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has placed some Bob Dylan album, I’m not that bothered, I have yet to discover the man’s genius at the moment it’s just out of date 60’s crap.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