For 25 years, women have been popping up in rock music like some Third World guerrilla band, recording here, writing there, singing backup for friends and taking IOUs for the pay-offs. Well, a network is beginning to form, and women are calling in their IOUs. In the past years or so, the crossover successes of women from the disco and country fields have alerted record companies to a large consumer audience for women performers. The result is a flock of first albums by women, not only in such traditionally feminine areas as folk-rock and R&B (the mother of disco) but in mainstream rock'n'roll. Back in rock's infancy, nobody noticed the scarcity of women. In the early years, the fledgling industry already staggered from the one-two punch of racism and classism. Rock'n roll was brash and exhibitionistic: Few women could duck-walk like Chuck Berry or display the demonic possession of Little Richard.
By the late '50s, women were slipping into rock via softer idioms. The multi-voice "girl groups," like the Shangri-Las and the Chiffons, romanticized life in the laundromat; folkie congregations like the New Christy Minstrels, took refuge behind traditional ballads; and the cover-girl pop stars like Lesley Gore and Connie Francis were torn from True Romance magazine. They were completely idealized, groomed and poised, the Vestal Birgins of the music business.
For women in rock, the Summer of Love was the the summer of liberation. Women could be homely, like Janis Joplin, or overweight, like Cass Elliott, or worldly, like Marianne Faithfull. The originality of Joplin, Grace Slick, Laura Nyro, Carole King and Aretha Franklin freed women from the songwriting stables of Detroit and Tin Pan Alley.
But as the '70s began, the rock industry took its place among the major economic powers. It developed simultaneously a creative hardening of the arteries and a bureaucracy consecrated to commercial success. Women slipped back into the "safe" categories: Southern California countryrock, folk-rock, Motown and R&B. Or they fled to other fields where women were traditionally treated with more respect-jazz, country and blues.
Now women are ready to break out again-and for once it looks like the industry is on their side.
Of the recent first releases, the heaviest artillery has been drawn up to launch the Warner Bros. debut of "Rickie Lee Jones" (BSK 3296). The cover photograph, with French beret and cigarillo, is platered full-page all over the trade publications. Three weeks out, her album is safe in the 50s of the Top 100, and has already appeared on "Saturday Night Live," thus being figuratively baptized by the industry in-crowd.
The sound that has launched these thousand commercial ships is a sinuous, insinuating cross between Laura Nyro and Tom Waits: smoky, sly, sung from the throat rather than the chest. It slinks, but in old, soft jeans, not disco Dacron.
Her writing is reminiscent of the same influences. At times it winds like a saxophone through the city's midnight alleys, and other times it blows foam off a beer mug in a Formica juke joint. She calls it "very dark red and blacks and brown." That's the first part; the rest is neon reflected in the gutter.
Not surprisingly, the company has chosen to release "Chuck E.'s in Love" as the album's first single. With its streetcorner strut in the rhythm and an engaging, gamin roughness in the lyrics ("What's her name? Is that her there?/Christ, I think he's even combed his hair!"), it's the exact musical translation of an elbow dig to the ribs.
As a whole, the album is uneven and unrealized, but highly attractive and intriguing-all you could ask for in a debut. And the back-up credits indicate high-level support from within the musicians' circle; guests include Mac "Dr. John" Rebbenack, Willie Weeks, Michael McDonald, Randy Newman and Tom Scott.
LEAH KUNKEL has the support of a powerful musical cadre, too - in this case, practically the entire Laurel Canyon Mafia.
But her Columbia debut, "Leah Kunkel" (FC 35778), is littered with Suthern California buzzworks, starting with the fact that she's Cass Elliott's younger (thinner) sister and is married to Section drummer Russ Kunkel.
The back cover has a breathless blurb ("Along the line of truly great singers: Billie Holiday, Don & Phil Everly, Aretha Franklin, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt...listen to Leah Kunkel!") from Art Garfunkel (for whom Kunkel has sung backup.) Stephen Bishop, who has also had the benefits of Kunkel in the background, here returns the favor. Most of the other Section musicians play here, Andrew Gold drops by, husband Kunkel co-produces.
