The Three Record Rule and Dr Feelgood

It’s a sad but true fact that almost every artist has a sell by date. The rule I usually live by is that no one needs more than 3 CDs from any one artist, once you’ve got three that’s enough, go and find somebody else who is doing something more interesting.

There are obvious exceptions, the big ones in my book are the 60’s singer songwriters. I’ve gone beyond the three with Dylan, Young and Joni Mitchell, but even geniuses have their limits, I could push Dylan maybe up to ten Young up to seven and Mitchell up to five but they’ve all recorded stuff I could happily never listen to again.

The Beatles, of course are outside these rules but hopefully they won’t let us down by recording any new stuff ditto Miles Davis but he’s Jazz, it’s a bigger palette.

At the other end of the scale there’s plenty of bands and artists I would be quite happy to have just the one album by. The B52’s for example, their first alum was perfect, no need for anymore.

Unfortunately the artist themselves are never willing to just stop although dying can often slow them down a bit.

It was perhaps fitting that as punk hit, Dr Feelgood, the band that had at least set the mood for a back to basics approach , fell apart.

It had been a while coming, main members Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson had been drifting apart to the point of a constant antagonism. They had already recorded the perfect ‘Down by the Jetty’ the pretty good ‘Malpractice’ and the defining live album ‘Stupidity’. That would be enough for anyone and they were now struggling to find new material and a different direction. Their latest record ‘Sneakin Suspicion’ was patchy, the best songs being largely Wilko but the rest of the band had started to tire of his work and the material commissioned from new writers was not to Wilko’s taste. This had reached the point where one of the tracks was actualy recorded without him. This had brought matters to a head and Wilko was out.

This left the band with a charismatic lead singer and a tight rhythm section, time to give up, the three record limit had been reached.

But, of course this could never happen, being in a band is an addictive drug and one that a lot of addicts can’t quit.

The Feelgoods were initially lucky, discovering guitarist Gypie Mayo was ,in Brilleaux’s words ‘like finding a fiver down the back of a setee’ . Actually the band were very lucky to actually find Mayo at all as he was homeless at the time and took some tracking down. I assumed his nickname came from gypsy origins but in fact related to the fact he always had some pain or illness or as they say in Essex ‘the gype’.

Mayo was a very different guitarist than Johnson being both more fluid and versatile but less original. Almost overnight the Feelgoods changed from an original band to an exciting but more mundane blues band. Their first record ‘Be seeing You’ was a pretty good slab of punk influenced blues, as good, at least as the likes of George Thorogood or The Fabulous Thunderbirds. The band also went on to actually have hits and be in the charts for a brief period although they often relied on some outside writing help from the likes of Nick Lowe.

I got to see the band at Nottingham University in the late 70’s and they were fine but that was all. By comparison Wilko Johnson put on a display at Trent Polytechnic around the same time that was less professional but riveting.

A couple of years with Mayo was a bit of an Indian summer which disguised the fact that they were seriously on the slide.

The 80’s were a cruel time for any band that liked to play real music in sweaty clubs, there are very few bands that managed to get through the decade without falling prey to the production values of the time. By the 80’s the band had lost not only Mayo but the original rhythm section of Sparko and The Big Figure. The Feelgoods (essentially Lee Brilleaux from this point) were left with the common dilemma of carrying on doing what they were good at or trying to tap into something more contemporary.

Unless a band has a very clear idea of what it is doing and some financial stability to back this up inevitably they are at the mercy of record company’s and producers. The first three Dr Feelgood records sound like a band who know what they are doing, from ‘Sneakin Suspicion’ onwards they sounded like what the producer of the day wanted them to sound like. This is what happened when they started to try to become more commercial.

Matters reached their nadir with the release of ‘Classic’. Surprisingly this had a promising inception. The band had just been signed to Stiff Records. Unfortunately rather than some raw roots record producer Pip Williams was drafted in he had recently cut the collective bollocks off Status Quo with ‘ in the army now’ which unfortunately was a hit. Listening to the 1987 ‘Classic’ is one of the most unpleasant experiences a Feelgoods fan could ever experience. It’s all there, gated drums, synths, backing singers and a sickly sick production.

What were they thinking?

