Women In Rock: My Search For Female Singers Leads to the Rock Chick’s Top 10

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*Photo of Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, unidentified woman, and Emmy Lou Harris taken from the internet and likely copyrighted

I’ve been thinking about women a lot lately… in truth I think about women all the time but in this case I’m talking about singers… female singers. I am a huge fan of women. Frankly I think they should be in charge, the world would be a better place. Like Lou Reed once sang, “I love women, I think they’re great, they’re a solace to the world in a terrible state.” Lou was right about so many things… and indeed I can emphatically agree with his words, “I love women, we all love women.”

But that said, I’ve been wondering about women in the context of my music collection. I watched this fabulous documentary on Linda Ronstadt last week, Documentary Review: The Sublime ‘Linda Ronstadt, The Sound Of My Voice’, and in it they talk about what a male dominated world rock and roll was in the 70s. Frankly I’m not sure that’s changed. Pop music may be dominated by women like Beyonce, Lizzo and someone named Cardi B (?) but rock and roll? That’s another story. I tended to agree with Ronstadt’s opinion and I couldn’t help but think about my own music collection and indeed, BourbonAndVinyl itself. If I flip through my vinyl collection, it’s overwhelmingly male in nature. If I look at the blog posts on this humble enterprise it’s mostly about dudes and dude bands. I’m the biggest equal opportunity guy you’re ever going to find – be that gender, orientation, race, creed, color, etc. I like what my friend The Mayor once said, “Live your life, man.” And yet examining all of this makes me wonder, have I fallen into the sexism of rock and roll just by default? I started examining my past…

My parents weren’t into music like my brother or I am. They bought a stereo (that was rarely used) when I was in grade school and eventually acquired a small and very eccentric album collection. They had some interesting stuff like Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits or the Beatles’ 1967 to 1970 (aka The Blue Album). They had some “cool-adjacent” records like albums from Jim Croce and Elvis’ Live In Hawaii. But then they had a Roger Whitaker album. Like I said, these were not musical people. Thinking about it though, they didn’t have a single album by a female artist that I can think of. I didn’t grow up listening to women singers.

One Christmas after I was married, I asked Santa for some old school country music from the likes of Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. Having met the Rock Chick’s family, I had started to become exposed to that kind of music and dug it. As part of this Christmas booty, I got a greatest hits double-disc by one of the greatest singers in history, Patsy Cline. I was playing all this stuff, mesmerized by it really, and Patsy’s belting out hit after hit and my father-in-law leaned over to me, nose wrinkled in disapproval, and said “Hey, put that Haggard back on, I can’t listen to this chick.” I’m beginning to wonder if my lack of a selection of female singers was handed down from the generation who raised me…

When I started to get into rock and roll, the first female singer I became aware of, and whom I heard on the radio was, of course, Janis Joplin. I love blues and blues rock but I never really connected with Janis. I dug her rather shambolic live stuff and “Mercedes Bens” is a good bit of fun. I was aware of Aretha, you couldn’t not be aware of the Queen of Soul, but I never really got into her until I saw The Big Chill. I was never really into Motown and don’t like the Supremes (I know, blasphemy). I did love certain tracks by Martha and the Vandellas, “Nowhere to Run” is one of the all time greatest songs ever.

It was tough as a teenage boy, full of testosterone and low on brains or life experience to commit to buying a record by a woman. Masculinity is fragile when it’s most raging, I guess. In the late 70s, early 80s, the aforementioned Linda Ronstadt was big but I was always afraid of buying something that would be considered “mellow.” I avoided her, to my detriment. If you were going to shell out $9 for an album, man it better rawk. There were  only a handful of artists who were Dude Approved… Pat Benetar was the Queen of Rock for us boys in the suburb. Beautiful and classically trained in opera, she just rocked. I loved “Hell Is For Children.” I bought her third album, Precious Time, which is where she began her creative decline and even the black guys who lived across the hall would listen to that album. None of us were cool enough for Patti Smith so we cranked Benetar.

Heart and the glorious Wilson sisters, Ann and Nancy were also big when I was discovering rock and roll. They’ve been described as a poor man’s female Zeppelin and the comparison is not without merit. Tunes like “Crazy On You” and “Barracuda” were more rock n roll than a lot of what guy bands were putting out. Sadly though the Wilson sisters were always plagued with rumors that they were incestuous lesbians. The Stupid 70s.

The woman whose albums we all owned and would gladly admit is Stevie Nicks. We all dug Fleetwood Mac, and props to Christine McVie, but it was Stevie who went solo with smash hits like Bella Donna and The Wild Heart. I always jokingly refer to Stevie as the Mistress of a Generation, not because of her varied love life, but because we all wanted her. She was like that cool chick you would see smoking cigarettes and joints out behind the school. She was everybody’s naughty girl. She hung out with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, her songs were the best of the Mac, and she was just cool. She was dancing around in shawls and throwing doves in the air while singing about Witchcraft and Wicca. Talented, dangerous and hot, what’s not to love?

