song. While most of her material was in the folk, R&B, and pop genres, she did write edgier music that contributed to the birth of rock music. She and her husband wrote “Chains” and “Loco-motion” for their babysitter, Little Eva, and “Chains” would be covered shortly thereafter by The Beatles. King would go on to be one of the most successful and respected writers of her generation, not to mention her achievements when she also performed her own material.
Patti Smith Group - Break It Up (1975)
The Runaways - Lovers (1976)
Blondie (Debbie Harry) - Kung Fu Girls (1976)
The Adverts (Gaye Advert) - One Chord Wonders (1977)
Penetration (Pauline Murray) - Don't Dictate (1977)
Nina Hagen Band - Superboy (1978)
Kate Bush - Moving (1978)
Lene Lovich - Lucky Number (1979)
X-Ray Spex - The Day the World Turned Day-Glo (1978)
Siouxsie & The Banshees (Siouxsie Sioux) - Suburban Relapse (1978)
The Raincoats - Fairytale in the Supermarket (1979)
Mo-Dettes - White Mice (1979)
Ellen Foley - Hideaway (1979)
B-52s - 52 Girls (1979)
The Slits - Typical Girls (1979)
Au Pairs - You (1979)
Delta 5 - Mind Your Own Business (1979)
Kirsty MacColl - They Don’t Know (1979)
Martha and the Muffins - Paint By Number Heart (1979)
Nina Simone was a blues singer of incredible talent and force, but in the early 60s became motivated by the civil rights movement. “Mississippi Goddam” was a song written by her and, though in a traditional blues structure, the protest and emotional tone of it established the idea that women had something to say, and could do it in music. Likewise, Janis Joplin, though not protest oriented, was one of the first women to lead an blues-rock act and establish some acceptance that women could screech, wail, and rock a tune as well as – and often better – than any man. Janis didn’t write most of her material, but “Turtle Blues” is one of her earliest songs and is written by her.
As the early waves of rock artists took the world by storm in the second half of the 60s, female-led acts were few and far between. Even rarer were all-female acts. Two of the first were The Liverbirds out of Liverpool and The Luv’d Ones from Michigan. Although both only existed for a few years and didn’t achieve much success they showed audiences that an all-women ensemble could rock n’ roll the same as any male act. Picking up on that tradition would be Fanny, led by Filipino sisters June and Jean Millington. They broke out of California in the early 70s and, like their predecessors had trouble establishing a viable level of success but could write and perform rock music no different than the many male acts of the time.
Where women had more success in those early days of rock n’ roll was as parts of ensembles with men. Grace Slick didn’t just front Jefferson Airplane, she wrote several of the songs including their biggest and most ground-breaking tune, “White Rabbit.” Likewise, when Christine McVie and then Stevie Nicks joined Fleetwood Mac, they brought the established act to a stratospheric level of success by helping write many of their biggest hits. The first album that Nicks participated on had “Landslide” and “Rhiannon,” songs that helped propel it to being the first #1 album for the band. The next album was Rumours, one of the biggest selling albums of all time. Their ascension was during an era when mainstream rock was getting smoothed out and women were finding an easier time achieving success, such as Linda Ronstadt, Abba, Captain and Tennille, Cher (whose career spanned back to the early 60s as a folk and pop performer), and The Carpenters to name just a few. An exception to that trend was Heart, an act from the American northwest and Vancouver fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson who wrote, sang, and played lead guitar on all the band’s songs. Heart also was a heavier rocking band, and its enormous success opened countless doors for women in the hard rock and eventual heavy metal categories. The Wilson sisters also switched labels when their first label sexualized them as part of promotional material, offering a rare example of women pushing back against the endemic sexism of the industry.
Individual female artists succeeded mostly in jazz, pop, and blues but not many broke through in rock music. One of the few was American Suzie Quatro, who achieved a series of charting albums and singles through the 1970s and was also a rare female bass player. Today she may be known as much for her portrayal of Leather Tuscadero on the TV show, Happy Days, but before then she was a bona fide rock star and a rare solo, female performer. However, her story is also telling in that all her A-side singles were written by men, and her own songs would be placed on the B-side. She was also managed by producer Mickie Most, who navigated her career but importantly didn’t try to convert Suzie into another pop star, allowing her to be the rocker she wanted to be (they had visions of her being the next Janis Joplin). I haven’t listened to her entire discography but even a brief listen gives me the impression many of her own songs were as good as those provided by the men - usually Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, who also wrote many hits for other, male acts; so it can be argued the set-up for Quatro had less to do with her being a women and more about providing good material to ensure her success. “Rolling Stone” was her third single and an A-side in which she was a co-writer, and the last A-side she would have her name on. Her career would take off when she started releasing the Chapman-Chinn songs.
