When most people think of Rock and Roll history, it is usually in the context of the straight white male “rock god” archetype. The reality is women of different races and sexual orientations have been instrumental in creating and evolving Rock & Roll from it’s inception. I put together this list of 5 underrated female rock musicians whose contributions were pivotal to advancing rock music and it’s sub-genres, feminism and art in general to demonstrate that. (Technically this list includes more than 5 women because I counted heavy metal band Girlschool as one.)
These women have all experienced varying degrees of commercial success and kudos from the music community and beyond but are still not as highly valued and recognized in a way that is commensurate to their individual contributions to Rock and Roll and music as a whole. There are many other women besides these five that have had a powerful effect on rock music history but I wanted to keep the list limited to those I felt were truly the cream of the crop.
5. SUZI QUATRO
HAILS FROM: Detroit Michigan U.S.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Suzi Quatro achieved mainstream success as female bassist and rock vocalist in the 70s especially in the UK and Australia. She came from a musical family and was used to performing music on stage since childhood. In 1977, Suzi added “actress” to her resume when she appeared on seven episodes of Happy Days, one of the most popular US sitcoms of all time. She continued to land acting gigs on television after Happy Days and even starred in several West End productions. She also wrote a novel, hosted a British talk show and in 2016 she was honored by Cambridge University with a Doctorate in music despite never graduating high school. She also appeared on one of my favorite female-centric television shows, Absolutely Fabulous.
SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY: She once threw a very intoxicated Iggy Pop offstage. Her mainstream success inspired women around the world and showed them that women did not have to be relegated to groupie status in order to have a place in Rock and Roll, they could also create it.
INFLUENCED: The Runaways, Suzy & Los Quattro, KT Tunstall, Alice Bag, Suzi & Quadratrødderne, Sussie 4, Tina Weymouth & Tuscadero. The latter named their band after Leather Tuscadero, the character Suzi played on Happy Days.
THE QUOTABLE QUATRO: “Never think of yourself as a “girl musician.” You are a musician, period….I never did gender- Don’t do it now…I’m a me-ist. I do me.” She pauses thoughtfully. “Don’t try to hide your femininity, but always have your line that mustn’t be crossed.”
What a Way to Die by The Pleasure Seekers (This was the first rock band Suzi was in and it boasted an all female line up which included her sisters and other female musicians they knew.)
The Wild One, from her second solo album Quatro.
Glycerine Queen, from her eponymous solo debut album.
4. ALICE BAG
photo via alicebag.com -photographer Melanie Nissen
HAILS FROM: East Los Angeles, California U.S.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Alice Bag was a punk rock pioneer that helped shape the early Los Angeles Punk Scene. In 1977 she helped co-found the The Bags and later moved on to form other bands like Castration Squad (an all female death rock band), another punk band called Cholita!, Las Tres and various other musical ensembles. She has also released two solo albums and created her own music genre, “Punkchera”. Alice’s lyrics often address important social issues such as police brutality, rape and alcoholism to name a few. Her work has been featured in a Smithsonian exhibition. She is also and accomplished artist and has had her paintings shown in several galleries. She uses her websites to archive the history of women in the L.A. punk scene.
SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY: Like Suzi Quatro, Alice Bag also had to deal with a male musician trying to crash her set that man was none other than Sid Vicious. Here is a photo from the event in question and an accompanying passage about the incident from her 2011 memoir, Violence Girl.
“Sid rolled around on the floor in front of the amps, like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn…he reached for the mic a couple times, but I hung onto it, because as much as I liked Sid Vicious, it was a Bags show, not punk rock karaoke night.”
INFLUENCED: The early L.A. punk scene, Shirley Manson, FEA, countless students, musicians, educators and activists.