Live, the band continued to be a solid prospect but clearly they could not really just churn out one record after another of R&B.

Sticking to the three record rule is, of course impossible, a band needs a ‘product’ to show they are still active in the marketplace which means that bands and artists end up releasing records that really very few people want.

Brilleaux just couldn’t stop, he was addicted to the road and the lifestyle until his death in 1994. Brilleaux was only 41 but had always seemed a lot older. Although it was leukaemia which killed him it was probable that his lifestyle would have shortened his life considerably.

Wilko Johnson has made a lot less mistakes largely because he seems to have produced far less records. A Johnson live set these days is pretty much a re-tread of his Feelgood days with a couple of songs from his early solo career. In many respects he lives the life of an old style bluesman concentrating on performance rather than product. In a strange parallel to Brilleaux he contracted pancreatic cancer which should have killed him until doctor/photographer Charlie Chan noticed he may have been misdiagnosed and initiated surgery which saved Wilko’s life.

I never saw Dr Feelgood again after the university gig. In the 80’s sweaty R&B was about as fashionable as tuberculosis and although I was aware of Brilleauxs’ demise it was overshadowed by that of Curt Cobain. I have seen Wilko Johnson a couple of times in recent years doing virtually the same performance as I saw in the late 70’s, it’s a timeless spectacle although I still miss his pudding basin haircut.

The two men never had any contact with each other again. It’s probable given the nature of the music business that they would have probably got together, in fact a total original reformation could have been possible with associated record and tour.

I would have gone to that but with no expectations, it would never have been as good as it was in the 70’s. As Johnny Thunders said ‘you can’t put your arms around a memory’

NB no visuals this week as either my iPad or WordPress have decided I don’t have enough storage sorry

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Don’t Dictate

One of the things that comes up time and time again when researching the early days of punk is the resourceful nature of virtually all of the protagonists. Whether it was Steve Jones nicking enough equipment to equip the Sex Pistols, or Shelley and Devoto of Buzzcocks driving down to London on the off chance of meeting Malcolm Mclaren, there was an energy drive and determination about the main protagonists which in a different setting would have marked them out as captains of industry.

Despite being anti-establishment many of the early punks were effectively entrepreneurs selling their music or their clothing or occasionally themselves with a single minded determination that would have made Sir Alan Sugar proud.

For those not fortunate enough to live in the big city the work was ten times harder, there was no social media the only way a band or artist could make an impact was to work really hard and eventually make their way to London.

Ferryhill is a case in point. An ex mining town in County Durham, it wasn’t until I looked at a map that I realised just how isolated it was. Located just off the A1 the nearest town is either Middlesbrough which is basically a chemical factory or Hartlepool. I have always been intrigued by the latter as apparently the locals were so backward that when a monkey was washed ashore following a shipwreck in the Napoleonic wars they assumed it was a Frenchman and hanged it.

Ferryhill had its usual quota of youths listening to Roxy Music and the Velvet underground and forming bands of little importance. It was pretty clear that no bands of any significance were going to tour Ferryhill so one of the musician pool, Gary Chaplin, decided, despite being underage, that he would hire a bus to take the Ferryhill crowd to Newcastle anytime a band of note was playing there. Again, this was no small achievement, Newcastle is miles away to the North up the AI, Chaplin’s venture would involve going to Newcastle to get tickets and hiring a coach to do the two way journey and this would be funded by collecting money from assorted locals in order to fund the trip.

On these long night journeys he befriended fellow traveller Pauline Murray who he eventually asked to sing in his band and so Penetration was formed. Penetration had already been influenced by the first stirrings of punk, notably the Sex Pistols who they had seen during one of the Pistols scary out of town gigs up North. Equally influential was Patti Smith, Murray providing Smith influenced vocals as well as a cover of ‘Free Money’ on their first album.

Unsurprisingly the band started off with an amazing work ethic, driving down to London was just part of the job and they hit punk club The Roxy just at the right time, if you played the Roxy in the first couple of months of it opening there was a good chance you would be seen by about 50% of the people who mattered on the punk scene. They became friends with the Adverts which led to plenty of support gigs and within six months were major layers in the second division.


And in many respects that is the most interesting part of the Penetration story. Ideally it would end with the release of their first single ‘Don’t Dictate’ which was fairly raw and angry with Murray sounding not unlike Polystyrene from X Ray Specs.