While these artists existed in more conservative times, it didn’t prevent the use of sexuality as a means in which women were presented, promoted, and often succeeded – and I can only imagine the environment they had to navigate behind the scenes. But one of the important distinctions of these ground-breaking women, which will be consistent with those that follow on this playlist, is the lack of focus on their looks or sexuality as a means of expression. That’s not to say this doesn’t exist on some level and to varying degrees for these artists then and now – many have stripped or exposed themselves on stage or for a camera, or wear skimpier outfits for performing, but its more an exception than a rule and is not the reason for their success – and compared to pop music, heavy metal, and even jazz and blues, the prevalent use of revealing outfits and primped up make-up and hair have been secondary if not outright abandoned or eschewed in the punk, alternative, and indie worlds. While I understand this comes off as placing alternative rock on some sort of moral high ground – and I assure you I am not – but I think it’s important to note that not only did these women create a space for them and others in a male dominated world, they did it through their talent and music, not because of hair colour, breast size, or skirt length, and in this form of music there is a healthy list of examples from which to choose.
Break It Up \ Patti Smith Group (1975) – I cover the importance of Patti as one of the earliest and only female progenitors of the punk scene in my write-up on her, so I would be remiss to leave her absent from this playlist. Taken from her first album, Horses, “Break It Up” is a song written by Patti and Tom Verlaine from the band, Television. It’s a good example of how her early sound helped take a traditional rock sound of the mid-70s and twist it into an edgier, emotive yet not saccharine, performance.
Lovers \ The Runaways (1976) – This band is well-regarded as being one of the first all-female punk bands. Their music was generally not very strong and hews more to a traditional rock sound, though they had a few minor hits and were a sensation in Japan. They were managed, produced, and promoted by a man, Kim Fowley, but wrote and performed all the music. A 2010 movie about the band revealed the struggles, assaults, and manipulations young women in the business had to face. Though the focus on The Runaways was mostly on Cherie Currie, it would be members Joan Jett, Lita Ford, and Micki Steele (The Bangles) that would go on to more illustrious careers. “Lovers” is from the first album and written and sung by Joan Jett.
Kung Fu Girls \ Blondie (1976) – I also covered the importance of Debbie Harry in my profile of Blondie, who was one of the only females, along with Patti Smith, to establish a leading presence in the New York punk scene of the late 70s. Though the band would move to a rock-dance-pop sound in later albums, the first album is an interesting mix of retro-pop with edgy, rock and punk infused sounds and attitude. “Kung Fu Girls” is a great example of that approach. Debbie Harry wasn’t just the singer in Blondie, along with Chris Stein she was a principle songwriter, though this song was written by her along with band members Jimmy Destri and Gary Valentine.
One Chord Wonders \ The Adverts (1977) – One of the first punk bands in the UK, they were led by the couple TV Smith and Gaye Advert (Gaye Black). Gaye was one of the first females to appear in the emerging scene and was notable for it. “One Chord Wonders” was their first single, and they would have greater success the next year with “Gary Gilmore’s Eyes.”
Don’t Dictate \ Penetration (1977) – Another early punk band in London, Penetration was the first to release music with a female lead, Pauline Murray. She also co-wrote most of their material. Hearing a woman sing the angry and aggressive punk style was a revelation. While most of England was cowering and looking down their noses at the anti-establishment and often violent scene, individuals like Pauline jumped in and made a place for women.
Superboy \ Nina Hagen Band (1978) – In Europe, one of the first females to gain a following in the new forms of modern rock was Nina Hagen. A classically trained singer, she brought her incredible and forceful voice and zany fashion to rock music. Forming a band in East Germany, Hagen wrote and performed all the music with her band before going solo in the 1980s. “Superboy” was from the first album and was an example of the various musical styles and vocal gymnastics that were standard in her not just her music, but all within a single song.
Moving \ Kate Bush (1978) – Only a teenager when she released her first album, Kate Bush’s enigmatic style would quickly make her one of the leading solo artists in the post-punk world. Her first album was less progressive and kept with the traditional rock style of the late 70s, but her unique voice and phrasing and lush arrangements indicated there were many great things to come. “Moving” was the first song on her first album, and a lovely introduction to one of the leading solo, female artists of the modern rock era. Look for my profile on her to be published soon.
Lucky Number \ Lene Lovich (1978) – Here was another rare solo, female artist who was less punk oriented and one of the first to branch out into a different style. A little new wave, her brand of smart-pop, coming out of the great Stiff Records label, gave her a unique place in the music landscape. American born but working out of the UK, she was similar to Nina Hagen in embracing a quirky visual style. Her album, Stateless was one of the best albums of the post-punk era. The lead single, a cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now” was a great introduction, but it was the second single, “Lucky Number,” released early in 1979, that brought her into wider attention and acclaim.
