Quiet girls, riot grrrls and beyond

Fri, Mar 4, 2011, 00:00

From baby love to Baby Spice. From the Valley of the Dolls to Pussycat Dolls. From pink to punk. SINEAD GLEESON's guide to girl bands

‘IN THE beginning . . . there was rhythm.” It wasn’t until the 1970s that The Slits actually sang those now-famous words, but then there weren’t many all-female bands around before the 1970s, let alone ones that aped the mud-smeared, dreadlocked ululations of the punk trio.

In the beginning, well, the concept of what we now define as the girl group didn’t really exist, and not in the context that we know it today. The 1920s and 1930s were dominated by the music-hall tradition, and female groups produced mainly vocal-harmony odes to innocuous subjects.


In flapper-era 1920s, Ohio singing duo The Ponce Sisters emerged. They represented a new wave of female musicians who didn’t want to lurk behind a male band leader. There were many sister acts: The Boswell Sisters, The Dandridge Sisters (who featured Dorothy Dandridge, the first African- American woman to be nominated for a best-actress Oscar) and the slightly comedic Nordstrom Sisters.

They were all-singing, all-female, but the emphasis was on vocals, not playing, and always on other people’s songs. Groups that could play their own instruments were rare, but there were some pioneers. The Triolettes, who all worked in radio, belted out songs they had arranged themselves. One Triolettes member, Eunice Miller, was also in a band called The Crooning Banjo Sisters with her sibling Ursula.

For women, vocals and banjos seemed to be the guitar and bass of the 1930s. The Coon Creek Girls, an all-string Appalachian folk ensemble featured Lily May Ledford on five-string banjo. The acme of their career was an invite to play at the White House in 1939 during a visit from Britain’s King George VI.


By the 1950s there was a shift – not just musically but socially. At the end of the decade The Marvelettes, the first of Motown’s many girl groups, appeared. The group’s Please Mr Postman, released in 1961, was Motown’s first No 1 on the US Billboard chart, but the trio were notable for more than that. They were black, female and working in an industry in which everything from songwriting to studio production and AR was controlled by men.

The saccharine sparkle of female trios (their names usually prefixed by the definite article) supplied the sound of the decade. Heartbreak narratives sung by identically dressed and coiffed women sold massively. The Velvelettes had some success on the label, but Motown’s girl group icons were The Supremes, Martha the Vandellas and Gladys Knight and The Pips. Despite the cookie-cutter line-ups, Motown didn’t have monopoly on these groups: The Shirelles, signed to Sceptre, had a No 1 in the same year with Will You Love Me Tomorrow, and The Flirtations’ Nothing But a Heartachewas released on Deram records.

If proof were needed that labels were chasing a formulaic hit sound, The Flirtations once won a talent contest to find an act who sounded like The Supremes. “I like a boy. He doesn’t like me back. I want to cry, or die, or both.” Such three-minute confessions are timeless, but change was coming down the tracks. Bubblegum laments were getting old. Enter The Shaggs, a new Hampshire trio of sisters who released one album in 1969. If you’ve never heard them, it’s best to refer to the infamous description of them by The Rolling Stones, who said they sounded like a “lobotomised Von Trapp family”. (Frank Zappa later countered this and said they were “better than The Beatles”.)


The 1970s saw the explosion of genres outside of rock: disco, punk, reggae, funk, ska, electronic music and hip-hop. With all the diversity and barrier-breaking going on, it was inevitable that women would start picking up instruments and prove they had more musical worth than as token backing singers.

The decade also began with an unlikely example of what was possible: Russ Meyer’s film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. In it, an all-female rock group, The Carrie Nations, attempt to make the big time. In typical Meyer style, they were cartoonish, scantily clad and objectified, but they showed, albeit fictitiously, what a girl group could be.

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not Joan Jett ever saw the film, but her band The Runaways (average age: 15) had a similar ambition in the mid-1970s, even when they were getting spat at and bottled off stage. They didn’t so much open the door of male-dominated rock as kick it in and stomp all over it.

Top of the Pops offered a platform for bands, but the only visible group of women who performed regularly were Pan’s People and their interpretative dances. Outside the cosy studios of the BBC, punk and ska were proving to be a gateway into music for women. Ariane Forster, aka Ari-Up, fronted legendary punk group The Slits along with Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollit. They were accused of being amateurs, but made up in passion what they lacked in musicianship. When Ari-Up died last year, many female musicians spoke of her as an inspiration. Writing in the NME, Kate Nash claimed Forster had “liberated and empowered me”.

For the first year of their existence, The Raincoats weren’t exclusively female, but in 1978 joined by three new members including ex-Slits member Palmolive, they became another of punk’s totemic female outfits. They toured with Kleenex, an all-girl Swiss punk band.

Punk’s partner-in-crime was ska, which boasted a handful of women-only bands – The Deltones, The Bodysnatchers – who gained a profile, and The Belle Stars went on to have chart hits in the 1980s with Iko Ikoand The Clapping Song.