If you take the trouble to watch this please note obligatory bottle spraying idiot and hippie road crew member

Founder member Chaplin had become disillusioned with the music business almost as soon as he entered into it and had decided to leave although a period of tendonitis hastened his departure. He was replaced by Neil Floyd but also significantly another guitarist Fred Purser was also added. Purser was a proper guitarist who could play all the widdly bits that punk had dispensed with. Significantly after the demise of the band he joined local heavy metal heroes the Tygers of Pan Tang.

On record Penetration tend to sound like a punk version of Rush to my ears.It was a polished sound and they had soon been gobbled up by record company Virgin, you could see their appeal, a bunch of people who can play their instruments fronted by a real ‘punkette’. The label thought they were on to a money spinner and invested in some proper studio time and proper record producers. For some reason that didn’t really capture the public’s imagination. There’s nothing really wrong with their debut ‘Moving Targets’ or even their so called ‘disappointing’ follow up ‘Coming up for Air’ but neither is there anything partially inspiring about their music, not that that has ever deterred the record buying public but Penetration’s career failed to really take off.

For some reason I bought their single ‘Come into the Open’ and I still have a soft spot for this particular track.

If the band had toughed it out I suspect they would have had a breakthrough but it was not to be. After the band ended Murray recorded Pauline Murray and the Invisible Girls with legendary producer Martin Hannett. Free from the tyranny of the guitar riff this was more to my taste but the band (and Hannett) didn’t last that much longer.

But as we know almost every band has to reform at some point but Penetration put it off for as long as possible. In the meantime Murray has been busy as anticipated building a studio, forming a community choir, studying reflexology, writing songs, managing bands and raising two children. Their latest record from 2015 isn’t the real band of course just Murray and her husband/bass player Robert Blamire remain from the original band, presumably Blamire is only allowed out now the kids don’t need a babysitter.

In fact ‘Resolution’ may even be the best extended piece of work the band have ever made, free from the constraints of big name producers and big budgets the music sounds less forced. The band are now playing live again but one can’t help but suspect that the entire audience is just waiting for a middle aged pogo to ‘Don’t Dictate’

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Bridget St John-a song for Easter

As the years go by Easter seems an increasingly big deal on the calendar. As Christmas, by comparison seems less and less of a big deal Easter begins to tick all the right boxes. If you are a Christian this time of year is apparently a big deal with the son of God having risen, if you are of a more humanist persuasion there’s stirrings in the natural world and the days are getting longer, if you are plain lazy there are two days off work and for the totally shallow there’s the prospect of chocolate.

And yet this time of year remains uncelebrated in popular song, Slade never wrote an Easter song.

A very tentative example came to me unexpectedly by way of a Spotify playlist.

Many months ago I wrote about new music and how it does not actually have to be new music but is just music that you haven’t heard before.

Bridget St John was a familiar name to me, like a lot of hard grafting musicians without access to Twitter she would play everywhere. The fact that she could get by with just an acoustic guitar meant she could be slotted in front of the drum kit as support for anyband looking for those services. In fact in 1976 she was playing just a couple of miles from where I live now with John Martyn, Kevin Coyne and Brindaband (who!). However, for me, this was ‘new music’.

Bridget kept some heavy musical company but she remains almost unknown. She had some interesting songs, she sang in a low register making her sound not unlike Chelsea Girls era Nico, she played guitar pretty well and by all accounts was/is a jolly nice person. It would be convenient to think she is not as well known as Nick Drake or John Martyn because she’s a woman but we weren’t total monsters in the 70’s, Bridget was a far more robust character than Nick Drake ever was and audiences would have listened and appreciated her songs. In fact she appears on records by Mike Oldfield and Kevin Ayres, she was liked and respected.

The real problem was that she was not on Island Records or even Chrysalis; Bridget St John was an early signing to John Peels Dandelion label. Named after a hamster he had been given by Marc Bolan (really !) Dandelion was set up to record people who Peel liked, all well and good and ultra hip. The caveat was however that Peel could not be seen to promote his artists on his own shows, and quite frankly he was the only one who was likely to actually play them on air.

