By the time the ’70s arrived, rock’s dynamic women carried the tools created by its pioneers and utilized them to mold and shape various eclectic sounds of rebellion, mystique, glamour, angst, revenge, independence, love and power. The genre began its manifestation into sub-genres–proving itself as more than just a monolith or fad. Rock & Roll was there to stay, and the first ladies of its culture were still fighting for their right to be themselves, write, sing and play. Despite this uphill battle, these women persevered, finding camaraderie and strength in numbers.
This all girl band hit the music scene with their mix of heavy metal and the emerging genre of punk rock. Lita Ford, Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Jackie Fox and Sandy West made up this kick ass band, whom despite the press’ dismissive response toward their adolescence, played rock n’ roll wild and loud. And in some ways, they were the very first to boast heavy guitar driven tracks and rebellious lyrics, encouraging girls of past and present to crank up of the bite of their creative hearts. “Cherry Bomb,” the band’s first single and riot girl anthem, stands as one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Its lyrics ripped closed doors from their hinges, making an impression on a world which told them and women all around what behaving like lady entailed.
While The Runaways didn’t receive the recognition of their fearless innovation during their prime, time has brought change. “Cherry Bomb” came in at #52 on Vh1’s list of Greatest Hard Rock Songs of All Time. In 2010, director Floria Sigismondi, adapted Cherie Currie’s novel, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, into a film starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning. The film–titled after the band’s name–revived interest in younger generations, strengthening the overall legacy of The Runaways.
While Goldie and The Gingerbreads were the first girl band to sign with a major label, Fanny–a quartet of rad musicians–were the first to release an album on a major label.
Formed in the first half of the ’60s by sisters June and Jean Millington the band signed to Reprise in 1969. They performed under the moniker of Svelts until a change in members inspired a new name: Fanny. “It was a woman’s name, and it was a double entendre at the time. We felt it was like a female spirit watching over us. We didn’t really think of it as a butt, a sexual term! I think we needed to feel like we had a woman guardian angel watching over us, like a Russian grandmother, with kindly eyes and glasses and white hair, going ‘I’m your Aunt Fanny, and I’ll help you get through this,” June explained.
The band went on to release four albums with Reprise. None broke the charts, except for the single “Charity Ball”– which topped at No. 40. June believes part of this to be due to Fanny not having the right song at the right time. After their fourth album was released, June and Alice de Buhr left the band. The remaining women carried on by replacing them with Patti Quatro–sister of Suzi Quatro–and Brie Brandt, for a final album called, “Rock and Roll Survivors,” via Casablanca records. The album churned out a Top 30 hit with “Butter Boy,” but wasn’t enough to keep the band together.
“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace. And that is Fanny. They were one of the finest… rock bands of their time, in about 1973. They were extraordinary: They wrote everything, they played like motherfuckers, they were just colossal and wonderful. They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done”- David Bowie, Rolling Stone, 1999
This whimsical and poetic soul, brought bohemian flavor and mysticism to both Rock & Roll and her band, Fleetwood Mac. She’s a survivor of many things and an artist who made sure to place transparency in her work and words. Stevie Nicks was and is a force to be reckoned with.
Her voice is other-worldly, something my imagination associates with enchanting stories of fables and faraway kingdoms. Her lyrics to songs like “Sara,” “Gypsy,” “Gold Dust Woman” and “Sisters of the Moon,” paint such lush landscapes–one can almost feel the scenes she sings about with their ears. But it’s “Rhiannon,” a song Stevie wrote before she joined Fleetwood Mac, that truly encompasses the brilliance of her gift.
“I got the name from a novel, I think I bought in an airport just before a long flight; it was called Triad, and it was about a girl named Rhiannon and her sister and mother, or something like that. I just thought the name was so pretty that I wanted to write something about a girl named Rhiannon. I wrote it about three months before I joined Fleetwood Mac, in about 1974. And then to find out that Rhiannon was a real mythical character! I went and read the four books of Rhiannon, and visited the lady who’d translated them. ” Stevie Nicks, Songs in the Rough by Stephen Bishop, 1996
“Rhiannon is the story of a lady that is from another world ~ called the Bright world ~ and she leaves her kingdom to become the wife of a king ~ a mortal king ~ but goddesses really can’t marry mortal kings, if they do they lose their powers ~ their magic powers. And they don’t lose the knowledge of them they just ~they know everything that’s going to happen they just can’t do anything about it. Which is a much more difficult way to live than not having magic powers is to not be able to use them and know exactly what’s coming and to not be able to tell anybody. So she comes down and does her whole trip, and it’s just a whole story ~ it’s a wonderful story.
