Historically, women have played important roles in the design and manufacture of qualty rock 'n" roll. The more visible ones were singers, solo performers, front-persons for bands and vocal ensembles. There were also women songwriters, such as Ellie Greenwich (the lyricist behind nearly all Phil Spector's classic tracks) and even musicians (Berry Gordy and Spector had women instrumentalists on their payrolls).

Until the mid-'70s, however, few female rockers were privy to the unified work processes of their male counterparts: writing, singing and playing their own material onstage and presenting personalized estheic/emotional visions in the studio. Nowadays artists like Lene Lovich or the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde call their own shots, and all-female combos like the Go-Go's top the national charts. They're still far from common but the precedents have been set and the taint of novelty that once haunted acts like Fanny have been laid to rest.

Advance word on the Bangles portrayed the four Los Angelenos as a poor woman's Go-Go's, a preneditatedly tacky pop confection. But live dates around Washington showed them to be made of toughe, more original stuff. A hard-driving instrumental attack put muscle and excitement behind a '60s-derived melodic sensibility and rich, intricate vocal harmonizing the Byrds or Beach Boys would appreciated.

Their new mini-LP, "Bangles" (Faulty FEP 1302), wisely preserves the rough, radiant quality of their live sound. The band's tuneful vocalizing is given prominent play but never to the detriment of fine, fiery playing. Rhythm guitarist Susanna Hoffs is featured on the more lyrical cuts like "The Real World" and "Mary Stret," evoking vintage folk-rock with her sweet, swooning vocalese and jangling, ethereal guitar chords.

Vicki Peterson, the group's principal songsmith, takes on the rave-up like "Want You," setting off a searing vocal delivery with acidic, country tinged lead guitar lines. With newer less derivative material up their sleeves and ever increasing instrumental prowess, the Bangles are definitely a band to keep ears perked for.

The Dangerous Birds are another all-female band. Live, this Boston quartet mounts a fearsome assault of thrashing, swirling guitars and wailing voices, especially on the lead guitarist Thalia Zadek's numbers. The Birds' other lead singer, Lori Green, tends to be more restrained and tune oriented. Zadek has the stronger presence onstage, but on but on record her "Smile on Your Face" (Propellor PROP 1007) sound stiff and unconvincing, while Green's track, "Alpha Romeo," is a crunch corker.

England's Raincoats began as an exclusively femal unit, but its last American tour saw the addition of three male members with the aim of creating more polished and more commercially acceptable music. "The Kitchen Tapes" (ROIR A120), a live recording from that tour, indicates that this was perhaps not such a smart move.

The Raincoats' past successes stemmed directly from their technical shortcomings. When their abilities as players failed them, they put their imaginations to work, confounding cliches and breaking fresh ground. On "The Kitchen Tapes," their male accomplices try to gloss over the weak spots, freeing them from the necessity of having to make, or daring to take, such creative leaps.

"Oh Oh La La La" is awkward, secondhand reggae in which the men's straight, strict musicianship makes the women's out-of-tune singing and inept playing all the more apparent, while "Dance of the Hopping Mad" is bleached-bland, ersatz funk. Elsewhere they run down postcard versions of calypso and Afro-pop stereotypes.

Bananarama is the originator of the new, safe, post-punk pop and probably still its best purveyor. "Deep Sea Skiving" (London 810 102) makes the most of this trio's carefree vocal stylings and confidential, casual tone, keeping the backing tracks kinetic but unobtrusive. "He Was Really Saying Something," cut with the Fun Boy Three, is the most appealing selection with its rumbling, jungle beat and swinging harmonies, though "Shy Boy" and its straightforward homage to vintage Motown sounds follows in hot pursuit. Other numbers verge on plastic Eurodisco and a shallowly veiled Abba pastiche, but "Deep Sea Skiving" does compile the group's last three hit singles, and a fourth cut, "Hey Young London," that could well be the next.

On the down side, The Girls Can't Help It are three London fashion models who were (undressed-up) to look like Bananarama's wanton older sisters. "Baby Doll" (Sire 29773) is sexist hard sell to soft-core disco; a must to avoid. The Belle Stars are one-time ska-mavens turned Motown riff robbers. "Sign of the Times" (Warner Bros. 29657) is a sloppy, overbearing shopping list of old Jackson 5 titles and jump-rope doggerel; another turn-off.