And so Bridget St John was starved of what little publicity was available to her.

Anyway she was probably saved from a terrible life of touring and recording and making crap records which the record company insisted on in the hope of success. She just made some records and then stopped.

In fact St John really was very comparable with Nick Drake apart from the obvious facts that she is still alive (now 71) and yet to be rediscovered.

And so my Easter song. ‘Ask me no Questions’ was the title track of her debut album, recorded and produced by Peel, the product of  under 10 hours nocturnal work after Peels radio show had ended.

I know I’ve painted the 70’s as a tough time for women but ‘Ask me No Questions’ harks back to a supposedly gentler time, celebrating the consummation of a relationship and the aftermath of the morning after.

And in the morning

Don’t tell of soul of what you saw

It’s just for you

Keep this a secret

Make me a promise that you will

I’ll make one too

‘Ask me no Questions’ is a pure early 70’s experience straight from the heart. A modern producer would auto tune some of the rough edges off St John’s voice and brighten up the muddy guitars. They would make a big feature of the fact that John Martyn himself is contributing some guitar on the track, whatever it couldn’t be as good as this.

In a rather touching moment Peel sourced a recording of a dawn chorus with church bells ringing in the background, stay to the end, the guitars fade away and we are just left with the quintessentially English sound of a Sunday Morning

And a new day has begun .

Happy Easter

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I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years. … And we’re paying tribute to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn’t be here. And on the other hand, without us, they might have been here, but that’s the way it works in rock ‘n’ roll.

Each day when I wake up (before I put on my makeup) I say a little prayer. Mainly I give thanks for

never having become a probation officer (it’s a long story). More recently my gratitude has extended

into other areas where in the past I could have made some terrible mistakes.

Lately I have become increasingly thankful for never having been in a successful band. To be honest

becoming a probation officer was far more of a possibility but there have been times in my life

when there had been just the slightest possibility of what was called ‘making it’ with one musical

combo or another.

Much of my gratitude stems from reading a lot of musicians autobiographies. All bands seem to pass

through a stage in their ascension where they are on the road almost all the time, a permanent haze

of lack of sleep, casual sex, alcohol, drugs and endless travelling. It’s probably fun for a while but it’s

bound to do some sort of damage in the long run physically, mentally and spiritually.

Not long ago I read Chrissie Hynde’s autobiography. Despite intersecting with punk Hynde has a very

American perspective on rock music. Raised in the heartland of Middle America she was inducted

into the stadium spectacle, blinded by the supposed glamour of the tour bus discharging its load to

play Cleveland before moving onto Kansas City to play another one nighter.

Hynde was inducted to the old fashion rock business where the men are in charge and chicks know

their place. Physical and sexual violence were pretty common place and acceptable in the world she

aspired to and taking up with bikers and subsequently having to get out of town was pretty much a

rite of passage.

Coming to Britain in search of the rock and roll dream was a brave move which altered the course of

her own history. Inevitably there was the mistake of getting involved with writer Nick Kent but that

opened doors writing a few articles for the NME and getting to know Malcolm McLaren and

associated formative members of the punk scene. But Hynde was a million miles different from the

Siouxsie Sioux and Viv Albertines who were struggling to make their own music with limited

resources. The British pretenders were trying to create something that bore as little relationship to

the music that went before, Hynde had rock running through her veins, she just wanted to get on

stage and make like the Rolling Stones.

There were abortive groups such as Masters of the Backside and the Moors Murderers, all as

hopeless as their names suggest, after a spell in France taking more drugs and having more bad

relationships Hynde returned to London with a serious attempt to get her shit together.

This time she was able to pair up with someone who recognised and nurtured her talent. James

Honeyman Scott was a guitarist who hated punk and worshipped the Beach Boys. Together they

were able to craft her songs into something special. Despite her song writing talent her first release,

now as the Pretenders was a cover of a (then) obscure Kinks song ‘Stop your Sobbing’.

Produced by the omnipresent Nick Lowe It was a great song and a great record and it started Hynde’s journey into ‘making it’.

