Episode 20. The first girl bands
I’ve always loved women in Rock music and having toured and worked with quite a few, I can honestly say that they are a match and often better than male bands at what they do. Girlschool is the first obvious one that springs to mind and most of you will know of The Runaways and probably Fanny but there has been a wealth of other all-girl bands before those three came along. No doubt in the 1970s those three really pioneered the way for women in their respective genres - Heavy Metal, Hard Glam and Hard Rock for want of better categories - and in particular Girlschool into the 1980s who (along with Rock Goddess) forty years on are still playing sold out gigs and are often sited by today’s generation of women in Rock as their inspiration. Without further ado then, combining my love of Rock history and girls with instruments, here are a few of the not so well known women who did well but sadly, are usually left out of the history books.
A brief introduction
All-girl bands have been around since 1915 when - although their percussionist was male - The Schuster Sisters Saxophone Quartette toured the USA and had a sponsorship endorsing C.G. Conn saxophones; a decade later, The Darling Saxophone Four were doing the same thing. At the same time, an all-girl Jazz/Vaudeville band named The Ingenues were touring the USA and in the 1930’s in the UK, Edna Croudson's Rhythm Girls were performing around their country. Ivy Benson was their rhythm guitarist and she went on to form her ‘All Girl Orchestra’ in the 1940’s. There were many others of this ilk around that time but probably the first all-girl group were the Lena Kidd Quartet who came from Scotland. Lena was an ex-member of Ivy Benson’s band and they had moderate success touring the UK and Europe. Approaching the Rock and Roll era several all-girl black bands formed as well, most notably Sarah McLawler & The Syncoettes who released four records on the King label including a song called Ready, Willin’ and Able in 1952 which was later adapted in 1958 by Fats Domino into his hit, I’m Ready. In fact, the entire history of pre-Rock and Roll all-girl bands could fill a book but for now, let’s concentrate on the post-Rock and Roll years. Here is just a small selection of the great all-girl bands that were pioneers in their country in the ‘60’s.
The Cimmats (Finland)
Female bands were not popular in Finland and it is largely thought that the only one to make any mark on Finland’s music history is The Cimmats. They played mostly Beatles and Rolling Stones covers causing wild hysteria in some places, even occasionally having to resort to police protection. The sheer novelty of the band saw them gain space in the newspapers and magazines and they made one TV show appearance on the ‘Me Nuoret’ program in Suomen TV on October 23, 1964. For reasons unknown, they refused record contracts and hence there are no actual recordings of them (to date, there are no recordings of any Finnish girl bands from the 1960’s) until their reunion concert in 2005.
Dara Puspita (Indonesia)
When the band became popular in 1965, Indonesia was still under the rule of President Sukarno and he branded all forms of Western music ‘A form of mental disease.’ Despite this, Dara Puspita (which means Flower Girls), continued to play and their performances attracted a lot of attention from the teenagers and media. Eventually, President Sukarno had them arrested and they were interrogated for a month before being released without being charged. Less than a year later Sukarno had been overthrown and the band would release their first album – three more would follow in the next two years. In 1969 they moved to Europe, living and performing there until they returned to in late 1971. Their last tour of their home country lasted for three months, many of the shows to audiences of 10,000 fans or more.
Dorothy & the Vampires: AKA The Vampires (Singapore)
The most famous music tutor in Singapore in the 1960’s was a man named Harry Martinez and it was he grouped six of his students together to form Dorothy & the Vampires in 1964. They recorded two singles, the first was released on Satellite Records and the second one on the Phillips label; the latter was an instrumental (no Dorothy) and therefore credited to The Vampires. Fame and fortune eluded them however and the girls tired of the constant rehearsals and being together all the time and in 1969 they all went their separate ways. Five of the girls are still friends and live in Singapore although the whereabouts of their sixth member – singer Dorothy – are unknown.
Goldie & The Gingerbreads (USA)
Preceding Suzi Quartos’ first band - The Pleasure Seekers - by a couple of years, Goldie and the Gingerbreads’ big break came when they played at the Mods & Rockers Ball in New York in 1964 which was a party in honour of The Rolling Stones. Wearing gold lamé suits, they caught the attention of Ahmet Ertegün, the chairman of Atlantic Records, who signed them to his label. Their version of Can’t You Hear My Heart Beat produced by The Animals organist, Alan Price came out in the USA but the release was overshadowed by Herman’s Hermits version released two weeks earlier and failed to chart. In the UK it got to No. 25 in March 1965 and package tours in the UK followed that year with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks but they failed to make an impression on the audience.
