2019 Rock Camp – Day 3: Today a little history lesson, and how it applies to the 2019 session of P.J. Olsson’s Rock Camp.
A few days ago, I watched the documentary “L7: Pretend We’re Dead” about the rock group L7 that formed in the 1980’s, but came to national attention in the 1990’s. Although from Los Angeles, they became associated with the Seattle grunge scene through their relationship with Nirvana. Notice how I labeled them, “rock group.” One of the band’s biggest complaints was that the press (and most everyone else) insisted on placing other adjectives into the label: girl rock group, female rock group, etc. They wanted to be noticed for their music, not their gender.
While jazz, rhythm & blues, and traditional (pre-rock) pop music have a long history of important female artists (Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Esther Philips, Patti Page, and Doris Day to name a few, but they were essentially vocalist – one exception, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who played a mean guitar) – when Rock & Roll emerged, it was clearly a man’s world. When looking at the history of Rockabilly, two female artists come to mind, Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson. Martin, who was nicknamed “the female Elvis,” was seen as a novelty, and Jackson raked up a bunch of country hits after she toned down her style. [Just a side note: Wanda Jackson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which she fully deserves. However, she was placed in a lesser category: “Early Influence,” rather than with the main artists. Her career was contemporary with all the other 1950’s artists inducted – she even toured with Elvis. We should start a petition to right this wrong.]
There were many pop vocalists that emerged during the early rock era and throughout the 1960’s, but not really any rockers (I am speaking strictly of charted hits.) The British Invasion of 1964, nor in the American Garage Rock reaction gave us a all-girl (sorry ladies) band. The San Francisco scene gave us two rock groups with strong lead singers: Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick) and Big Brother & The Holding Company (Janis Joplin), but it was still the men playing the instruments.
Next came a band that barely gets mentioned anymore (let alone Classic Rock radio airplay), the all-female band Fanny, who’s debut album was released in 1970. The band’s final line-up featured Patti Quatro, who had previously played in an all-female garage band in Detroit called The Pleasure Seekers, consisting of friends and her sisters. One of these sisters would emerge as the next important pioneer – not just a vocalist, but a bass player- Suzi Quatro. Huge in England, but barely made a dent on the American charts – however, often cited as a major influence.
1970’s area rock was an all boys club before the arrival of Heart (Ann & Nancy Wilson, vocals and guitar – but with a male band), and the previously all-male Fleetwood Mac now featured Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie. The New York punk scene had two strong female-led bands in Blondie (Debby Harry) and the Patti Smith Group, plus playing bass with Talking Heads was Tina Weymouth. London came calling with the all-female punk band The Slits, as well as Siouxsie Sioux, leader of the all-male Banshees, and Chrissie Hynde, leader of the all-male Pretneders. In Los Angeles there was Exene Cervenka leading the all-male punk group X. No list of important rockers of the 1970’s would be complete without The Runaways, which included the guitarist Lita Ford and Joan Jett.
One of the downfalls of early-1980’s MTV era, being so image driven, was now female musicians had to not only prove themselves as players, but also had to be attractive for their videos to get played. Important influential rockers from this period include Pat Benatar, The Go-Go’s. and The Bangles. A little later in the decade came Melissa Etheridge. This quick history lesson was not all inclusive, merely a review of some of the major female influences in rock & roll. Which brings us back around to L7.
The hardcore punk scene (and let’s face it – rock in general) was pretty male dominated in the mid-1980’s, even after 30 years of a female pioneers making inroads. This is what L7 had to rebel against, they just wanted to rock, but many did not take them serious. Soon other all-female punk bands started popping up, and of course a label had to be created, so they all got lumped together under the term “Riot Grrrl.”
I suppose a little disclosure. I really never got into a lot of the macho-posing, misogynist rock that teenage boys in the 1980s were “supposed” to like. Had you glanced through my vinyl collection in high school, you would have found most of the artists I mentioned above, plus many other female artists. While I lived in Detroit, many of the bands I hung out with were all-female, including those involved in the Mamapalooza movement. [check out Kate Perotti’s documentary Momz Hot Rock (2009), in the end credits you might just see a certain music journalist mentioned. Shameless plug, but a worthwhile film to watch.]
To me, one of the benefits of listening to a variety of music is getting different perspective. Now, one question remains: What in the world does this have to do with P.J. Olsson’s Rock Camp?
From the beginning, young people have been going to the Big Show, seeing their peers on stage, becoming inspired, getting instruments, learning to play, and then becoming rock campers. Because Rock Camp has always been co-ed, we have had young girls coming to the Big Show, seeing their peers rockin’ the stage, becoming inspired, getting instruments, learning to play, and then becoming rock campers.
From Wanda Jackson to L7…they paved the way, and I know they would all be proud of this…Of our 19 campers this summer, 15 are female – but really gender shouldn’t matter. Come to the Big Show – Saturday, August 10, Rosza Center – and you will see 19 serious rock & roll musicians dedicated to the craft of music-making.
Written by Anthony Daniel