That’s where the horror began,

she describes endless soulless gigs with the band either hung over or off their faces. For some reason

she felt it a good idea to insult the audiences and rather inevitably she had started a relationship

with bass player Pete Farndon who was in the process of proving his rock and roll credentials by

killing himself with drugs. Hynde’s account of the first couple of years of the band sound like the

most awful time ever, she was in her late 20’s by now, there was no plan B but it did beg the

question, was it worth it?

Such was the unexpected nature of her initial success with the Pretenders was that the band had

been booked to play St Andrew’s Hall in Norwich. It wasn’t often a chance came up to see a band live

who had been on the cover of the music papers and on Top of the Pops so with a few friends I set off

to catch the new big thing.

If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to alienate a British audience it’s arrogance. If you are arrogant

and American then it’s doubly bad. On the night I saw her Hynde was both, she managed to grasp

defeat from the jaws of victory. As we walked home from the gig we took particular pleasure in

dissecting the empty rock gestures, Honeyman Scott’s blazer and floppy hair, Farndon’s ridiculous

biker boy posturing and Hynde calling a member of the audience ‘honey’.

Luckily Hynde had the talent to ride out the bombast. It’s easy to forget that a lot of her music is

actually three chord rock thrash because when she slows things down and lets her amazing voice

relax a bit she can be incredible. She was new rock and talented enough to build a proper career

which has sustained her over 40 years.

And she’s a vegetarian.

39 years later I caught her live again at the Cornbury Festival. Now in her mid 60’s she’s still adhering

to the skinny rock star chic that usually only members of the Stones can sustain. She now got a band

of skinny rock star youngsters apart from original drummer Martin Chambers who has to play behind

Perspex. The sun was going down, a couple of hot air balloons floated past, they played ‘Kid’. It was a

wonderful spectacle

And after all these years Chrissie and I finally made up.

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The Mighty Slits

“People didn’t know whether to fuck us or kill us, because we looked like we’d come out of a porn magazine.”

Becoming a parent raises a whole load of issues. There is no right or wrong for most of us, just shades of grey. Do you allow your children to be self-expressive and free or do you set firm boundaries for example? Both approaches have their pros and cons, the more liberal among us but be inclined for towards the former approach, I certainly was until I had children of my own. On the other hand children who are brought up with strict and clear rules far from being the uptight little Hitler’s we might imagine are often well adjusted. Having been reared in an environment where rules were understood and everyone knew their place often engendered a sense of self confidence.

In the 70’s there were a lot of children around suffering the aftershock of the liberal 60’s. Their parents might have the attitude that anyone could do what they wanted, they had experienced freedom and didn’t always want to be tied down to the needs of their children who were encouraged to run wild and express themselves. When that works it works, there are no rights and wrongs remember but sometimes it could go horribly wrong.

Take the case of Ariane Daniela Forster, her mother Nora was an original rock chick, involved in the music business, friend of Jimi Hendrix and, in the mid 70’s girlfriend of guitarist Chris Spedding which had led to her locating from Germany to England. Nora’s home became a refuge for various musical waif and strays including members of the Clash and the Pistols. 14 year old Ariane was drawn towards the lifestyle and in was soon trying to form a band herself.

She connected with Joe Strummers Spanish girlfriend known as Palmolive because her Spanish name proved too challenging for Joe’s liberal hippie mates. There was a drum kit in Joes squat and Palmolive taught herself to play in a style all of her own. Ariane became Ari Up the vocalist and they were eventually joined by two other barely competent musicians Tessa Pollitt on Bass and Viv Albertine on guitar.

And The Slits were born.

The Slits always seemed to me to be comic like characters. They were as tight as could be with each other. Ari Up was a force of nature but also probably a real pain in the arse. She was 14 remember and had little experience in social conformity, if she wanted to piss on stage she would piss on stage she knew no boundaries. The Slits were a gang, if they were not in the Slits they probably would not have been in bands at all but amazingly they had all discovered, almost by accident that were in the best band ever for their talents.

There had never been a band before remotely like the Slits.

On one hand this made things easy, they were supporting The Clash on tour (Albertine was now in a relationship with Mick Jones) before they could even master starting and stopping at the same time. In fact they gave an interview to national paper ‘The News of the World’ (which described their name as unprintable in a family paper) before they had even appeared live. On one level they had it handed to them on a plate, the band were impossible to ignore, John Peel loved them and they recorded an iconic session with him, the band were at the eye of the hurricane that was punk in 1977.