In her time, Kunkel has recorded behind her sister, Taylor and Carly Simon, Jackson Browne and Dan Hill. She has recorded compositions by Bishop, John Phillips (the main Papa of sister Cass' old group, the Mamas and the Papas), Jules Shear of the Polar Bears, and the Bee Gees. She has, in the current fashion, reworked the old Motown standard, "If I Could Build My Whole World Around You." It's a cast of thousands, but it's wasted effort. Kunkel has a fine voice for harmony but it has no depth, no spirit of its own. This is Laurel Canyon Muzak.
THERE'S something about Cindy Bullens' "Desire Wire" (United Artists, UA-LA 933-H) that's reminiscent of Delbert McClinton at his spunky, good ol' boy best.
Despite their dissimilarities - Bullens plays guitar, not harp; she's more rock while McClinton favors bar-band R&B; she's Boston, he's Texas -they share an overrriding faith in the power and energy of rock'n'roll. Give her a gig in a good, rowdy beer joint and she'll knock the roof off.
Bullens' credits lean toward the vocal more than the instrumental. She toured with Elton John three times, was invited but unable to join Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue, has sung backup on albums by John, Rod Stewart and several cuts on the "Grease" soundtrack.
But her guitar work is respectable, sometimes better than that. She has a spoofy touch with her writing that illuminates such cuts as "High School History" ("Dancin' situation all across the nation"). "Survivor" has a remarkable force and vitality. Bullens could survive herself, if her label would work up some support.
J. PARK doesn't write her own material; two members of her band do. She just sings what they give her. She ought to get a new band.
The Columbia debut of "The Jan Park Band" (JC 35484) hasn't gotten much attention, apparently because CBS doesn't know what audience to pitch it to. Some cuts on the album have a lavish late-60s feel, something like the Brooklyn Bridge's "The Worst That Could Happen." And "Stranger" calls up elusive memories of "I'm Your Vehicle"-heavy bass and a long dark car. There's one cover of a Chi Col-trane song, and one Malanie Safka. What's going on here?
What's going on is that Park is impossbly trying to make her voice do gymnastics to fit all these different compositions. Near as one can tell, it's a fine, powerful voice, capable of both demandking clarity and Martha Raye huskiness. Columbia still ought to get this girl a band.
HILARY is both a person, Hilary Schmidt, and an album (Columbial 35547). The person is a nice, Harpohaired New York State girl who took up flute and sax at the relatively old age of 19 after she came across a street musician in Cambridge. She's played with a number of fusion bands - some leaning toward calypso, some more Latin-and it shows. Ther's a definite samba swing to much of this album. Unfortunately, there's a big dose of artificial, unimaginative disco-funk that obscures her often-intriguing playing. When she abandons the funk and the mindless vocal chorus and the metronomic percussion, she plays simple but pleasant jazz.
WELCOME to the recorded world of soft-core pornography. A seedy little record on the Tomto label, Annette Peacock's new "X-Dreams" (TOM7025), tries to take up where "Hair" and "Sodomy" left off.
To a B-movie version of beatnik-instrumental background, she recites/sings derivative tales of sexual degradation, incest, bisexuality, etc. that are further weighted down by incessant excruciating wordplay, as in "My Brother Gave Me a Head Start."
The only hope is that this is an elaborate party joke; what else could explain the presence of guest musicians Mick Ronson, Ick Morotta, etc.?
There are moments on the album "Nicolette" (Warner Bros. BSK3243) when Nicolette Larson sounds like the very early Ronstadt-the promise is great, but she has a lot to learn about conviction and expression. The rest of the album is hobbled (for her) by poor choice of material, again very reminiscent of Ronstadt. There are a couple of oldies ("You Sen Me," "Baby, Don't You Do It"), a bluegrass clasic (the Louvins' "Angels Rejoiced") and a change of pace (Jesse Winchester's "Rhumba Girl," the new single).
Of these, the best is "Rhumba Girl," which allows Larson's natural exuberance to flash through.
Larson will have to escape the formula prison to find her own niche, as Ronstadt did finally, or spend the rest of her life as a backup singer extraordinaire. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; Picture 1, RICKIE LEE JONES; Picture 2, LEAH KUNKEL; Picture 3, CINDY BULLENS; Picture 4, JAN PARK; Picture 5, HILARY SCHMIDT; Picture 6, ANNETTE PEACOCK; Picture 7, NICOLETTE LARSON.