Sunday, August 1, 2010

Faye's history of lady instrumentalists [part the first: Heart, The Runaways, Chrissie Hynde, Kira Roessler, Tina Weymouth]

Hi guys! This is Faye, your friendly comments mod. :) RMJ has asked me kindly to come make a guest post about female instrumentalists because I had a lot to say (I believe she said "your comment was kick-ass" which is a little nicer sounding, but it's also true that I have a lot to say) back in her original post asking for female instrumentalists. I took the liberty of recruiting my girlfriend, also known as lunamorgan on the interwebs, to come help me fill in some gaps, since she is a minor deity regarding knowledge-about-women-in-music and it's always good to have deities on your side. ;) This is in no way meant to be comprehensive or a complete history of women who play instruments or even women who play instruments in rock bands, so if I miss your favorite please do speak up in the comments (and there will be a couple of these, also).

A few disclaimers:
1.I don't touch the lyrics of the songs here. I believe that - especially for some of these musicians - the fact that they were breaking ground as instrumentalists stands above their lyrics. I also think that music is often the rawest form of human emotion or created to evoke emotions (including anger or shock). If you want to discuss lyrics, that's fine with me as long as we don't disparage the women making the music.

2. I'm intentionally staying away from the really well-known singer-songwriters amongst the queer/feminist crowd. I'm totally aware that Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams are Very Important People, but so are you, probably (or you may need to hit YouTube rightnow), and that's not why we're here. I also tend to believe, separate of my personal preference, that "singer-songwriter" is a more acceptable role for women, even when lyrically controversial, than "rock star" or other kinds of music.

3. I know this post sadly lacks diversity. This gets a bit better as the posts get towards the present day, but it has to do with my privilege...and also my listening habits. I would really appreciate knowing some instrumentalists who are NOT (white, able-bodied, cis, etc). If you know any, please use your outside voice in the comment section. Thanks! :)

On to the musicians!

Regardless of my singer-songwriter rule, this post wouldn't be complete without a mention of the singer-songwriters of the 60s that made it possible to be that kind of artist today: Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Carly Simon etc. I'm going to pass over them quickly but they're definitely influential artists, and I think we don't give them a lot of credit when a lot of the female rockers of today wouldn't exist without them. (There are also a lot of singers that influenced THEM: if you have a favorite speak up!)

Heart is one band I definitely can't miss. A rock/hard rock band formed officially in 1974, the only consistent members through a bunch of lineup changes are sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, who are amazing musicians. Ann is listed as "lead/backing vocals" but she also plays flute, guitar, keyboards, percussion, violin, and autoharp on various songs; Nancy Wilson is "vocals/guitar' but also played mandolin, keyboards, synthesizers, and harmonica. Their most famous song is probably "Crazy On You" and it's the one I've chosen, firstly because it's amazing - almost irreproducable -- and secondly because it has a HELLA guitar solo before the song starts.

Lyric excerpt: Wild man's world is crying in pain | what you gonna do when everybody's insane | So afraid of one who's so afraid of you | what you gonna do oh | crazy on you | let me go crazy crazy on you

Everyone knows Joan Jett, but fewer people know The Runaways, her first group, which was specifically formed by her and drummer Sandy West with some urging by manager Kim Fowley to be an all-female band. It featured vocalist Cherie Currie (also on guitar and keyboard), Lita Ford (lead guitar), Micki Steele (bass for a while), and Jackie Fox (also on bass for a while). The movie that just came out with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning as Joan and Cherie was actually a pretty great, not at all "nice", retelling. However, it leaves out the fact that after Cherie left the band, Joan took over as front woman for several years before the band broke up and she went solo/formed the Blackhearts.

The video I've chosen is "Queens Of Noise", live in Japan. You do have to get used to the idea of 15 year old girls being aggressively sexual and prowling around like David Bowie. On the other hand, it's not what you 'expect' from 15 year old girls - no coy flirting here.

Lyric excerpt: Cause we're queens of noise|Come and get it boys|queens of noise|not just one of your toys

Chrissie Hynde spent most of her adolescence hating high school, going to concerts all the time, and (for most of the 1970s) trying desperately to start a punk band with anyone, anywhere, in pretty much any country. Lucky for the other members of the band they bumped into one of the true rock goddesses of all time and formed The Pretenders in 1978. had a major impact on the new wave and punk scene of the 80s and enjoy success to this day. This next video (the song is "Kid", one of The Pretenders' first hit singles) was recorded 30 years after they hit it big. This video was recorded last year. What. I don't even.

Lyrics excerpt: Kid, what changed your mood?|You've gone all sad, so I feel sad too|I think I know some things|We never outgrow

The Germs, an L.A. punk band noted for their chaotic, fastpaced, crazy shows highlighted by brilliant lyrics and interesting displays, played with Lorna Doom [Teresa Ryan] on bass, and briefly had Dottie Danger [Belinda Carlisle, more famously of the Go-Gos] on drums, replaced by Donna Rhia [Becky Barton] - they nearly always had a female member of the band. It's almost impossible to find good video of them because their songs are all about 2 minutes long and their lead singer, Darby Crash, was often so high that he was singing anywhere except the mike (to be honest, that could have been an aesthetic decision too). They're worth checking out if you're into fast-paced punk. Unfortunately, there isn't a ton of biological information about their female instrumentalists.