On the other hand being a bunch of young women who couldn’t really play very well and clearly didn’t really care about tat fact, a band which had a singer who refused to censor her words or actions, a band who were as thick as thieves and had little regard for the opinions of others, were very vulnerable.

Just walking down the street was likely to produce, at the very least, verbal abuse. The more high profile they were the more likely they would be verbally or physically attacked. By mid-1977 it was open season on the punks from the tabloid media down to the Teddy Boys who still walked the streets of London.

As the band gained some control over their instruments they began gravitating towards reggae which led to Palmolive being ousted from the band. Like Ari Up Palmolive was feisty to say the least. As a personality rather than a musician she would be missed.

The only significant recording by the Slits was to be their LP Cut which was famous for featuring the remaining three members naked covered in mud on the cover. It wasn’t really titillating but it was very bold. The LP was produced by reggae producer Dennis Bovell who did a fantastic job of combining dub and punk, with the aid of male drummer Budgie (soon to join Siouxsie and the Banshees) the band had made a seminal and album which was impossible to categorise.

I saw the Slits on two occasions. The first time was in Derby in 1978 when they supported the Clash on yet another tour. Times had moved on, I was one of only two people in the audience with really long hair. I remember the band being subjected to a barrage of saliva and either Ari Up or Viv Albertine suggested the male members of the audience should try ejaculating rather than spitting.

That made me chuckle.

My second encounter with the band was at the Glastonbury Festival in 1979. At this point the band were hanging around with Bristol based Avant Guardists The Pop Group. During the latter’s challenging set three small bizarre looking women danced onto the stage and added to the general chaos by prancing about and hitting things. It was, of course, The Slits having a day out in the country.

They made another record ‘Return of the Giant Slits’ but Cut was good enough for me I didn’t want to hear anymore. Then the band disbanded.

As might be predicted none of the Slits lived an unconventional life for too long. Viv Albertine, after a spell making films and surviving cancer married and settle on the south coast. That didn’t last forever, her autobiography ‘Clothes Clothes Clothes,Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys’ is certainly the most brutally honest and uncompromising rock story ever written in the first person.

Tessa Pollitt survived a period of heroin addiction and the death of her partner, Sean Oliver from the Pop Group, from sickle cell anaemia. Palmolive, unexpectedly became a born again Christian and relocated to the States.

But it would always be Ari Up who you would be most fearful for. Without a liberal background she wouldn’t have been Ari Up the crazy front woman who obeyed no rules. But then she wouldn’t have been stabbed twice and raped because she probably wouldn’t have been in a situation where these things could have happened to a girl in her mid-teens. Her free spirit led her to live in Indonesia and Belize before settling, in a manner, in Jamaica. Unfortunately her values had meant that her twin sons had been raised almost feral, they were actually adopted by Nora and her long term partner John Lydon who set about teaching them to read and even to speak properly. Ari Up’s values also lead to her refusing any ‘western’ treatment’ for breast cancer.

She died at the age of 48 and Lydon and Nora also assumed care of her youngest child.

For a band with such a thin back catalogue the bands legacy is huge. Rather like the with the Fall having some reference to their work would mark you out as being made of the right stuff throughout the eighties. Like the Fall the Slits were huge John Peel favourites but the difference between them and the Manchester band just highlights the differences between men and women in rock music. The the Fall’s Mark E Smith this was all he knew, if he had to go on stage in a wheelchair as happened at his final gig then that was the price to pay. In contrast the Slits had better things to do, three of them did appear on stage together again briefly but it was no big deal and didn’t last long, for the likes of Viv Albertine and Ari Up the band was just one chapter in extraordinary lives.

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Four Strings, Two Hands, One Woman

By the mid 70’s rock music was 20 years old. As an art form it had simply exploded, from Elvis recording ‘that’s Alright Mama to The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields forever’ was not much over ten years.

The evolution of music was simply phenomenal, The Beatles themselves set the bar so high so early but there was no way we could sustain that initial burst of creativity. The rock world coped with this by simply getting bigger and bigger encompassing jazz and soul, country and reggae and folk and eventually world music. It seemed there was nothing that rock couldn’t encompass.

Apart from women that is.