And she has these birds that sing and that is the legend of the song of the birds of Rhiannon. And they sing this song that is uh, said takes away pain and suffering and if you hear the song you just sort of blank out and go away and then when you wake up everything’s all right. And it is a wonderful, wonderful story which I use a lot, because there’s a lot of ~ there seems to be a lot of need for the story of Rhiannon around lately, because if people are sad or have lost anybody or something the story really makes a lot of sense.
~Stevie Nicks, Starsound Special RKO Radio, December 21, 1981
The song, along with her solo single, “Edge of Seventeen,” have stood the test of time as Stevie’s greatest. And with such magical mythology behind “Rhiannon,” it’s no wonder Mick Fleetwood regards Stevie’s earlier performances of the song as such. “She was basically possessed,” Mick Fleetwood said. “Her Rhiannon in those days was like an exorcism.”
Equipped with this song in their arsenal, Fleetwood Mac obtained a cult like following. Stevie sparked a pop culture movement, inspiring women to base their wardrobes around her style–which is still seen today.
“You can’t help but be in awe of her presence,” Alana Haim told Rolling Stone. “She’s the most powerful person I’ve ever seen onstage.”
Deemed “the punk poet laureate,” and “Godmother of Punk,” Patti Smith fused rock and poetry in a most fascinating and visceral way. Some liken her musical approach to Bob Dylan. And while, there are similarities, Patti ain’t no Dylan. She was unconventional and experimental in her methods–improvising and singing in noisy, deep tones, delivering bits of avant garde in her expression.
Everything Patti stood for, served as inspiration for following female rockers. Relying on her sex appeal was never a mechanism for her success. Instead, she challenged the idea of what was expected of her appearance with an androgynous style.Her gender didn’t take precedence over her identity as an artist, and as a result, Patti tore through the boundaries blocking her path.
Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart
Fearless in every sense of the word, the Wilson sisters have rightfully made their place in Rock & Roll. They joined the once all male band, Heart in the 1970s and never looked back, hell bent on changing the conversation on women in rock. “We’re weren’t going to be sold as cheesecake,” lead singer Ann Wilson said in a VH1 interview. “We were going to be ourselves.” There’s was an addition which seemed to kick start the band into the mainstream with hits like “Barracuda,” “Magic Man,” and “Crazy On You”–which were all driven by true life stories of gossip squashing, love and even resentment with “If Looks Could Kill.”
The Wilson sisters still create with Heart in present day–commanding chills and their audience’s full attention. This includes Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin, who was brought to tears with their blazing rendition of “Stairway To Heaven” at 2012’s Kennedy Center Honors.
Small in size, but hard hitting in impact, Pat Benatar and her pop rock stood center stage in the early ’80s. Her voice–powerful and tough–combined various elements of sex appeal. With the help of Chrysalis records–the same label that brought us Billy Idol–Benatar and her band cultivated hits like “Heartbreaker,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “I Need A Lover” and “Love Is A Battlefield.” She stands in history as the first woman ever played on MTV.
“This is always such a difficult topic. I have mixed feelings — I hate the idea of being singled out as a “Female Rocker.” It defeats the entire argument that we are all the equal. At the same time, the sheer number of males versus females will always tip the scale. Because of the era grew up in, it’s hard to shake that nagging rub, that being separated, labeled as “female” in some way is a slight, a way to subliminally suggest inferiority. It’s interesting, because personally, I don’t feel that way at all. I’m proud, so secure, and even a little arrogant when it comes to being a woman. I wait for the day when that feeling permeates everything!”
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders
As the lead of The Pretenders, Chrissie Hynde’s talent and perseverance can’t be denied. From the band’s birth, Hynde was their creator, choosing each member personally and also penning, playing and singing the songs. Like Patti Smith, she redefined feminine sexuality with her play on androgyny and scored hits like “My City Was Gone,” “I’ll Stand By You,” and the anthem, “Brass in Pocket.”
“When people say that there’s this strong female persona driving the song, it drives me fucking crazy!” she blasts to Teamrock.com. “The ‘girl’ thing seems to be real important for other people but I’m mystified by it. For me, Brass In Pocket was supposed to be real traditional, because tradition in rock is what turns me on. We want our rock singers to be confident and cocky, and Brass In Pocket was an act, my attempt to write a song that sounded like that. It’s actually very tongue-in- cheek – that’s why I have that line where I sing: ‘I’m winking at you.’”
Even with the end of The Runaways, the outcome of their aftermath was the gift that kept on giving–specifically with solo ventures. Joan Jett set out to stomp the rock scene on her own, and thank goodness she did. Joan’s body of work became the embodiment of true Rock & Roll music and spirit. With one look at the raven haired artist, it becomes clear: Joan is Rock music in human form, a James Dean like enigma one can’t help but observe. Maybe out of pure interest and attraction, but also to study. What makes Joan, Joan? The answer lives beyond the aesthetics. It’s her aura, her energy. Her ability to live unashamed and unapologetic when it comes to her happiness and passion. Evidence of this lies in Joan’s quest to sign to a major label. She was rejected by dozens of companies in the process, which eventually led to the creation of Blackheart records with her dear friend, Kenny Laguna.