Happy Coats (Japan)
Also known as the Tokyo Happy Coats, the five sisters of Eiko, Keiko, Shoko, Tomiko and Ruriko Hakomori played twenty-six instruments between them. They were more of a lounge-act than chart act and more popular in the USA and Hong Kong than their native Japan which may explain why they never signed a recording deal until late in their career but when they did, they released two albums and three singles on King Records in Cincinnati. Before that, they had been touring the USA extensively since the mid-sixties and appeared on the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show on 27th February 1966. Their second single, Forevermore “Kinito Itsumademo” was a hit in Hawaii in 1970.
Las Mosquitas (Argentinia)
This Argentinean quartet blended Latin rhythms and Pop melodies. They were probably the most musically talented of all the bands listed here as can be judged by their arrangements and harmonies which were done by their leader, Pupé, who had studied classical music. They are credited for creating a new sound in Argentina at that time and released two EP’s and an album in 1965. Their Beatle haircuts (and probably the name which actually means the small insect Midges – not Mosquitos) were no doubt an attempt to cash-in on The Beatles’ popularity but their music was so different to anything else, there are no other comparisons. They are probably the most short-lived band in this list as well, splitting up in less than two years.
The Liverbirds (UK)
At the cavern club one night, John Lennon said to them ‘Girls with guitars? That’ll never work.” Hailing from Liverpool in 1962, The Liverbirds found it difficult to get gigs in their hometown, partially because they were girls and partially because musically, they were more R&B than Merseybeat. However, they were spotted by a man named Henry Henroid who thought they would be popular in the Star Club in Germany and presented them to the Star Club’s manager who knew they would be a hit. They decided to re-locate to Germany permanently and recorded two albums for the Star Club’s own label, made Germany’s Top 40 with their version of Bo Diddley’s, Diddley Daddy and toured extensively through Germany, Switzerland and Denmark. Their last show was in Japan in January, 1968.
Although they were formed in 1965, the band did not officially become an all-girl band until late 1966 when the original two male members left. The following year they won a Battle of the Bands competition and accepted an invitation to join a traveling music caravan called ‘Pesma leta’ which featured some of the most popular musicians of that time from Yugoslavia and latterly became increasingly popular in Romania where they performed on TV and at fashion shows. Also in ’67, they signed to Jugoton Records and released two EP’s; one more EP was released in 1968 which featured a cover of Mary Hopkin’s Those Were The Days. The band finally split in 1969 with each member returning to their studies as they were only 14 ~15 years old when the band formed.
The Vamps (Australia)
The Vamps were never so much a group as a collection of musicians around the guitarist Margaret Britt. Formed in 1965, they played around Australia for two years and appeared on TV shows. Britt then changed band line-up completely in 1966 and early 1967 and then again shortly before they left for a six month stay in Vietnam, playing for the troops at American, Australian, Korean and South Vietnamese Army Bases. Upon returning to Australia, more members left and new ones joined and they continued to tour through South East Asia and the Pacific Islands. Throughout all this, they never recorded and it wasn’t until 1971 with yet another line-up (they had a total of 24 members in six years) that they finally released two singles. Neither of them charted.
These are just to wet your appetite. There were many others ranging from Die Sweetles from Germany and Les Beatlettes from Canada, both of whom were obviously heavily influenced by The Beatles to The Ladybirds (USA) who were the first all-girl band top play topless. They obviously didn’t do much to advance women being taken seriously but the seventies is when girls did get serious and also very proficient with their instruments . Fanny didn’t make it into the eighties having long split up and The Runaways fragmented with various success into solo careers albeit always with male backing. Girlschool however paved the way and along with their peers Rock Goddess, where receiving rave reviews for their gigs and records but both still frustratingly faced the gender barrier even with their success into the eighties. Things moved slowly for women in that decade with The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, The Belle Stars and others all selling records but even though they were competent, they were known primarily for their image rather than their musical ability. These days however, thanks to those pioneers, there are hundreds if not thousands of girl bands around the world, many of them successful and making a living playing music so with that and given the history of girl bands in Rock and Pop, it’s surprising that they are still considered by many as a novelty act when in fact, they can rock, roll, boogie, solo, thrash, yell, scream and belt out a great song just as good as their male counterparts. Prove me wrong.