Amazingly 50% of the population were simply not represented in this music phenomena for the first 20 years.

Quite clearly I’m not talking about singers. From Wanda Jackson onwards female singers existed just like they had done in jazz and big bands or country and western combos. Eventually the acoustic guitar became acceptable as a means of self-expression as was the piano. The likes of Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Carol King were big players as the 60’s ended and we became a bit more introspective and sensitive.

For the first 20 years however women were represented in rock music either as the front person/ singer or the singer songwriter, there was little evidence of them rolling up their sleeves and sweating away in the backline.

Just to evidence that lets take a look at the most unglamorous of instruments the Bass Guitar. For all the liberal 1960’s I can find just one British female bass player. Step forward Megan Davies the bassist with ‘Brumbeat’ combo, The Applejacks. Davies was a proper bass player, as usual she was relegated to the instrument for being the worst of the guitarists in the band but after that she got on with the job in the hand weathering the few month of fame and then a quieter life when the band became cruise ship entertainers. When the band ended she went on to train as a Nurse.


And that was it, all the way through the beat boom, flower power and the swinging 60’s that was it.

In the interests of truth and justice I should point out that Liquorish (yes!) from the Incredible String Band also played bass but as she was a girlfriend of the band who would have been expected to cook the porridge and clean the house as well she doesn’t count here.

In the early 70’s we were treated to the excitement of Suzi Quatro wearing black leather and singing and rocking with what looked like and enormous fender Bass. This was tremendously influential but cheating a bit. Quatro was from Detroit and a veteran of live playing. She clearly knew what she was up to in fact she was bloody brilliant. The USA, probably just because it was bigger offered a few more role models, notably Carol Kaye who played session bass on loads of LA recordings, not least the Beach Boys ‘Good Vibrations’. Quatro was an imported talent, she has been playing percussion in her father’s jazz band at an impossibly young age and had then moved on to the Pleasure Seekers, an all-female cabaret band who, whether they were dressed in trouser suits or miniskirts or wigs were providing a bit of novelty eye candy despite their musical talent.

There are people who will tell you that punk was just speeded up heavy metal which is only superficially true. If you need proof that punk was more than the sum of its parts just look at what happened with woman musicians over the space of a couple of years.

Pre 1975 it seemed that women just didn’t want to play. It’s weird really when you consider that they made up a sizable proportion of the audience and bought shedloads of records. There’s a pretty strong probability that if you did want to pay a trip to the music shop to look at proper musical instruments it would have been regarded at best as a freak show which the shop assistants would have dined out on for months. At worst it would have resulted on outright hostility. There was a pretty wide acceptance that ‘chicks can’t play’. It wasn’t that all men were evil (although some of the nastiest people who have ever lived have worked in music shops), it was just accepted wisdom. Let’s be honest, how were we to know better, citing Megan Davis from the Applejacks was unlikely to make a convincing argument.

There’s also a wider issue that women are just a bit more sensible and well balanced then men. Gaye Advert left the band because she was fed up with being ‘cold all the time’. Being in a band involves lots of waiting around and indeed being cold. Men seem to have a greater capacity for doing things that are essentially pointless. Like Megan Davies Gaye Advert got a job with career prospects and a pension rather than trailing round the shitholes of Britain playing to drunk people.

I wrote a few months back about the sheer impact of Gaye Advert playing bass, it seems ridiculous now but at the time it was a pretty big deal. Leaking over from the USA was news of other bands with female musicians. The Runaways had set their stall out but the goods had soon started to go stale, it only took a few months for dressing in stockings and suspenders to look a bit wrong but it couldn’t be denied that here were women actually playing rock music. More influential in the long term was Tina Weymouth with Talking Heads. There’s a story that when the band got their first record contract David Byrne made Tina re audition for the band. If that’s true he’s an idiot, she is one of the finest bassists ever, if it’s not true then sorry Dave.

So m’lud let’s examine the evidence

British woman bass players 1955-1975

Megan Davies- the Applejacks

Liquorish-The Incredible Sting Band (possibly)

British women bass Players 1975- 1978

Gaye Advert –The Adverts

Tessa Pollitt – The Slits

Gina Birch – The Raincoats

Shanne Bradley – The Nips

Enid Williams- Girlschool

Gil Weston- The Killjoys


Ok, so they are not all household names but, unless you are 70 and live in Birmingham, neither are the Applejacks. It’s pretty obvious though that playing in a band was becoming an actual option for the young women of Britain.