The Day the World Turned Day-Glo \ X-Ray Spex (1978) – This was another mixed ensemble and another punk band with a female lead vocal. In addition to singer, Poly Styrene, one of the more iconic UK punkers, the band had Lora Logic on sax. Their single, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” is one of the consummate singles of the first-generation UK punk scene and their album Germ Free Adolescents (their only album to be released in that time period) is one of the must-have LPs of the era. Poly Styrene’s high-pitched wailing and aggressive vocals embodied the spirit of punk as well any. “The Day the World Turned ‘Day-Glo” is one of the many standout tracks from the album.
Suburban Relapse \ Siouxsie & The Banshees (1978) – Siouxsie Sioux was also one of the most recognizable women in the UK punk scene, hanging with the Sex Pistols and always pushing the punk attire envelope with bondage and fetish wear, swastikas, and championing the dark, goth look with her hair and make-up. When she got on stage with the band they also moved punk into darker and moodier places. The first album, The Scream, was groundbreaking and the urgency and angst of songs like “Suburban Relapse” showed how different they were and would be. Siouxsie and the Banshees and others would go on to launch the whole genre of goth music and release many incredible albums and songs over the next decade. Siouxsie was one of the most persecuted, yet bravest, most confident and independent female rockers of the modern music era.
Fairytale in the Supermarket \ The Raincoats (1979) – This band was one of the lesser known punk bands of the era, and it’s revealing that a short playlist like this is able to get to bands like this because there were so few females during this explosive era of music. The Raincoats were also one of the only all-female punk bands of the era along with The Slits and Mo-Dettes, whom they shared several band members. They started with Gina Burch and Ana da Silva and three men in the band, before the lads were replaced with Slits drummer Palmolive and violinist Vicky Aspinall. Their first single was “Fairytale in the Supermarket,” presenting a sound that proved the women could be as rough and ready as their male counterparts.
White Mice \ Mo-Dettes (1979) – Only releasing one album and this notable single, which remains one of my all-time favourite songs, the Mo-Dettes were another rare all-female punk band. Led by Kate Korris (ex of both The Slits and The Raincoats) and Jane Crockford, they would add the distinct vocals of Ramona Carlier and June Miles-Kingston on drums. “White Mice” is just the perfect blend of pop and punk, with funky basslines and a catchy rhythm. It’s also a song I don’t think would work as well if done by men, showing that women didn’t just bring a different look to the scene, they had their own musical style and sound that helped broaden the scope of the era.
Ellen Foley \ Hideaway (1979) – Sometimes referred to as the female Bruce Springsteen, Foley is best known for her contribution to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and her many film and television roles (the best known being a stint on the 80's sitcom, Night Court, though I also remember her earlier and brief cameo in the movie Tootsie). Her debut album is a classic rock album and a standout of the era – perhaps one of the last pure rockers of the decade as punk, new wave, and R&B infused pop took over. The album, Night Out, is bolstered by contributions from the likes of Mick Ronson and Ian Hunter and is mostly cover songs, such as Graham Parker’s “Thunder and Rain” and a wicked version of The Stones’ “Stupid Girl.” The first side of the album is a classic, from an era when album sides meant something. “Hideaway” is one of the two songs on the album co-written by Foley and a solid rocker that gives her strong voice the chance to belt it out. Foley is a reminder that in the standard rock genre, women were simply rare, especially as a standalone artist.
52 Girls \ B-52s (1979) – While Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson didn’t write any of the B-52s songs (though were credited in a few), they sang on almost all of them (as well as adding some guitar and the keyboards) and were the defining image and sound of the band with their beehive hairdos and quirky, harmony vocals. Combining a post-punk edge with a 50s and 60s pop sound, the band created a unique place for themselves in the late 70s. “52 Girls” was the B-side to the B-52's famous first single, “Rock Lobster,” and one of the few songs on their landmark first album that was sung solely by the two female singers (Fred Schneider also sang on most songs). For those women looking for a place in the music world that didn’t want to punk out yet still be independent and musically distinctive, Pierson and Wilson gave them a great example to follow.
Typical Girls \ The Slits (1979) – This all-girl band was actually one of the first punk bands formed in the UK (1976) and certainly the first all-female act in that genre. Their use of world music and reggae dubbed into punk also predated that of The Clash, and in the words of Viv Albertine, The Slits were “much more revolutionary than the Pistols and the Clash.” I wouldn’t argue with that. However, it took until 1979 for them to get this, their first single, out along with an album, Cut, that remains a standard bearer of the genre (I consider them punk though some put them in the post-punk category, and given the lateness of this release the timing would fit better in that timeline, along with the more stylized sound compared to their rawer earlier live sound).