As I got older and more secure in my rock fandom, I started to branch out into more female singers. Lucinda Williams is a huge artist that I just love. My friend Doug turned me onto the Cowboy Junkies and I love Margo Timmins as as singer. Doug had a girlfriend once who contended that women singers had to be quirky to get on the radio where as any dude could sing and they’d play it. I’m not so sure about that, but I rarely hear the Cowboy Junkies on the radio (other than NPR) any more. Norah Jones may not “rock” but her voice is like that of an angel. I’ve gotten into chicks who can really rock, like the Runaways (Lita Ford and Joan Jett’s 70s band) and I like No Doubt (although I hate Gwen Stefani’s solo work). I recently really got into Starcrawlers (LP Review: Starcrawler’s Sophomore Effort, ‘Devour You’) and I think Arrow de Wilde is someone to keep your eye on. This band is gonna be huge.

All of that said, I still felt like I needed to really branch out and explore the world of female rock stars. I wasn’t sure where to turn or which direction to head, so naturally I reached out to my “North Star,” the Rock Chick. As usual, she had some great suggestions. I finally asked her to give me her Top 10 Female Rock Singers list and I want to share it with B&V. These are all artists you should check out, I know I’m better for having done so.

  1. Karen O (The Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs) – This punky band rocks! “Maps,” “Zero,” and “Heads Will Roll” are all great tracks. She’s got an intense, frosty voice that really drives their songs. Definitely a great listen.
  2. Alanis Morrisette – The Rock Chick is the only person I know who owns more than Jagged Little Pill. Having listened through all of these albums, I have to say, wow, she’s a great songwriter. Jagged Little Pill is her magnum opus, but there’s a lot more to love here. “You Owe Me Nothing In Return” is the greatest song ever about unconditional love.
  3. Annie Lennox (Eurythmics, solo) – Annie could simply be the best singer ever, male or female. I largely ignored the Eurythmics in the 80s but everything this woman has done has been great.
  4. Alison Mossheart (The Kills, The Dead Weather) – A rocker so cool she dates Jack White. They formed the Dead Weather together. Both her bands are kick ass.
  5. Dale Bozio (Missing Persons) – I love this band. My roommate in college actually bought their debut album. She was Lady Gaga before there was such a thing.
  6. Debbie Harry (Blondie) – Blondie was one of the few artists with a female singer that punctured my male-centric teenage consciousness. New Wave goddess with a phenomenal voice.
  7. Joan Jett – I love her in the Runaways, love her solo. She’s amazing to this day. I remember when her first single, “I Love Rock and Roll” came out and everybody went wild, especially the girls.
  8. Shirley Manson (Garbage) – Garbage is an amazing band and I’m so delighted the Rock Chick turned me onto them. She saw them live and said Shirley brings it live too.
  9. Courtney Love (Hole) – I love Hole. I actually always did and love that Rock Chick digs them too. Courtney was one of the greatest grunge singers of that era. Her voice is slightly ravaged now, but I still love it.
  10. Siouxsie (with her Banshees) – Oddly I always got Siouxsie confused with the gal in Bow Wow Wow. The Rock Chick sorted me out on that. She’s an amazing vocalist. She owns Iggy Pop’s “the Passenger,” and the Beatles “Dear Prudence” in this house.

There you go folks. I recommend all of the Rock Chick’s favorite female singers/artists. You will be rewarded if you take the time to do a little musical exploration on the pink side! If you have additional female singers that you think I should check out, by all means, please put it in the “comments” section and I will turn it up, post haste.

Cheers!

 

 

Artist Lookback: The Runaways, A Guilty Rocking Pleasure

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One of the great things about being married to the Rock Chick is the enormous amount of music she’s turned me onto over the years. Among other bands, early on she turned me onto an all female band, The Donnas. I had never even heard of the Donnas until the Rock Chick put on the LP “Spend The Night” one night and man, these chicks “rawked!” Their song “5 O’Clock In the Morning” was on high rotation at the house for quite some time and boasts one of the most hot-shit guitar solo’s you’re ever going to hear. All female bands were somewhat of a novelty for me when I was growing up. In fact, there wasn’t really any female band I paid much attention to when I was growing up. There was Heart (who had 2 women and 3 men), but after 1980 they went all slick pop and lost my interest. “Barracuda” by them was a descent track. Of course Heart had to suffer through spurious rumors of lesbian incest. Chicks never got their due back in the day. Most of us owned a bunch of heavy metal and hard rock albums and then one or two Fleetwood Mac/Stevie Nicks albums and that was the extent of what we knew about “chicks who rock.”

The Rock Chick has been extolling me to write a post on “Chicks Who Rock” for quite a while now. I had to tell her, beside reminding her of her lifetime reading ban of B&V due to undue criticism of my sentence structure, that I don’t take requests at B&V even if you are sleeping with the writer. That said, the Donnas’ “5 O’Clock In the Morning” popped up on the iPod shuffle the other day and I started doing some reading about them on the inter-web. They cited a band called The Runaways as one of their major influences. I knew I’d heard of The Runaways but couldn’t quite place them. Suddenly it occurred to me that when Joan Jett was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, she mentioned that she’d got her start in The Runaways. I had always thought The Runaways were like Menudo, with interchangeable parts… perhaps I was wrong. Intrigued, I knew I had to do more musical spelunking.

