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.