As punk pogoed its way in to the mainstream, funk and disco were in full swing in the US. Sister Sledge, who had originally entered the scene in the mid-1970s only to dip, before being resurrected by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic at the end of the decade. Rodgers’ production values triumphed, and there’s no arguing with the classic status of hits such as Thinking About You, Lost in Musicand We Are Family.

With the exception of the The Runaways (who were big in Japan), many of the rock, punk and ska bands remained on the periphery. In genre, commercial and gender terms, they were still outsiders, but another new decade would change that.


The 1980s was a breakthrough time, with many female acts enjoying huge chart success and breaking in to areas of music previously dominated by men. Before that happened, however, there was a sea of pop to traverse. The early years of the 1980s saw the slow shift from ska and punk to “Capital P” Pop. Bananarama’s first outing had been a collaboration with ska band Fun Boy Three, but they began a crank-’em-out career that sees them still holding the record for the most chart entries by a girl band.

Stateside, Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin and the rest of The Go-Gos pouted out Our Lips Are Sealed. Our experience of all-girl bands is dominated by geography, and the UK and US top the list. But in the burgeoning days of the 1980s, in Osaka, Shonen Knife were writing frantic songs about Brown Mushrooms and Banana Chips. Their career has been lengthy and they paved the way for other Japanese girl bands such as OOIOO, The, Oreskaband and The Suvan.

High-profile 1980s girl groups tended to top the charts (The Bangles) or fill stadiums (Heart). Then Cheryl James, Sandy Denton, and Dee Dee Roper showed up. Rap and hip-hop were still finding their feet, when Salt-N-Pepa – all spandex and bling – asked us to Push It. Sexually frank with their lyrics, they were completely unintimidated by the macho genre they found themselves in.


Indie bands took a little longer to stake their claim, but it was worth it when they did. The last batch of role models harked back to the late 1970s and early 1980s – and no one quite knew whether to take We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It seriously. In the US, New York four-piece Luscious Jackson (who were signed to The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label) stepped up alongside other acts such as Lunachicks, Sleater-Kinney, Babes in Toyland and L7.

That last act’s singer, Donita Sparks, ensured a place in musical history after L7 played at the 1992 Reading Festival. Unhappy with the sound, Sparks removed her tampon and fired it into the crowd, shouting “eat my used tampon, f***ers!”


Not something that any of the highly marketed girl groups of the 1990s would have dared utter. All Saints and The Spice Girls went head-to-head in the charts in a Blur- versus-Oasis-style competition. The shrieking about Girl Power aside, Victoria, Gerry, Emma and Mels B and C made some insanely catchy tunes, from earworm Wannabe to the faux-salsa of Spice Up Your Life.

American contemporaries En Vogue, TLC, SWV and the hugely successful Destiny’s Child were rooted in r’n’b. These were high-profile, unit-shifting cover stars. The less said about brand-not-band Pussycat Dolls the better.


Ireland has been remiss with its tally of girl bands. We’ve been served with pop pap such as B*witched, Wonderland, Trinity and Eurovision entrants Sheeba. But we should be grateful for excellent indie bands such as Medea, Chicks, You’re Only Massive and Party Weirdo.


The past two decades have been a high point for women in music. An all-female band is no longer a novelty or an exception. Moving along the spectrum, from harmonised pop to riot grrrl rock, many of these women were ground-breakers. As Jessica Hopper says in her book The Girls’ Guide to Rocking, they were the women who “gave us permission” to pick up a guitar or learn drums. They criss-crossed genres from Wilson Phillips to Sugababes, The Like to The Indigo Girls, Chicks on Speed to The Pipettes. The list sprawls: The Organ, The Spells, Vivian Girls, Coco Rosie, Scala, The Plasticines.

The future looks very bright. Last year saw the release of excellent albums from Warpaint, Mountain Man and Dum Dum Girls. This year The Suzan, The Secret Sisters and LCMDF are gaining attention.

Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs once said that, growing up, she “didn’t have many chances to experience women playing rock music. Most of the women I’ve admired had to reinvent the genre for themselves.”

Reinvention is only possible when something pre-existing is deconstructed. Before the 1920s, there was nothing to base that on. We’ve come along way since then.

Gleeson's gals - five great groups

Sleater-Kinney Kathleen Hanna and co were icons for a generation of wannabe girl guitarists.

Salt-N-PepaSex, spandex and bling, this trio (with DJ Spinderella) took on a macho genre and broke huge ground.

AmiinaIcelandic multi-instrumentalist string quartet who dabble in marimbas, singing wine glasses and glockenspiels.

The SlitsThe original alternative girl group who paved the way for the riot grrl movement

The MarvelettesWhen it comes to Motown girl groups, The Marvellettes had the edge over their better-known labelmates.