Once the door was open then there was snowball effect for a while from Sonic Youth to the Pixies to Elastica and My Bloody Valentine, if you were a woman it was ok to be a bass player if you wanted -until rock died and young women wanted to be in the Pussycat dolls or Little Mix and wear suspenders on stage again.

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October 1978. I’ve just started a humanities course at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham. As an ice breaker I am invited to a cheese and wine party to meet the tutors. There’s some cheese and there’s some wine and there’s a record player on which someone has placed some Bob Dylan album, I’m not that bothered, I have yet to discover the man’s genius at the moment it’s just out of date 60’s crap. The tutors are in a frisky mood, after all they have probably spent all the summer in the Dordogne and haven’t got into the swing of the 10 to 4 daily grind. At some point Dylan has ended and the riff to the Stone’s Brown Sugar blasts out. Some of the tutors have started gyrating, it’s like some sort of pavlovian response this is their song.

Some of the people who will be teaching me are not that old, possibly even in their late 20’s but this is music from a different generation. The weird thing is that all these groovy liberals are dancing to song that’s about a slaver raping his slave women. There’s nothing good about it, it’s not an analogy to the Cuban missile crises or a satire on gender roles, it’s about black slaves getting raped.

OK I could be making too much of this, most of my liberal friends still haven’t really listened to the lyrics and after all as a record it sounds great, to be fair Jagger was trying to push lyrical boundaries a bit and came up with an unusual lyric. On the other hand, a couple of years earlier the Stones had promoted their ‘Black and Blue’ album with pictures of a model tied up and made up to look as if she had been savagely beaten. Violence against women was being used to sell records.

This was an environment where Ian Gillian could admit he’s tried to rape his ‘Strange Kind of Women’ or the Sweet could threaten ‘If she don’t spread I’m gonna bust her head’ and no one would really even notice it. A woman walking the streets was simply fair game to be commented on. Workmen were expected to shout out you or at the very least wolf whistle, it was in their training. Failure to respond in a positive way revealed you were frigid or lesbian or, at the very least totally devoid of humour. I knew women who would change their route at the first sight of scaffolding rather than run the gamut.

Reading the autobiography’s of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Viv Albertine of the Slits highlight how the underlying threat of violence and abuse in the rock and roll world was ever present. You were expected to know your place and to step outside it was risky, you could be a rock and roll chick but that still meant you were supposed to be subservient to the men however ‘cool’ they might appear to be with having you around.

Women in rock were tolerated in two roles, one was the singer songwriter as exemplified by Joni Mitchell or Carole King. This made a lot more sense in LA, things seemed generally looser and funkier there, assuming you managed to stay away from Charles Manson, but they couldn’t really translate that well to Blackburn or Glasgow. The other, slightly less acceptable, female role was that of singer/ frontwoman. Ideally you had to look good as well as sing well. There was a little more leeway if you fronted a proper hairy arse rock band. This was the hardest role of all, the best we had in Britain was Maggie Bell. Bell was our own Janis Joplin and therefore could get away with looking a bit rough because she was really good but she didn’t have that many peers. The closest rival was Elkie Brooks in Vinegar Joe (where she was co-vocalist with Robert Palmer). More off centre there was Sonja Kristina singer with Curved Air. The very mention of her name can still make old prog fans misty eyed but she was operating in a very male orientated arena, I’ve never met a woman who has even heard of her.

It was a difficult time, men never spoke about their feelings, you would never see men hug each other although occasionally you were allowed to be a little bit introspective, it showed you were deep and chicks liked that.

But the rock blueprint had been set by the likes of Zeppelin and The Stones, being a rock musician was man’s business women were there by invitation only and they had to know their place. The rock world was every bit as sexist as everywhere else.

Punk however opened up opportunities for everyone, no longer did you have to be a fantastic musician with great gear and a recording contract, almost everyone could have a go.

And everyone meant women as well.

So this month is a kind of celebration of how women began to become involved in rock music on their own terms.

I am a man


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