“I really dug Joan and I thought she was really talented. It really got me that no-one would sign her to the point that it pissed me off. I thought she really deserved it. It was very discouraging because every label turned her down. We couldn’t think of anything else to do, but print up records ourselves, and that’s how Blackheart Records started. It was more or less Joan’s idea to do it ourselves.”
Thus, The Blackhearts band was formed and their album, “I Love Rock and Roll,” delivered multiple hits like “Crimson and Clover,” “I Love Rock and Roll,” and the anthem that gave the music industry the middle finger, “Bad Reputation.”
The epitome of punk glamour, Deborah Harry is the face of one of music’s most influential bands, Blondie. As the band’s frontwoman, Deborah brought a delicate and feminine touch with both her vocals and vixen looks. She was a natural–someone who had their finger on the pulse of movements before they became full blown. Her fashion was forward thinking and also unique in creating a cohesive visual flavor for the band. Her sneer behind the mic was even more intriguing–like a kick in the ass after receiving a warm welcome. All of this makes it easy to see why Deborah Harry has inspired the likes of so many women, including No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani.
When I first became acquainted with Blondie and Deborah Harry, it was with their hit song “Hanging on the Telephone.” Her voice took to my ears as something anxious and fierce as she repeated “Hang up and run to me!” And man, that throaty “Oh, whoa, whoa!” that followed sealed my enduring love for Ms. Harry. With this song, “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture,” and many more in her discography, she’s encouraged others to challenge labels and lanes.
Lita Ford was the second member of The Runaways to spring out on her own. Although her critical reception was of mixed feelings–due to the opinion of some stating Lita fed the sexy wild vixen stereotype created by male metal artists–one thing can’t be overlooked, and that’s her damn musical abilities. Lita takes to the axe as if she hails from Themyscira–the fabled home of Wonder Woman and the Amazons. When the guitar is in her hands, it melds with her, seeming as another appendage she’s mastered use of. Male or female, hands down, Lita Ford is the best of the best when it comes to what she does.
The Go-Go’s became one of the first commercial female groups to merge into the mainstream without the assistance of male producers or management. They derived from punk and new wave roots and their singles,”We Got the Beat,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Vacation,”–singles from their first album, Beauty and the Beat–were upbeat and light in contrast to their start. It seemed like overnight, this band, whom began as a staple in California’s punk movement softened to become America’s sweethearts. Except, The Go-Go’s were every bit the opposite behind the cameras and off the record. They partied hard, thrashing their hotel rooms and indulging in drugs like cocaine and prescription meds. These stormy ingredients brought the group to disband in 1985.
Since, The Go-Go’s have reunited a number of times to perform and tour around the world. Their most recent live endeavor, “The Farewell Tour,” consisted of 18 dates with Kaya Stewart and Best Coast as openers.
The Bangles, another notorious all girl band from the ’80s, were responsible for catchy hits like “Manic Monday” (which was given to them by Prince), “Walk Like An Egyptian,” and “Eternal Flame.” Like The Go-Go’s they merged new wave with pop rock, but with an added essence of British influence. The band rocketed to mass success, but ran into a dead end as the media began to peg Susanna Hoffs as the group’s lead singer.
“There’s always going to be tensions within any team. I mean, The Bangles were kind of intended to function in the same kind of way that The Beatles were. There [were] multiple singers. Multiple songwriters. I think that our harmonies were very important, but we did take turns [leading], if you look at the albums. I don’t sing every song. And everybody sings almost an equal number of songs. So I think that that was one factor in adding to the tension that you would normally have, being on the road and not getting a break for close to nine years. “Manic Monday” was the first single. Prince had contacted us…and I think that he gave me the song, and we recorded it, and it became our first sort of radio hit. I think that that might have set the idea that I was the lead singer of the band, even though I wasn’t.”
My husband [filmmaker Jay Roach] had directed [“Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”], and he was working on the second [movie, “The Spy Who Shagged Me”], and they were down to needing a song for a particular scene. And it was a day I had gotten together with Vickie [Peterson] and Debbie [Peterson] as an attempt to sort of get The Bangles back together. And we were working on writing a little bit of music and kind of feeling it out. And Jay walks in and says, “I need a song for this scene. Will you be willing to look at this scene and consider writing something custom-made for this party scene at the end of the movie?” We sat down, and he showed us the scene. And we looked at each other and said, “Let’s try it!” We wrote the song, and we ended up getting Michael Steel to join us in the studio to record it. And I think that writing process, feeling like we were actually doing a Bangles song together…everybody enjoyed it so much that it kind of led to the band working together again.