The band members were all icons of the punk scene: Ari Up, Palmolive, Viv Albertine, and Tessa Pollitt (original members Kate Korus and Suzy Gutsy had moved on by the time the album came out). Palmolive had moved on to The Raincoats by the time of this album and the drums were played by male drummer, Budgie. All songs however, were written by the four female band members prior to that line-up change, so Palmolive still gets a credit.
The Slits also embodied a female punk dynamic of challenging the expectations of audiences on how women should look and act. By appearing on their album cover topless, wearing loin cloth, and caked in mud, they presented themselves as fierce and tribal, inverting the nudity from a pin-up standard into a declaration of independence and assertiveness. This coordinated with the DIY nature of their music since, same as most early punk bands, they were just learning their instruments and making it up as they went along. Few women embraced this ethos as readily as the men did.
You \ Au Pairs (1979) – The Au Pairs were a vastly underrated and under-recognized act of the time, releasing two albums over a five-year stint. The band, a quartet from Birmingham, England, included Jane Munro on bass and Lesley Woods on guitar and vocals (many songs were also sung by Paul Foad). The band co-wrote all its material, so Jane and Lesley had full credit for their contributions to the band’s great, post-punk sound. “You” was their first single and released in late 1979.
Mind Your Own Business \ Delta 5 (1979) – Started by three women, Julz Sale, Ros Allen, and Bethan Peters, they would later add male band members on drums and guitar before releasing their debut single in late 1979, “Mind Your Own Business.” Similar sounding to their Leeds counterparts, Gang of Four, their bass-driven, funk punk sound was set apart by Sale's female vocal. Like most of their fellow male punk and post-punk bands, there wasn’t a lot of success to be found for their sound, and only managed one album and a selection of singles. But helped establish greater acceptance for female bands in the evolving music scene.
They Don’t Know \ Kirsty MacColl (1979) – MacColl might be a singer many have heard but don’t know her name. “They Don’t Know” was her first of several singles released through Stiff Records, released in June of 1979 she was part of a burgeoning wave of alt-pop artists spinning off the punk movement. This song was covered by Tracey Ullman in 1983 and was a top 10 hit for the comedienne/singer in both the UK and US. The closest Kirsty would come to such success was her 1984 single, “A New England,” which reached the top 10 in the UK but didn’t chart in North America. She released her first album in 1981 and wouldn’t release another until 1989, generally focusing on singles and guesting on others’ work, especially those of her husband\producer Steve Lillywhite. Her best-known contribution would be on The Pogues’ Christmas song, “Fairytale of New York.”
Paint by Number Heart \ Martha and The Muffins (1979) – Rather than highlight the big single from this first album, “Echo Beach,” which was written by band member, Mark Gane, I’ve chosen another great song that was written by one of the two female band members, lead singer Martha Johnson. Martha Ladly was the other female in the band who also co-wrote songs, added vocals, and played keyboards. A Canadian act, this band was one of many that helped drive the rise of new wave music. After this first release in late ’79 they would release several more LPs in the 1980s and enjoy prominent success in Canada. Ladly left the band after the second album, moving to the UK where she would contribute vocals to music by Roxy Music and join the band The Associates. She also did visual arts work with Factory Records mainstay, Peter Saville. She would create iconic album covers for OMD’s Architecture and Morality and New Order’s EP, 1981-FEP 313-1982. Today she’s an Associate Dean at Toronto’s art college, OCAD. Martha Johnson and Mark Gane, who are married, continued as the main members of Martha and the Muffins, also briefly changing their name to M+M. Martha has also done children’s music and recorded music to raise funds for Parkinson’s Disease, which she was diagnosed with in 2001.
This list does not cover all the women performing in this genre during this time, but certainly provides a view of the better-known players. There were others such as The Bags out of LA (a mixed ensemble led by Alicia Armendariz and Patricia Morrison, who performed as Alice Bag and Pat Bag), and Poison Ivy of the Cramps. After many women over the first two decades of modern rock and pop music had managed to open doors to the microphones and front edges of the stages in rock, a new, young generation of females, mostly in the punk world, asserted themselves and made the female presence in modern rock a more normalized reality. Between 1975 and 1980 the level of involvement and prominence of women increased significantly. As rock’s third full decade started the opportunity for women to play a significant role was greater than ever.
Continue listening and reading about the story of women in modern rock: