Patty Donahue of the Waitresses may know what boys like, but Joan Jett knows that girls love rock 'n' roll.
More than a quarter of a century after rock's ungainly birth, women are achieving success in a male-dominated world. Jett's and the Go-Go's' albums are both at the top of the record sales charts, with the Go-Go's' debut the first all-women's group to have reached No. 1 status.
The singles charts are also alive with the sound of macha, with Jett's "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" riding No. 1 above the Go-Go's' "We Got the Beat." One suspects they're not going to give up that beat any time soon. It's been close to 20 years since "girl-group rock" held such a dominant position, but there's a world of difference between the singing-only Shangri-Las, Crystals and Ronettes of the '60s and Jett and the Go-Go's, who not only sing, but also play their instruments and write their material.
While Jett and company are filling huge arenas, at least one survivor of the earlier era is continuing her long comeback in smaller venues: former Ronette Ronnie Spector appears at the 9:30 Club tonight. "In the early '60s there were a lot of female lead singers," Spector says. "Then after the Beatles, everything was male four-piece bands; the music changed to all-male for a while. Now it's changing back to my type voice."
The changes run much deeper than Spector will allow. In the girl-group heyday (1958-1965), groups like the Chiffons, Angels and Ronettes performed men's music at men's direction. The music industry then, as now, was dominated by men.. Alan Betrock, whose "The Girl Groups" will be published next month, points out that "all the girl groups of the '60s did was sing. They didn't write or produce or play their own instruments. Often they didn't even go out on tour; it was just a session or studio group. All the producers then were male, and the better records were dominated by a single strong personality like Phil Spector [Ronnie's former husband and producer] or Berry Gordy at Motown." That none of the girl groups had any success after leaving their original producers substantiates that point.
Women traditionally have been cast as singers, but times are changing, says Richard Gotterher, producer of the Go-Go's' multi-platinum debut. Gotterher has a unique perspective, having produced the Angels and written for them the song "My Boyfriend's Back." Playing rock 'n' roll "is a macho thing, like driving fast cars or whatever it is boys do when they grow up. It's part of the change in our society. But it was also inevitable: Girls grow up listening to music like guys do. Sooner or later they're not going to be satisfied just with guy guitar heroes. They're going to want to play the instruments themselves. It just took longer because it's not a traditional role for a woman to be a drummer or an electric guitar player. Now it will be much more common."
Gotterher sees the girl groups of the early '60s as "one little space in history, very fondly remembered, but all fabricated. They weren't rock 'n' roll people at all, they were just girls who sang."
Ronnie Spector is a case in point. Born Veronica Bennett, she was unknown until eccentric producer Phil Spector picked her and a sister and cousin out of a New York club and fashioned them into his image of rock through classic songs like "Be My Baby" and "Standing in the Rain." "I didn't read music or play an instrument," she admits. "Phil would teach me a song and go over and over it until I got it right."
The Ronettes and other girl groups did serve as a bridge between the male teen idols of the late '50s and the self-contained groups that arrived as part of the British invasion in 1963. Half a decade later, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick started to redefine women's roles, but remained singers. By the early '70s, there were some all-women rock bands (Fanny, Isis, Bertha) but they lacked talent. The Runaways (with whom Jett performed) played their own instruments adequately but remained essentially a producer's fantasy and a boys' band; parents were advised to "lock up your sons" to protect them from this "teen-age jailbait." The Runaways lumbered loudly into oblivion.
In the mid-'70s, Suzi Quatro moved in a different direction. She played strong electric bass and led a male band, and her leather-clad stance established her as one of the boys. Her music also signified a shift to a harder, aggressive beat, but Quatro was five years ahead of the times (in fact, her look and sound are almost exactly those that have been so successful for Joan Jett).
The girls-in-the-band theme has expanded in several ways. Women instrumentalists (sometimes doubling as singers) have slowly become integrated into bands, mostly New Wave, but including such stellar groups as Fleetwood Mac and Heart. They've formed all-women groups (England has several dozen, including heavy-metal sensation Girlschool, currently touring the States). Or they've remained lead vocalists while dominating the songwriting or direction of their bands (Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, Debbie Harry of Blondie).
There are dozens of hybrids as well, including the two-woman/three-man B-52's, who perform at Georgetown University on Friday. Opening for Ronnie Spector tonight will be the Dynettes, three women who perform with Washington area rock bands but come together on occasion to pay tribute to the bygone girl-group era. A surprising number of Washington bands feature women instrumentalists--Egoslavia, the Velvet Monkeys, True Fax and the Insaniacs, Day for Night and the all-girl Chalk Circle.
As the lead singer of the Ronettes, Ronnie, having sold millions of records in the early '60s, married her producer in 1968; he promptly isolated her in a 23-room Beverly Hills mansion, refusing to let her sing or even listen to rock 'n' roll. She divorced him in 1974 and has hit the comeback trail, to mixed reviews so far. Harry and Benatar "have both approached me and said I was their idol," she says, but it's not who you know, but what you sound like, and despite her classic teased-hair vocals, Spector admits that "you need something new. I'm from the '60s, but you still need people from the '80s. I think the Go-Go's are great."
So does Gotterher, who's been in the studio recording their follow-up. "These girls have the spirit of rock 'n' roll in them; so does Joan Jett." Some critics have insisted that the Go-Go's are a novelty, that they can't play their instruments very well. Gotterher scoffs. "They probably play as well or better than the Beatles did when they started making records. I think that's the key. They're going to get better and better."
Gotterher also insists that the Go-Go's are not really a part of the girl group esthetic, that they owe as much to surf music and bubble gum as to anything else (Jett's inspiration was glitter-rocker T.Rex). "They're really the natural progression of women in rock translating all that to today's world." Gotterher does see Jett and the Go-Go's as important role models for girls. "I have a daughter who's 5 years old and she adores them. I watch the 10- and 12-year-old kids who follow the Go-Go's and consider them a significant part of their lives. And they're sensible role models for young kids to have; there's nothing out of line. It proves 'we can do it, we can accomplish something.' "