ON THE ORIGINS OF THE EARLY L.A. PUNK SCENE:
Because a lot of people who were getting into punk were transitioning from glam. I think at the very beginning I was coming at it and a lot of my friends were coming at it from the background of glam. And glam was pretty sexist and the role of women in glam was much more of a myth. So when I wanted to form an all-girl band, I was coming from that glam place. Seeing someone like The Runaways or hearing about Suzy Quatro, those were our role models, but then there were also the groupies that were being glamorized in rock magazines. So there was a whole different way of looking at your role in rock. When punk came along, suddenly you didn’t have to be the sexual kitten. You could be a powerful entity on your own and I felt like punk really just allowed us to be people. We could choose to show the side of yourself that we felt like showing at the time. I could wear something that might be seen as masculine or feminine on any given day. I remember one time, here’s another example of Backstage Pass, where Genny Body, one of the members of the band, had drawn a line through the middle of her face and one side was very feminine and that side of her was dressed in feminine attire and the other side was very masculine. I thought that was amazing and I loved that. Showing that hey, I’ve got more than just…I’m a whole person.
Survive, a single with The Bags.
White Justice from her second solo album Blueprint.
Babylonian Gorgon, a single with The Bags.
Invisible from her second solo album Blueprint.
No Means No from her self titled debut solo album.
Turn It Up from her second solo album Blueprint.
Photo by @karmicvintagephotography
3. MARISKA VERES
AGE: Mariska passed away in 2006 but she would have celebrated her 71st birthday on October 1st of this year.
HAILS FROM: The Haugue, Netherlands
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Mariska Veres joined a band at the tender age of 16, called Le Mysteres. Like Suzi Quatro, Mariska performed music onstage since childhood. As the groundbreaking front woman for psychedelic/folk rock band Shocking Blue she helped show young Dutch rock musicians that it was indeed possible for a Dutch rock group to succeed globally. After Shocking Blue disbanded, Mariska joined and fronted multiple bands including a jazz ensemble and even cut some solo records. Her father was the accomplished Hungarian-Romani violinist Lajos Veres and in a nod to her heritage she released an album with a Romanian folk music group in 2003.
SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY: Mariska was part of a very small, elite group of women throughout the 60s and 70s to front a psychedelic rock group.
INFLUENCED: Nirvana, Bananarama, Mavi Isiklar, John Mayer, Formula Diablos and countless Dutch musicians.
LOST IN TRANSLATION: Venus was by far Shocking Blue’s greatest hit. Several bands have covered it, the most famous of them was Bananarama who had a gigantic hit with it in the eighties. On the original recording Mariska, who was not yet fluent in English sang “godness” instead of “goddess” on the opening line. Robbie van Leeuwen the bands lead songwriter, guitarist and sitarist whose first language was also Dutch accidentally wrote the lyric incorrectly. The band later re-recorded the song with the correct pronunciation. You can still find the “godness” version on Youtube.
Send me a Postcard from the album Scorpio’s Dance.
Rock In The sea from their 1973 album, Attila.
Love Buzz from Mariska’s first album as Shocking Blue’s vocalist, At Home.
Never Marry a Railroad Man from their fourth album called Third Album as it was Shocking Blue’s third album with Mariska as the lead vocalist.
Nirvana’s cover of Love Buzz, their debut single from their days on the Subpop label.
Photo via Getty Images
AGE: Rock goddesses are ageless, also I was not all able to find enough information on their individual birthdays. The group has had many different line ups.
HAIL FROM: England & Australia
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Girlschool is a pioneering all female punk/heavy metal band that formed in 1978. A couple of the founding members were previously in other all girl bands before coming together to form Girlschool, namely the Furry Freak Sisters and Pained Lady. Two of the members were also in a punk band called Skinflicks that was all female except for the lead singer. Skinflicks was part of the early UK punk scene and played at the Roxy in support of Siouxie and the Banshees. Girlschool has been touring and gigging as a headlining and supporting act internationally for 40+ years and to this day remain an anomaly in the male dominated rock scene. These rock goddesses are worshiped by an international cult following and their musicianship is widely revered. They are the longest running female rock band of all time and have released 13 albums whose song lyrics not only deal with typical rock and roll sentiments of partying and living larger than life but they also address politics, murder, addiction, environmentalism and the abuse and exploitation of women. One of the first songs they wrote is called “Not for Sale”, and it is about how women are objectified to sell cars.