On that same note, Kira Roessler played bass with Black Flag for a while, though obviously later, since Black Flag were mostly an 80s band. A condition of her joining the band was that they work their tours around her school schedule, which I find interesting to contrast with the reputation of hardcore as somewhat reckless and chaotic. She played on five of Black Flag's studio albums and quit after getting tired of the often misogynistic messages (sad to think about, when given Henry Rollins' viewpoints these days). She then formed a two-bass duo, Dos, with her then-husband and also wrote songs for the Minutemen and fIREHOSE. She's often pointed out on videos, and she's a very competent player. This one's "My War", a video where you can actually see her pretty well:

Lyrics excerpt: My war|You say|That you're|My friend|But you're|One of them

(Check out this site for tons more women in the LA punk scene.)

Couldn't find any good video of them playing instruments (a lot of the time they had a touring band) but the B-52s are also a great band that have lasted for years. Vocalist and percussionist Cynthia Wilson, as well as Kate Pierson (keyboard, guitar, bass, percussion) are both fantastic. They're definitely a great, dancy, wacky kind of surf-pop new wave band.

Tina Weymouth is the kind of incredible bassist for Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, and Gorillaz, which means she's been an influential player for going on four decades now. She's noted for her funk/reggae-infused bass guitar, which provides the foundation for the signature Talking Heads sound. She also provides backing vocals and percussion on some Gorillaz tracks. It was hard to pick a song, but it's pretty awesome to see someone who can run and play bass at the same time, therefore, Life During Wartime:

Lyrics excerpt: This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco| This ain’t no fooling around| I’d like to kiss you, I’d love to hold you | I ain’t got no time for that now

We've hit the early 90s, so I think it's time to stop! The next post is 90s-2000, or thereabouts.


  1. Not only do I love Black Flag but it pleases me that this woman is hardcore enough to play an instrument. Lately, I look around and see cliche women as the front "men" of bands. They can't sing and portray these ridiculous images of women and how the ideal women should be. This turns me from music, my safe haven when I was a teenager, and makes the men around me expect me to be a certain way or act like they do because they are in the public eye. Not to mention all the other women in the public eye, that portray women out to be slutty, eating disorder, money addicted, can't-like-a-penis-unless-its-made-of-diamonds, shopaholics.
    Sadly people have this idea that if one lady is like that, they all are. And this stereotype really sets me on edge. And I, like yourself, (paraphrased from "Teenage girls and internalized sexism), judge the teenage girls around me, as stupid, air heads that crave male attention in the form of ridiculous fashions and acting stupid. Because, well, all the girls I saw in high school, well, not all, 98% of them, acted that way. Like the stereotype that people put on them. Granted, people can act like these given stereotypes because it is constantly put on them, but you always have the choice to break free of that. How is that for existentialism?
    Existentialism should be a girls best friend.
    Is was mine.

  2. I'm glad you like the post (keep your eye out - there will be more hardcore women instrumentalists!) but I wanted to draw your eye to the stereotypes you're talking about.

    Remember, stereotypes ARE just that, models of behavior. Just like if we looked at a black man and decided he was likely to be a criminal, if we look at a teenager and decide she's being airheaded, or a woman and decide she's a golddigger, we have a model and a society pushing that idea above others.

    And of course as you've mentioned those stereotypes push expectations, which can be broken free of, at cost (and gain).

    I'm not saying there isn't a perception of women that's perpetuated by celebrities and the media, but I think we should definitely look at whether it's the women themselves who are ACTIVELY living that, or if it's our society and media pushing that image with headlines and photographs.

    Let's not praise Kira Roessler while denigrating other women...that's not the point. Instead, we can celebrate the women who live against the grain.

  3. Not only do I love Black Flag but it pleases me that this woman is hardcore enough to play an instrument. Lately, I look around and see cliche women as the front "men" of bands. They can't sing and portray these ridiculous images of women and how the ideal women should be.

    That was going on back in the 1990s in the UK as well. There were plenty of bands with female singer/guitarists backed by a bunch of anonymous male musicians who came to be known as Sleeperblokes (as Sleeper was one such band, led by Louise Wener).

    But you had some female acts which had female backing players who became pretty inconspicuous as well - one thinks of the Indigo Girls, where the male drummer (Jerry Marotta) contributed very distinctly to the sound of the mid-1990s albums but for obvious reasons could never be an Indigo Girl, and then Sara Lee (who, BTW, had also played with the B52's) was kind of inconspicuous, so Amy and Emily kept the act as very much a duo rather than a band affair.


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