BOOK REVIEW / Girls who rock that role: She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll - Gillian G Gaar: Blandford, pounds 14.99

Linda Grant
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:32

IN THE past couple of years the music press has revived an old story. At last, it runs, with the emergence of Suzanne Vega, k d lang, Sinead O'Connor, Michelle Shocked and Tracy Chapman, women are taking their rightful place in rock 'n' roll. The truth is that women have been there all along.

'Hound Dog', the song we associate with Elvis, was originally recorded by 'Big Mama' Thornton in 1953. She also wrote 'Ball and Chain', later revived by Janis Joplin. But black women were at the bottom of American society in the years before civil rights and Big Mama died of the effects of alcohol abuse in 1984 at the age of 57. In the Sixties the Tamla Motown label was launched off the backs of the exploited black teenagers in the girl groups, while white boys like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles ripped off the sound and turned it into rock 'n' roll.

Parents were more willing to buy a guitar or drum kit for sons than for daughters. Girls sang in the choir; boys did their male bonding in the garage. Even so, rolling joints on a Velvet Underground album in the late Sixties, one could not fail to notice that the band's drummer was called Maureen Tucker, a Long Island 21-year-old who had bought herself a snare drum after hearing the Beatles.

In the mid-Seventies, there were large numbers of women singer-songwriters (Joni Mitchell, Helen Reddy, Holly Near, Ferron, Carole King, Laura Nyro and Joan Armatrading), and it was just at the point when women began to gain real self-confidence - running their own labels, training as sound engineers, muscling into music journalism - that punk came along and returned rock to the roots of its early bad-boy barbarism. Women's music, post-punk, was literate, self-reflective and personal - strictly for college kids. Female punk bands like the Au Pairs and the Raincoats were always on the margins and when women were next in the charts, in the early Eighties, it was as gender-benders or glamour queens like Annie Lennox and Tina Turner.

Gillian Gaar seems to have a mind like a filing system and it shows, very often, in her prose. But her comprehensiveness is put to good use in this exhaustive survey of women's rightful place behind the microphone. Twenty years ago, a title like She's A Rebel would have been a Rolling Stone special on groupies.

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