SMASHING THE PATRIARCHY: The founding members of Girlschool did not originally set out to be an all-female band. Last June guitarist Jackie Chambers and bassist Enid Williams were interviewed at Sweden Rock Festival and Enid said that initially they just wanted to be in a band but male musicians laughed them off, refused to play with them and many even point blank told them that girls should not be in bands. During that same festival, Enid was interviewed by Decibel Geek and she said that as a female rock musicians people treated her and her band mates as if they were aliens from outer space and to this day that still happens some times. The group gained a younger audience in the early 2000’s via Myspace and Facebook. Last June Enid Williams was interviewed at Sweden Rock Festival and pointed out that half of the new audience they had gained were women and noted that when Girlschool first burst on to the rock scene the audience members at gigs were mostly male.
INFLUENCED: Vixen, The Donnas and countless male and female rock musicians.
Yeah Right, C’mon Let’s Go and Hit and Run from their 1981 album Hit and Run.
Awkward Position and Treasure from their most recent album released in 2015, Guilty as Sin.
Action from the 1988 album, Take a Bite.
Take it all away, Not for Sale and Deadline from their debut album, Demolition.
Photo by Philip Goddard via http://www.weshootmusic.com
1. SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
Age: Again, rock goddesses are ageless but she was born on March 20, 1915 and passed on October 9, 1973.
HAILS FROM: Cotton Plant, Arkansas
A TRUE PIONEER ON ALL FRONTS: Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born 16 years before the invention of the electric guitar. That did not stop her from becoming one of the instrument’s earliest and most talented advocates. She was one of the first artists to use distortion and she was especially admired for her unique guitar picking. During her childhood she was known in her community as a musical prodigy and got her start performing music onstage for churchgoers as a child. Her 1945 single “Strange Things Happening Everyday” served as an early prototype for the timeless rock and roll sound that Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley (Both fans of her work.) later adopted and are often solely credited with pioneering. She first achieved fame as Gospel Music’s very first commercially successful artist. Later she changed her style by reinterpreting spiritual music for a secular audience and somehow managed to maintain her religious fans while gaining new fans of all backgrounds and selling out arenas during a time where that was nearly unheard about any artist of any genre, race or gender. She defied convention at a time when black and white musicians performing together was highly taboo when she collaborated with The Jordanaires, an all white gospel group from Springfield Missouri. She also performed for a racially integrated audience in 1940 at a venue called Cafe Society located in Greenwich Village, New York.
INFLUENCED: Every rock and roll musician and rock music aficionado that has ever been born, whether they know it or not. Johnny Cash said she was his favorite singer and biggest inspiration. In 1947 she gave a young and unknown Little Richard his big break and invited him to perform with her onstage during one of her concerts. In a BBC documentary about her life Gordon Stoker, pianist/singer of the Jordanaires a Gospel group that recorded and performed with Sister Rosetta than later with Elvis Presley, said Presley was a huge fan of and deeply influenced by her singing and idiosyncratic prowess on the guitar. Jerry Lee Lewis praised her musical talent and onstage style. Ginger Baker, of one of my favorite rock bands of all time, Cream was also an avowed Sister Rosetta Tharpe fan and even played drums in her backing band in 1958 when she toured Sandinavia. Brittany Howard, Tina Turner, Robert Plant, Chuck Berry, Noisettes, Mahalia Jackson, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Aretha Franklin, The Rosettes, Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Who, Isaac Hayes, Marie Knight, Karen Carpenter, Allison Krauss, Neil Sedaka, Frank Turner and many many others are also known to have been greatly inspired by her.
Strange Things Happening Everyday
Strange Things Happening Everyday cover by Johnny Cash.
Four Five Times
Didn’t it Rain
Tall Skinny Papa
Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us performed by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant and originally written and recorded by Sam Phillips
Thank you so much for stopping by the blog everyone! I hope that I have inspired some of you to listen to music you have never heard before and maybe even pick up an instrument or a piece of paper and pencil to write song lyrics in. For more content on music, feminism, sustainable fashion, vintage style and veganism subscribe to the blog.
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