Another great thing about being married to the Rock Chick is that she’s willing to dedicate an entire evening to listening to music. The same evening I put on Big Star’s “#1 Record” we listened to an assortment of new music including The Record Company, The Shelters and yes, The Runaways. I figured The Runaways’ music, since they were put together by skeezy producer Kim Fowley as a novelty act, would be awful. I was very pleasantly surprised. These chicks rocked hard with a punk sensibility that I had not expected. Even the Rock Chick dug The Runaways’ first album and she has very discerning taste. Clearly more research was necessary.

I was too young for The Runaways. They put out their first album in 1976 when I was still collecting baseball cards and only lasted through roughly 1979. They were formed around the core members of Joan Jett on rhythm guitar and some lead vocals, Sandy West on drums and of all people, Lita Ford on lead guitar. When I found out Heavy Metal Maven Lita Ford was in this band with Joan Jett I knew I was onto something. They went through a number of bass players including a chick who ended up in the all female pop band The Bangles. I never had much use for the Bangles… so I consider that the one blight on the Runaways’ otherwise spotless pedigree. For their first two studio albums The Runaways also had Cherrie Currie on lead vocals. Apparently there have been documentaries and biographical movies made about these gals, but I’ve never seen any of them. I understand there was a lot of conflict and drama around the band – but what band doesn’t have conflict and drama. It sounds like this Kim Fowley guy who was their producer and manger was pretty rapey around these young teenage girls. The back story all sounds pretty awful. However, I’m not here to talk about all of that. I just like the music. They never really caught on in America but were, as the cliche goes, “big in Japan.”

The Runaways music is, as I mentioned, a blend of hard rock and punk. These are sleazy songs about misbehavior. These are the dirty girls my mother warned me about and I soooo loved from adolescence to my thirties. Oh, who am I kidding, I still love the bad girls. The debut album is probably the pick of the litter, simply titled “The Runaways.” “Cherry Bomb” was “the hit” that they are most remembered for. Its all dirty riffs and Lita Ford’s screaming leads. I’ll admit some of the lyrics are juvenile but that’s what I’ve always loved about rock and roll. “You Drive Me Wild” has a dirty riff with possibly Lita’s best guitar solo. “Is It Day Or Night” a question I’ve often asked myself when I wake up, is a big loping rocker. They even cover Lou Reed and the Velvet Undergrounds’ “Rock And Roll” with a lot of cowbell. Oh my God is that song so 70s. “American Nights” is an anthem that should have been played all summer in every small town in the U.S. The album ends with a baffling mini-opera kind of song, “Dead End Justice” which utterly lost me. Other than that misfire, “The Runaways” is dirty, rock and roll fun.

The second record, and Cherrie Currie’s last record with the band before going solo was “Queens Of Noise.” They start off right where they left off on the debut record, all hard rock and dirty girl lyrics. The title track comes from a lyric on “American Nights.” They sing in the chorus, “do whatever you want to me.” God, I love these girls. “Take It Or Leave It” is one of my favorite tracks on this record, sung by Joan Jett, and is cowritten by none other than Jagger/Richards. I have to assume Mick was sniffing around the girl band which makes me love the guy that much more. “Neon Angels On The Road to Ruin,” and “Born To Be Bad” continue the basic Runaways themes. I will say the song “Midnight Music” is a more sophisticated tune. “California Paradise” which boasts some interesting drumming and “Hollywood” are better “California sunshine” songs than anything those pussies the Beach Boys put out. “Johnny Guitar” the closing track has some of Lita Ford’s most epic guitar soloing of her career.

The third record, “Waiting For the Night,” I really enjoyed despite the exit of Cherrie Currie. I like “Waiting For the Night” almost better because Joan Jett does all the singing. I just dig her voice more. You could tell the band was pulling in two different directions, punk vs hard rock. Song like “Little Sister” and “Wasted” feel more punky to me than hard rockers. And, “Fantasies” and “Trash Can Murders” are more metalish music than punk. “Gotta Get Out Tonight” has a poignant urgency as does “Wait For Me.” This is all very solid rock and roll. “School Days” has a break neck riff that Aerosmith would be jealous of.

Although they did put out another studio album, by “Waiting For the Night” The Runaways were a spent musical force. Inter-band struggles finally tore these guys apart. Apparently Joan wanted to go more punk with Sandy West and Lita Ford lining up against her, pushing for a more heavy metal direction. They split ways for the oldest reason in the rock and roll books – “creative differences.” Lita went on to be an 80s Heavy Metal Chick. Sandy West had her own band but alas succumbed to cancer in 2006. Cherrie Currie, whoever everyone thought would soar as a solo artist, never really found success. And Joan Jett, well, everybody knows that story. Had I known about The Runaways when I wrote my post about bands who had members who went on to bigger fame, I’d have included these guys. The Runaways are more than a novelty band, they’re a guilty rock and roll pleasure. At the very least everyone should hear their debut album.

Chicks who Rock are very, very powerful… take my word for it. I married one.

Cheers!